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Maybe her singing career just needed a push, but still

October 30, 2008|Mindy Farabee

Irish singer Lisa Hannigan sounds a little over the subject of Damien Rice, her friend and former collaborator. The prickly Irish troubadour known for his stinging, original songs and equally stinging temperament summarily fired her early last year just minutes before the pair were to take the stage in Munich, Germany.

Mention the moment, and, no surprise, Hannigan's natural chirpiness takes a hit.

"Yeah, he just told me that was the case. Yeah . . . ," she trailed off, then closed the subject with a diplomatic flourish. "It's all for the best. It's fine."

Actually, for Hannigan's career, Rice's snap decision appears to have been something of a godsend. Long singled out in his reviews for her own sweetly fragile vocals, Hannigan now has a charmingly idiosyncratic new CD, "Sea Sew," to call her own.

Self-released in mid-September, "Sea Sew" has won praise for its playful lyricism and imaginative arrangements, complete with glockenspiel, xylophone and "squeaky harmonium." It's garnered airtime on KCRW and a station-sponsored show today at Largo at the Coronet. She'll also play the Greek Theatre on Saturday, opening for Jason Mraz.

Recorded this spring in a mad rush in Dublin -- "We had about three hours sleep a night, it was so much fun," Hannigan explained on the phone from Boston during the tour's second week -- the songs of "Sea Sew" had been accumulating in her notebooks for a couple of years. Hannigan buckled down with her crew in her drummer's erstwhile donkey barn southwest of the capital to hash out the album's final form.

"I wanted that sound you get when something's recorded pretty fast," Hannigan said. "It automatically sounds quite cohesive if you do that. You really have to get on with it. You don't have any time to be complacent or figure out our guitar parts for three days."

Hannigan is a small-town girl, raised in the wet countryside above Dublin in County Meath, home to the hill of Tara and a trio of pre-Stonehenge-era burial sites. A Michael Jackson fan in the early days, she wanted to be Maria Callas. Instead, Hannigan studied French and art history at Trinity College -- that is until Rice's debut CD "O" stunned critics and propelled him and his bandmates out of Dublin.

Cutting classes short was fine by Hannigan. "I really wanted to go college to meet people and go to plays and see bands play and things," she said. "I certainly wasn't going to end up being a professor or diplomat or whatever."

Although Hannigan's more full-throated approach to "Sea Sew" might surprise those who recognize her from those Rice CDs -- or her one-off duet with Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody -- she has roamed the stylistic range before. She chimed in, alongside Rice, on jazz legend Herbie Hancock's 2005 CD project "Possibilities," a collection of cross-genre collaborations.

"That was one of the most amazing experiences in my life," she said. "My drummer, we played a session with him and recorded a few tunes and came back to our hotel and were just crying away we were so excited."

After seven years touring with Rice, Hannigan has a well-practiced stage presence. But crisscrossing this country as a headliner is something new.

"I really was bracing for a quite tough gig, but people have been amazing. I've been blown away by the response," Hannigan said. "It's been a really gentle learning curve."

It helps that she's been palling around with her "Sea Sew" bandmates for years -- two of whom toured extensively with her and Rice. "It's a really great bunch to be traveling around with and to learn with. It was such a change to be out front, even just speaking between songs I really found quite daunting."

What makes that OK is "to be able to look around at your smiling friends saying, 'Go on, you're all right.' "


Farabee is a former Times staff writer.

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