The past five years have been ones of great change for Lisa Hannigan. Once a bandmate of fellow Irishman Damien Rice, Hannigan was unceremoniously fired by her former beau in 2007, an abrupt shift that spawned a now blossoming solo career. All smolder and solemnity in her previous gig, the songstress has since traded her muted wardrobe and mysterious stage presence for an assortment of colorful dresses and equally sunny tunes.
Touring in support of her new record, Passenger, Hannigan was in a fittingly cheery mood as she sat down with us over pie and tea—seriously!—to discuss her craft, Robbie Williams, and amongst other things, her appreciation for the sweeter things in life.
JEFF OLOIZIA: It seems like you're in a really good place.
LISA HANNIGAN: I am. I'm really proud of the record, and I think that's the main thing. Because often, with the Internet—the Internet is just a big well of homophobic people chatting that things are gay.
OLOIZIA: [laughs] Yeah.
HANNIGAN: With too many "A"s. It's just a terrible place where people are so casually mean. It's a weird thing to say, but because I feel proud of the record, I feel insulated from—not any insecurity, of course; I know lots of people won't like it, and that's fine—but I know that I like it, so it does make you feel happier in general.
OLOIZIA: It sounds like you're writing with more confidence.
HANNIGAN: Yes, and more sort of honesty as well.
OLOIZIA: It sounds more effortless.
HANNIGAN: Thank you. It felt more effortless. I found it much easier to write. I think the first one, I was very aware of people listening to it, or rather the people in the future that might be listening to it. And this one I didn't think about anybody. It was just purely a selfish endeavor, which it has to be. Or else you're just writing jingles.
OLOIZIA: Your friend Glen [Hansard] has a documentary coming out about his music and his relationship with [ex-girlfriend] Marketa Irglova. Would you ever do something like that?
HANNIGAN: I don't know. You know, I think that those things can be quite interesting. It depends on who's making it. I wouldn't have been comfortable in the Damien crew to have a documentary.
OLOIZIA: Why is that?
HANNIGAN: [laughs] I don't know, we were quite dysfunctional. It would probably make a better documentary.
OLOIZIA: [laughs] I suppose so. How's the tea?
HANNIGAN: I like it. She put the bag in first. This is the key. You put the bag in, then you put the hot water into it. That's the main problem with most of it.
OLOIZIA: I didn't know there was such a science to making tea.
HANNIGAN: Oh gosh. We do moan about it a lot.
OLOIZIA: You mentioned previously that you attributed a lot of the reason you and Damien split to your songwriting styles being incompatible. Can you speak to that at all?
HANNIGAN: I wouldn't have thought so. I mean it was his thing; he wrote the songs, of course. I had no business having any opinion about the songwriting style. I think it was more just, you know—we had worked together for 7, 8 years, and had grown up together. I don't know whether he was particularly happy in what he was doing, and I was definitely kind of elbowing my way out. I felt like I needed more impetus. I think it just was a very natural thing. You know, it was sort of a blowup of an ending, but those things often are. They kind of have to be, because that's how it happens. But it's absolutely fine.
OLOIZIA: It seems to have worked out for the better. Especially if it's what you needed.
HANNIGAN: Well, I'm very happy with what I'm doing.
OLOIZIA: Do you ever miss it? Playing those songs and performing together?
HANNIGAN: Well, I heard one [song] the other day. I was driving in Dublin and one came on the radio, and I didn't recognize it for a minute. I haven't heard those songs in years, but I heard—I think it was "Nine Crimes." I heard it on the radio, and I remember thinking, "What is that song? It's really pretty." [laughs] And then I started singing and I went, "Ohhh, oh yeah!" It was nice. He's got such beautiful tunes, so I'm very proud to have been a part of it.
OLOIZIA: But you still haven't spoken to him at all?
OLOIZIA: Well, your solo career has been, by all measures, really successful. I was reading a lot of the recent press, and you just might be the most liked person on the web.
HANNIGAN: Really? [laughs] I try not to look at comments, because everyone says such awful things.
OLOIZIA: Do you think there was added pressure in writing and recording a new album because of how well your debut was received?
HANNIGAN: Only from myself. I think it always is the way with your first thing, people are like, "Oh, well done, you." [laughs] There's a certain element of that to it. Whereas with your second one, people are generally a bit more, you know, "I've moved on." But I wasn't trying to think like that. I just wanted to make a better record. And I really wanted to get ten songs together that I felt were strong and cohesive and lyrically interesting, and not have any dips. Obviously, everyone will have a dip in a record, but for me, I like all the songs, so I'm sort of pleased when they come up on the setlist.
OLOIZIA: And you got to sing with Ray LaMontagne, which is exciting.
HANNIGAN: So brilliant, isn't he?
OLOIZIA: How did that come about?
HANNIGAN: I met him a couple times with Damien at various things, and he's such a lovely man. And I really wanted a duet on the record, like a proper duet with two people signing to each other. And so I had my tiny list, which was pretty much Ray and maybe Tony Bennett. [laughs]
HANNIGAN: And I sort of asked him through his manager because I wanted him to be able to say no. But he said yes, so it was great. And he happened to be in London, so it was very serendipitous how it all happened. He came in and I spent a little time thinking, "Oh, he doesn't want to do it." But then I gave him the lyrics, and we had it playing, just in the little sofa-y kind of room where the buttons are, and he just started singing along. And immediately, it was just like, "That's the thing! That's what I wanted it to sound like."
OLOIZIA: I'd imagine you were pleased with the way it turned out.
HANNIGAN: I really was. It was funny—I sort of expected his voice to be much more, sort of, strong and gravelly. But actually the key that it's in makes his voice quite fragile and light. And it's quite low for me, so it just has this really nice dynamic between him being a bit more fragile and me being a bit more boisterous.
OLOIZIA: Definitely. Was it a big thing for you before, this idea of making it in America? I'm thinking of an artist like Robbie Williams who is huge overseas, but just never really cracked it here. There's certain people who can't really seem to make that transition.
HANNIGAN: I think people maybe have a skewed idea of what making it in America is. As in, I'm getting to play music around the country, so I feel fully made. I imagine, with Robbie Williams, if you've got like a thousand screaming girls chasing you down Oxford Street and then you're walking down Broadway and there are ten screaming girls, maybe you feel like you've gone down a peg. I think it's a different thing for a super massive pop star. That level of making it is, you know - I have fully made it. I'm getting to play gigs here, and that's all I ever wanted to do. I hope I continue to do that and maybe play different shows and play for longer and in more towns, but I don't know what you want more than that thing, to be able to play music in front of people. I think you'd be very dissatisfied, because what else is there that isn't just gravy? And salty gravy as well. [laughs] As long as I get some pie every once in a while, I'm fine.
LISA HANNIGAN PERFORMS AT THE HIRO BALLROOM TONIGHT. FOR MORE ON HANNIGAN, VISIT HER WEBSITE.