Back to Our Roots: Lisa Hannigan Is One of the Innovative Artists Taking Folk Music into the 21st Century
Cheal, David, New Statesman (1996)
At some tantalisingly unspecified point later this year, Lisa Hannigan's first solo album, Sea Sew, will finally get a UK release--it came out months ago in Ireland, her home turf. Hannigan, a singer and songwriter best known for her vocals on Damien Rice's two albums 0 and 9, is a bright new voice in popular music. Sea Sew is full of memorable melodies and richly textured arrangements, while her singing ranges from pure girlish sweetness to something altogether darker. Her performances alongside Rice, both on record and live, won her a considerable fan base: her husky timbre became more than backing vocals, often taking the lead on Rice's controlled explosions of emotion.
They were a team from the early days of Rice's career, bumping into each other in a bar in Dublin, where Hannigan, who at school had ambitions to become an opera singer, was studying art history at Trinity College. She told Rice she was a singer, so he went to hear her in a classical music competition and hired her for his band. They lasted seven years together, and then one night a couple of years ago they were about to go on stage in Munich when Rice told her abruptly that he would no longer be needing her services. A businesslike announcement was issued saying that their "professional relationship has run its creative course" - and that was that.
Since then, Hannigan has been working on her solo career, and Sea Sew is the result. It's lighter, breezier, more whimsical than her material with Rice, though it does have its melancholy moments. It's an album that has been categorised within the the broad spectrum of music that now goes under the heading of "folk". The instrumentation is almost entirely acoustic--double bass, drums, acoustic guitars, banjo, fiddle, cello, glockenspiel, harmonium--while her voice has a natural, unforced quality.
And yet there's almost nothing here, apart from the lilt of her accent, to suggest that she is an Irish folk singer; though there are fiddles and a banjo, this is a million miles from the boisterous revelry of The Dubliners, let alone The Pogues. Nor do her songs fit in with the folk tradition of narrative songwriting, being more personal meditations on love and relationships, with the sea as a recurring theme.
So what is it about her music that makes it folk? Chiefly its acoustic nature; the sounds you hear are natural, earthy, genuine--crucial qualities in the world of folk, which values authenticity over artifice. The guitar, the banjo, the strings and the harmonium mesh together in a way that's not folksy, but certainly folky. This handcrafted flavour extends to the sleeve art, which was knitted and sewn by Hannigan herself. And amid the self-penned tunes, there's a version of "Courting Blues", a song written by the veteran Scottish folkie Bert Jansch, as if to say: this is where I'm coming from.
As a folk singer, Hannigan is in good company, because this year folk music is a big sound. This month's BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, presented by Mike Harding, a veteran of folk's Seventies boom time, will reward artists singing and playing in a dizzying spectrum of styles. …