Lisa Canny, Irish singer songwriter, chats with Kevin Cooper about winning the All-Ireland Fleadh Coeil title, being involved in the Future Music’s National UK Song Writing Contest, meeting Miles Copeland and appearing on The Late Late Show.

Lisa Canny was born in County Mayo. She began showing a big interest in music from a very young age, teaching herself tunes on the piano. At aged five she was presented with a banjo and was encouraged to take some classes.

Heavily involved with CCÉ Ballindine, Lisa has won seven All-Ireland Fleadh Ceoil titles throughout her competitive years, including the Senior Harp title in 2008. When teaching, nine of her own students have gone on to win All-Ireland medals.

After graduating with a First Class Honours Degree in Irish Music and Dance at the University of Limerick in 2010, Lisa went on to achieve a First Class Masters Degree in Ethnomusicology at University College Cork. She has toured the United States and Canada extensively over the last seven years with The Young Irelanders & Celtic Crossroads as lead vocalist. She has also toured Ireland, the UK, Germany, France, and Russia with groups or shows including Celtic Spree, Irish Legends, Rhythms of Ireland, Fuaim Chonamara, and Fuinnimh, and has performed live in front of over 50,000 people at the Interceltique Festival in Lorient for two consecutive years.

In September 2012 Lisa went to ASCAP’s song writing retreat in France. She was invited by Miles Copeland (former manager of The Police) after he saw her perform in the States. During her time in France Lisa worked with some of the biggest artists, songwriters, and producers in the business including Priscilla Renea (Rihanna, Madonna, Selena Gomez, Cheryl Cole), Jodi Marr (Mika, Paloma Faith, Ricky Martin), Hillary Lindsey (Carrie Underwood, Faith Hill, Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw), Julian Emery (McFly, Lissie), and Claudia Brant (Barbara Streisand, Josh Groban, Michael Bublé) to name but a few.

Whilst putting the final touches to her debut album, she took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.

Hi Lisa how are you today?

Hi Kevin I’m good thanks how are you?

I’m very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

Not at all. Thank you for being interested in what I am up to.

And just how is life treating you?

I have to say that life is great at the moment. This year has been a great year for me so far. I have recently spent some time over in Los Angeles talking to some people over there and things are currently going really well. I really can’t complain at all.

And you have also appeared on The Late Late Show over in Ireland haven’t you?

Yes I did, are you familiar with the show at all?

Yes I am.

Well I was asked to perform a solo performance on the show back in January and it really was great fun. Life is good, life is going really well (laughter).

Was it always going to be a career in music?

I don’t think that it could have gone any other way, no (laughter). I don’t think that there was any other road calling me. Music really is my greatest passion.

You started by playing the piano and the banjo, and I understand that there is a rather romantic story as to how you started playing the harp?

(Laughter) just who has told you about that (laughter). Well, it was my principal teacher at school who first handed me a banjo and told me to go away and see what I could do with it which I did but then I was drawn towards the harp and the reason for that will make you laugh (laughter). There is a roundabout in Ireland that we used to pass every weekend and the centre of this roundabout is done in the shape of a harp with the flowers (laughter). So whether that was a sign or the most stupid reason ever to play the harp I don’t know but that is mainly the reason that I started playing the harp. I was ten years old when my parents bought me my very first harp and I soon became obsessed with it. I would play the harp before I went to school and as soon as I got home after school. It was like an extra limb. All that I can say is that I immediately fell in love with the harp.

You have won the All-Ireland Fleadh Ceoil title seven times now. That must make you feel a little bit special?

(Laughter) well firstly let me point out that those seven times are all in different age groups. There is an unwritten rule which says that once you win your age group you are not allowed to enter it again. So I have to say that is a very good question (laughter).

Now that nine of your own students have gone on to win All-Ireland medals that really must make you feel proud?

Yeah, that definitely makes me feel very proud. I feel like a proud mammy without them being my own children. That is a huge honour for me when my students win the titles. When I won my first title I was ten years old and it really didn’t register with me just how big an achievement it actually was. Seeing your student go from being nothing to being the champion is a very proud moment. I can now see just how my parents felt when I won the title. When I see just how much work my students put in to winning the title I can reflect and say that I have done that too. When you are a child you forget about all of the hard work that went into making you a champion because you are enjoying the competition so much. They really do make me feel so proud. Obviously, I am not teaching as much now that I have moved to London but I really did enjoy it.

Putting you on the spot now, which gives you the most satisfaction, you winning the title or one of your students winning the title?

