Catching Up With... The Swell Season's Glen Hansard

Music Features The Swell Season
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Irish musician and Frames frontman Glen Hansard didn’t expect to become a celebrity after starring in low-budget musical film Once. But in 2008, he won the Oscar for best original song, alongside his bandmate and then-girlfriend Markéta Irglova. The couple split up after their moment in the spotlight, but the Swell Season had another record in them. Strict Joy is out tomorrow (Oct. 27). I spoke with Hansard about The Frames, how Anvil: The Story Of Anvil enlightened him, and whether or not Strict Joy is the duo’s final record.

Paste: When did you start recording for this new album?
Glen Hansard: It was coming to the end of the summer, and we were just about to begin a tour, and a friend of ours who plays in The National had recommended Peter Katis. I was vaguely looking out for someone to record the record with. I wanted to record with an American, and we were going through lists of people and records that I liked, and that National record was just great. I just thought it sounded really good. So we went and we met up with Peter. It was very relaxed—the whole thing was like, “Let’s record a couple of songs and see what happens.” We spent five days with him up in Bridgeport, Conn., and if you know Bridgeport, you’ll know that there’s very little else to do there except stay in and work. So we went and we did five days recording and it was just wonderful. Mar is a great cook, so she cooked us dinners every night. It was wonderful.

Paste: What kind of food did Markéta cook for you?
Hansard: Well, Mar is like a classic Czech woman. And the Czech kitchen is like—let me see now—it’s like lots of stews and knedliky, which is like bread dumplings. It’s a very fat kitchen, but Mar has all of that talent but cooks food that is a little bit less insane. She makes these amazing salmon things. Both of her grandmothers are insanely good cooks. Mar can make jam, and Mar can make moonshine. She knows how to make like plum brandy, which in Czech is called slivovice. She knows all of these traditional cooking methods and brewing methods that are kind of lost on the new generation of Czechs, in the same way that we would have lost a lot of our oral traditions here in Ireland.

Paste: Why is the record called Strict Joy?
Hansard: I called it Strict Joy after a poem that I read that really, really floored me. What’s interesting now is that The Swell Season the band is named after a Czech writer. There’s a Czech writer named Josef Skvorecky who wrote a book called The Swell Season, which I just fell in love with, and we called the band after that. And this record is named after an Irish poem. So it’s interesting to me to have the marriage of the Irish and the Czech influence on this record because Mar and meself wrote it. The poem is by a great Irish poet called James Stephens. To be honest, he’s kind of a lost poet in this country. He was the guy that James Joyce said, “If I don’t finish Finnegan’s Wake I want James Stephens to do it.” He wrote The Crock Of Gold, which I think probably did better in American than it did over here. The Crock of Gold again is just this incredibly mystical, beautiful book.

So “Strict Joy”—the idea is that if you really work, and you really get to it and you work with your art and you really dig and you really find the essence of your sadness and the essence of your troubles, often joy can come of it. The idea is that if you take strict care—the poem is actually called “Strict Care, Strict Joy”—if you take real care over your work, all that can truly be born of it is good. That’s why people love the blues. They don’t love the fact that the guy’s lost his girl and he’s lost his job and he’s lost his way. They’re happy because the music brings them joy. Because when the blues is really meditated upon, all it does is bring us together and make us feel good. That’s where that poem really hit me. It’s so powerful. I read it in one of those moments, you know those moments where you pick up a book and it says exactly what you need it to say? It was one of those moments where I picked up that book and I was so profoundly moved by it that I was like, “That’s the name of the record. That sorts it out.”

