It must get awfully tiring being a folk singer from Ireland sometimes. People find out where you're from and they immediately have an expectation as to what type of music you sing. You're going to sing songs about Ireland's pathetic past, or about the bad British, or maybe about the wee people. Heaven forbid you sing anything in English about something as mundane as friendship or life today.
Of course it must even be harder for women than men what with the proliferation of the Celtic Woman franchise. You have a name that sounds even halfway Irish and there going to want you dressed up in some God-awful evening gown singing oh so sweetly, while step dancing and playing the fiddle at the same time. For those of you out there who think along those lines I want to let you in on a little secret; people can be Irish and singers without having to sing about Ireland.
I'm telling you this because I don't want you picking up Lisa Hannigan's forthcoming CD, Sea Sew being released on February 03/09 by ATO Records in North America, thinking that you'll be hearing songs filled with references to the Emerald Island or potato famines. In fact, the closest thing to an Irish instrument on the CD is the violin played by Lucy Wilkins, but no matter how hard you look you won't find anyone playing the pipes or a tin whistle.
Now some of you might have heard Lisa's name before, and even have heard her sing, as she toured and recorded with Damien Rice for seven years, and has done a few other projects with other people, but this is her first solo recording. While her partnership with Rice didn't end on the best of terms, he fired her minutes before they were to go on stage for a show in Germany, it must have been an overall positive experience, as she doesn't seem to have had any problems handling the switch from back-up vocalist to lead. That may not sound like much of an accomplishment, but I've heard many a wonderful background vocalist fail miserably when they've been given the opportunity to take centre stage.
You have to be more than just a good singer and songwriter to be able to command the attention of a listening audience. I don't care how powerful a voice you have, or how ethereal you can sound, if you don't have any personality behind it, you just end up being another in a long line of interchangeable voices that the industry churns out year after year. Lisa Hannigan not only can write intelligent lyrics, she sings them in a voice that makes you want to listen to her. When you listen to Lisa sing, you realize that she would be a good person to have a conversation with as she not only has things to say, but the way she says them is interesting.
Now that I think of it, that might be a good way of describing Lisa's songs, conversational. That's not to imply anything negative about the music, because it's not meant to. What I mean is that you really have the feeling that she is communicating with you when she sings, not just singing at you. A lot of singers tend to proclaim how they feel and don't leave you any space to fill in the blanks with your thoughts. They're making so damn sure you know they have "Feelings" with a capital "f" that they blast you so hard with both barrels that you're left too stunned to really understand what the song was about.
That might be fine for a gospel number where all you're trying to do is instil in the listener the need to believe. However, in the case of a song about anything a little more two dimensional there has to be room for ideas to come through as well. On Sea SewHannigan has managed to balance ideas and emotions in her material. She displays a wonderful use of imagery that somehow manages to convey her feelings on both an intellectual and emotional level. Listen to the lyrics from the first track of the album "Ocean And A Rock" and you'll see what I mean.
It's a song about absent friends where she talks about wanting "a frame to put you in when you're and ocean and a rock away" and then continues with "I feel you in the pocket of my overcoat, my fingers wrapped around your words and take the shape of games we play". Printed on the page like that I guess they don't seem like much, but the way Hannigan delivers them make you feel not only how much she really misses her friend, but understand it on an intellectual level as well. Who wouldn't want to capture a piece of a friend in a frame that's more substantial than a picture that we could hold on to when they are absent. Or haven't you ever walked around clutching a letter from someone special in your pocket and been able to image them present?
The music accompanying Hannigan's lyrics is full of surprises, the really nice jazz influences for instance. The combination of instruments; Tom Osander drums, Shane Fitzsimons double bass, Donagh Molloy trumpet, melodica, and glockenspiel, Gavin Glass piano, Vyvienne Long cello, and the previously mentioned Lucy Wilkins on violin allow her and the band to come up with arrangements that not only meet the needs of the material, but allow for some wonderful innovations. There's a depth to the music that you wouldn't normally associate with pop or folk music that is the perfect augmentation to the songs the group performs and the expressive nature of Hannigan's vocals.
While on occasion there is a slight breathy quality to her voice that might become annoying if it were constant, she has such good command of her voice that she never allows that to happen. Like the other instruments being utilized on the disc, Hannigan gears her voice towards the needs of each individual song. Some singer's material ends up being limited because their voice can only do one or two things, but that's not the case here. Not only does Hannigan's voice have a substantial range but it can equally as convincing belting out tunes as whispering lyrics gently.
Lisa Hannigan's Sea Sew is a wonderful collection of beautifully arranged, intelligent songs, sung with grace and style. I know it might disappoint those who expect Irish singers to be a certain way, but the rest of us will cherish the release as an example of a talented signer and songwriter's work. Damien Rice could have perhaps found a nicer way to push her into starting her solo career, but we should be grateful that he did as Lisa Hannigan deserves to be in the spotlight.
(Originally posted January 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.