Between writing her first album – 2008’s ‘Sea Sew’ – and its eagerly-awaited successor, Lisa Hannigan’s life has changed in oh-so-many ways. She penned her first songs in hope rather than the expectation that the wider world might find a use for them; knocked out at rehearsals in a freezing barn in the Irish countryside, the record was produced at a friend’s studio within a fortnight. Yet the self-released ‘Sea Sew’ went double platinum, was nominated for the Choice Music Prize in her native Ireland and the Mercury Prize in the UK, and saw Hannigan play bewitching guest spots on the likes of ‘Later…With Jools Holland’, ‘The Tonight Show With Jay Leno’ and ‘The Colbert Report’.
To say that the response to ‘Sea Sew’ exceeded Lisa’s wildest expectations is, appropriately, an understatement. Why appropriately? Well, because understated has very much been the manner in which Hannigan has conducted her life as a solo artist up until this point. At the Mercury ceremony, she eschewed the big stage of the Grosvenor Room and accompanied herself on guitar as she delivered a quietly entrancing version of ‘Lille’. And in keeping with the music inside it, even the artwork of ‘Sea Sew’ was a homespun affair, with sleeve art and every lyric hand-sewn by the artist herself. “Sea Sew was the most honest record I could make at the time that I made it,” says Lisa now, “but I look at it today, and there’s a certain sense of wanting to appear happy and confident. I wanted it to seem as though nothing bothered me.”
For those of us gazing on from afar at her evolution as a performer, the first glimmer that there was something more to Lisa Hannigan than meets the eye came last year, when she appeared alongside Green Gartside, Teddy Thompson and Vashti Bunyan on a tour celebrating the music of Nick Drake. By common critical consensus, her transformation of Drake’s ‘Black-Eyed Dog’ as a macabre deathly jig stole the show. You couldn’t watch what she did to that song and not feel excited about what she was going to do next.
It doesn’t take long in the company of Lisa’s second album, ‘Passenger’, to hear that excitement repaid. Hannigan famously made her name as the beautiful, breathy accompaniment to Damien Rice, with whom she sang and toured for seven years. It is on this second solo album that you sense she’s truly found her own voice, and it is on aching, mournful form from the very opening song. ‘Passenger’ begins with ‘Home’, which was written shortly after Lisa read ‘Skippy Dies’ by Dublin author Paul Murray. “It’s set at a boys’ boarding school,” she explains, “and I think the atmosphere of wild uncertainty, urgency and frustration that consumes you at fourteen sort of grabbed hold of me.” Abetted by the demonic ivory-pounding of Gavin Glass and the breathtaking violin playing of Lucy Wilkins, the rain-lashed ruminations of the song portend a more undulating emotional journey than ‘Sea Sew’.
Having spent just two weeks recording her debut album, you might think that Lisa and her band would have relished the opportunity to stretch out the recording process on ‘Passenger’. Hannigan had other ideas. Keen to capture the electrifying synergy that her musicians are apt to summon on a live stage, the band, together with producer Joe Henry (Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Solomon Burke, Loudon Wainwright III) went to Bryn Derwyn studio in Wales and made the record in a week, followed by a day of strings and horns in London. The collaboration with Henry came after a chance meeting at the Royal Festival Hall, where Lisa guested at the Kate McGarrigle Tribute Concert. “He expressed an interest in working together that night, but what really sealed it was meeting him in Pasadena where he lives. He’s a proper Southern gent. We got the train out to there from L.A, and as we alighted, he crossed the tracks to meet us. He was in one of those proper old American villages that has a hardware store and bakery and a butcher –not like anywhere that exists any more. We shook hands and that sealed the deal.”
Much of ‘Passenger’ reflects the journeys Lisa has taken, particularly whilst touring her first record. “I chose ‘Passenger’ as the title after living with the finished songs as a whole,” she says. “Many of them were written while I was away from home or on the road, and the feeling of transience and nostalgia that this constant travelling evoked seemed to seep into every song.” The overarching theme of the record, then, is “those loves, heartbreaks, confusions and friendships that we take with us through life, over years and continents, enduring the passage of time.” This emotional landscape is captured quite literally on the album’s cover, which collates maps of the main places where the record was written (Dublin, Brooklyn, West Cork). As ever, it’s beautifully detailed effort from Hannigan, who perforated the images into paper and shot light through them, creating a stunning map of her music in the process.
And so it proves to be – from the foetal, otherworldly beauty of ‘Paper House’ to the string-led stillness of ‘Nowhere To Go’, ‘Passenger’ is an evocative and quietly poetic second album. Lyrically, the record appears to address relationships new and old, though the interweaving of truth with fiction always feels fundamentally honest. ‘Paper House’, for instance, recalls the idyll days of a former love, which cannot be revisited (“Oh you know what you are to me / and you know you will always be”). The sweetly-sung ‘Little Bird’, meanwhile, reveals itself to be a quietly steely defiance of an ex (“when the time comes, and the rights have been read / I think of you often, but for once I meant what I said”). Even in its ostensibly light moments, ‘Passenger’ is still riddled with anxiety. On ‘Safe Travels (Don’t Die)’, Lisa exhorts her other half, “don’t swallow bleach out on Sandymount Beach/I’m not sure I’d reach you in time my boy/Please don’t bungee jump or ignore a strange lump/ And a gasoline pump’s not a toy.”
One of the most thrilling moments on ‘Passenger’ is the track ‘Knots’, which seems to reflect not only Lisa’s travels over these last few years, but also her steady progress as a songwriter. An electrifying blend of Southern stomp, screeching strings and lyrical tales of a debauched, whiskey-soaked night, ‘Knots’ sounds like the kind of song Hannigan would only have the confidence to write now. And then there’s ‘O Sleep’ – a duet with Ray Lamontagne – which came to Lisa in a single rhapsodic burst. “I’d just heard Dr. Ralph Stanley’s version of ‘O Death’ on a Robert Plant documentary, and I was really taken by the idea of addressing something intangible. Around the same time, I went for a walk in Sandymount, Dublin and was singing into my phone. Then I stopped in a café and took one of their paper bags and wrote all the words on the back.”
She may have taken a somewhat circuitous route to the limelight, but ‘Passenger’ feels like Lisa Hannigan has finally come of age. That said, she still bears the same worry and nerves of someone unsure why people are suddenly so interested in her. In other important respects though, significant progress has been made. “I never used to feel comfortable calling myself a songwriter. I just used to think of myself as a singer. But now, I allow myself that luxury.” In time, Lisa Hannigan may even allow herself to believe she is a great songwriter. Listen to ‘Passenger’ and you’ll believe it too.