Paste: How is this one different from your first record?
Hansard: Well, Jesus, I mean we couldn’t have been in a more different place mentally because, you know, our first record was—I really needed to get away from the Frames at the time. I remember when Mar and I started playing gigs together, I really needed another outlet, another voice, something else to express where I was at. I was beginning to feel—what was I, 37? Thirty-six I was when we recorded the first Swell Season record. And I remember feeling like being in a rock band was becoming more and more difficult for me to justify. I felt I was getting older, and I wanted to sing about where I was. I was getting bored with the idea of angst and with the idea of trouble. A lot of the songs I was writing were about troubles, and I just wanted a different outlet. And for some reason, when I met Mar and we started playing music together, she completely answered where I needed to be. Somehow when she put her hands on the piano and when she started to sing along with me, it brought the music to a different place. The lyrics were the same. The chords were the same. But the energy that was coming out of the songs was completely transported, and I felt already attracted to it. I just felt like there was something absolutely right about that union of me and Mar playing music together. And actually, look what happened. I mean, meeting Mar and playing music with Mar was actually the defining moment in my career, I believe, because after that Once happened and then of course we won that award and then everything changed for me and Mar and the Frames. And so we find ourselves in a place now where we’re on record two. So to answer your question, I felt that we owed it to ourselves to make at least one more record in that band under that umbrella or idea of me and Mar writing songs, because, again, I’m not ready go back to being in a band. I’m not ready to go back to that. And I really felt like it was such a celebration—everything that happened was so joyous that us making another record made total sense because it was just such a successful format. And when I say format, I mean the idea that Mar brought something feminine to The Frames, brought something feminine to the group of people that I was playing with. She brought something very powerful to the music that I was writing and that The Frames were playing.

Paste: So are the Frames part of the Swell Season, or is Markéta in the Frames?
Hansard: What sort of happened is that she’s just been kind of adopted in The Frames. And because we all got on so well, for me it was a great opportunity for me to give the boys in my band—for the first time in their career to be able to pay everybody! And to be able to take everybody on the road as the band for The Swell Season so that we would continue doing what we’ve always done but in a slightly different way. The Swell Season definitely isn’t The Frames, but the parallels are kind of blurred. As long as Mar is in the band, it is going to be called The Swell Season. That’s how I feel about it, because it’s so different without her presence. And without her presence, it goes back to being four lads. What we do with that when we go back to it is going to be an important decision for me—how we approach the next chapter of whatever The Frames is going to be. But for now, I’m really, really happy with where this is. I feel like the songs have changed, and the approach—I just feel like there’s a confidence and an energy in this record that I really was trying to get to for a long time and didn’t manage it until maybe now. And maybe there’s more to come, I hope.

Paste: Do you think there’s going to be another Swell Season album after this one?
Hansard: No, I don’t actually necessarily think that there is another Swell Season album. I think after this we’ll all figure out what we’re doing, but this one had to be made for sure. There had to be at least one more, certainly, in my mind. And whether I go back to being in The Frames or whether me and Mar make another record together or whether… you know I really don’t know what comes next—all I know is that this was necessary in itself. It just felt like the thing to do at the time.

Paste: So you really don’t know if there will ever be another Frames record or tour?
Hansard: Honestly, I can’t say. My gut says, “Of course there will.” I mean, Jesus, I just went to see Bruce Springsteen last night, and every time I see Bruce I just want to be in The Frames again. [laughs]. The E Street Band—to watch those boys, they know each other so well and yet they always seem to find something new in it all the time. So absolutely, I am by no means saying The Frames is over. I just think that for now, I’m really happy with where things are. And I think as long as Mar is part of it, it’s not The Frames. The Frames is quite clearly defined, whereas The Swell Season isn’t as clearly defined. The Frames is a bunch of lads who play, you know, rock music, to some degree or another. Whereas The Swell Season seems to be whatever it is, and I like that. It’s almost like the side project that seems to be doing as well as the main band, if not better.

