Lisa Hannigan’s self-released ‘Sea Sew’ went double platinum, was nominated for the Choice Music Prize and the Mercury Prize in the UK, and saw Hannigan play bewitching guest spots on the likes of ‘Later…With Jools Holland’, ‘The Late Late Show , ‘‘The Tonight Show With Jay Leno’ and ‘The Colbert Report’.
For those of us gazing on from afar at her evolution as a performer, the first glimmer that there was something more to Lisa Hannigan than meets the eye came last year, when she appeared alongside Green Gartside, Teddy Thompson and Vashti Bunyan on a tour celebrating the music of Nick Drake. By common critical consensus, her transformation of Drake’s ‘Black-Eyed Dog’ as a macabre deathly jig stole the show. You couldn’t watch what she did to that song and not feel excited about what she was going to do next.
It doesn’t take long in the company of Lisa’s second album, ‘Passenger’, to hear that excitement repaid. Hannigan famously made her name as the beautiful, breathy accompaniment to Damien Rice, with whom she sang and toured for seven years. It is on this second solo album that you sense she’s truly found her own voice, and it is on aching, mournful form from the very opening song. ‘Passenger’ begins with ‘Home’, which was written shortly after Lisa read ‘Skippy Dies’ by Dublin author Paul Murray. “It’s set at a boys’ boarding school,” she explains, “and I think the atmosphere of wild uncertainty, urgency and frustration that consumes you at fourteen sort of grabbed hold of me.” Abetted by the demonic ivory-pounding of Gavin Glass and the breathtaking violin playing of Lucy Wilkins, the rain-lashed ruminations of the song portend a more undulating emotional journey than ‘Sea Sew’.
Much of ‘Passenger’ reflects the journeys Lisa has taken, particularly whilst touring her first record. “I chose ‘Passenger’ as the title after living with the finished songs as a whole,” she says. “Many of them were written while I was away from home or on the road, and the feeling of transience and nostalgia that this constant travelling evoked seemed to seep into every song.” The overarching theme of the record, then, is “those loves, heartbreaks, confusions and friendships that we take with us through life, over years and continents, enduring the passage of time.” This emotional landscape is captured quite literally on the album’s cover, which collates maps of the main places where the record was written (Dublin, Brooklyn, West Cork). As ever, it’s beautifully detailed effort from Hannigan, who perforated the images into paper and shot light through them, creating a stunning map of her music in the process.
One of the most thrilling moments on ‘Passenger’ is the track ‘Knots’, which seems to reflect not only Lisa’s travels over these last few years, but also her steady progress as a songwriter. An electrifying blend of Southern stomp, screeching strings and lyrical tales of a debauched, whiskey-soaked night, ‘Knots’ sounds like the kind of song Hannigan would only have the confidence to write now. And then there’s ‘O Sleep’ – a duet with Ray Lamontagne – which came to Lisa in a single rhapsodic burst. “I’d just heard Dr. Ralph Stanley’s version of ‘O Death’ on a Robert Plant documentary, and I was really taken by the idea of addressing something intangible. Around the same time, I went for a walk in Sandymount, Dublin and was singing into my phone. Then I stopped in a café and took one of their paper bags and wrote all the words on the back.”