Glen Hansard of The Swell Season
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Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová both have long, relatively low-profile personal histories in music, and their debut album as a duo, 2006’s The Swell Season, was just another step in the continuum for both of them. But the same year, they starred in John Carney’s independent film Once as a pair of star-crossed musicians forming a tentative relationship, and suddenly they were media darlings, cast both in the film and in the public eye as an endearing, endangered couple producing achingly vulnerable music. And their real-life relationship seemed to make the love story particularly irresistible, particularly once an Oscar win for Best Original Song (among many other awards) gave their story the happy ending that the film lacked. Three years down the line, things have changed—they’ve broken up as a couple, and their second studio album, Strict Joy, showcases a fuller, more band-oriented sound more in line with Hansard’s Frames work than with the naked singer-songwriter vibe on their breakthrough Once soundtrack. Hansard recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his Simpsons cameo, working with producer Peter Katis (Interpol, The National, Rainer Maria), how the relationship and breakup affected The Swell Season as a duo, and how he almost ended up as Rorschach in Watchmen.
The A.V. Club: The title Strict Joy comes from a James Stephens poem about transfiguring grief and misery into art. Where did you first run across that poem?
Glen Hansard: Well, I became a fan of what he was doing, and he’s an amazing Irish writer, but he’s one of those lost guys, one of those guys that doesn’t appear. When they put up the 12 disciples of Irish literature—which they do tend to in pubs on napkins everywhere you go in Ireland—most of those people aren’t actually read in Ireland, ironically. And he doesn’t appear in any of them, which is dreadful.
But I got interested in a book of his, The Crock Of Gold, which I think was actually probably a bigger seller in the States than it would have been in Ireland. He would have written that book around 1950, I’d imagine, an amazing book that deals with the underworld, and the idea of magic, and this old Irish tradition of fairies and leprechauns. The Lucky Charms cereal box kind of leprechaun keeps going, but he dealt with it in a very serious way. And if you’re ever interested in that world, he’s the master. He was a poet and novelist, but more so a poet. And I came across a book of his called Strict Joy, a small poetry book, last year. And what was amazing was, when I bought the book, it was a first edition from 1931, and there was a handwritten poem in the front page, signed by James Stephens. I couldn’t believe my luck. And underneath it, it said, “James Stephens read from these poems at our house in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, April 1931.” I felt there was something in that, something really, really strong. And I read the book, and whatever kind of mood I was in, that poem just really kicked me in the head. It was just so vital. And it was speaking about exactly what I felt is our job, you know. Because sometimes I struggle with this idea of “Why am I writing miserable songs?”
Sadness is a very interesting idea, this idea of sadness being some kind of default setting that artists will go into. And then I started thinking about this idea of sadness and happiness, and the idea that sadness is very loud, and happiness is quiet. To use the pages of a diary, for example: The happy days are blank pages. So it’s an interesting idea that on the sad days, of course you take out your pen, and you try to figure yourself out, through art, whether it’s writing or singing a song. I only ever really take out my guitar when I’m miserable, which isn’t necessarily a very good time to do it. And so his poem really struck me. The idea that “I feel as poor O’Brien did, when turning from all else that was not his, he turned to that which was his own. He turned to his pen. And when his woes had been pawned and coined and all let in that should not be left out…” He went and he wrote about this sorrow, this feeling of not belonging. Essentially he found that grief wasn’t translated, but actually joy.
And it’s an interesting idea, when you think of the guy with the blues guitar in the bar, who’s singing “I’ve got no girl, I don’t know where I’m going to sleep tonight, I’ve lost my job.” And we’re all sitting there drinking beers and cheering him on. There’s something alchemic, if that’s the right word. There’s something transforming in the idea that you sing about your sadness, and yet there’s actually some joy that comes out of that, you know?
AVC: You’ve talked in past interviews about wondering why people are showing up to listen to you sing about how sad you are. Have you reached any conclusions? Is cheering that blues singer more about celebrating his catharsis, or enjoying your own?
GH: I think ultimately, people are selfish in that department, in a good way—the reason we’re attracted to art is because it somehow reflects us. And I think, ultimately, we’re a tribal people by nature. We’re not individualistic. We almost like to hear that there’s other people in a worse state than us. Sometimes even more than we like hearing there are people in better states than us. I think it’s very interesting, people who can’t stand people who whinge and whine. It seems almost like a class issue. Because you think about who is the most positive, who’s the most redemptive songwriter that’s ever existed in your lifetime? For me, it has to be Bob Marley, in terms of taking the tough stuff and turning it into gold. In terms of taking your situation and taking the responsibility as a songwriter, and actually talking about the good stuff in life.
I found a Cat Stevens tape in the street, and I’ve got a tape player in my car, and I put it in a few weeks ago, and it really blew me away that what he was dealing with, predominantly, was redemption. As opposed to someone like Leonard Cohen, who I always held upon a much higher pedestal. Cohen always spoke very honestly about his relationships and his misery, and it does have redemption in it, but it’s almost cold comfort sometimes. And for some reason, when I’m sad, I do listen to Leonard Cohen, I do listen to Joni Mitchell. I do find myself going to the music that’s actually reflecting my mood, as opposed to sticking on Motown, which might actually bring my mood up.
AVC: So when you found the poem, where were you in conceptualizing the album? Did the poem contribute to that process?
