lisa hannigan

Lisa Hannigan – The Light That Reaches Everywhere

If the passage of years in Lisa’s case could even be perceived as ageing, she would be described as the finest Cabernet Sauvignon from the pebbly vineyards of Medoc

It is said that we are at our most tranquil while swimming with dolphins. The most delighted by the experience are women and children. If men were offered the gift of tranquillity, the majority would choose to realize it by interacting with the opposite sex. If a symbiosis between a woman and the sense of tranquillity is at all possible, we believe that it would be most accurately embodied in the character of Lisa Hannigan, an Irishwoman with a velvety voice and an air of Victorian subtlety.

For a long time Lisa Hannigan has been her own measurement of success in the music world for those who take music seriously, while on the other hand, to many others she is still a synonym for the fruitful albums of Irish singer Damien Rice, for whom she was the main collaborator and backing vocalist. Rice’s grief over his former partner, over which we shall not gloat, is just a small indicator of who Lisa really is, but let us return to that a little bit later.

Her wish to be in the music business was never doubted, even since her early childhood. Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, Jonni Mitchell, together with the CD of Maria Callas she received from her mother, were the foundations of her music castle, the castle she had only started to build.

However, the burning question was how to overcome her own shyness, that of a “bookworm” as she liked to call herself, and how to adapt it to her music. In the adaptation process, she unconsciously elevated her femininity, receptiveness and charm. Although she would most certainly never admit such a thing.

The privilege of getting better with age is usually ascribed to men, through a largely worn-out phrase used for wine, but yet, at the age of 36, the wine metaphor is expanded with a feminine twist.

“If the passage of years in Lisa’s case could even be perceived as ageing, she would be described as the finest Cabernet Sauvignon from the pebbly vineyards of Medoc.”

Pavle Jaksic

Nowadays, when innocence, purity and sweetness are rare even among young people, her smile reminds us that the patina of life does not necessarily carry baggage and ballast, but rather the joy of life and optimism.

Her music career started while she was studying at the Trinity College where she met then-aspiring artist Damien Rice. A few songs she had written but still ashamedly hid from her acquaintances, her talents and a contagious smile that radiates with hope that every problem can be overcome, initiated the singer and songwriter to propose a collaboration.

With a farewell to art history and French language studies and a big “good evening” at her “At Whelan`s” gig, Lisa marked the beginning of her musical and romantic adventures with Rice.

Starting a meter away from the microphone with her thumbs pulled through the big metal rivets on the skirt, her internal struggle began, yet with every performance, she came closer to the microphone, centimetre by centimetre, slowly realising that she belongs right next to it.

Then, two iconic albums, O from 2002 and 9 from 2006 saw the light of day. Damien Rice is a synonym for melancholy, emotion, the unattainable, the journey through the depths of human despair, out of which we somehow return spiritually uplifted.

To cite a colleague from the Independent, his voice sounds “like Leonard Cohen and Radiohead fighting in a lift”. Hence, it comes as no surprise that Damien had been chosen to send off Leonard Cohen to immortality at his reception into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. Rice’s homage to Cohen in his cover of the hit “Hallelujah” still echoes in the corners of the Springfield hall.

Once again, with all things considered, none of these songs would have been what they are without Lisa.

If the songs “The Blower’s Daughter”, “Older Chests”, and “9 Crimes” were deprived of Lisa’s voice, they would cease to exist immediately, leaving the names of the songs to fade on the back covers of your records and CDs.

She really was, as she defined herself, “the international woman of mystery”, such an essential component, yet so delicately removed from the stage lights and all the attention.

Lisa learned a lot from Damien; she had the opportunity to analyse the emphasis he put on spontaneity and naturalness in music, while simultaneously having to balance with Damien’s inner daemons, which he himself never denied.

Their paths diverged during a soundcheck before their performance. Their relationship, although full of sparkles, with time became emotionally destructive and finally reached an end. She was fired from the band in a way that was overly public, somewhat undeserving and too bitter.

“You don’t realise how hot the water is until you got out”, she symbolically explained the burden which marked her past, the burden that she could not so easily liberate herself from in the music industry.

When the time finally came, she felt something long forgotten – freedom. The grief and blame that afterwards came over Damien shall not be used as source for Lisa’s idolisation, but more like a reminder that some things in life should never be taken for granted.

Regret often comes when it is already too late, but it speaks a lot of acceptance, understanding and re-examination. The same year, 2007, at a concert in Dublin, Damien asked nearly 30,000 people to shout: “Lisa we love you” to her voice mail. In the interview for the “Hot Press” he admitted: “I would give away all of the music success, all the songs, and the whole experience to still have Lisa in my life”.  If you were looking for a synonym for loneliness, that would be Rice. And as you get to know Lisa better, you come to truly understand why.

Focused on herself and on her love for music, having remained out of reach from the bitterness of life, Lisa published her first album Sea Saw in 2008.

