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Old 12-07-2008, 01:27 AM   #1
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Default Lisa Hannigan on being dumped by Damien Rice and going solo

Err... not my headline, but rather, one from The Times

Damien Rice fans will know Lisa Hannigan — so has she got solo success all sewn up?

Mark Edwards

(Bryan Meade)

It turns out it’s the sensitive singer-songwriters you really have to watch. You never know when they might turn. A couple of years back, Damien Rice was about to begin a gig in Munich. Moments before he was due to take the stage, he turned to Lisa Hannigan, who had sung backing vocals in his band for seven years, and had contributed spectacularly to his multi-platinum album, O, and its follow-up, 9, to tell her that her services were no longer needed.

The timing of Hannigan’s sacking was strange and abrupt, and I imagine it might be a touchy subject with the now fledgling solo artist, but Hannigan just laughs it off. “Yes, it really did happen that way,” she says. “But it’s fine. I’m glad that it happened. It was a strange way for him to tell me, but things don’t always happen the way you imagine. And it’s all worked out okay.”

Indeed it has. As I speak to her, Hannigan is in Minnesota, on a lengthy US tour supporting the star American singer-songwriter Jason Mraz — an amazing guest slot for an artist who has yet to release her first album (except back home in Ireland). She has played the kind of iconic venues you normally have to work up to, and most artists never reach: Radio City, New York; the Greek Theatre, Los Angeles.

Better still, Mraz has made it clear to his fans that he loves Hannigan’s music and has personally invited her on board, so she isn’t playing to quarter-full theatres or audiences who talk through her set. “It’s been a fantastic tour,” she says. “I’m sure we will do our share of toilets in the future, but this has been special. They’re a very receptive audience: they come early, they listen, and we don’t feel like we’re the opening act. It normally takes years to get to this stage.”

Hannigan’s debut album, Sea Sew, will be released here next year, and its warm, home-made, folky feel should connect instantly with the many people who fell in love with her work on Rice’s albums. If you can’t wait for next year, you can get the album from Hannigan’s website.

Hannigan’s solo career may be just starting, but her musical life goes back a few years — to the day when, aged six, she sang the part of the fairy in a school play. She boasts on her website that she can still remember the words — and, when I challenge her, it turns out she can indeed sing the song that first won her an audience.

At secondary school, she sang in the choir and dreamt of being an opera singer. “I was into opera. I really wanted to be Maria Callas, but I realised that’s not my voice — I had a very small voice.” At home, she sang along to Michael Jackson records “and made up little dances”. But another larger-than-life musical icon had a great influence on the young Hannigan. She vividly recalls a television commercial for a toy typewriter, the Petite that used Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 as its soundtrack. Whether it was Parton’s voice or the simple, no-nonsense end line — “just like a real typewriter” — Hannigan knew she had to have one, and remains convinced to this day that she could have written her first novel on it had it not been for “shoddy workmanship”.

So, Ireland lost a great novelist, but it gained a great singer. Hannigan went to Trinity College Dublin to study art history, and on the first day of freshers’ week, she bumped into Rice in a bar. He had left the band Juniper and was planning a solo career. Hannigan announced herself as a singer. Rice went to see her perform in a classical singing competition. “I sang the Flower Duet from Lakmé,” she says, adding helpfully, for us low-culture types, “the music from the British Airways ad.” Impressed, Rice asked her to join his band, and her harmonies became an integral part of his sound.

Hannigan’s sound is lighter and less angsty than Rice’s. She had been writing songs while working with him, but found it slow going. “It would have taken a long time to get an album made if I was still working with Damien,” she says. “Doing your own record takes all your focus.”

Sea Sew came together in two weeks in March this year in a Dublin studio, after a rehearsal period in an old barn. “The drummer on the album lives on a farm,” Hannigan says, “so we went down there, pushed the donkeys out of the barn and let them roam free. The farm was a lovely place to work — an Aga and all that sort of thing.”

When Hannigan and her band headed to Dublin to record, they customised the basement studio with incense and fairy lights, and had fun exploring the quirky instruments available there. A harmonium takes a key role.

“It’s very squeaky,” Hannigan says. “But I fell in love with the sound and bought a portable one from a music shop in London. It’s perfect for writing on, especially if you’re not all that technically gifted. You don’t have to do much, but it has such a full sound. It takes away the empty page. And it’s got a sea-shanty feel to it — sort of like an accordion.”

This is entirely appropriate, as many of Hannigan’s songs mention the sea. The references begin on the album’s opening track, the stunning An Ocean and a Rock, which feels its way slowly but inevitably to the loveliest of choruses: “Let’s get lost, me and you / An ocean and a rock is nothing to me”. The sea resurfaces on I Don’t Know, a song about the uncertainty of a first date that draws its melodic influences from the softer side of Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh. A ship sails through stormy seas on Keep It All, while a message in a bottle heads out over the waves on Teeth.

“I spent my childhood summers down in Baltimore, in West Cork, a small harbour town where they do amazing chowder,” Hannigan recalls. “My days were spent in rock pools and the like. The sea has a strong association for me — the expanse and the freedom of it — but I only really noticed just how many references there were when I was sewing the lyrics.”

Sewing the lyrics? Ah, yes: the amazing hand-knitted and hand-sewn cover. “I wanted to make it so it had texture,” she says. “I wanted it to be home-made and have a bit of heart to it. I can’t knit, so my mother kindly did that part, then I sewed the lyrics.” The album’s lyrics are indeed stitched out. It must have taken ages. “It became a very happy month,” Hannigan laughs. “Although you may notice I’ve left off the longest songs.”

It’s good to see the old craft skills still in use. There’s the sewing and, if it all goes wrong — which, judging by Sea Sew, it most certainly won’t — Hannigan can always fall back on the typing.

Lisa Hannigan plays St John’s, Smith Square, SW1, on Wednesday;
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