INTERVIEW: Lisa Hannigan Overcomes Writer's Block and Gains Momentum with 'At Swim'
    • TUESDAY, AUGUST 16, 2016

    • Posted by: Robert Steiner

    Writer's block sucks. Anyone who writes somewhat regularly probably knows what it is already, but if you don't, writer's block is this weird little rut some occasionally get stuck in that can make you go from feeling confident and like you're making something that matters to feeling frustratingly helpless and creatively useless. It can be hard for some to avoid writer's block and maintain creative output, especially when you have to do it regularly for a living, and few people may understand this challenge better than singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan.

    It's been a long few years for the talented Irish-born artist: Her most recent album, Passenger, was released all the way back in 2011, and since then, there hadn't been a lot activity in terms of new recorded material. That's all about to change, however, as Hannigan is set to release her new record, At Swim, this Friday. After sitting down and talking to her, it seems that the first person to acknowledge the massive gap between records is Hannigan herself. "It's been a long time since my last record, I toured it for a couple of years, but it's been a long time since I really had something happening, so I'm really, really excited," she explained. After wrapping up her tour in support of Passenger, Hannigan found herself unusually strapped for new song ideas. "When I got back from the tour, I only had a song or two written and it really took me a long time, and I never really had the flow of it," she said, which prevented her from writing solid material for a new album.

    The record finally started coming together with the help of another fellow artist. "I got and email out of the blue from Aaron Dessner from The National, this lovely email saying, 'Do you want to write together or do you need someone to produce your record or anything?' So we started exchanging emails about tunes and writing together, and it was really great and it kind of got me on this momentum back to the record," Hannigan explained. As producer, Dessner acted as another source of creative input, and helped Hannigan approach the recording process a little differently than on her previous two records, Passenger and 2008's Sea Sew. "The approach was quite different in the sense that Aaron had a very strong aesthetic idea of what he wanted [the album] to sound like sonically," she said, "He wanted it to be kind of 'stir,' I think is the term that he used, that my vocals would be kind of melodic and centered, but everything else would be kind of sparse and more textured than melodic and lyrical, so I think that actually worked very well." Going by the already-released singles, "Fall" and "Prayer For the Dying," the result is the somber, beautifully crafted musicality the National have mastered perfectly matched with Hannigan's unique and emotionally delicate vocals.

    While the new tracks effortlessly deliver plenty of passion and emotional weight, the road to At Swim certainly wasn't effortless. As mentioned before, the biggest challenge Hannigan faced was the dreaded writer's block, as she found it incredibly difficult to shake the feeling once it came about. "It's hard when you propel yourself along in your work and then you don't feel at the end of the day that you have something of worth," she said, reflecting on the challenges she faced the past five years, "The days intertwined into weeks, and the weeks into months, and that ends up bringing you down a lot." There was even a point where Hannigan developed a backup plan for a life outside of music, in the event that she truly had made her last album. "A few times I did think 'this is my last record,' and I thought I was going to go back to college and become a vet. I had a proper plan and everything!"

    Hannigan feels that the lack of songwriting likely stemmed from the feeling of "unease and just being adrift" she felt at the time, as she experienced some major changes in her personal life. "I moved out of the house that I lived in for ten years, I was kind of in between places and stayed here and there. I went to Paris for a bit then I went to London for a bit, and then I ended up staying in London for longer than I expected to, so I just never really settled anywhere. I think that was a big part of it and then it just kind of fed into the lack of writing, it sort of became a bigger thing this time around. So I think not being at home, not being in my usual arrangement and my usual kind of people definitely made it harder." She still isn't sure how she kicked writer's block, but one thing that helped was reaching out to friends and fellow musicians for advice. "I emailed lots of people that are very creative and I asked their advice, and my friend Joe Henry, who ended up writing a song for the record, told me, 'Everything you do is to the point even if you don't feel like it is. Eventually this is going to lead somewhere, so stop worrying if this has been a useless day.' That was really good advice, then I just kept reading beautiful things as much as I could because I didn't feel like I had any words of my own in my head." Eventually, Hannigan slowly took the very feelings that plagued her and used them as inspiration, as the sense of being lost and adrift is very much present in the overall theme of At Swim. In the context of Hannigan's challenges, the album's title alone evokes the idea of wandering, of going somewhere but never going home. It's a feeling that many can relate to, and anyone who have felt this way understands how hard it can be to not let it consume you.

    While Hannigan is ready to leave this point of her life behind, she also intends to keep the lessons she learned about songwriting and staying creative with her, as well as try out new techniques for seeking inspiration. "I've read some things since by Raymond Chandler, and he said something about how you have to set aside a few hours a day to do your writing and if you don't know what to write, you have to do nothing and lie in the sofa and stare at the ceiling, and that's okay, but you can't do anything else. You cant watch a movie or go on Twitter, she explained, But thats really tough if I'm not using all of time trying to do stuff. If I wasn't working I would definitely be procrastinating, I would do something to fill my time and feel fine at the end of the day. I think that was quite good advice, that you just have to sit there and do nothing for those writing hours. I'll give that a go for my next one. Above all, Hannigan learned that the best way for both young songwriters to improve their craft and experienced songwriters to overcome stagnation is to simply keep going. "You have to write lots of really shit songs before you write a good song or what you feel is a good song," she said, "Maybe don't play them for everybody, there are a lot of songs I'm glad I didnt play for anyone! Everything doesn't have to be perfect. Just don't be too hard on yourself and just keep going and keep practicing and keep writing."

    At Swim is out this Friday, August 19.

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