Lisa Hannigan: soundtrack of my life

The Mercury-nominated singer-songwriter on her operatic ambitions, her Michael Jackson obsession, and the redemptive power of Nina Simone

Mercury-nominated Irish singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan first gained attention in 2002, when she featured on Damien Rice's debut album, O. The pair were romantically involved for a while, and she performed as part of his band, but was fired just before a gig in Germany in 2007 after creative differences took their toll. Her first solo album, Sea Sew, made in just two weeks, was nominated for the Mercury music prize in 2009 and a follow-up, Passenger, came out last September. Her new single, "What I'll Do", is out 9 April, and she's currently on a European tour which reaches the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 13 May.


"Conversation" by Joni Mitchell (1970)

My earliest memory is wrapped up in a musical memory. I remember sitting in a car seat, at an angle, looking out of the window, singing the backing vocals to Joni Mitchell's "Conversation" with my brother. I must've been about three. My mother would be sitting in front, with her long blonde hair, and she would be Joni Mitchell. We used to go down to west Cork on holiday, so we had a few tapes in the car for the six-hour journey. Ladies of the Canyon sticks in my mind the most, and I still love that record so much – it was part of the foundations of my musical life.


Bad by Michael Jackson (1987)

This is the first piece of music that I bought that wasn't part of my parents' record collection. Myself and my best friend would listen to Bad and dance all day long. We got completely obsessed. I found the tape again recently but because the artwork was all folded up and the seams had become worn, when I took it out it fell apart. Obviously my tiny fingers had loved it too much. It makes me feel quite happy, thinking of my younger self being so excited by it.


"Casta Diva" (from Norma) by Maria Callas

I went through this big phase as a teenager of always listening to opera. It started when my mother got me a CD of the top 10 operatic arias. Track five was Maria Callas singing "Casta Diva" from Norma, such a moving piece of music. I would be in my room, singing along, weeping with the drama and the emotion of it all. I wanted to be the new Maria Callas. My biggest dream was to be able to sing this song in La Scala or Covent Garden. After a few years I realised that wasn't going to happen, that wasn't my natural singing voice, but I still absolutely love her.


"Your Ghost" by Kristin Hersh (1994)

Listening to the radio in my room when I was 16, I heard a woman singing and I scrambled to get the tape in and press record. I missed the bit where the DJ told you what the song was, so I had this magic thing that existed only on my mixtape. Eventually I found out it was "Your Ghost" by Kristin Hersh, and then I went to the record shop and tried to find the CD. It was such an exciting relationship that I had with the song. I felt like I was hunting this thing from the ether. It filled that hole of disappointment I'd felt when I realised I wasn't going to be an opera singer. Kristin Hersh had the same emotion and power that Maria Callas had but in a different way, and that really was heartening to me.


For the Birds by the Frames (2001)

I was at college in Dublin and my friend said, "do you want to come and see this band called the Frames?" The gig was at this great venue called Vicar Street, and it just blew my mind. At one point Glen Hansard, the lead singer, dropped his harmonica, and it fell straight down into his pint of Guinness. He downed the whole pint until it was dry, and then took out the harmonica and held it aloft. I swooned and thought, that is the coolest thing I've ever seen. It was the first time I really wanted to perform on stage. We bought this record there. Me and my housemate used to lie on the floor and listen to the first song from it, "In the Deep Shade", in the dark.


"Couldn't Love You More" by John Martyn (1977)

When I started working with Damien Rice we used to do loads of touring and spent a lot of time on trains. It was such a wonderful period of excitement and discovery. I remember sitting on a train with him and this beautiful song came on his MiniDisc player. There's about a minute of introduction, then John Martyn comes in with, "If you kissed the sun right out of the sky for me…/ I couldn't love you more". It was just that raucous voice, powerful and visceral, and it's so shocking because your ear is attuned to the dreamy guitar intro. We were on a four-hour journey and I remember listening to it over and over again, until we got there. The two of us with one ear each. It reminds me of being really young and inspired by possibilities.


"You Got it Bad (and That Ain't Good)" by Nina Simone (1962)

Nina Simone has always been part of my musical life, from when I was a kid and we used to sing "Mr Bojangles" in the car. When I was older, my brother made me a mixtape and it had the song "I Got it Bad (and That Ain't Good)" on it. At the time I was quite depressed, and I listened to it over and over. There's so much sorrow in her voice but so much power at the same time. It's kind of redemptive, and that really helped me out of a jam. The melody and the words are almost secondary to the instrument that is her voice, and I've always hoped that you can do that, that you can express more than the words and the melody, using the timbre of your voice and the intention behind it.

Listen to this playlist on Spotify


Interview by Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy

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