Swimming upstream: Lisa Hannigan on the struggle and joy of new album At Swim
Singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan released her impressive third album At Swim earlier this year. Ahead of her return to Belfast next week, David Roy quizzed the Dublin-born indie/folk talent about beating writer's block to top the Irish album chart
HI LISA, At Swim was an Irish number one back in the summer and has attracted a swathe of glowing reviews. How does it feel after all that struggle?
People have been really supportive of this record in a way that I wasn't quite expecting. Especially as it took me so long to write and make it, it was hard to have any perspective as to how other people might take it.
So I was so heartened when people seemed to like it: immediately it felt like the album was quite well received and certainly at the gigs we did when it first came out, people seemed to know the words – which is always very heartening for a musician.
Lots of the dates on the current tour sold out well in advance, so presumably there been even more sing-alongs at the recent gigs now that fans have really had time to absorb your lyrics?
It's quite exciting when gigs sell out because it means you know that people are excited to see you. And I love when they sing along – Irish people are great at it, I must say. We don't even need to know the words!
But, as a rule, nobody is good at clapping. It's a universal, so when people start clapping along to a song, it's invariably completely out of time with the drummer – that's when I have to grip on for dear life.
Thankfully, that's not something I have to deal with very often with my genre of music!
Aaron Dessner of US indie rockers The National helped you get out of a period of writer's block when he unexpectedly emailed to offer his services. He ended up co-producing the album and helping with the musical arrangements – but how did your working relationship evolve?
That email... It was such a lovely thing to get out of the blue: I was really having a tough time at the moment it came in, and it was so lovely and encouraging and enthusiastic in the way that Aaron is – "if you want to write together, if you need someone to produce your record, whatever".
So we very loosely started emailing each other bits and bobs. We had this sort of 'musical pen-pals' relationship for a while: he would send me pieces of music that he had knocking around and I would then warble away over them and send them back.
Eventually we met up in Copenhagen for a few days and played together, which was really nice, and it just sort of developed from there. We worked together very well, I think, we both have a fairly laid-back attitude to life.
I feel like writing songs is such an exercise in embarrassment, particularly at that kind of early stage when you're just throwing out ideas – it's very embarrassing! You have to be in some kind of situation of trust in order to be able to do that in a way that's productive, and that was what was so great about Aaron.
I was slightly intimidated because I love his band, but he himself is very not intimidating. He's very encouraging, enthusiastic and just sort of 'loose', which makes you feel looser and more able to give things a go.
How important was Aaron's input to the overall sound of the record?
I think when I'm arranging things I always tend to throw the kitchen sink at it a little bit and have lots of contrapuntal melodies and the like – and I love that, it actually suits some of my older songs very well.
But with this record, we were trying to make it a little more aesthetically textured as opposed to richly melodic, so that the melody was really coming from the vocal line and maybe the bassline but everything else was more atmospheric.
I think you always want to make a record that has an atmosphere all of its own, so that when you put it on it sort of creates its own world, really. It was great, I learned a lot from watching Aaron, how to approach the songs and how to arrange them.
Can you pick out one specific song or moment where he really helped transform things?
Well, on We The Drowned, he put a trombone choir on there. Aaron called it "funeral brass", which is a thing that I didn't know about.
He was saying "I got my friend Dave (Nelson) to put down eight trombone lines," so I was thinking 'oh God, wait 'til I hear this' – but, actually, it's really hard to hear them. It's more like you feel this slightly looming feeling of the brass grumbling away.
I think that was a really interesting note that he had throughout the record, to try and keep everything vaguely threateningly underneath your consciousness.
There was a five year gap between At Swim and your last LP, Passenger, but you were able to weather your writer's block: how did you work through it and at what point did you actually know you were going to finish the record?
It took so bloody long to write the thing and the songs were so few and far between, but with each one that did come along, I felt it sort of opened another door. And then I would just have to sit in that next room until another door would open later!
We The Drowned was actually the very first song I wrote for the record and one of the few I was able to write on the tour for Passenger.
I really felt that that song had an atmosphere and a theme and a whole impetus that was a whole peg I could hang the record on – from then I knew that I was under something and each new song felt like another pillar to hold it up.
To be honest, at first I really didn't know if I was going to finish it – then half way through I thought "well, I have to bloody finish it now"!
Finally, are you looking forward to coming back to Belfast next week?
I am, I always have a really lovely time in Belfast. They're always a great audience and you have great food in Belfast too, which is always an important part of tour life – I remember having a really delicious meal in the Mourne Seafood Bar.
But I actually have a lot of friends who live in Belfast as well, so it's always a nice kind of reunion for me.
:: Lisa Hannigan, Monday December 12, The Empire, Belfast. At Swim is out now.