Every great songwriter has a “bird on the shoulder” moment now and then. Glen Hansard says the melody of the lead track from his new album, Didn’t He Ramble, came to him in a New Zealand airport while waiting at baggage claim to pick up his guitar. “The muse shows up when it shows up,” he reckons.
The song, “Grace Beneath the Pines,” is another of the Irish singer’s famously aching ballads—one that takes the listener to the bottom of the ocean before throwing out an emotional life preserver. Given Hansard’s background as a Dublin busker, it would be easy to mistake the song’s chorus for “grace beneath the pints.” But instead, this song is serious—and seriously good—stuff, in which Hansard’s protagonist hopes he’ll find the “grace beneath the judge’s gavel and among my brothers on the firing line” before wailing in the postscript, “I’ll get through this!” In the last few bars of “Grace,” he convinces himself (and us) that a New Orleans-style brass march and a swell of strings will make everything alright. The only thing missing at the end is an “Amen.”
After 25 years as a member of the legendary Irish pub band the Frames, a stint as a duet partner in the Swell Season with Marketa Irglova (with whom he shares a 2007 Academy Award for best song, “Falling Slowly,” from the film Once), and the success of the Tony-winning Broadway play adaptation of Once, which featured his music, Hansard is carving a deeper niche as a solo artist. 2012’s Rhythm and Repose dabbled beyond the acoustic strumming for which he is best known; Didn’t He Ramble continues this foray into slightly more complex arrangements.
His new material runs the gamut from folklore-influenced storytelling (“McCormack’s Wall”) to bluesy brooding (“Lowly Dester”) to an easy Nashville vibe (“Winning Streak”). But Hansard’s at his best when he puts himself between a rock and a hard place and tries to wriggle out: There is no salvation without struggle, and Hansard is nothing if not a songwriter who seems to enjoy both the pain and the pleasure of the craft.
He underpins his most successful compositions with a soft-loud dynamic that brings drama to everyday yearnings (think of the rush of 2007’s “When Your Mind’s Made Up”). New tracks “My Little Ruin” and “Just to Be the One” employ the same formula, with a mature, quiet edge. If his new instrumentation feels calmer than earlier, perhaps more spontaneous work, it’s because he’s now concentrating on turning up the volume of his words. Lyrics as pointed as Hansard’s often require more than an acoustic guitar. For example, “Her Mercy” uses a choir and horns to resolve the spiritual puzzle of the verses and the question: What does it mean to be worthy—of love, grace or mercy?
“Some of the best songs I’ve ever heard operate within the vernacular of prayer,” Hansard says. Although “Her Mercy” sounds like it could belong in a Catholic Mass, the song was inspired by writer Sylvie Simmons’s biography of Leonard Cohen—a fellow songwriter who built his career on stanzas that chase themes of redemption.
“When you’re ready for her mercy, and you’re worthy, it will come,” Hansard sings in “Her Mercy.” Is it an homage to Mother Mary or a lover begging for compassion? “I wrote the song as a kind of tribute to Cohen,” Hansard explains. “He’s been searching his whole life. The worthiness, in my mind, is about getting right with yourself. It comes off in ‘Her Mercy’ as forgiveness from a lady—Mary or goddess. But it’s really a song about man and woman. The man is a wanderer and the woman is a mystery and the goal. At the end of his rambling and roaming, the man realizes that, [to find mercy and feel worthy], he needs to be with her.”
While Hansard’s music is becoming more sophisticated in its arrangements and wordplay, the current radio climate in the music industry continues to make it difficult for such restrained artistry to breakthrough to the mainstream—even when, like Hansard, your songs have touched millions of lives through film and theater productions.
“Very few radio stations will take a risk anymore,” Hansard says. He believes that genre-specific satellite channels, auto-generated playlists and social media are creating a generation of music fans whose influences are being determined by sponsored advertising and “virtual friends” with whom they agree on practically everything. Hansard says this leaves listeners with little room for healthy debate and with fewer options to hear new or different music; it also creates a void for bands and singers who do not operate within radio’s strict, compartmentalization.
Hansard says what keeps him going is his love of music and a diehard belief in its worth and value: “For me, it’s not about the money. It’s important for me to stand up among the other artists and be counted in the world.”
Check out an exclusive travelogue video from Hansard shot at Whelan’s in Dublin, featuring a performance of “McCormack’s Wall,” below.