What’s your favourite Keanu Reeves film? Despite a bulletproof recent shout in the form of John Wick, there’s really only one acceptable answer when it comes to this very serious issue, and thankfully Lisa Hannigan knows the score.
“Point Break all the way!” she exclaims immediately when asked, courage of Keanu-based convictions shining through.
“I just bloody love that film. I actually made the lads in the van watch it when we were touring around Ireland this summer, because I would say a few things and they weren’t getting my references, so I felt we needed to rectify that immediately. I love Keanu in everything, though. He was the absolute dreamboat when I was about 13 and we all went to see Speed, and I had a picture of him from the film on my wall, which I think I cut out from Smash Hits. I have an undying respect for Keanu, for sure.”
That commendable reverence extends to deliberately avoiding last year’s oh-so-extreme-brah loose remake in which thoughtful musings such as ”If a tree falls in the forest and no one puts it on YouTube, did it really ever happen?” is an actual line of spoken dialogue.
“Just watching the trailer was painful enough,” sighs Hannigan. “I feel a little bad because I feel slightly ragey about it, but then I wonder if I’m just as bad as those mad man-babies who hate the idea of the Ghostbusters remake. I bloody loved that film. I laughed my head off from beginning to end. I do think with Point Break that it seemed like a completely different beast and I don’t understand why you’d need to do it. When you’ve got Keanu and The Swayze in a film together, there’s no need to remake it.”
Indeed. We should applaud Lisa for sticking to her guns even as a particularly troubling bout of the dreaded writer’s block took hold in the wake of second record Passenger. Whilst on a lengthy tour to support that album, the Meath native found the road a creatively unfulfilling environment. Worse, the problem persisted when once again ensconced in the intimacy and calm of home. It was only when musical pen-pal Aaron Dessner of The National suggested a focused collaboration that the clouds began to lift.
Smash cut to a converted church in upstate New York and a fruitful week in which the first official seeds of At Swim were planted. Equal parts elegant and elegiac, the third Lisa Hannigan record wades into darker waters. If you’ve heard her sombre cover of ‘Danny Boy’ in Fargo’s excellent second season, that’s really just the tip of the iceberg here.
DiS: It’s been five years since Passenger. Has it felt that long?
Lisa Hannigan: Yes! Has it really been five? Yikes. I think the main problem was that I was on tour for about two-and-a-half years with that record and I found it very hard to write on the road, so when I came back I had a very large hill to climb. Before I only had a few songs and I sat down at home where everything was quiet so I think that was my first mistake. But then, even getting back to that space, there was probably one full year before I talked to Aaron and it did feel like a long time, even though I was filling up my time with various bits and bobs; I did some singing on films and started a podcast with my friend and kept myself as busy as I could, but it did feel like there was a chasm between one record and the next.
There’s an edge to your voice here, one that I’m not sure I’ve heard before.
Yeah, for sure. Even just looking at the song titles, it’s definitely a darker state of affairs than before. I suppose that’s just part of getting older…that sounds very depressing, actually – getting older and knowing more about the world! I hope it doesn’t sound too depressing. I don’t think it does, but the themes are heavier than before. No harm, though.
How did you deal with writer’s block?
It was really difficult. I hadn’t really experienced it before and it greatly affected my feelings about myself. As a writer, that’s how you mark your days. That’s how you mark what you have achieved over the course of a day or a week or a month. I found that even though I would kind of diligently sit down and try and write songs, there were months and months when I didn’t get anything that I thought was any good. It started to really get me down and it was hard to keep my spirits up in that time and just keep ploughing along in the hope that every once in a while something shiny would turn up.
It was actually great when Aaron got in touch about possibly doing some writing together because he would then send me all these lovely pieces of music and I could react to them melodically or lyrically, which felt easier and more natural than just me sitting in a room staring at the wall. But it was hard, it was really hard.
What do you say to those who dismiss the idea of writer’s block?
Well, I think "lucky them"! Everybody is different but the reason why the phrase writer’s block is something of a cliché is because a lot of people have dealt with it over time. If I was sitting at home watching Dr Phil all day, I might say: "Hmm, I wonder why you haven’t written any songs? Maybe you should try?", but I think I was probably trying too hard to write at one point, and that maybe added to it.
There might be some mileage in a Dr Phil concept record, though…
Yes! I’m going to start work on it immediately, do my research. There would be a great deal of emotional fodder were one to base a record on Dr Phil shows, lots of highs and lows. It’s not a bad idea.
Apart from helping to kick-start things, what did Aaron bring to At Swim?
He had a very strong idea, aesthetically, for what the record should sound like from the beginning. It was really interesting; he wanted it to be richly textured as opposed to lyrically melodic which is a style I would gravitate towards, those kind of contrapuntal melodies and different melodic instruments all going at the same time in support of the song. Aaron wanted melody to be the main lyrical instrument and then for everything else to be more austere. He was always thinking about the texture and density of the sound above all, which I found to be a really interesting approach and very different to what I had done before.
It was so lovely to hear it through his ears. We had recorded and I’d gone home while he was in the middle of making Day of the Dead, the Grateful Dead tribute album with a quadruple-million songs, so he was busy but every once in a while he would have somebody in to work on At Swim, whether it was someone on strings or the trombone choir on ‘We, The Drowned’; he would have all these instruments come in and add to the textural bed that we had made. So I’d get these emails of a song that had been so skeletal before and Aaron had put all this beautiful meat on it in his own home studio. It was a gradual building of sounds, through his brain.
Was it tough to remain patient as all that was going on?
No, not difficult at all. Once the record was done, I was able to be more patient, if anything. Having Aaron finish off the songs beautifully was a nice wait, as opposed to a stressful and painful one. I had lots to be getting on with anyway, with photographs and record artwork and videos so I was happy enough.
The promo for ‘Fall’ is immediately striking. What was the concept there?
It’s weird; when the record was finished I would take it for walks… I’m slightly scarlet now, admitting that I was listening to my own record while walking around the place, but I would just try and think visually as I was listening to it. With ‘Fall’, I felt very strongly that it needed movement in it. I don’t know if it’s the pace, but there’s something about the song that just makes me want to do Tai Chi or something, but I’m not a dancer, nor am I a Tai Chi aficionado, so that was the difficult bit; trying to make it work with me as this terrible central lump of clay. I worked with terrific creative people to make it come to life and I think it worked out well. I don’t know what it says down the YouTube comments well but I enjoyed it.
You mentioned your Soundings podcast. I think that might make you a journalist now…
Oh my god, no. Not at all, though I do have a massive newfound respect for journalists. Not that I didn’t before or anything, but it’s really hard to ask people questions, really hard. Dylan [Haskins, co-host] is very natural at it whereas I’m fine talking to someone in a pub and asking about their work but somehow in an interview setting, I found it very stressful! I’ve met some incredible people through the podcast and it has been wonderful, but by no stretch of the imagination would I call myself a journalist. I’m so fascinated by the people that we’ve met and I’m still in touch with some of them.
It’s been a really interesting trip. Initially, we just started doing it because we both happened to be in London and we were trying to go and see and do things, so we thought: "Why don’t we set up a culture podcast where we go see plays and people dancing in the nip and all that stuff?", and it was great, really good fun. Then it slightly morphed into this interview setting where people would tell us stories from all different themes and we’d have musicians play songs and it developed into this lovely format where it felt like we were hanging out in a pub, which made life easier for me.
How did you find yourself lending a voice to Song of the Sea?
I don’t really know how it came about. I think it was possibly through Kíla, as they did the music. Ireland is so small so maybe the guys knew me separately to that, but I got an email from Cartoon Saloon saying: "Would you be up for this? It’s singing and a little bit of talking…", and I thought okay, I’ll give it a go but I don’t know if I can do that. They were so, so helpful and kind and brilliant about it and I loved it, I absolutely loved doing it. If they asked me to do anything again, I’d do it in a heartbeat. It was such a thrill to be a part of that film; it’s so beautiful. I didn’t see it until the premiere where I ended up in floods of tears, weeping into my popcorn. I was very lucky to fall on my feet there, but I’m up for anything. I think you should always be open to interesting possibilities.
I’ve always found the idea of a musician just being a musician or a filmmaker just being a filmmaker very strange, like creative people have to stay in a specific box of their own making and there’s no room for anything else.
You’re only boxing yourself in if you subscribe to that attitude. Obviously I am a musician first but I love making music videos, I love doing film singing when it’s more like you’re part of an orchestra, I would love to do classical singing should the opportunity arise… I mean, it’s not like I’m good at everything but if there’s any different weird thing where I can get involved, I’d definitely think about it.
At Swim is out now on PIAS Recordings.