(Laughter) that really is an awful thing to ask me (laughter). If I am honest I loved winning the titles myself (laughter) but I am going to have to say that it is a fifty fifty split which is the very diplomatic answer and the only one that you are getting (laughter). I loved being in the competitions and it has stood me in good stead as I still have that very competitive streak. It is so nice to have something to work towards. So my answer has to be fifty fifty (laughter).

Just make sure that you don’t get any splinters in your bottom (laughter).

(Hysterical laughter) you are very cheeky (laughter). Well it’s all your fault for asking me such a hard question to answer (laughter).

And now you have recently been crowned winner of Future Music’s National UK Song Writing Contest with your song Painted By You. Is there no end to your talent?

Oh god I don’t know about that (laughter). At this moment in time I really am feeling very blessed, very blessed indeed. After I had graduated from the University of Limerick in 2010 with a First Class Honours Degree in Irish Music and Dance, I then went on to achieve a First Class Masters Degree in Ethnomusicology at the University College Cork. I toured both America and Canada which I have to say was an incredible experience and gave me a new lease of confidence. I had thought about doing a PhD and becoming a lecturer and having a career as an academic rather than a performer. However, I am very lucky to have such inspirational and wise people around me because when I went to see the professor who I wanted to supervise my PhD with my idea he simply said “we would love to have you here but all this time my heart is telling me that you don’t belong here. You really should be on the stage singing and playing all manner of instruments”.

At that time I was thinking to myself ‘no, you are wrong’ but he said to me “last week I saw you perform and I believe that you were born to perform and entertain”. He asked me if I would put all of my efforts into performing for the next twelve months and promised me that if I still wanted to do my PhD the very next day after the twelve months were up then he would indeed supervise me. So I went out on tour with my band one more time; we played a gig over in Los Angeles and after the show a man who looked to be in his sixties with grey hair and a grey suit came over to the merch desk and said to me “you need to ditch the band and concentrate on being a solo artist”. I looked at him and thought okay, what does he want from me (laughter).

He then said to me “you need to leave this band and then I’m going to make you a star girl” (laughter). I just thought okay sure you are, and then I realised that man was in fact Miles Copeland, the former manager of The Police (laughter). So suddenly, I realised that he actually knew what he was talking about. True to his word, a couple of months after we had met, he took me to his castle in France where they were holding ASCAP’s song writing retreat which is something that they do every year. Eighteen people are handpicked from the industry every year to write songs in his castle; ASCAP organise everything for you and they then take a cut out of every song that becomes a hit. This was five years ago now and up to that point I had never written a lyric in my life (laughter). I sang, but I sang other people’s songs, I just wrote music.

Miles kept saying to me “oh don’t worry about that, I know that you have got it in you” so I just thought okay I believe you (laughter). I am just an Irish chanter; if you give me the chance I will go for it (laughter). I agreed to do it but then the day before we were meant to meet he rang me and told me that other members were not happy about me attending such a prestigious event because at that time I was still unknown. However, he did say to me that I could go if I wanted to and so I decided to go (laughter). So I went and was sitting outside when a bus pulled up and as soon as the people started getting off the bus my heart sank because I started recognising the people who were getting off the bus. At that moment it dawned on me just how big a deal this thing was. After working myself up into a total state of panic I couldn’t actually recognise any of these people but I knew that they were big deals.

I was walking around the room introducing myself to everyone, shaking hands and then an hour or so later I realised that I had been shaking hands with the Kaiser Chiefs, the Black Eyed Peas and some of the biggest producers in the world (laughter). I went to shake the hands of a blonde lady and as I did she turned to me and said “hello Lisa, you are from Ireland and you play the harp and the banjo” (laughter). I was shocked that she appeared to know so much about me and so I asked her if Myles had told her about me and she said “no, Mika told me all about you”. Well I had never met Mika but it later transpired that a few weeks earlier I had been chatting to his parents at a wedding in Italy where I had be flown out to in order to sing and Mika’s parents were there (laughter). I had told them that I was going to this retreat not knowing that Mika had been at it the year before.

So they had gone home talking to their son Mika, telling him all about this Irish girl that they had met at the wedding. His publisher was attending the event so he called her asking her to look after me because he didn’t think that I knew what I was getting myself into (laughter). So as you can see a lot of people have done a lot of things for me. So my very first week of writing songs was spent with eighteen of the top two hundred songwriters in the world. So having been given a real leg up, after that week I began to take the song writing craft seriously and really got stuck into learning the craft. And so that is how I got into the song writing side of things.

