In conversation, Lisa Hannigan is very much like her songs. She’s hushed, composed, delicate. But peeking through is a wry wit, that enlivens an almost Jane Austen-like austerity. She is calling to discuss her lovely, haunting new record Passenger, which should establish her among the front ranks of singer-songwriters, female or not.
“A lot of the new album was written on the road,” says Hannigan, with a gentle accent the Irish Tourist Board should be taping and putting on their walking tours. “I spend a good deal of time on the bus with the band and there’s not much opportunity to be alone. So oftentimes, when the guys were up in the front of the tour bus, watching Breaking Bad, I’d be in the back strumming on a guitar and putting bits and pieces of a song together. Sometimes I’d sing them into my phone. There’s a lot of hanging about when you’re touring. You might as well do something constructive with the time.”
She has. From the dreamy “O Sleep,” which sounds like a lost Harry Nilsson rag, sung by a drowsy Shelley Duvall, to the mordant “Safe Travels (Don’t Die),” to the whisper that is “Nowhere To Go,” Hannigan has fashioned a startlingly cohesive album. Each tune harkens back to one you heard earlier, or gently heralds one that is approaching.
“‘O Sleep,’” is a good example of the mobile way I write,” says Hannigan. “I just went for a walk one day around Dublin, feeling like I needed to address something intangible I had going on inside me. I went to a cafe and had a sandwich and just started writing the words on the back of the wrapper. I sang some of them into my phone and later picked up my guitar and put some chords underneath the melody. It worked like that a lot of the time.”
Hannigan’s role models are as good as her tunes. She’s quick to credit the over-arching songwriter of her time, Joni Mitchell, as the woman who sparked her own urge to write.
“My mother was really into Joni,” she says. “We use to take long car rides, my mom and my brothers and I, and she would play the cassette of Ladies Of The Canyon. It would unreel from one side to the other, then back again. I knew every second of every song on that tape by heart.”
Part of the credit for Passenger, with its you-can-hear-a-pin-drop ambience, belongs to the estimable producer and songwriter Joe Henry. Like an empathetic therapist with a brilliant but hypersensitive patient, Henry knows, musically, just how far to back off and when to step in with a hug. His production is warm and 70s-sounding, without once falling prey to sentimentality.
“I was involved in the Kate McGarrigle tribute show last year, in England, which was curated by Richard Thompson,” says Hannigan. “Joe was actually playing across the street. My good fortune is that he come over and stuck his head in the door when I was playing one of Kate’s songs. He apparently liked it. Not long after, he sent an e-mail to my management team, saying, ‘If you’re ever looking for someone …’ We knew right away that he was the guy. You meet Joe and he has this vibe, this unique weather system about him, that makes him seem at once, both calm and compelling. I went over to L.A. not long after and we made some demos. Both of us knew right away knew it’d be perfect to work together.”
Not everything is “perfect” in Hannigan’s world – her Wikipedia page, for one. “There’s so much misinformation about me there,” says Hannigan, sweetly. “Especially, all the stuff about me and Damien [Rice]. There was all this speculation about us after I left his band [Hannigan sang with the singer-songwriter from 2001 to 2007. They also had a romantic relationship]. And all these supposed bad feelings and broken hearts. It was weird, but we sorted it out ages ago. Anyway, I wanted to change all the stuff about that on my Wiki page. But my page lady said, ‘Oh, it’s a conflict of interest for you to write your own stuff. And besides, the amount you want to change is too much!’ So, I’m stuck with all this stuff that isn’t true. Yes, my reign of terror against them has just begun.”
In the meantime, there’s a tour to promote Passenger, meaning more gigs in the States and Europe. But mostly, there’s Hannigan’s satisfaction that with her new album, she did exactly what she set out to do.
“I think it’s the best thing I’ve done so far,” she says, confidently. “It’s stronger in every way than my last record. I just think there’s a really recognizable voice this time out. And I think the next one will be better still.”