Famous friends helped Lisa Hannigan find inspiration for her latest LP
Celtic thrush Lisa Hannigan had feathered her nest so richly over the past two years, she should’ve been comfortably ensconced in the catbird seat. The former Damien Rice accompanist had achieved several solo-career firsts: working with a friend on a regular podcast; landing her version of the traditional “Danny Boy” in the second season of Fargo; providing otherworldly vocals for the atmospheric film soundtracks to both Fury and Gravity; and contributing tracks to—even voicing the Selkie character Bronach in—Tomm Moore’s animated Irish epic Song Of The Sea, which was nominated for an Academy Award. Her message to other movie directors? “Call me—I have an IMDB page now!” she says. “And what’s so wonderful about it is how serendipitous it all was. I was incredibly lucky.”
The singer had also been touring for nearly two years straight behind her sophomore effort, 2011’s Passenger, which had expanded on the whimsical folk-laced themes of her Mercury Prize-nominated 2008 debut, Sea Sew. “I really was enjoying the gigs, and I felt like I was in my element,” she says. Then, optimistically, she returned to her homeland to start work on her third album, the new Aaron-Dessner-produced At Swim. But inspiration simply wasn’t coming.
“I just thought it would be like my other records, where I’ll be slow to start, but I’ll get into the swing and I’ll go with the flow, and I’ll have three songs a week,” says Hannigan. “But it never quite got there. And then my confidence started disappearing, once I felt like I couldn’t write a song. Because, as a singer/songwriter, that is your day’s work, and if you don’t have something that you’re proud of at the end of the day, that can be wearing over time.”
She understood the basic tenet. “You have to write a lot of crappy songs before you find something shiny,” she says. “But those turned out be few and far between. For a couple of years.”
The turning point came when Hannigan received an email, out of the blue, from Dessner—of the National renown—who had begun producing artists at his studio in upstate New York. Would she be interested in collaborating on material? Or allowing him to oversee her next album? Yes to both, she replied. And her benefactor sent her several musical ideas he’d been considering, some only minute-long snippets, others more fully formed at four or five minutes long.
Her old chum Joe Henry (who produced Passenger) chipped in, sending her a full set of lyrics that became the set’s kickoff single “Fall,” wherein Hannigan’s hearth-embery voice wafts over austere acoustic strumming and spooky, Link Wray-echoed filigrees from Dessner, playing his guitar with a bow. Her self-belief gradually returned with the completion of cuts like Irish jig “Snow,” a minuet-delicate examination of her ongoing insomnia, “Lo,” and forlorn, death-delving dirges “Funeral Suit” and “Prayer For The Dying,”
Suddenly, Hannigan was finding songwriting sparks everywhere. Browsing through her local bookstore, she stumbled across Carsten Jensen’s historical novel We, The Drowned. She didn’t read it, but she was so struck by the title itself, she wrote a somber lullaby about what she imagined it might be, taking the same name as well. To cheer her up in her fallow period, a friend had given her a boxed set of late Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s works. She grew so enamored of one in particular, “Anahorish,” that she started singing its words as lyrics one evening, just as she was going to bed. Waking periodically throughout the night to phrase more verses, she had a completed a cappella tune by dawn, which Heaney’s estate graciously allowed her to record.
When did Hannigan realize that she was finally back at the top of her form? It was while she was rehearsing “Anahorish” with two other vocalists backstage at a recent Heaney tribute concert, and there was an ominous knock on her dressing room door.
“So I open it, and there’s Paul Simon, going, ‘Hey, can I sit in?’” she says. “So I sang it to him, and I thought, ‘Well, nothing will ever be more nerve-wracking than singing to Paul Simon, who’s sitting a foot away from me! So every time I sing it now, I think of that. And it gives me even more courage.”