“Right after we won the Oscar, I remember meeting these filmmakers in New York, these young guys, and just saying, ‘Would it be interesting if you just followed us around for the next year or so?’”
In August of 2010, a 32-year-old man at a Swell Season show in Saratoga, California left his seat – and his gig-going companion – during the song When Your Mind's Made Up, climbed the roof of the stage at the winery in which the band were performing, then leapt, plummeting 30 feet to his death, landing nearby Glen Hansard onstage. It was an event unprecedented and unimaginable, that shook the band to the core.
“It was absolutely against nature, even though it was, in some ways, a very natural thing that happened,” recounts Hansard, the 42-year-old Irishman behind The Frames and The Swell Season who, these days, has just started playing solo. “There was 4,000 people there having a good time, then, in an instant, the moment was completely changed by someone else's act of real, true desperation born from a very, very dark place. It was deeply, deeply disturbing; very, very violent, very intrusive, very sad, very tragic. We had to decide that night if we were going to cancel the tour or not, and it was actually Markéta [Irglová] who was just like: 'You know what, that was his fucking decision; we're the ones who have to be realistic, and get on with our lives.' So, we continued touring, but it was difficult.”
True to Irglová's conviction, the band persisted, the spectre of the suicide slowly receding. “It made me care more about the gigs,” Hansard says. “It made me care more about everyone who was at them, onstage and in the crowd. We're only here for a moment, and any one of those people could be dead in the next moment; all we have is that moment we're in. It was quite life-affirming, though that sounds ironic. It made us all closer as a band, because we all had to take care of each other. Different members of the band and the crew, at different times, were falling into the darkness.”
The incident came at the end of a particularly hard time for the band, which was chronicled in the 2011 documentary simply called The Swell Season. Hansard and Irglová had become media darlings with the success of Once, a micro-budget independent film in which a Czech immigrant in Ireland and a local busker start making music together, and fell in love. The film is one of cinema's few honest portrayals of the creative process – gaining an extra air of sweetness due to the fact that the two musicians were falling in love at the time – and is built around its songs. When one of those, Falling Slowly, won a Best Original Song Oscar, and Hansard and Irglová gave a humble and heartfelt acceptance speech, the world went crazy for them. With a million film projects thrown at him, Hansard chose one that was quite low-key.
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“Right after we won the Oscar, I remember meeting these filmmakers in New York, these young guys, and just saying, 'Would it be interesting if you just followed us around for the next year or so?'” Hansard recalls. “It wound up being two years, of them just sort of documenting what happens when a person who's been struggling for years and years has this moment. I was interested in what happens to a person's psychology.”
It is about that, in part, but it's more about Hansard's relationship with his parents; his father a hopeless drunk, his mother swelling with pride. And, mostly, it's about Hansard and Irglová's relationship, and how it slowly falls apart on the road, under the spotlight; the convivial Irishman and the taciturn Czech often disagreeing on how much they, post-success, owed the public. “It was a strange time, and that strange time was documented, and it exists,” Hansard says, admitting he's “uncomfortable” when talking about it. “I haven't really thought about it much. It's neither difficult to me, nor is it pleasant.”
The documentary has a moment of perfect foreshadowing therein that seems like masterful screenwriting, in which Hansard talks about how songs can prophesy the future; a ballad about a break-up coming during the middle of a happy relationship, then foretelling all that's about to unfold. Which, then, happens in front of the cameras.
“Sometimes when you write a song it's an act of intellect and an act of craft,” Hansard says, picking up on this philosophical instant. “Other times when you do it, it's an act of inspiration, a meditation. And you find that those kind of songs are the ones that somehow chronicle your life, but not in a linear way. They chronicle your life in a non-linear way in that they speak of future, they speak of past, they speak of different worlds. When you allow yourself to open up, songs will speak quite clearly to you of things from your future.”
Tapping into that meditative state is, for Hansard, the great elusive thing. Across six studio LPs fronting The Frames, and two more with The Swell Season, he's found a hardening of his craft, a sense of accomplishment at odds with the rawness of his acoustic songs, which he first started writing as a street-busker in Dublin. “As you get older, there's so much more craft that creeps into music, and that's why many listeners think people get boring as they get older,” Hansard says.
Thus, on his debut solo record, Rhythm And Repose, there's an attempt to stay true to the “unlearned” qualities of music-making; of the purity of “singing your blues”. The album was made in New York whilst Hansard lived there for a year, away from both his bands; working with Thomas 'Doveman' Bartlett, and featuring contributions from folkie Sam Amidon and composer Nico Muhly. At 42, it marked the first time Hansard had ever performed and recorded under his own name. “There's much more of a sense of responsibility,” he says, “you have to own it more. I care for it in a different way than I have before. In a band, there's a notion of being able to share the glory and share the blame. Whereas, when you're putting your own name on it, you have to take all that yourself.”
The release of Rhythm And Repose coincided with the lucrative stage adaptation of Once winning eight Tony Awards, a sensation that dwarfed the film's one Oscar win, and felt foreign and distant to Hansard. “We hated the idea,” Hansard says, when the musical is brought up. “Myself and Marketa hated the idea. John [Carney], the director of the film, was more open to it, but none of us really wanted it to happen. They were asking me to write songs, and I said 'I don't want to write songs, I don't want anything to fuckin' do with this'.
“I went along to some rehearsals with Marketa, and then I went along on opening night, and I had the feeling [that] they've done a lot of work on this, they've taken it, it's theirs now. Whatever it was in our lives, it belongs to them now. It was strange, and it was difficult to let it go. But we had gotten used to this thing called Once having a life of its own. It wasn't such a stretch to look at it and see it go to a new place again. And, now I've seen it once, I'm more than happy to never see it again.”
Glen Hansard will be playing the following shows:
Friday 8 - Monday 11 March - Port Fairy Folk Festival, Port Fairy VIC
Monday 25 & Tuesday 26 March - Sydney Opera House, Sydney NSW
Thursday 28 March - Monday 1 April - Bluesfest, Byron Bay NSW