Stroke of Luck? How Lisa Hannigan Got Back in the Swim of Things

For Lisa Hannigan, it was time to either sink or swim.

The lovely Irish singer-songwriter blessed with an exquisite voice and enough vivid images and mesmerizing metaphors to fill the Atlantic Ocean thought she was ready to make her third full-length album. What followed, though, was a constant struggle to stay afloat that led to a plunge into self-doubt.

Then a life preserver emerged to help rescue her from a creative abyss.

The result is At Swim, a shimmering 11-song collection that marks her highly anticipated return as a solo recording artist after a five-year absence. The album will be released worldwide (ATO Records) on Aug. 19.

On the phone from London in late July, the elegant Hannigan displayed a pleasant sense of humor, even while describing the inner battle she experienced while diving back into the business after taking "an embarrassingly long time between albums."

Splitting time between Dublin and London while developing a personal relationship left Hannigan feeling homesick and unusually uninspired as songwriting became a painstakingly arduous process.

"It never happened that way before," explained Hannigan, whose previous two albums were 2008's See Sew and 2011's Passenger. "I'd always kind of gotten into some sort of flow. ... But halfway along, when I was really in the doldrums of a blank page syndrome, I got an email from Aaron Dessner saying, 'If you'd like to write together or if you need me to produce your record or (provide) some sort of direction, please give me a call.' So we ended up being musical pen pals from month to month."

The out-of-the-blue message from the National's talented multi-instrumentalist was a godsend for Hannigan, who at the time of this interview still didn't know what motivated Dessner -- whom she called her "lifebuoy" -- to get in touch.

Asked if that's something that frequently happens in her life, Hannigan laughed while drawing out her rambunctious reply.

"No-o-o-o! And certainly not from somebody like Aaron Dessner, whose work I really love and admire. ... He had a very strong idea of how he heard the record sounding. Even before I sent him any songs. So I think he was familiar somewhat with my work before. And he had a very strong kind of aesthetic idea of how he wanted it to be."

Assuming their common bond -- separate musical experiences with the Australian folk duo Luluc -- was the reason, Hannigan sounded amazed and amused that the collaboration with Dessner actually happened.

Divine intervention, perhaps?

"I'm not a religious person but I did (laughs) sort of really hope that I was gonna have ... that the window was gonna open in my situation," she said, still laughing. "I really did because I felt so stuck. And I'd never really felt that before. And I very diligently sat down and tried to write everyday and did write things -- terrible, terrible things. ... Every once in a blue moon I would write a song and I would love it. And that actually ended up on the record. But they were very few and far between, those moments, compared to my usual ... not than I'm in any way prolific (laughs) by any standards. But I certainly had more of a rhythm before. So, yeah, I don't know whether somebody's been watching over me or it's just pure ridiculous luck but I'm very grateful for it."

It's too easy to chalk it up to the luck of the Irish, though.

While Hannigan may be known for enriching work with compatriots such as Damien Rice and Glen Hansard, she also has performed with all-American working class heroes like Ray LaMontagne and Joe Henry.

Hannigan has enjoyed spending time abroad for work and play (she'll appear with Dessner at the Eaux Claires festival in Wisconsin this month), and is planning to tour the United States some time after fulfilling a number of European dates to promote At Swim. While London "is an amazing place," she doesn't think it suits her quieter personality very well.

In the U.S., though, she does have a soft spot in her heart for New York, Denver ("one of my favorites") and even Fargo, at least the one captured in the exceptional TV series on FX. About halfway through the seventh episode of Season 2, her haunting voice is featured during a scene that's particularly painful to watch.

Reaching out unexpectedly, this time by phone, was Noah Hawley, the show's writer-director. "Would you do me a version of 'Danny Boy?' " he asked her.

"As an Irish person, it's a slight hot potato of a song because it's such a classic," said Hannigan, who sometimes "warbled alongside John McCormack recordings" but had never performed "Danny Boy" in public. "So I didn't quite know how to approach it. And then he said, 'I really want a very disturbing version.' Which I mean was an absolute treat. ... I'm such a fan of the show anyway and the scene that it's used in I think is so brilliant. I was just completely over the moon over the whole thing." (The Fargo Year Two Soundtrack is available on iTunes.)

Her imaginary trip to 1970s American pulp fiction was only temporary, though. Like the leading character in the 2009 novel and subsequent Oscar-nominated film Brooklyn, this real-life daydream believer is happy to "get whiplashed back" to the place she truly loves.

"That will always be home," Hannigan said of Ireland, where her family still lives. "And I will be back there permanently very soon."