Paste: How did it affect you when your personal relationship was under such public scrutiny surrounding the film and the Oscar?
Hansard: Yeah, that was uncomfortable for me, I have to admit, because for one, it’s nobody’s fucking business, but at the same time, when things like that happen you have to kind of take it as it comes. The great thing about all of this is that me and her are great mates. You know, she’s just—even though we’ve stopped being, you know, whatever, boyfriend and girlfriend, I feel like certainly by her side I can walk through any storm. we’re still super connected. And it’s still very intimate, very deep, is what I’m trying to say—our connection. We’re great pals. So in a way, if I had lost her and if it had been some kind of bullshit and it was all kind of ugly, then I’d feel different. The fact that people wanted to ask us questions about whether we were together or not, and then we weren’t and people were like, “Oh, you’re not together,” I guess for me that’s a lot easier to deal with than if me and her would have split up and not talked, and if it had been a big void, or a weird atmosphere between me and her, but it wasn’t. So as long as it wasn’t that, I feel totally fine with it. I feel fine telling people to mind their own business, too.

Paste: Do you think that part of the reason that may have been especially uncomfortable is because all of the sudden you went from being an indie artist to a celebrity?
Hansard: Definitely. I think it would affect anybody. Certainly my age has helped me with it. I’m a little bit older, and I’ve been around. I’ve been a musician for a long time, so I kind of understand. And I very vaguely went through a little bit of celebrity once before in my life when I was in The Commitments, which was a film back in 1992 directed by Alan Parker. I was one of the cast members in that film. And that film definitely experienced a little bit of celebrity, and all of the people in it. I remember everybody kind of getting a bit fucked up afterward because it was just such an incredible experience and then we had to go back to our own lives. A lot of people buckle under the pressure, and I did. I remember I rejected the experience at the time. I remember thinking, “This is a bunch of shit.” So this time around, the idea of being popular or the idea of it all going well was so overwhelming and brilliant, but for some reason because I was slightly older, I kind of knew what to do with it. I knew where I should file it in my head. I definitely filed it under “Take everything with a pinch of salt and don’t take life too seriously”—that category. And Mar is just incredibly mature. She was only 20 when it all happened, and she just dealt with it really, really well because she’s just smart. So it definitely does affect everything. Everything went into a different gear for a moment. There were definitely moments where the ground did seem to go from under me and I did get a bit wobbly. I’d be lying to say that it didn’t. But at the same time, there was so much celebration and so much goodwill around Once and so much goodwill around the gigs that we were doing, that I felt like a little bit of discomfort on one level is certainly worth it for the beauty of this moment.

Paste: Have you ever struggled with the question of “why isn’t it The Frames that’s getting all of this attention?”
Hansard: Well, I do and I don’t. It’s a funny thing the way we perceive our successes or our failures. I just watched that film [Anvil: The Story of Anvil]. Did you see that Anvil film? Man, it blew my mind. That film kind of answers a lot of the questions. In a weird way, that’s exactly what just happened to them. They were in a band forever, and they tried and tried and tried, and then someone makes a documentary about them and it becomes famous, and in turn they do. It’s kind of similar—actually it’s just dawning on me now that its kind of exactly the same. But I have to say that the only thing that’s really in my heart, to be honest, is gratitude about this. Of course, you’re absolutely right, I could look at it and I could dissect the whole experience and say to myself, “Why didn’t it happen another time? Why didn’t it happen another way?” But, like they said in Anvil, “Everything went wrong, but at least there was a tour for things to go wrong on.” It’s a funny thing—The Frames were actually rocking along at a pretty good pace. We were picking up steam. It was a struggle, and it did feel like the increments of success were going a lot slower than we would’ve liked, but things were definitely moving forward. At least it was always a forward thing. There was never a moment in The Frames’ career where it kind of stagnated. It was traveling very fucking slow, no doubt, but it never actually stopped. In any band, that gives you just enough hope to keep going. Apart from the fact that it’s all about who you see yourself as, you know? I was very lucky last night— I sat with Bruce Springsteen and we had a drink, and that man is just so full of the best energy you can imagine for someone like me who sees himself as a working musician who wants to be doing this when he’s 60. Bruce Springsteen is 60 years old and you should’ve seen the show he gave. It was incredible. But anyway, just being around a man like that and talking to him about his career, because that was like 14 years of bar-band playing and getting to the point where you’re just comfortable with who you are on the stage. There’s still a part of me that isn’t sure whether we should do this kind of set or that kind of set or that still gets a bit in my head when we go on stage. I second-guess myself, whereas Springsteen seems to be in a place where he knows who he is, and he’s comfortable in his skin, and he absolutely operates in a very honest and a very trusting place. That’s what one should aspire to.

