For almost seven years, Irish singer/songwriter Lisa Hannigan collaborated with Damien Rice. She toured with him, sang on his albums, played piano and served as his muse.
Then, after one fateful night in Germany, it all came to a screeching halt. Rice fired Hannigan just minutes before a gig in Munich, and the couple have hardly spoken since, if at all. But that was 2007.
Although working here and there, Rice has released nothing of his own in the past four years, and recently broke a multiyear silence only to declare that he’d trade it all to “still have Lisa in my life.”
Hannigan hasn’t spoken much about the split, but she seems to have used the time far more productively.
She released her solo debut, “Sea Sew,” in 2008. The album was well-received by both critics and fans, and landed her a Mercury Prize nomination. It also led to a supporting slot on a 42-date U.S. tour with Jason Mraz. But perhaps most important, it taught her that she was a pretty decent songwriter and got her some much-needed exclusivity under the spotlight.
She just released the Joe Henry-produced follow up, “Passenger,” last week and started a three-continent tour on Tuesday to support it.
“We’ve been playing in Ireland this summer,” Hannigan said recently from her home in Dublin. “When the record was done and was being finished here, we went out on tour just to play the songs live and see where they go. It’s such a different experience than the studio. And I was anxious just to get the new songs out there. But it all just means we’re ready. I can’t wait. We’re ready and excited.”
Hannigan has a lot to be excited about. But it also seems like a lot of things are going well for the 30-year-old songstress. And the way she hooked up with Grammy-winning artist/producer Joe Henry is one of them.
“It was very serendipitous,” she said. “I was doing a tribute concert for (folk singer) Kate McGarrigle in London, and he happened to be doing a gig next door. He popped his head in, wanted to pay his respects, and I was the person he happened to catch onstage. He sent an email to my manager and we met.”
The pair exchanged demos and ideas for months before meeting to record the album in Wales earlier this year.
“Lucky me,” said Hannigan. “Straightaway, I fully trusted him. We never, at any point, discussed the record while we were sending things back and forth. There was such a great trust there that it never even really occurred to me to talk about it. He’s such a wonderful man and musician and listener. Everyone just played their socks off trying to impress him, really.”
Good fortune also intervened for Hannigan when talk show host Stephen Colbert came across her name while doing research online and immediately booked her for a rare performance on “The Colbert Report.”
“He was looking up Sean Hannity,” she said. “I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how it happened. Luckily, my name is only a few letters different. And we were on tour in the states at the time. They wanted us to play in New York and we were going to be there in a week. It was amazing.”
That was the same feeling Hannigan had when singer Ray LaMontagne agreed to appear on the new album. She didn’t feel she knew him well enough to ask outright, so she did it through a friend. And their duet, “O Sleep,” is part of the travel-inspired, 10-song collection that the charming singer and her five-piece band are out promoting across the U.S., Australia and U.K.
“You can think of themes almost in retrospect,” Hannigan said. “But because I was away for so much of the writing, there was that sense that you get when you’re away from home, that strange nostalgia. If it ever comes into focus, it’s that true idea of home and all of its preoccupations from faraway places. It can really become the portrait of your mind. Looking back, I think it ties together that way. And the traveling really got under the skin of the record.”
Hannigan will be traveling again for the next few months. It’s impossible to know what inspirations will come from it, but it is likely to cement the idea that front and center is the perfect spot for her to stand.
“I feel absolutely comfortable doing what I’m doing now,” Hannigan said. “But it has been weird. I had never stood in the middle before. It’s such a different feeling. And there was a period of mourning. That band was such a part of my life for so long.
“But now it’s been years, and I have such a wonderful band and crew, everyone around me are friends. And that makes it so much easier. I don’t regret anything that’s happened along the way. It’s all just led to me doing what I’m doing now. And I love it.”
First published by The North County Times on September 29, 2011