IT'S A sticky night in Dundalk. Real monsoon weather. All the windows in the Spirit Store are open in an attempt to get some air circulating, but the only thing going round the packed tiny room and down the stairs to the front bar is a buzz of expectation. People are curious about the singer, the one who has yet to release a note of music and who hasn't yet even played two dozen shows under her own name.
Tonight, Lisa Hannigan is selling her wares. She's been doing this all summer long, taking a bunch of freshly baked songs and a band of sharply suited players around the country to small, squishy rooms like this. She has dealt with wardrobe malfunctions in Tullamore and banjos going on fire in Headford. People have paid good money to see her, and she has sent them home smiling. And sweating, but that's the Irish summer for you.
It doesn't take long for the good burghers of Dundalk to be entranced.
Hannigan's magic lies in her slender, subtle songs. The arrangements and stylings that anchor them are adventurous, aided by an array of eye- and ear-catching idiosyncratic instruments - harmonium, xylophone, banjo, finger-bells, recorder.
Then there's Hannigan herself, the star of the fair. She is to the limelight born, with stage presence galore. She banters with the crowd like a pro and without a trace of shyness or gaucheness. At times, she just can't hide the glee at what's going around her as audiences are drawn into those songs. It's the kind of show you don't see every day.
"I had no idea at the start if people would come out to the shows," she says. "People know me from The Cake Sale or Damien Rice, but it's so different to what I was doing before . . . people don't know that until they're at the show, and that's a lot to ask. But I'm very heartened and chuffed by the last few weeks."
In the mid-morning lull of a Dublin bar, Hannigan is about to do something she's never really done before. With her debut album, Sea Sew , due out in a few weeks, she now has to start talking about herself. She may have spent the last seven or eight years recording and touring with Rice, but she's never had to open up about herself when there's a tape recorder on the table.
"It is hard to adjust to not just being the centre of attention, but also to being in charge. My phone is always on. The merchandise is getting made, the artwork is going to print and it's me who has to be in control of all these little elements, whereas before, I could just have sat back and let someone else worry about it.
"Genuinely, though, I'm loving it. I'm not daunted by it. And, yes, there are things I'm going to have to get used to, like talking about myself, which will be a bit hard to do, but so was everything else when I started out."
Hannigan grew up in the Co Meath village of Kilcloon. She danced to Michael Jackson in her living room and learned songs she'd taped from the radio in her bedroom. She remembers working out the likes of Kristin Hersh's Your Ghost on her guitar. Then, one day her mother arrived home with a compilation of opera singers. "It was probably something called The Most Exciting Sopranos and Tenors in the World Ever ."
The CD featured Maria Callas doing The Bell Song . A new obsession was born. "I got mad into it. It was all pyrotechnics and madness. I found it really emotional and arresting and very exciting and ridiculously difficult. Remember that black-and-white picture of her with the red lips? For years, I was obsessed. She was just so strident and brassy."
This, decided the teenager, was for her. Hannigan went to a few opera shows in the Gaiety ("peering over the front of the gods"). When she performed at Feis Ceoil competitions, she wanted to be Callas.
"I remember going to one Feis Ceoil up north. I had really built it up in my head to being something bigger than it really was. I didn't come anywhere , and I remember crying all the way home. I was thinking that if they can't see this in me, it mustn't be for me. I was 15."
Still, she was writing songs. "They were bad songs about life and love from the point of view of a 16-year-old, which, looking back, was a bit mawkish." She knew she wanted to sing, she knew she wanted to write songs, but there was no master plan. "I just knew it would find me at some point."
Hannigan went to Trinity College to study Art History and French, but ended up studying Dublin instead. During her first week in college, she met a singer-songwriter named Damien Rice. Over the next few months, she kept bumping into him. Rice needed a singer and Hannigan volunteered.
