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Breaking the Rice: Lisa Hannigan at 40

We probably all know by now that Co Meath’s Lisa Hannigan was at one time a strategic music assistant to Damien Rice and that the partnership dissolved abruptly, leaving both artists to forge their own paths.

Of course, no one knows more than Damien how there have been many critically lauded (and hyped) singer-songwriters over the years that have quickly turned from snow to slush overnight, and like his former foil, who has turned 40, he’s been almost too quiet of late: releasing nothing since his third solo album My Favourite Faded Fantasy, a 2014 chart-topper helmed by Beastie Boys producer Rick Rubin. 

Suffice to say that if all the malarkey about Rice’s creative and performing sensitivities can be ignored, he remains a most excruciatingly honest songwriter. Delicate remains featherlike, while Hannigan’s star turn on the tremulous I Remember still exhilarates almost 20 years on.

Another one who’s been quiet of late, what we wouldn’t have been aware of prior to the release of Hannigan’s debut solo album – the ear-pleasing raw intimacy of 2008’s Sea Sew – was the breadth of her talent, but her songs have, virtually uniquely, managed to stay fresh. With her lush and raspy voice, in the last decade she’s built up her brand courtesy of support slots with the likes of Jason Mraz and soundtrack play on television über-hit Grey’s Anatomy.

Over the course of her three studio albums, Hannigan has deepened her folk sound. While See Saw was primarily a stripped-back folk-pop record, when sophomore set Passenger arrived in 2011 it was noticeable how she’d picked up these folk-pop threads and made her songs much richer with the help of a fuller backing band.

Five years later, At Swim (produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner), found Lisa once again expanding pleasingly on her folk sound, one that’s sullen, string- and piano-heavy and sprawls out just enough to include light touches of electronic element. It’s been another five years since that studio album, but 2019’s Live In Dublin release – a collaboration with contemporary classical orchestra Stargaze – illustrated the might of her songwriting prowess.

Whether it’s an acoustic backdrop or an orchestral one, Hannigan’s songs sound potent in any setting. Journeys (both emotional and actual) are a recurring theme in her work, and her musical journey is certainly the one to watch.

Hell, even her stripped back reinvention of Diana Ross‘ disco classic Upside Down is as alluring as it is surprising.

Damien who?

Steve Pafford

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