Overcoming writer’s block with an album about homesickness

Lisa Hannigan writers block
Writer’s block can be a frustrating and upsetting time for artists; as you struggle to think of the best way to convey your ideas, or are devoid of them entirely, writes Adam Shaw.

Irish musician Lisa Hannigan would often scribble out whatever popped into her head before settling on the ‘right’ words or she would go on long walks to try and clear her head. But for some time before the completion of her latest album, At Swim, she was at a loss for what to put down, so much so that she threw herself into any form of distraction she could find.

An acting debut as a mermaid in the Oscar-nominated animation Song of the Sea, soundtrack work on Fargo and Gravity and the hosting of her podcast, Soundings, kept her occupied but there was still no new record.

Until producer and guitarist Aaron Dessner stepped in.

“I got this email out of the blue from him, where he suggested that we work together on some new music,” Lisa said. “It was really weird because I’d never written songs over email before and Aaron and I sort of became musical pen pals.”

What they’ve created is an album which is “in part about homesickness and isolation but also about love”.

The sounds are also influenced by Lisa’s distribution of her time between Dublin and London.

“I think this is something a lot of Irish people in the UK can sympathise with,” she explained. “I’ve spent most of my life in Dublin and Baltimore in West Cork, and I grew up in Meath – these places will always be where I consider my home to be.

“But I’ve also spent time in places like London and Glasgow, while my music has taken me to Europe and other parts of the world.”

Lisa Hannigan writers block

The variety of destinations Lisa has been fortunate enough to visit is mirrored by her musical tastes.

“I’ve always listened to a lot of music, and have a very wide musical base. From a very early age I was listening to all sorts,” she said.

And though she acknowledged that music in general is a huge part of Irish culture, and that Irish sounds will always form part of her musical psyche, performing in Irish bars has never been her cup of tea.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t do it, it’s just not really my style. And I was always a bit too shy to go into the bars and perform in Dublin!”

Shy or not, Lisa always wanted to be a singer and she has forged a very successful career, including a number one album in Ireland with Passenger in 2011.

“I’ve always sung wherever I’ve been, sometimes to the annoyance of my family and flatmates,” she said. “To be honest my first ambition was to be an opera singer but I eventually came round to the notion that I have a tiny voice.

“I then discovered microphones and, after doing backing vocals for Damien Rice, I got the chance to sing for a living.”

As she gears up for a big UK tour, followed by a stint in Europe, Lisa has some advice for aspiring artists, particularly those who might be struggling for inspiration.

“I often find myself humming along like a madman and that can be the basis for one of my songs,” she explained. “And the best piece of advice I can give is to write and play as much as possible. You’ll soon realise that you have to write a lot of bad songs until you get the right one.”

Lisa’s new album ‘At Swim’ is released on August 19.

Tickets for her UK tour are on sale now and can be bought at lisahannigan.ie

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