Do you now find song writing easier and are you enjoying it?

Oh my god I love it. I absolutely love it so much. I only moved over to London from Ireland almost a year ago now and what I found was that having spent such a long period of time being involved with Irish music and also touring with Irish music I was a little late getting into the song writing and the pop world. I made the decision that I had to shake the tree and get myself over to London and start taking a few risks for the greater reward. In all honesty, it has been a great move for me. There is a level of commitment which people within the music business have over here compared to back home in Ireland. It is so inspiring and is exactly what I needed to get myself involved in. It has been a really good move for me, I am loving London.

Painted By Love is the song with which you won the UK’s Future Music Song Writing Competition. Tell me, what is the story behind the song?

The story behind that particular song is that it is set in the city of London and the boy is of course an ex-partner of mine now (laughter). He was a London boy who, before I moved over here, I was going out with whilst I was still living in Ireland. We would fly over and see each other every couple of weeks for almost two years but in the middle of all of this we decided to take a break. I then came over to London to take part in a writing session and it was just that moment of coming out of the airport and not being collected by him. So I went straight into a session that day, spoke about the situation and I subsequently wrote Painted By You which has turned out to be one of my favourite songs. The fans love it when I play it live at gigs. They all tell me that the song stirs memories for them. The song has a real meaning for people which is all that I have ever wanted to achieve with a song.

I have to say that I love what you have done to Ed Sheeran’s You Need Me.

Thank you, that is so nice of you to say so. One of the big things in my life is that I want to change people’s perception of the harp. Whenever I take out the harp at a gig people look at me and assume that I am going to be like Maureen O’Hara singing old ballads about love in Ireland (laughter). I really do want to change that because the harp really is a beast of an instrument. It is actually a serious beast whereas we all consider it to be beautiful and delicate. The harp is actually like a piano, in so far that it is far better than the piano because we even have rhythm on there too. So I sat myself down and thought what would be the least thing that people would expect me to do with the harp and I started playing around with Ed Sheeran and a loop pedal (laughter). I didn’t realise just how well it would be received but what you see and hear is the result of me messing around with the harp, a loop pedal and Ed Sheeran (laughter). It has already had one hundred and thirty thousand views on Facebook. It was a good lesson learnt in the fact that people are now ready for the harp.

When you first started playing the harp could you ever envisage taking it down the pop route?

That is a very good question, and to be honest I don’t think so, no. I have always wanted to be a harp player and in my youth I was always listening to The Chieftains together with very old traditional Irish music. However, I then switched and would also be listening to things such as The Spice Girls. I always found myself being influenced by The Spice Girls and Peter Andre god bless his soul. I love him and in fact he was my very first crush (laughter). Growing up in the midst of Ireland I never really saw the potential of going down the pop route. In all honesty I never really saw it as an option. Irish traditional music was the thing that happened where I was from and that was what you did. I never even thought that it was at all possible to branch out into a more pop field. So I followed what I thought was available to me but at the same time my appreciation of pop music continued to grow. So initially I wasn’t aware of it and I didn’t think that I could do it, I think that it was always at the back of my mind and I really do love to do it.

Having said all of that, are there some songs where the harp simply won’t work?

No (laughter). No, not in my experience. Joking aside I have to say that there is one exception, and I hate to say it but something that changes key or moves chromatically a lot can cause issues. I need to change the blades on the top of the harp in order to change the key and I simply cannot do that but as a true professional you work around it (laughter). You try to figure out a way in which you can do it. So other than that the harp is very much the same as a piano. So anything that the piano can do a harp can do. That’s what I tell people (laughter).

Which part of your hand and fingers take the most punishment?

It is all of the tops of your fingers. If you play the harp in the old traditional way then it is your finger nails that take all of the punishment but that is a much less popular traditional way of playing. Almost all harpists play using their fingers now. The fingers get a really good workout and I have really fit fingers (laughter).

Is that the excuse for not doing the washing up?

(Laughter) absolutely, you wouldn’t believe the amount of things that I get out of when there are other people around as I have to look after my fingers (laughter).

You briefly mentioned The Late Late Show earlier, how was the experience for you?

I have to say that I loved every minute of it. I was supposed to appear on the show on Friday thirteenth which was going to be a big event and everyone at home was getting very excited. It is such a big deal for somebody from Ireland to get onto The Late Late Show, it really is. My grandparents would always be telling me that if I ever got to perform on The Late Late Show then I had made it (laughter). To them this was a far bigger deal than me telling them that I was getting married or that I was having a child. I was so excited as all of my family had flown in and I was intending to play the Ed Sheeran thing. I had spent the whole day in rehearsals and then two minutes before I got the call to go out onto the stage they pulled me from the show. They had run overtime for the first time in fifteen years and only the second time in forty years of running the show. It could only happen to me (laughter).

