What do you do when you achieve your dreams and captivate the souls of millions? If you're Lisa Hannigan, you find yourself wondering if you can do it again.

Hannigan found herself in an interesting time in her life, where she achieved milestones many couldn't even imagine, and yet still found herself lost when writing her new record. What came from that murky time was the beautiful At Swim, her most compelling work to date.

All of that made meeting Hannigan quite the surprise. Here she was, the powerhouse behind such a beautifully emotive masterpiece album, and I was met with a truly kind and shy soul; a person who spoke with such honest conviction that she left me with a desire to hear more about the numerous lifetimes she had lived. For now, I had to settle with how her beautiful record came to be.


It's a broad question, but what intrigued me with At Swim is how it's probably the most expansive you've gotten with your sound. Was it a goal to try new things when it came to approaching the songs you had written?

Very much so. I think there's a freedom of making your third record that's very particular. There's the saying of how you have your whole life to make your first record, and the follow-up with that is a lot of gestating and going over what you felt worked/what didn't work. With this record, I felt very different as a musician, and I wanted the album to reflect that. That not only am I a different musician, but also a different person. I had the notion in my head that that needed to happen. And also the songs themselves came about very differently for me, even within their skeletal form I could tell that these songs would be dissimilar to my previous songs.

When Aaron Dessner came in to produce the record, he had such a different way of thinking about songs. He had a very strong idea of the kind of the sonic-aesthetic that he wanted a song to delve into. Whereas I would normally try to focus on the melody and making a song sound pretty, he wanted to think more of the textures and make things starker. Of course, those perspectives, mine and his, are harmonious on the record, but I think it made a massive difference having his notion towards songwriting.

Do you feel that a lot of that came from the type of conversations that you and he would have while making the record? Something that I find interesting about producers is how the technical skills are important, but the biggest value is having someone there who can be a sounding board of sorts, someone who can offer their opinions and perspectives.

That's completely true, and I think that also the thing with producers is that they are coming at it from another angle. Because when you're writing music on a guitar and approaching it that way, there's a tendency to want to add to that before you've figured out what you initially set out to do. But Aaron would come at things with a completely different point of view, and he was always able to think about what would serve the song best. We did have a lot of conversations about... everything really, but you know, conversations can be quite difficult when it comes to music. I don't have any technical know-how at all, and I'm not that proficient on instruments, but what was great about that is how we realised that the best thing to do would be to just go into a room and play.

By doing that it was always easy to be guided by what felt best, and from there we recorded the base of the album in a week, and then he took it away and shaped it. He'd send me songs, months down the line, and we'd have back and forth about what to do and how to approach things. He's working on so many records, and even on the days off that he had, we'd find ways to talk about the record. We'd talk about expanding the palette of instruments, whether it be violin or trombone, and it was amazing because he'd take maybe a suggestion of mine, and come back with seven different ideas based off one idea. Like "how do you feel about this trombone choir?" and things like that.

Something I've never had before was distance from my music, and weirdly enough, I found that to be very helpful when it came to making this album. The experience of that was very new to me, normally it happens in one big snowball, but this time around I got to approach it differently.

What's interesting to me about all that is how comforting it must have been to have that distance, considering everything that was going on in your life at the time. I read about some of that, and it blew me away to think "during all this time she's also making a record."

Yes, but I wasn't going through any massive upheaval really - like I wasn't going through anything that most people don't go through all the time. But the main problem was that I didn't find it easy to write songs, so that was the main challenge.

I was mostly referring to how you found yourself in London and ended up moving back home to Dublin. With living in a city myself, I felt as though I could understand maybe some of the things you were going through, particularly finding yourself back home when you didn't expect to; which is something I've experienced. I was curious what it was like for you to return to Dublin after so much time?

I was talking just about this earlier to some friends about how Irish people tend to always want to end up back in Ireland [laughs], more than people from any other country [laughs]. I found myself bouncing around a lot, especially after moving out of the place I had been living in for quite a long time. I was in between ideas because I didn’t want to get another place, and I just found myself bouncing around place to place for a long time.

Which must've felt natural, considering most of your life has been spent touring.

Exactly, it did feel very natural. I don't mind at all, having to live out of a bag. What I missed about Ireland was the people. In London, I found myself feeling quite lonely. I know some great people in London, but it was really more the day-to-day things. The kind of... the way cities can be structured socially. When experiencing that I can find myself feeling quite down. I found it hard to bump into people, which is something that happens often in Dublin. It's probably relative in terms of size, but something distinct about it is that in a city like Dublin you don't have to really be outgoing because of how people are towards you, in London it's very much not like that and dealing with that was quite tough.

New York and London share a lot in common, and one of them is that many people would say, after living in either city, that they're strangely some of the loneliest places you can ever be, despite being surrounded by millions of people. They're the biggest places in the world yet you'll feel loneliness like nothing else.

It's so true, and yes, especially with London. You're surrounded by so many people but never feel as though you can reach out to them. There's not chatting really. Like, in Dublin something funny might happen on a bus and you and everyone else would giggle about it together, but in London, something like that just wouldn't happen really [laughs].

And in contrast with Dublin, I don't know how to describe it, but for example, you can be in Dublin and talk to a cab driver or a doorman about your life/their life, and the intimacy of doing so, the openness you'd experience... it's very distinct, and unlike most places I've been to.

Yeah, people do just strike up conversations with people! Though, sometimes in Dublin that can be a negative, in that you'll find yourself bumping into familiar faces a bit too often [laughs].

Going further into the album, I read how you recorded some of it in the Hudson area of New York?

Yes! I was just up there this morning actually. The Hudson township, that's where we made the record. I love that place!

How did you like it up there and what was it like to integrate yourself within the town while you made the record?

Well we made the record too quickly for me to really integrate myself into Hudson life, but I did partake in a lot of baked goods within the Hudson area, as you do when making a record [laughs]. We made a lot of the record nearby where Aaron was living, and he had recorded there before. He had recommended it to me, and I was quite enthusiastic about the idea of getting out of my comfort zone, so I was very open to taking his suggestion and experiencing that. We went there and stayed with a friend of his, and we'd go in the morning with office hours [laughs]. We'd be in the studio from 10 to 7 and...

There's a lot of joy in your voice when recounting this...

It was a great experience, it really was. I found myself... I knew I would enjoy my time there, but it certainly exceeded any expectations I had. And even better was I didn't really have any expectations. Compared to other records I've done and been involved with, this was the easy going experience I've ever had. What was very exciting to me, was finally getting to see a different side of America; particularly the more rural side of America. I've never really experienced that before, even with my years of touring. It's very nice up there in Hudson, loads of cows, sheep's, chickens, small shops, I loved it. It felt a bit more like home. I enjoyed the peaceful vibe of the place.

It must've been intriguing, being a musician and being embedded in an area that's a lot more sleepier than you'd be used to, a place where creativity isn't as overt as it would be in a city.

It was surprisingly very arty up there! From my very limited experience there, it certainly felt that way. It did feel quite under-current, but there were loads of galleries, and sculptures, and things to see, and you could just feel the interest, you know? It felt like it was a creative place. I reckon a lot of that has to do with people here in New York City moving up there and other towns like it.

That's absolutely true, it is happening more and more each year. Another element about At Swim that I loved was the songwriting. With your music, I've always found myself taken by the words while listening to the sonics, which isn't normal for me actually. Normally I find myself paying attention to the instrumentation first, and the lyrics weeks, maybe even months later. But your songs have this quality where the lyrics resonate without ever forcing themselves onto someone.

Aw wow, thank you! I actually find it hard to listen to lyrics for the first time as well! I usually need to be reading them while listening.

When you're writing lyrics to a song, how much thought do you put into how you want the listener to hear your words and to take in your words? Something about your candour on this record is very specific and different.

Sometimes you really want to be frank, because that can be arresting in itself. Other times, you do want there to be a bit of ambiguity, and a bit of obliqueness is a good thing, depending on what you're talking about. There are certain songs where I find the stories within to be so important that I want it to be as easy as possible to be carried through it. To be honest, I don't think lyrics through much at all. I tend to find a nugget of an idea and wedge my way through there. I'll start with a small nugget of an idea, maybe even a sentence, and explore it from there.

I think the biggest thing with lyrics is you know when they feel right. You sort of know that. Some songs arrive fully formed, whereas others need more pondering. With how I write, so much of how I write is dependent on music, that it can provide so much resolve and context for a song. How I might sing a certain vowel or choose the tone of a specific word, or certain melody. I think that's how I tend to let myself be lead, instinctually speaking. Generally I go with my instincts.

It's one thing to hear about how an album was created, and the work that was put into it, but I find it quite fascinating that you've made this album and now have to live with it. That once it's out, it takes a completely different life than the one you could've planned for. How does it feel, to live with a record once it's out? Especially since it's been quite a while since At Swim came out.

The minute you finish a record you just want it to be out, but there's always months of preparations that goes into everything. It can be hard to sit on it, but because I hadn't been on the road for a long time, I actually felt like I needed some time to gear myself up to do it again. I felt very nervous about returning, and that as easy as the record was to make it was also very hard to make... well no, it was hard to write, easy to make rather [laughs].

To be honest, I had lost my confidence a bit, and I was afraid that I had lost my confidence playing live as well. So before the record came out, I did a short tour of Ireland... well, it wasn't that short [laughs]. We played a few of the new songs, and what was great about that is that I realised that I really needed to do that, just to remind myself that I could. I needed all that time to get myself to feel excited about the new songs and the shows ahead, so by the time the album out I was ready for it.

Now that the album's been out and we've played so many shows, I have a slightly different relationship to the songs, but in a way that makes it fun to go out and play it every night. It feels like every night we're trying to conjure the songs anew.

Lisa Hannigan's new album, At Swim, is out now.