It was a great time in her life. She was living in the city, going to singer-songwriter nights, playing gigs and meeting musicians (Tommo Osander, Vyvienne Long, Shane Fitzsimons) who are now her best friends. "I ended up doing so many gigs that I never went back to college in the end." Rice started recording O , taking a little mobile recording desk with him from flat to flat, recording with Hannigan and the other musicians. "A lot of heart went into that record."
When O was released, Hannigan says, there were no expectations. But it was soon apparent that they had a hit on their hands and the band started touring.
"At the start, I just didn't know how to be on a stage or what to do on a stage, but you have to cop onto yourself very quickly. My confidence grew with both having to get on with it and enjoying learning how things work." Hannigan pauses and laughs. "Then, sure, they couldn't get rid of me."
When the ensemble regrouped to record the 9 Songs album, Hannigan sensed a very different atmosphere. "We had been working together for six or seven years at that point, so we were a different group, I suppose, with different ideas about what we were doing. We all had other things going on."
She herself had recorded a duet with Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody for The Cake Sale , an album for Oxfam Ireland. She'd toured with Lightbody and Snow Patrol, walking onstage every night in huge arenas to sing Set the Fire to the Third Bar with them. She'd also started musing about an album of her own.
Things unravelled on the 9 Songs tour. For the first time today, Hannigan begins to hesitate. "I don't think we were as solid a unit as we had been before. Things always seem to happen in cycles of six or seven years, like school, so it did feel like it was coming to a natural end for everyone. Damien had said before that he wasn't going to work with us all as a group after a certain point, so the writing was on the wall."
All the same, the end was both unexpected and swift. It happened in Munich.
"Ten minutes before a show was due to start, Damien walked into the dressing room and said he didn't want to work with me anymore. That was it. Yeah, it was tough but, looking back, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I mean, I wouldn't be talking to you or doing my own record now if it wasn't for those years."
The conclusion of their working relationship came as a shock to many.
"We were best friends," emphasises Hannigan. "He'd always ask my opinion or advice about songs and what we were doing. I was always the one to rein him in or encourage him. I would tell him if I thought he was wrong, and there weren't many people who would have done that. Sometimes, there were fights and it was very tumultuous. Ultimately, though, it became more negative than positive and we just were not getting on."
Hannigan went to New York, walked around and did a lot of thinking. "I wasn't really planning a record before that. I mean, I was thinking about one in a very airy-fairy, 'wouldn't that be nice' way, but there was no solid plan. Then, I had to do it."
She began going over to London to demo songs with engineer Jason Boshoff. "I would put down really basic things, just me and my guitar, and we'd spend a day working on the track. I'd go back every few months and do another batch of songs."
She began to assemble the band. They gathered in a big barn in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, and worked out the songs. "I knew exactly how I wanted each song to sound, so we worked at that for a few months to get to the point where we could record the whole album in two weeks."
In March, they spent a fortnight in Dublin's Cauldron studio, Boshoff riding shotgun on the mixing desk, putting those songs to rights. "I just wanted to keep it simple and to make it sound cohesive using what we had to hand," Hannigan says. "I didn't want to rely on the computer."
Now that the album is in the bag, the real work begins. Sea Sew comes out next month and Hannigan heads off to the US in early October for a 42-date tour with Jason Mraz. "We'll be doing more American dates than the actual number we've done so far as a band."
But Hannigan is ready for it all. A year ago on the Body Soul stage at the Electric Picnic, she was coy and uncomfortable, a singer in search of a role. This year? For one thing, she's found that role.
"I'm just having so much fun now," she says. "The songs are pretty cheerful for the most part. I don't want to sing depressing, melancholic songs any more because I'm not that way inclined. I'm a much happier person, so I don't think I could get up there and be dismal.
"The vibe onstage is happy because we're a happy bunch. And I hope my uncoordinated dancing makes people smile."
Also, the EskimoFriends board says, "Lisa will be appearing on the Tony Fenton Show on Irish radio station Today FM next Wednesday (September 3rd). You can listen in live between 14.30 and 16.30 (Irish time) from here."
Crossposted to my_pirate_disco and eskimo_friends