However, they asked me to go back the following week which I agreed to but they asked me to drop the Ed Sheeran song. Their reasoning behind that was that they thought that their audience would not understand the loop pedal which was fine by me. At the end of the day they know their own audience. Despite all of that it was all in all an amazing night and an amazing experience, everything went great.

At what stage are you with the album, how are things going?

Oh god, why did you have to ask me that (laughter). I am loving the process and I am loving everything about recording the album. I am now ready to go into the studio with sixty song written demos of which around twenty will make it onto the album. I am very much ready with the product. However, after recently having spent a couple of weeks in Los Angeles I think that I would quite like to make them better (laughter). Having now seen the standard of the people at the very top of their game I am going to go and tweak the songs a little bit in an attempt to make them even better. So let’s just say that I am basically ready to record the album. All that is missing is the producer, so the search is on for someone who will inject that something special into the songs and give them a lift. I have a six piece band back in Ireland who are on top of their game and some of my best friends and we all have an absolute ball when we go out on the road together. We are ready (laughter).

Do you have a title yet for the album?

To be honest I have a few but there is not a single one that grabs me as yet. I think that I need to put the songs together first. For me it is like naming a child; I will have to wait until I hear what the album sounds like and then make the decision. I really do want to play on the unique selling point I have for the album in that there is a harp and a banjo running through all of the songs despite it being a pop album. Maybe I will open it up to the world because it seems to be full of people who are constantly thinking up these clever little things. Maybe I will call it Kevin Cooper (laughter).

In an ideal world when would you like to see the album released?

In an absolutely ideal world if I found a producer tomorrow and we all went into the studio next week, I would love to perhaps release an EP before the summer. That would be my ideal time-frame. That would be great to get something out there before I hit the festivals this summer. However, I am most certainly going to release something before the end of the summer whether it be an EP or just a single.

Are there any live dates in the pipeline?

Yes there are. I will be playing a few sporadic one-off live gigs here in London and again once I release something I will then be undertaking a full UK and Irish tour.

Who has musically inspired you?

Oh god, in a nutshell some of the really old school and beautiful Irish traditional musicians and singers like Gerry O’Connor on the banjo and Mike Rooney on the harp. These are the sort of people that I was listening to first and foremost. More recently as I have become older I fell in love with Kate Bush; she really is incredible. I think that Laura Mvula is absolutely fantastic, she is a musical genius. They inspire me in the fact that I don’t think that I am good enough to be a musician (laughter). I love Ed Sheeran, and I really do appreciate his writing. I will also sit and listen to Etta James, Nancy Wilson and Burt Bacharach for hours. If it is good music then I am into it.

What was the first record that you bought?

(Laughter) oh god how embarrassing. The first record that I bought was an Irish traditional song called The Cat That Ate The Candle by John Carty and Brian McGrath (laughter). I will never forget that song as I must have played it a million times (laughter). My sister is ten years older than me and has really good taste in music so as a child I would also be listening to the likes of Roxette and Cyndi Lauper so I would be listening to them too. Funnily enough John Carty taught me how to play the banjo when I did my degree.

Who did you first see performing live in concert?

Oh that’s an interesting question. I think that is was Westlife because I was a massive fan of theirs and I can remember crying all the way through the concert (laughter). This is funny as you are bringing back so many memories, on my way home from the concert my mother got a phone call from Louis Walsh’s mother asking if I was still in Dublin as Louis had arranged for me to go backstage to meet the boys, but I was already on my way home. When she told me I cried and cried for days (laughter). So I remember that concert very well.

On the subject of crying what was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

When I first moved over here I worked for a while in Battersea Park Studios and it was an amazing community that I found myself a part of. Peter-John Vettese who used to play keyboards with Jethro Tull and has worked with the likes of Dido and Annie Lennox was also there. Peter is an incredible musician and without fail I would walk into his room and listen to what he was playing and I would cry every single day (laughter). I don’t know what it was but there was a magic in his musicianship, and his choices would always make me cry. I get the very same feeling whenever I am listening to Laura Mvula.

On that note Lisa let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today it’s been lovely. Good luck with the album and we will speak later.

No problem it’s been lovely speaking to you Kevin. You take care and I hope to see you at a show sometime soon. Bye for now.