After writing two accomplished records, Lisa Hannigan found herself stuck for words writing a third.

After an extensive two and a half year tour in support of her second album, Passenger, the singer-songwriter from Ireland struggled to write new songs, or more specifically, ones she liked. The period was also one of transition; she began a new relationship which meant relocating from Dublin to London. However, the block lifted when Aaron Dessner (known as a guitarist in The National and production with Sharon Van Etten and Local Natives) reached out to collaborate. The chemistry they found together culminated in the pair recording the album in a week in a New York church.

Although At Swim is broader in sound and weighty in its themes next to its predecessors, the joy she found in working with Dessner is palpable, whom she explains brought new colours and textures to her music. Andrew Darley spoke to Lisa about overcoming the writer's block, dealing with loneliness in London and the determination she found to overcome it.

Mountain View

Why do you think you had a struggle in writing new material this time?

I think it's from touring Passenger for two and a half, nearly three years. I hadn't really written on the tour the way I usually would either. When I came off the tour I felt a bit empty. I did diligently sit down and write songs every day but I didn't really like anything. Of course, the more it happened the more aware of it I became so it just snowballed. Then every couple of months I'd write a song that I really liked in 20 minutes so the writing was just more spread out compared to a rush of songs which had been my experience up until this record.

With each record do you feel an expectancy to change?

I think it's more for myself. I want to develop and change and come from things at a different angle. It's more me as a writer than any outside forces. Fans who like you for your first record will probably want that record always. I know that feeling as a fan myself.

Do you see this as a darker record that reviews have commented on?

The themes are a lot darker and I'm that bit older too. Those preoccupations are a little more present in my mind and in my life. I think there's a lot of struggle in a lot of the songs which is all wrapped in it being so difficult to write and being unsure of everything. That got into so many songs, but not all of them.

Recognising the feelings of homesickness and isolation living between London and Dublin that the record explores, did this situation thrust you into examining yourself in a new way?

When you're in a strange city there is a sense of being adrift and a bit lost. I definitely found it lonely in London. Even though it's so near and similar to Dublin in so many ways, it felt a world away. I got a little lost within it. I wasn't sure where I fit in.

Do you think London can be less personable than Dublin?

It wouldn't if you're from London. The great thing about Dublin or Ireland is how natural your interactions are. You go into the city centre and you bump into people you know, whether you like or not. You never bump into people in London. You could roam around forever in London and never see anyone you know.

You can be completely anonymous!

Yeah! It's weird given there's so many people how lonely it can be in such a bit city. But then, it's hard to feel lonely in Dublin because you know everybody, or feel like you do sometimes!

Is the title a reference to Flann O'Brien's novel At Swim, Two Birds?

No but it obviously rings that bell for Irish people. It's more about capturing that feeling of being a tiny speck in a massive situation - being buoyed around without necessarily being able to fight against it.

Did Aaron Dessner bring out a new dynamic in how you approached music?

He had a very strong idea of the sonic identity of the record but I was writing the songs so we had to find a way of arranging the songs through that kind of lens, which was austere and textured rather than melodically fussy. It was great to have those raw materials and shape them in a way that he heard them. It's great to have that approach because I probably naturally wouldn't - I'd bells and whistles it up!

You recorded the album in the space of a week. Have you worked at that pace before?

I have absolutely no patience. The last record was a week and the first one was about two weeks because I didn't know how to make a record. However, this one wasn't necessarily a week. My part recording took a week and then Aaron took all the material away and he tinkered away with it over a few months. It was lovely to have that distance. He'd send a song back with all these layers and textures that weren't there before. I'd get an email saying "Oh I put a trombone choir on that song!". It was nice not to be created in one room, at one time. I was able to hold it at arm's length so my ears were fresh to it. When you're mixing things for weeks and weeks you can't hear anything. My ears aren't that sensitive anyways.

I can imagine tiny details start to blur. Would you say that songwriting is what grounds you most?

It's my way of making sense of things. When a song is finished and I want it on the record is when I know it's done the job in capturing a moment or a feeling that I wanted.

Do you feel like you've articulated certain feelings better on this with these songs written about before?

I think every song comes from a different place, although everyone does write the same song over and over!

Which is usually a love song...

Yeah! With these songs, they were all very personal and particular to situations. I think that it felt very all new to me.

What have you learned in your career so far that would have been useful to know at the beginning?

Well you definitely only need a week to make a record! You have to approach each record in whatever way it appears to you. You have to take each song separately and serve it as best you can.

At Swim is out now. Lisa Hannigan is currently on a Europe tour and all dates can be found here.