Asked what she misses the most about it, even on a day when she jokingly considered London an "upgrade" after arriving from rainy Dublin, Hannigan said, "Well, I think it's the people, really. And there's just an ease to life. And it's from where you're from that just feels so natural."

Paraphrasing late Irish poet Seamus Heaney, she offered, "It's like a cure you don't know is happening. And that's how I feel about Dublin."

Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan is back
with her first full-length album in five years. (Photo by Rich Gilligan)

Born in Kilcloon in 1981, Hannigan grew up in the countryside near Dublin and quickly took a liking to Irish music, initially drawn to Luke Kelly, the voice of the Dubliners.

"I found it, as a child, very arresting to hear somebody sing so boldly, so strongly and plainly," Hannigan said. "And I was always a big fan of his. And gosh, there's so many incredible Irish singers.

"As a woman, obviously Sinead O'Connor when I was growing up was incredibly powerful as a performer and as a person. You know, the very strong Irish woman who didn't apologize, which was very unusual to be allowed to be (during) that time."

Hannigan spent summers in the West Cork fishing village of Baltimore, where her mother Frances had grown up. While becoming transfixed by singers, Lisa developed a "recurring fascination with the sea" that's evident in many of her songs, both old ("Sea Song," "A Sail") and new (At Swim's "Undertow," "Ora," "We, The Drowned").

She admits At Swim "is definitely a bit darker in subject matter" than her previous albums, but her bright, cheerful explanations prove that light does shine through the shadows.

"The song titles are quite depressing. It's not as depressing as the song titles would suggest," Hannigan said with a laugh, enjoying a chance to have a little fun at her own expense. "But there are more darker themes in the record, which is not a bad thing, I don't think."

On a record with lush instrumentation, Dessner not only produced but also makes significant contributions (piano, bass, Rhodes, guitars, drums, OP-1 synthesizer) along with a few more musicians. Of course, Hannigan's incredible vocal range is the star of this show.

Yet while downplaying her own instrumental skills, she kids about her plucky banjo turn on "Undertow," co-written with Iain Archer, by saying, "I tell you, I'm all about banjo solos. Every record I've got one in there."

This time, though, on the final song they recorded for the album last year over a short period during the fall, Hannigan couldn't resist picking up a "little strange banjo" sitting in Dessner's studio "that was completely out of tune," she said. "I don't think anyone's ever played it on anything. And I had this line in my head and ideas to work it out on the banjo. And it actually just worked so well," producing an aggressive sound "that only the banjo can bring."

The easiest lyrics came to Hannigan while she was at home folding clothes and listening to a "very visually arresting" piano backing Dessner emailed for "Ora," one of three songs they co-wrote.

"It sounds to me very obviously like oars in a boat and it felt like the song was traversing in some sort of body of water and you could hear the push and the pull on the oars and the hauling then of the vessel," she said.

The music video for "Ora," the next planned project, sounds as intriguing as the song. Made with her brother Jamie Hannigan and Maeve Clancy, "this wonderful paper artist," Hannigan described a "very old style of storytelling" called crankies as a scrolling cross between a giant comic strip and shadow puppet theater.

Whatever floats Hannigan's boat seems filled with promise. While she might be all about aggressive banjo solos and adventurous videos (check out her paint-drenched Knots, left), any kind of seaworthy vessel must be a fixture, too.

Though her Dublin residence isn't exactly near the sea, "I can sort of see it on a good day," Hannigan joked. Getting her into the water is another matter.

"I'm a terrible swimmer. But I love boats. ... I mean I can swim but I prefer to be in a boat of some description," she added with another laugh.

All joking aside, the award-winning songstress who provided the voice of a mermaid in the Oscar-nominated Irish animated film Song of the Sea is deeply serious about her water fixation.

"I think I sort of associate it with feeling free and feeling washed," Hannigan said. "Whenever things are really bad, there's something about the vastness and the power of the sea I think that puts you back into place. In the best possible sense. It always makes me feel better. And I think a lot of people feel the same way. I tend to go there in the best of times and the worst of times."

Does it get any better than this? There's a sumptuous-sounding record on the way, plans to add to her songbook, create more inventive music videos and make visits all over the world to locations ordinary and exotic before the everlasting return to her homeland.

"I am much happier" now, she exclaims, recalling those dark days in London, where writing songs was like "climbing a giant hill."

After surviving that endurance test, Hannigan finally appears to be in shipshape.

Watch Lisa Hannigan's video for "Fall," the opening song from her new album At Swim: