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Lisa Hannigan on her incredible musical journey and the lessons she’s learned along the way

Lisa Hannigan is some kind of wonderful. She’s enjoyed an incredible musical journey – three studio albums down, collaborations with the likes of Glen Hansard, Damien Rice, Herbie Hancock – and better still, is a tremendous conversationalist.

You can easily imagine sitting with her in a bay window, sharing a pot of tea while you overlook some stormy Irish sea dashing against a cliff far below. The accent helps – all Irish voices do – but it’s mostly her colourful, forthright insights into her craft.
 
“I feel like where my writing comes from is fairly internal,” Hannigan says. “As opposed to sniffing the air and trying to add all that. I’m sure a certain amount of outside impression will happen naturally, whatever cultural soup you’re in will add some flavour. But I think mine is a more instinctual process.
 
“It’s generally just sitting at a table or wandering around singing to myself. It’s not very structured. I start with some kind of nugget, and then I’ll generally go walk around and try approach it without thinking about it too much. Then I’ll come home and put it down on paper, shape it minutely to make more sense. Nothing is as bad for writing than staring at a blank page. Mumbling away strangely to myself tends to work better than thinking of something clever. Thinking of something clever always ends up being a very overwrought and overworked piece.”
 
Trading observations and insights is the best way to learn something real about the person, but on this occasion, my own voice was letting me down. I was in the grip of a sore throat, and yearning for lemon and ginger tea, which Hannigan whole-heartedly supported (“A lot of Irish situations are punctuated by quite constant tea drinking,” she insisted). This did, however, lead her to open up about the evolution of her own voice.
 
“With [earlier albums], I can hear myself sounding more tentative, but I think it’s still me. I used to smoke quite heavily in my twenties, but then I gave up for that reason. This is the only thing that I have, this voice. It’s my favourite thing to do in the world, and [smoking] is a really pointless way of making that more difficult. There’s no reason why your voice has to deteriorate at all. I feel as long as I don’t smoke or neck whiskey while screaming at people, I should hopefully be ok.
 
“I know my range has changed considerably. I’ve grown much lower and much higher than I used to be able to sing. As a singer, that’s your instrument to express everything you have to express, that’s all you have, so you’re always trying to find the edges and push them back. Some singers, like Glen Hansard, you think how does he do that every night for three hours? It’s mad. It sounds like he’s really shredding his voice. But he’s not. He just has a very robust instrument. I suppose I do a little bit as well, but differently – in my own way. I think going on tour for six weeks, there are muscles that you build up. I’m super sporty, but in a very small way. Probably the only way I’m sporty,” she laughs.
 
With her appearance at the Thornbury, you can hear it for yourself. Hannigan’s voice and songwriting is an evocative thing, which is precisely what she hopes to achieve.
 
“You want a song to have its own character, its own energy that can create this world where the story is being told. Sometimes you write a song and it has its own world it surrounds itself with. And that’s a good sign. I think you want a song to have its own personality. To have its own atmospheric space.”
 
By Adam Norris

Lisa Hannigan will perform at Thornbury Theatre on Thursday May 25.