Spinning Platters Interview: Lisa Hannigan

by Raffi Youssoufian on October 5, 2011

Lisa Hannigan is a wonderfully warm Irish Singer Songwriter who just released her second full length album Passenger which was written while she was on her last tour for her first release Sea Sew.  Prior to her solo work, she worked with Damien Rice, as part of his band.  When I called Lisa, she was in Southern California, having just played San Diego and Los Angeles, heading north to play in Santa Barbara the next night.

Leading into the first question, in her newest video for “Knots,” the entire time paint is thrown on Lisa while she is trying to sing the song.  And in 2009 Lisa did an ad for Fair Trade Chocolate where chocolate was poured onto her.

I have to ask, though I think I might know the answer, was it more fun having paint or chocolate splattered all over?

(Laughing) Well, I’d actually say paint, because the chocolate, while I was more excited about it, was quite cold and sticky.  It was quite painful the way it just stuck to you.  But it was nice to be able to lick my arm. (Laughs)  The paint was non toxic, the kind kids use, and it was nice and frothy.  The whole experience was quite brilliant.  But I wasn’t expecting the paint to be so cold and wet.

Was it all done in one take?

It sure was!

You weren’t doing a 2nd take? (laughing)

(Laughing)  I only had one sacrifice for the cause.  I was trying to be really serious during the whole thing, telling myself I couldn’t laugh.  But I just couldn’t stop laughing.  It was quite the shock with the paint coming constantly.

I think it worked because it was genuine with the one take.  It seemed really right for the song.

Yes, the song itself is kind of about going through the ringer, and really facing the fears you might have when you’re not sure about something, and how you can just become a mess.

I read a while back, during the making of your first album, Sea Sew, especially prevalent in the album artwork, you described that you envisioned something textured but tangible.  Was that something you had in mind for the new record?

Yeah, I was certainly wanted a textured feeling to the music.  Something analog, as opposed to a computer generated thing.  Visually I wanted something a little more clean and siple, because it’s a bit more grown up and stark, brutal almost, from my point of view.

Using so many instruments and musicians, do you already have in mind what is going to come into play as you’re writing?

Yeah sorta, the band I tour with , we’re together most of the time, so when I had a song, I would bring it to the guys, and we’d bash it out, playing it loads of different ways with loads of different arrangements.  We’d just keep playing until we found what fit the song best.  So by the time we got into the studio, we had taken the song so many places, we knew what did and didn’t work.  Until Joe (Henry) thought something else might work.

Speaking of Joe Henry, I heard that he had heard you sing, and simply sent in an asking if he could work with you on the next record.

He just wrote the most beautiful email, in that lovely “Joe” way, just letting us know if he could be of any assistance at all, that he would be there to help.

Had you been a fan of his music prior?

I had a few records that I hadn’t realized he was behind that I really loved.  And then I started getting into him.  He has a beautiful new album coming out in November.  He has has the most beautiful way of speaking.  He’s got a gorgeous southern drawl, and such a wonderful way with words.  There’s almost a poetry in voice when he speaks.

Yes there is almost this “ease” about him that’s hard to put your finger on.

Yes (laughing), he really is, he’s my hero.

So how is the tour going so far.  How have the songs been translating live, and what’s the set up like for the tour?

It’s going great so far.  We played this summer in Ireland, just so we could see how things would go live.  It was nerve racking.  But we bashed them out.  It’s almost everyone who played on the record who is with me on tour.  We’re all very comfortable with the songs now, so we’re just digging into ‘em.

I read an article where you spoke about how you sometimes start writing a song out of a specific moment.  Like someone’s elbow, or a book sticking out of someone’s bag can just trigger an entire story.  I know Passenger was written on the road.  Is there a song on the album that is very near and dear to your heart, or was sparked from one specific moment?

Well one of the first songs I wrote that I felt really sure about, that sparked other songs, was “Little Bird.”  It was the first song I felt was complete on it’s own.  It was the simplest and most start song on the record, working on the sense of things that you keep with you even if they aren’t there in your day to day life.  Like experiences with people and heartbreaks.  They are the things that fill your pockets, it’s what you carry with you.

With the mention of bird in the lyrics, were “Passenger” and “Nowhere to Go” two songs that immediately came out of “Little Bird”?

Yes and “Paper Hat” and “Home.” The Bird I refer to in songs is in reference to someone, but other times it’s more of a metaphor, for someone who’s a survivor, I supposed.  A little bird is almost something that people can carry with them in their pocket to have when they need them most.

With the album named Passenger, and being written on the road, if you had to make one mix tape to take with you on the road, what would be some of the songs on it?

Well (pause) I suppose it depends what it’s for.  But I think if there had to be one song that would have to be on it, I think a song that would work for any situation would be “Ghostbuster” by Ray Parker Jr.  It’s a nice little song to always have in your back pocket.  Maybe a couple songs from Astralweeks, and a few songs from Paul Simon’s Graceland.

I think out of all the possible answers I could have imagined, I would have never expected Ghostbusters! Awesome!

(Mutual Laughter)

Is there any special artwork for the new album.  More sewing?  Maybe a pop up book CD insert? I just have to speak for everyone, and say that the pop-up book in the video from “Lille is by far the best pop – up book in ever!

I know right!? Isn’t it amazing?  It’s absolutely amazing.  My brother Jamie and his friends made it.  I’m not sure what I was expecting, but when I saw the bloody thing, I was like how on earth did you make this!  It’s simply stunning, and it’s huge!  I still don’t know till this day how they kept it together.  It’s just absolutely stunning, and it still works!  For this record, I did make a tour poster map of the States.  We are marking all the stops were are making on it.

One serious question I have for you, back in 2009, “Ocean and  A Rock” was used in a video supporting same sex marriage in Ireland, and you also contributed a song to a cd to help raise money for AWARE.  With Bono being at the forefront, speaking outwardly for various causes, I was curious if you thought it might, maybe not put pressure, but push other Irish artists to try to do more?

I don’t think so, I think it would for any particular reason.  I’m not sure we’d want to take any work away from Bono (laughs).  But think it’s something that comes from within.  That’s where work for any cause should come from.

The last thing I wanted to end on, was that I do see your birthday is Feb 12th, so you’re an Aquarius.

I am!

I always say when I meet an Aquarius, that I haven’t met a bad one yet, and you’ve definitely held up your end of the bargain!

Oh thank you! Now that I think about it, I haven’t met a bad one yet either.  If anything I think we definitely won the astrological lottery!

Well, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the show on Sunday.

Yes, me too!  I’m so excited to go back to San Francisco, I really am.  I absolutely love it.  The last time I went on a massive walk with my manager Ben, hills and everything.  It was just stunning.

Yes the hills definitely give your calves a work out.

Oh yes, it was ferocious!

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us today, we really do appreciate it.

It was great talking to you, hope to talk to you again soon, see you in San Francisco!

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