In 2015, Lisa Hannigan recorded her rendition
of “Danny Boy” for the television show “Fargo.”
By Colleen Taylor
This week, I’ve been getting lost in the music of Lisa Hannigan. This indie-folk singer truly enchants: her songs amuse, charm, inquire, and most importantly, transport. Hannigan’s voice is compelling in its quiet, subdued manner. I was unsurprised to learn Hannigan has received plenty of critical praise in Ireland—praise that started with superstar Damien Rice, who enlisted Hannigan for his band back in 2001. Since then, the singer has gone solo, producing two exquisite records, “Sea Sew” and “Passenger,” and recently starring in the Irish animated film, “Song of the Sea.”
Hannigan has turned to the best female folk vocalists for her influences. She has performed songs by Janice Joplin, Joni Mitchell, even Nina Simone. She does their lineage justice with the intense feeling she puts into every single note, every slight vibration in her harmonies. “Oh Undone,” for instance, a song off her most recent album “Passenger” (2011), captures sadness and heartbreak in the subtlest of vocal tremors. What she accomplishes on the levels of such minute musical detail is truly astounding. Hannigan pairs her voice, in many tracks, with the minor chords of violins. You cannot listen passively to a song like “Oh Undone”—it pulls the listener into emotional reverie.
I really converted to a Hannigan fan, however, when I listened to her peppier songs. “What’ll I Do,” also from “Passenger,” is my absolute favorite of Hannigan’s originals. It starts with bluesy gesture, and the rest of the track rises into complete finger-snapping fun. Her voice has incredible skill, able to grip at the heart of heartbreak then bring you to new euphoric heights on the next song. “What’ll I Do” is infectious feel-good music—light, relaxing, fun, and part of the reason I love Irish indie-folk today. An earlier song of hers, “An Ocean and a Rock,” off her debut alum, is another favorite. This one may be slower, softer, but it is just merry. Again, she joins in with a violin in minor chords, but this time with a hopeful intonation. The song evokes the easy, flowing rhythm of water established by her oceanic title. Hannigan’s music may be subdued, but there is nothing static or boring about her original music.
Most recently, Hannigan has been exploring the Irish side of her voice. In 2015, she recorded a gorgeous rendition of “Danny Boy” for the television show “Fargo.” But perhaps her voice is most recognizable nowadays as the selkie mother character in the animated film “Song of the Sea.” I find this selkie connection absolutely fitting. Lisa Hannigan’s singing voice is magical in its quiet, powerful effect. She moves her voice across different registers in tandem with the easy flow of water. For the film soundtrack, Hannigan recorded some new songs, including the title song, “Amhran na Farrige” (Song of the Sea). The song is a beautiful and supernatural lullaby. In the Irish language, her voice takes on new mythic incantations. With “Song of the Sea,” Hannigan proves herself able to sing new age music just as well as she sings folk.
What I love most about Lisa Hannigan is that her music doesn’t fake it. She is the kind of artist that doesn’t try to sound like someone else, doesn’t sing out of her scope. She knows who she is and knows what her music sounds like. She simply writes great songs, without trying to overdo it, like some indie artists do. Perhaps she just has great taste in music herself, and that translates into her own work. Whatever it is, I will keep on listening to Hannigan and whatever she might recommend. And luckily, there is more to look forward to. Hannigan announced this year that she has been recording another solo album, which will be released at the end of 2016, her first new album in five years. It’s been far too long. The critics need something new to praise in indie-folk, and Hannigan, I have no doubt, will be it. Listen to her selkie songs on the “Song of the Sea” soundtrack and her human ones on her original album, “Passenger,” available on Spotify. More information at lisahannigan.ie