The song “Lille” is, even today, the one she likes to perform the most, and if one should read just the lyrics, one would instantly wish to hear Lisa’s voice singing along. The nominations for the “Choice Music Prize” and “Mercury Prize” represent a worthy confirmation of this Renaissance woman who adores roaming the streets with a cup of coffee in her hands, a propensity the Irish like to call “sproking”.  In some of her interviews, she stated that she always wanted to “live in the 30s, primarily because of the art of the period”. Perhaps the 30s were truly closer to her sensibility, but if that were the case, we would never have realised how timeless Lisa is today.

Three years after her debut album, Lisa released her second solo album – Passenger, which propelled her to Number 1 in the Irish charts and ensured her complete affirmation. This meant a bolder breakthrough in her music, which became an expression of personal desires and not the expectations of others. The balance between the personal and the mystical.

Even as a little girl, she was always fascinated by album covers. She admired the ones that were simpler, clean, and elegant. The front cover of the album Passenger was a homage to her lifestyle at the time, her life in transit marked by travels, and the maps of the cities where the record was created: Baltimore, Dublin, and Brookline.

The songs are personal but created in such a way that Lisa holds all the cards in her hands. The motifs of liberation as well as survival have been woven into the lyrics of her song “Little Bird”.

Lisa remembers this song as the most difficult to write, but the easiest to perform. Everything that is worthy in life inevitably leaves some kind of mark, a mark which in time we look upon with joy, regret or sadness.

Lisa’s wish was to film the video for the song in the sea, so that she could, in the final frame, symbolically and in a cathartic way emerge from the water taking a deep breath of not only air but also freedom. The alternative solution was finally found in her parent’s bathtub when, after the thirteenth try, the “home version of this sea experience” was finally filmed.

What is the source of inspiration for this gentle Kilcloon girl; where do the emotions that vapour into her songs come from, the emotions that once again return swaying like clouds.

They appear suddenly, like the array of songs on her records, which are thrown up into the air to find their own place through a natural, unconstrained and harmonious order.

Through the past, old clothes, a guitar, Jackson Pollock shoes, a violin and a harmonium. Through a perfect day in her mother’s house in Baltimore (West Cork, Ireland) with a pint of beer next to the bonfire.

Through the daydream about owning a bookshop, pampering herself through procrastinating with charming things like dinners, cooking, a Feist album, Tony Bennett, David Byrne. Through concerts. The ones she anticipates with joy, and the ones that touched her heart. From the surreal lighting at a Sigur Ros concert, when she drifted far away with the song “Takk” in London’s Apollo Club, to the Radiohead concert at Glastonbury, where she, curiously for a concert, stood an eternity away from the stage in utter silence, sharing a cider with her friends.

In 2016, fourteen years after her first stride into the world of art, she released her latest album At Swim. The e-mail she received from Aaron Dessner, a member of the famous band The National from Ohio, initiated the creation of the album.

The album itself is much lighter than the names of the songs on it, although Dessner strived for something agnostic and austere. Lisa colours everything in optimism and love, so anything different, even if intended, was doomed to fail from the very start.

The members of the team that took part in the making of the album are the drummer of the band The National, Bryan Devendorf, Sufjan Stevens, as well as the Damon Albarn’s arranger, Andre de Ridder.  The songs where she whispers, heals and lulls us to sleep.

The name of the album is At Swim. We shall not go back to the story about the dolphins, but to something even more beautiful, a swim in the world Lisa Hannigan created and sang about, a swim that is a truly an inspiring experience.

The song “Lo” represents regret, but it does so in a lively way and with all the zeal that a day and the sun could provide. Lisa transforms sorrow into a lullaby.

The “Prayer for the Dying” embodies the lament inspired by the death of a close friend’s mother. Her perfect marriage contrariwise her terminal illness. Lisa grabbed all those incredibly strong emotions from the air where they floated, laid them down on a piece of paper, and let the words write themselves. She disclosed the song only after her friend’s mother passed away, commemorating the immortality she had found in the harmony of its melody.

The song “Undertow” is a beautiful saga on longing and intimacy, the unconditional commitment, similarly expressed in the Miroslav Antic’s poem “The Shadow”. If this article was written in verse, the impression of Lisa would be perfectly rounded up in this poem. However, since it is written in prose, a proper conclusion shall follow.

Leonard Cohen, one of Lisa’s earliest musical inspirations reviewing his famous song “Anthem” once said: “The light is the capacity to reconcile your experience, your sorrow, with every day that dawns. It is that understanding, which is beyond significance or meaning that allows you to live a life and embrace the disasters and sorrows and joys that are our common lot. But it’s only with the recognition that there is a crack in everything. It is this crack through which the light comes in”.

That light is Lisa Hannigan. There are many forms of light, Cohen envisioned one of them, but most certainly, another form of light is Lisa, with every particle and every pore. Through her radiant energy, her receptivity, humbleness, smile, innocence and song. She inspires the hope that such people exist – remember that while listening to Lisa in solitude, or while yearning for someone undetermined.

Pavle Jakšić | Vitraž

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About the author
Osnivač i urednik Vitraža. Beograđanin. Kritičar malograđanštine i površnosti. Idealista.