Poet's words inspire Lisa to create her finest album
Lisa Hannigan has survived her break-up with Damien Rice and a bout of writer's block to make her most experimental album yet. David Smyth finds out why Seamus Heaney is her latest muse
I am quite relieved when Lisa Hannigan turns up on time and in the right place to meet me in a pub near Oxford Street in London. One of the Dublin-born musician's new songs, Funeral Suit, includes the line: "From Bermondsey or to Shoreditch, I said I don't know which is which". Thankfully, though still officially based in Dublin, she's newly married to a Londoner and has been spending more time in the capital since the song was written.
"I'm better at it now. That was early days, you know when you're just dropped somewhere in London and you have no idea how anything connects together," she says. "I feel like London is a pretty welcoming place. And there are so many Irish people here that it just feels like we're part of the fabric of the whole thing."
Hannigan (35) will be all over the place during the next few months as she tours to promote her third album, At Swim. She's an old hand by now. Even before she was a solo artist she was very much in the game. You may still know her best as the swooning female voice on Damien Rice's first two albums, O and 9, and as the earner of the biggest cheers at his concerts when she stepped forward to take her turn at the microphone.
Rice, her former boyfriend, sacked her in 2007 with the brusque announcement: "After much thought and discussion Damien has decided that his professional relationship with Lisa Hannigan has run its creative course." In 2014, when he released his first Hannigan-free album, he said: "I don't think the two of us will work together again, but there's no reason why we couldn't play live together again some time."
When we chat, Hannigan, who has never been less than diplomatic about the relationship, speaks positively about her time in Rice's band. She dropped out of a French and art history degree at Trinity College, Dublin, to join him on the road.
"I didn't have to give interviews at that point. I was an international woman of mystery and it was great. It was the best of all worlds, actually. I got to sing and learn about that but I had none of the stressful bits. I was a lot more shy than I am now. I just didn't really talk."
Nowadays she's a warm, interested conversationalist, conspiratorial as we decide whether it's late enough in the afternoon for an alcoholic drink (it is) and settling on a glass of red wine when it turns out that there's no Guinness in the pub.
She spent time as an interviewer herself, presenting a podcast, Soundings, with Irish broadcaster Dylan Haskins. The most recent episode last summer saw the pair talking to comic actress Sharon Horgan and triple-amputee war photographer Giles Duley.
Having already proved that she can succeed alone as a singer-songwriter - her debut album, Sea Sew, was Mercury-nominated in 2009, while the follow-up, Passenger, was an Irish number one in 2011 - now she has a new musical collaborator in her life.
Aaron Dessner, guitarist with Ohio indie giants The National and producer of acts including Sharon Van Etten and Local Natives, sent her an unsolicited email in January last year, asking if she'd like to collaborate. She can't remember the subject header, she laughs, when I ask.
"We know some of the same people but we'd never met. I've actually never asked him what the instigation was. But I said, 'Yes please, this is amazing'. I love his band. He started sending me all these pieces of music, I started singing on them and that was the turning-point."
Up to then, she'd been in a funk attempting to follow Passenger. "When we finished the last record we toured it for ages, a long old time. Opportunities came up to do gigs and I always said yes. Then I came back and had to write, and everything had slightly changed. I wanted to go in a different direction but not really knowing how," she says.
She moved to Paris on her own for a few months, then lived in London for a while, slowly learning to tell Shoreditch and Bermondsey apart.
"I was in the middle of absolute ... I suppose writer's block is the best way of putting it," she says. "I didn't know what to do with myself. I was diligently writing but I wasn't getting into the flow. There's a lot of industry involved, writing so many s*** songs you'd never play to anyone. It's so frustrating and cumulatively depressing."
Luckily, while she had no firm idea of how her new album should sound, Dessner did. "He said very early on that he wanted an austere, agnostic - that's the word he used - sound to the record. I think he meant it to be quite stark. I think he wanted it to be an all-encompassing, textural experience."
The end result is Hannigan's finest work by some distance. It could well be the most beautiful album of the year, multi-layered and slow-moving, rich with piano and hushed harmonies.
The song Prayer For The Dying is a devastating lament inspired by the death of a close friend's mother.
"It's about a family friend who had a terminal illness and a beautiful marriage. It was this heartbreaking situation. It was very easy to write because the emotions were so high at that point. The husband has heard it, I only wrote it after she passed away. I wanted to pay tribute to their life together. I got a text from him that had me in floods," she says.
Then there's Anahorish, simply a Seamus Heaney poem delivered by timeless a cappella voices. Hannigan is relaunching her music career at the same time as starting a part-time Open University degree in English literature. She's studying Heaney and pulls one of his books out of her bag to show me.
As with Dessner giving her his music sketches, the fact that the words already existed for this song was another thing that helped her to escape the terror of the blank page.
After many emails, she finally got together with Dessner in Copenhagen to finish writing together in person.
"It was like meeting your penpal," she says. Then they travelled to New York to record the album in a converted church, with an impressive cast of collaborators who included Damon Albarn's string arranger Andre de Ridder, The National's drummer Bryan Devendorf and Sufjan Stevens' producer Thomas Bartlett.
"I went home and Aaron built up all these textures he'd been talking about. It was like Christmas, a new present every day. It was great to see how he coloured it in."
A third album can often be the point at which an artist gets stuck in a groove. For Hannigan it's been a time to take risks - which have paid off handsomely. "I had to do something different. I wanted to feel unnerved, to be slightly unsure of how it was going to go."
Thanks to her new friends, she's really come into her own.
At Swim is in shops now