Lisa Canny: The Birth of the Hip-hop Harpist

From seven-time All Ireland champion in harp and banjo as a kid, to working with household names under the watchful eye of a personal champion from The Police, Lisa Canny’s road to the musical bigtime is starting to look like it’s tilted downhill…

Growing up in rural County Mayo, Lisa Canny wasn’t from a particularly musical family, but she fell in love with it fast. Practising intensely on harp and banjo as a child, she rose to the level of All Ireland Champion in both instruments, not once, or twice, but seven times. Now, she’s looking to establish herself in a whole different world.

“The All Ireland’s were very competitive, up to 50 people from each county, and you had to finish first or second in your county to make the All Ireland. I was also very competitive,” Canny jokes. “It’s a huge deal to get out of your county.”

“I remember the first time I won, driving home they had the banners out for miles driving up to the house, like a football final. I had a big homecoming. It kept me going through those years when being a redhead playing harp and banjo wasn’t so cool.”

Later, having decided she wanted to do a PhD in music at UCC, Canny asked legendary music professor Mel Mercier (now at UL) to be her supervisor. “He said he thought I should be on the stage,” she recalls. “He said he’d take me on this day next year, if I showed him for one year that I’d just done performance, because he thought that’s where I should be. I left with my tail between my legs, but thank God he did that. On the next tour everything changed.”

Canny was touring as a with a band called Celtic Crossroads when she was approached by a man in the audience. “Forget this band,” he said, “You need to be a solo artist, baby.” That man was Miles Copeland, of the Sting-fronted band The Police. At the time, Canny had never written a song, and had focused heavily on Irish traditional ballads.

It’s taken several years to reach her current status, which has seen Canny work with the likes of the Kaiser Chiefs and Akon as a songwriter, but also get herself in a place to release her own work. Despite her success – her online following, for example, has gone up by 400% in the last year – the new single ‘Freedom’ and forthcoming EP are Canny’s first formal releases.

“Power, belonging and the need to be heard:” an introduction to Irish hip-hop


Photo by Emma Hopkins

From creeping into the mainstream through the likes of Rubberbandits, Super Extra Bonus Party and featuring in Love/Hate, to the Rusangano Family’s debut album taking home the Choice Music Prize earlier this month: the rise of Irish hip-hop has been as dramatic as it has been unlikely.

It helped, of course, that the rise of the scene fell alongside a massive recession instigated in part through regulatory failure, repressively rising urban rents and mass social protests. Angry, pointed voices sat naturally with their new audience. As Dublin-based hip-hop star Temper-Mental MissElayneous tells it: “It’s hunger that’s causing hip-hop’s boom. It’s also identification with the social dynamics of the birthplace and creators of hip-hop, and a willingness to learn and lead. But we value cultural identity and the lyrical Irish roots: saints and scholars. Poverty, loss and grievance.”

While on the poppier end of the spectrum, Temper-Mental embodies much of what’s strong about the budding Irish scene: a distinctly locally-accented sound, quick wit, cultural references and original beats. In ‘Create the Pain to Alleviate It’, she shows her depth, with the imagery of rotting apple cores set against a world of social and gender politics: “questioning, self loathing, dissatisfaction, doubt… We refuse to believe we’re animals yet… Poets once honoured are now in McDonalds, a dozen a dime.”

Temper-Mental identifies many of the topics of Irish political discourse as her themes, singling out misogyny, heterosexism, God, transformation and pain as her core elements.

“It’s a cultural revolutionary movement,” she explains. “It’s on the concrete, on the corner, it’s in classrooms, yards, youth clubs, community art centres, it’s in prison, in the bedroom studio, on the stairwell, down the lane and held privately in a heart’s rhythm waiting to be translated to words.”
A distinctly accented, smart-quipping artist who rose alongside Temper-Mental MissElayneous at the height of the recession in 2011/2012,
Lethal Dialect has a harsher dynamic to his sound and also cites local cultural figures as key influences in his lyrics, nodding in particular Irish folk star Damien Dempsey.

Despite being three albums into his career, the rapper admits “I’m only really finding my own sound now. There’s some old stuff where you could nearly tell what I was listening to at the time.” His north Dublin lilt and conceptual approach to albums, however, have often stood out.