Between writing her first album – 2008’s ‘Sea Sew’ – and its eagerly-awaited successor, Lisa Hannigan’s life has changed in oh-so-many ways. She penned her first songs in hope rather than the expectation that the wider world might find a use for them; knocked out at rehearsals in a freezing barn in the Irish countryside, the record was produced at a friend’s studio within a fortnight. Yet the 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’.
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’.
Having spent just two weeks recording her debut album, you might think that Lisa and her band would have relished the opportunity to stretch out the recording process on ‘Passenger’. Hannigan had other ideas. Keen to capture the electrifying synergy that her musicians are apt to summon on a live stage, the band, together with producer Joe Henry (Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Solomon Burke, Loudon Wainwright III) went to Bryn Derwyn studio in Wales and made the record in a week, followed by a day of strings and horns in London. The collaboration with Henry came after a chance meeting at the Royal Festival Hall, where Lisa guested at the Kate McGarrigle Tribute Concert.
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.
She may have taken a somewhat circuitous route to the limelight, but ‘Passenger’ feels like Lisa Hannigan has finally come of age. That said, she still bears the same worry and nerves of someone unsure why people are suddenly so interested in her. In other important respects though, significant progress has been made. “I never used to feel comfortable calling myself a songwriter. I just used to think of myself as a singer. But now, I allow myself that luxury.” In time, Lisa Hannigan may even allow herself to believe she is a great songwriter. Listen to ‘Passenger’ and you’ll believe it too.