Lisa Canny


Lisa Canny: “the harp is an extremely versatile instrument”

Lisa Canny plays the harp, but not in the way you might expect. She used to be a traditional harpist, winning seven All Ireland titles in her teenage years. As her taste changed and she began composing, though, Canny changed genres, but not instruments. 

Now, as a modern pop performer, she still uses a harp, delving into realism like hip-hop along the way. Her sound would be unrecognisable to the more traditional side of the music, but the result is a truly unique sound, still based around the musician she grew up with. Based in London today, she’s exploring a very different musical world.

“The harp is an extremely versatile instrument,” she says. “Obviously it works beautifully for more ethereal, whimsical and romantic musical soundscapes, but start dampening, muting, bending and flicking the strings, slapping the soundboard and de-tuning on the spot and you have a whole new dynamic to play with.” 

“It also has such an incredible presence on stage and in a room, not just because of its size but also its curves, colouring, attitude and the history it carries in its existence. I named mine Jane. She has a really strong personality to me too! She’s elegant and sophisticated but also totally chaotic, sensitive and dramatic. Most instruments have personalities to me. Like a painter has colours and textures to play with, I lean into the individual character of instruments and their unique sounds to help me tell stories. Same goes for the banjo.  Mine’s called George and he is a big awkward dumbass but he’s great craic and a bit of a bird, so everyone loves him anyway!”

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.