“Now let’s break it”: How Glen Hansard Deconstructed His Songwriting Process and Returned with His Best Solo Album Yet

Music Features Glen Hansard
“Now let’s break it”: How Glen Hansard Deconstructed His Songwriting Process and Returned with His Best Solo Album Yet

Within the first few seconds of “I’ll Be You Be Me,” it’s obvious this is a different sort of Glen Hansard record entirely, one that sounds nothing like anything he’s released under his own name previously.

Opening with a sample of the drum and bass from Queen’s “Cool Cat” only to explode into a Bad Seeds-esque strings-led crescendo, Hansard invites us into a dark, ominous and hushed world, one that’s a galaxy away from the laid back grooves of 2012’s “Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting” or the lovely “Winning Streak” from 2015’s Didn’t He Ramble. If anything, the famed Irish singer/songwriter is channeling the bleakest and gloomiest moments from his former band, The Frames, from over 20 years ago, but “I’ll Be You Be Me” makes songs like “Fitzcarraldo” or “Song For Someone” seem almost quaint.

And it’s not just the opening track from Hansard’s new album, his fourth solo release, This Wild Willing—he follows it up with “Don’t Settle” and “Fools Game,” two monsters that begin timidly and end with Hansard’s strongest, and most menacing, musical compositions to date. That feeling continues throughout the next two songs, as “Race to the Bottom” and “The Closing Door,” complete with Middle Eastern instrumentation, further prove how wildly removed this record is from last year’s pleasant Between Two Shores, a collection of demos that didn’t make 2015’s Didn’t He Ramble.

But this isn’t what Hansard’s fourth release was supposed to even sound like. Not even remotely close.

“I basically set out to make an acoustic record and what I ended up with was a kind of mish-mash of different things,” Hansard explains. “I ended up with a record that had a broad set of personalities. At one point, I had about 20 songs for this album. I was tempted to make a proper double album where I basically had one album that was slightly more rock and more experimental—the more intense endings and all of that of which there are a few songs that I left off. But what I ended up with was a mixture of both.”

You can actually hear what sound the Irish troubadour was initially going for if you skip ahead to “Brother’s Keeper,” a sparse acoustic track complemented by gorgeous piano that recalls the best of Nick Drake. It was initially written for 2012’s Rhythm & Repose, later just missing the cut for his next two albums as well, somehow finally finding a home on a record that seemingly sounds the least hospitable for it, breaking up the gloom of the first half with a track that ushers in the sound of Side B.

“It just didn’t feel right on those records,” Hansard says of the song. “For me, for this record, it became a tentpole. This song has to be on this album; there’s no way I’m leaving this off, whereas on the other records, it felt like it was excessive. ‘Brother’s Keeper’ represents the sound of the album I went in to make and now it feels like one of the lighter moments, probably the only light moment on the whole record in fact—and that was going to be the mood for the whole record. It just goes to show that you just don’t know; you go in and you make [a record].”

While there are a myriad of reasons This Wild Willing sounds so different from Hansard’s past work, the circumstances behind how it was recorded are chief among them. Taking off a month in 2017 from touring, Hansard accepted an invitation to attend a writer’s residency in Paris at the Centre Culturel Irlandais, a former seminary that was later transformed into a center for Irish artists living in the French capital. He would routinely wake up in his unembellished flat—filled only by a single bed, a writing desk and a window—write from 9 to 11 a.m. each day, go for a walk and grab some lunch, and then write again from 1 to about 3 p.m. He didn’t necessarily just write songs, but also poems, stories, and other things that could only be categorized as the work of someone giving in fully to his stream-of-consciousness. But above all, the writing had to be grounded in real life experiences, honest portraits of what his life was like in Paris, including lyrical nods to specific dates (“Sliding along by the Seine, it’s May Day”) and locations (“Coughing my lungs up on Rue des Irlandais”).

“I wanted to write a set of lyrics where when I sang a line, I was emotionally in a place,” he explains. “I decided even if it fails as a concept, I want the lyrics on this record to forever bring me back to a certain moment and not just to be, ‘that rhymes with that; that’ll do.’ I sort of felt like the lyrics of this record needed to be interrogated and I needed to get closer to what I was actually trying to say. Every lyric on this record wasn’t the first draft. Most times, I looked at them over and over and over and thought, ‘What if I turned this song on its head? How can I shift the meaning around?’”

That idea to deconstruct his own words began on Didn’t He Ramble, perhaps in response to a close friend questioning Hansard’s lyrics when recording that album, telling him, “I just don’t think this shit is good enough.” That nervous energy (“I think he was basically saying, ‘You might be dialing it in a bit’ and that freaked the fuck out of me!” Hansard remembers), gave him an extra reason to go dig even deeper for This Wild Willing, feeling like he needed to change things up to move forward.

“I learned this trick on Didn’t He Ramble where I’d take a song and say, ‘I don’t believe it. I like the song, I like the melody and I like the lyrics, but I don’t believe it,’” he says. “I took on this disposition, almost like a person fixing an engine in a car. ‘What about putting the engine in the boot? What if I put the wheels on the roof?’ I’d eventually get back to putting the engine in the front, but the fact that I’d moved it all around the car, it allowed me to see it from a different perspective, which meant that when I put the engine back to where it’s meant to be, I was sure that that was the right place for it. That’s how I treated the lyrics on this record; I really wanted to make sure it was the right words for me in that moment.”

You can hear Hansard move around those different parts; gone is the typical song structure of his past work, now replaced with something entirely different. His trademark scream is largely absent on This Wild Willing, and when it does in fact appear, it’s typically shrouded by instrumental swells, ceding center stage to the array of players he improvised with in Paris. The record is largely devoid of verse-chorus-bridge arrangement and even sees Hansard experimenting with his voice, leading to perhaps his best collection of songs since the Once soundtrack made him an overnight celebrity in the United States. This Wild Willing, a stunning record that breathes a fresh air into his solo catalogue, owing greatly to his newfound push to try new things and loosen up the songwriting process entirely.

“I’ve gotten much more interested in the idea of kicking my songs around in the last few years,” Hansard says. “Whereas before, if I hit on something, I’d be like, ‘Wow that’s really good! That’s a great moment!’ Nowadays, I’m a bit more, ‘Yeah that was a great moment. Now let’s break it. Let’s take the bits you really like, throw it away and see what happens if it doesn’t have that piece. Is it still a good idea?’ I’m enjoying the challenge.”

Listen to the recent Glen Hansard episode of The Paste Podcast below or on iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify or Himalaya.

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