Paste: Going back to the Swell Season—what do you think Markéta brings to the table that makes your music sound different from anything else you would record, with The Frames or otherwise?
Hansard: It’s quite hard to put a word on what that is. What I would say is, she has an energy—no “energy” is probably the wrong word; “energy” sounds very new-age. I’m trying to think of the right way of putting it. She has a clarity in the way she looks at music. Most guys who play instruments, they go through a phase where they want to be good on their instrument and they get to the point where they’re virtuosic and then, almost, the music that they’re playing within their own bands becomes slightly below them. What ruins rock bands is a bunch of guys that can play. [laughs]. They all want to show how good they can play, and they forget the most important thing. And Mar has never…I don’t think girls do it. I don’t think girls have whatever that weird thing is that guys have that turns them into prog-rock bands. Girls don’t have it. And that’s not an insult; there’s prog-rock female bands I absolutely respect—I do. But I’m just saying that Mar looks always to the song. And she’ll question why you’re complicating it. She’ll question, “Why is that instrument doing that when it should be just doing this?” She’ll always get back to the heart of it. Mar is like a great leveler. I’ll play her an idea and she’ll be like, “I love this. This is great. What are you doing that for?” And I’ll be like, “What do you mean? It’s my favorite bit,” and she’s like, “It’s completely unnecessary. Just get back to the beauty of the song.” She’s somebody I definitely give a lot of space to. Whereas, for some reason when one of the guys in the band says that, I get it but I question it more, whereas with her, her intentions are so pure or something, I just understand it. It’s almost like she’s a great producer, too. She’ll get to the core of the song. She’ll ask, “What are you trying to say?” and I’ll be like, “What do you mean?” and she’ll be like, “Well what is this song saying? If this song only had two words, what are those two words?” So it’s interesting. She just has a way of looking at things that brings it right back to the center.

Paste: Is Strict Joy a break-up record?
Hansard: I think certainly both of Mar’s songs are pretty break-up-ey, and very honest. And honestly those songs were kind of hard to be part of, only because they‘re so beautiful and so true. So I won’t lie to say that it’s not sometimes difficult to hear someone say, “Forgive me lover, I have sinned, I have let you go.” You know, it’s like, “Fuck.” But, you know, I don’t have any qualms about shooting myself in the foot. But certainly, the songs that I’ve written on this record again are kind of lamenting something, but I’m trying to do, more than on the other record, is put a bit of positivity. Because usually I’m pretty easy on myself when it comes to a miserable tune. I tend to like them, and I don’t like the fact that I like them. I don’t like the fact that I find them comfortable. Because sometimes it’s actually easier to be miserable than it is to try to put a bit of positivity in something. That’s one of my problems with the great indie-rock pantheon is that the area of misery seems to be the safe area to work in. The idea of writing a song with any joy in it suddenly becomes very cringey. So with something like “Low Rising,” even though it’s sort of a downer tune, I was trying to say, “Come on, we can do it! Come on, come on. I want to figure this out. I want to make it better. I want us to be good friends.” And actually, in reality—getting back to the type of the record—me and Mar are in a great place. We’re probably in a better place now than we were when we were together, in terms of being friends. There’s a lot more respect going on. We’re good pals, and I think we’re good for each other. I just don’t know if being in a relationship was ever necessarily the way to go. So is it a break-up record? Yeah, maybe. Yeah, it is, I guess.

Paste: I hear you’re going to Africa tomorrow?
Hansard: I’m going to Africa in the morning! I’m excited! Yeah, I got my shots. It’s kind of weird what they do to you—they inject yellow fever and typhoid into you, like a tiny bit. And your body feels shit for a few hours and then your body deals with it. And then when you’re actually bitten by a mosquito and it gives you typhoid, your body knows what to do with it. It’s kind of an amazing science.

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