Lisa Hannigan has a lot on her mind these days. Mostly, she's contemplating the songs on her debut album, figuring out new ways to present them on her first U.S. headlining tour. She's also trying to come up with answers for those nosy journalists who ask her what, exactly, happened between her and her former music partner.
But right now, on the phone from what she describes as a “very cold” Ireland, Hannigan lets me know exactly what she's thinking about.
“I must ask you, can you recommend a nice sushi restaurant in San Diego?” she inquires in a bewitching accent.
“We're going to be there on my birthday. We have a couple of places in Ireland, but we don't have any proper ones.”
The sushi query is as animated as Hannigan will get over the phone. The 27-year-old's shy demeanor could be seen as a defensive result of wanting to talk more about her present circumstances than her past accomplishments. Even if most music fans don't know her by name, chances are they would recognize her voice. Over the course of six years and two albums, she was featured prominently alongside Irish troubadour Damien Rice. She'd often steal a bit of his thunder with the emotional range she brought to songs like “Volcano,” “The Blower's Daughter” and “9 Crimes,” and many people began to see them as more of a duo, rather than Hannigan simply being part of Rice's band.
While it wasn't completely unexpected when the couple parted ways in 2007, many fans still had a hard time envisioning one singer without the other. And after a seemingly unemotional post on Rice's website stating that it was his decision to end the relationship, many fans rallied around Hannigan, who, until then, had commented only that she wished to pursue her own music.
Whatever the circumstances of the split, Hannigan remains as diplomatic about it as ever. So much so that it almost seems like she has the answers down to a science.
“I don't really know what happened. It ran its course, I guess.”
Fair enough. Yet, there were other questions being asked. Fans knew she had the vocal chops, but could she write her own material? All doubt was removed with last year's European release of Sea Sew (released this week in the U.S.).
Fans and critics went mad over the album and Hannigan's new up-tempo, pop-friendly sound. The songs are a window into Hannigan's mindset these days, sounding more playful, yet no less serious, than her material with Rice.
“The response was all very supportive,” she remembers. “I was worried, but I knew that it was time and people seemed to agree.”
But Sea Sew isn't all sugar, spice and everything nice. Songs like “Pistachio” and the brilliant, heartbreaking “Teeth” (sample lyric: “When my salt was my own / My teeth bared for battle / Till love made me dull”) finds her channeling the same raw passion she brought to Rice's lyrics. Even the words of the otherwise poppy single “I Don't Know”—about the pensive emotions that come with having a crush on someone—read like they could have been a sad song had they been performed a different way.
“I never thought of it that way, but now that you say that, it makes sense,” she says. “That particular song is certainly quite joyful, and it was intended to sound that way. I always have an idea and a melody in my head.”
If her new U.S. tour schedule has revealed anything, it's that Rice's fans were obsessive enough to learn Hannigan's name. Many of her shows sold out immediately, and Hannigan is pleasantly surprised to find this out. When asked about the future after this album and tour, she replies with the predictable answer of “more touring and recording” but then opens up just enough to play it safe.
“I'm just really enjoying what I'm doing now and really couldn't ask for anything more,” she says, adding, “I'm just hoping I can continue doing it with the lovely people I now have around me.” Lisa Hannigan plays with Gavin Glass on Wednesday, Feb. 11, in the Delta Room at House of Blues. www.myspace.com/lisahannigan.