He might not have realized it at the time, but when Damien Rice fired Lisa Hannigan from his band two years ago, he did Irish music a big favor.
Hannigan, who is 28 and from Co. Meath, met Rice when she was studying at Trinity College Dublin. She then left college to become his singer. While on tour in Munich in 2007 to support his hugely successful record “9”, Rice told Hannigan, ten minutes before they were due to go on stage, she was no longer needed. They had been together for six years.
It was tough, she says. But instead of wallowing in despair – something she had probably seen Damien Rice do enough of – Hannigan picked herself up.
She went straight into songwriting mode – and the result is her terrific new album “Sea Sew.” It was released in Ireland last year to an overwhelmingly positive critical reception. She was nominated for the Meteor Music Awards (the Irish equivalent of the Grammies) in both the “Best Irish Album” category and the “Best Irish Female” category.
The album was released in the U.S in February, also to glowing reviews, earning her an appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Entertainment Weekly described it as “the perfect album for cozying up by the fire on a winter-chilled Sunday afternoon.” She is currently on tour in the U.S – later this month she plays in Austin’s South by Southwest festival.
Unlike Damien Rice’s material, which can be morose, “Sea Sew” is an uplifting, playful album. On “Ocean and a Rock,” one of the standout tracks – and there are a few – she sings, “I feel you in the pocket of my overcoat, my fingers wrap around your words, they take the shape of games we play.”
“I wanted the record to be cheerful, because I felt cheerful at the time,” she tells IrishCentral. “And I wanted the record to reflect that. It’s more my personality. I didn’t get any sleep for two weeks and it was just two weeks of straight recording. But it was brilliant.”
Predictability is one of the folk singer’s greatest sins – as a former colleague of Hannigan's demonstrates – but with “Sea Sew,” Hannigan show she is not afraid to take a chance with her songwriting. A couple of her songs take gorgeous little turns, which keeps things interesting.
Is she enjoying her new found success? “It’s been great,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of gigs and the reaction has generally been very nice. In terms of numbers I don’t really know how well it’s doing. I don’t pay too much attention to that. I just know from meeting people at the gigs that people like it.”
The arrangements on this album are also quite stunning – trumpets, cellos, violins, and glockenspiels all make an appearance here, without feeling excessive or superfluous. Hannigan says she had a very clear idea of what she wanted to do with her songs – and it clearly shows.
In concert, Hannigan comes across as being a shy person. At a show this month at New York’s Highline Ballroom, she looked like she having a great time, but interactions with her audience were fairly minimal. How is she coping with taking the center stage, after playing second fiddle to Damien Rice for six years? And does she feel more comfortable as a performer now?
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be comfortable with that,” she explains. “I have a lovely band behind me to help me and relax me, so it’s not as nerve wracking as I thought it would be. We are a team, so I’m not on my own.”
She sounds like a young singer who is thoroughly enjoying her music – and maybe even surprising herself by how easily she is fitting into the role of being the lead (not backing) singer to her own (and not someone else’s) songs.
Finally, I ask her if she would have gone solo had Damien Rice not fired her. “It’s hard to say,” she replies. She doesn’t elaborate.
But I suspect not. Which is why her departure from Damien Rice’s band was one of the best things to happen to her – and to Irish music – in a long time.