GH: Well, I remember, when I read the poem, I was just like, “Right. One, this is the fucking best. And two, the album has to be called this.” And it’s just because I’m a fan. I’m just one of those fans that when I find something I love, I want everyone to hear it. And I thought “The best way for me to advertise this poem to all my friends is to call my record after it.” I love the idea of talking about James Stephens. I kind of prefer talking about James Stephens to talking about myself sometimes. And it’s funny, actually, because the poem he wrote talks about three other poets. So, in a way, he was tributing other people, and I hope I’m tributing him. I had to ask myself “Am I just trying to pose here? Am I trying to somehow pull his energy into my aura, or into my space, or whatever?” I hope not. Maybe I am.
AVC: But the album wasn’t designed around it, with that theme of expressing grief as art, and transmuting it into joy.
GH: No. No, it wasn’t. It’s not like a concept album—the album was more or less done when I read that poem, and it just blew me away.
AVC: Strict Joy has a more produced, dense, lush sound than past Swell Season work. Did you want that sound, and thus go to a producer who could supply it? Or did working with him lead to that sound? What was the cause and effect there?
GH: The cause and effect was, a friend of ours who plays in The National had suggested we go and try Peter Katis out, this guy in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Lovely, lovely, lovely guy. We had five days off, we were playing a gig in Saratoga Springs, opening for Bob Dylan, and we had a week where it was nothing happening, and then we were doing Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble up in Woodstock. And both gigs, we were absolutely over the moon to be doing, and we had five days off, and we spent them in Bridgeport, Connecticut with Peter Katis. There was no real logic… I just really liked how the National record sounded. I didn’t really know whether that was a smart idea for what myself and Mar were doing. It just seemed to sort of happen naturally. I didn’t really set out to make a full-band-sounding record. I was very conscious of the fact that I wanted to have a couple of very quiet acoustic songs on there, but the record sort of turned into what it turned into. And I think it’s very important for any band that you go make the art and then think about what it is. Whereas some bands—and this works for some bands, really—they’ll sit down and conceptualize name, structure, talk about the tour, talk about the context everyone’s in, way before they record a note. And then they’ll write the songs to that order. I just think that I’ve always been, for better or worse, the other kind of guy, who just tends to write the songs, and then figure out what it means.
AVC: Was there any kind of pressure put on you, either overtly or just in your own mind, to stick with the stripped-down singer-songwriter style of Once?
GH: Honestly, there probably was, but it wasn’t so conscious. It was more like, you can’t follow up Once. You can’t follow up that soundtrack. To try to make that record again would have been silly. Not silly, it would have been fine. But it wouldn’t have worked. And it would have been judged against—I mean, this will be anyway—but it would have been judged against the Once soundtrack in terms of the songs, in terms of what they are. Whereas I think you always have to just go in and make the document, then figure out how it fits in contextually.
I’m very proud of the Once soundtrack. I love the way we did it, and maybe there is some argument for why myself and Mar should have gone in with another set of string players and done that, but this classic idea of the singer-songwriter, acoustic guitars, heartfelt music, and putting your heart on your sleeve and all is wonderful, but it isn’t the whole picture. I’ve been in a band, and what’s been wonderful for me is being able to take The Frames along through some of this, some of the madness of all of this. The Frames are my pals, you know? And I just wanted to share a bit of this life with them. So going into the studio with those boys wasn’t really a political decision, it was more just like, “Let’s go and record these songs and see what happens.” And I guess we did make more of a full, produced, more rock-bandish-sounding record. But that’s just what was in us at the time. We did record other songs that were just acoustic guitar and vocal, and maybe that would have been… I don’t know if it would have been smart, or it would have been different. But I kind of felt like there was enough of that music there at the time, for me.
It’s almost like doing the Once soundtrack and Once… I had done enough of that for the moment, and wanted to go do something slightly different. And I’m excited about going back and recording something else now, and that might be with Mar, it might be on my own, it might be with The Frames. I haven’t figured it out, you know?
AVC: You just appeared at the Hideout in Chicago, performing songs from Strict Joy stripped down for acoustic duo with Markéta. Is that going to be the tour style for Strict Joy, or will it be more full-band like the album versions?
GH: You know, honestly, it’s something that… we’re starting to tour next week, and I keep thinking about set lists, and how I want the gig to be, and part of me is going, “Just go with it on the night and strip songs down.” And I kind of feel like I want more of the gig just to be me and Mar, so we’ll probably do some of these songs from this record, just the two of us, and then I kind of want to… Whatever the band aspect is to the gig, it’s almost like you have to take each song individually, and say “How do you best serve the song?” Sometimes the best way is to have the whole band up there and rock it out and enjoy it. And other times, the best way to serve it is just to strip it down as small as you can get, and sometimes even that means me playing it even without Mar, or Mar playing it without me. It’s going to be in the next few days when I start solidifying that whole idea, but I haven’t really given it that much thought. I think I’d be disappointed if it turned into a big rock show. And at the same time, I think you’ve got to strike a balance. We’re playing big rooms, and there’s a lot of people, and I think the best gig you can give people is something with variety, where you basically show every side of your hand.
AVC: You put a huge raw passion into your live performances, even on songs that are soft and intimate on the album. Is that, again, just about playing to those big rooms?
GH: Oh, no, it’s just when you’re… I would like to think it’s just wherever you are in the moment you’re in. If you’re feeling it, then go for it all the way. If you’re not feeling it, then give it what you can. I think the only thing that’s required of you is to be present, and sometimes that means that you might be a bit angry, or it might be a bit intense. And other times, it might be really mellow. Sometimes it’s hard to know what exactly is required of you, so you have to just go with what you’re feeling. And that’s something I’m kind of learning more and more. For The Frames, it was always like walking into a room and having to figure out how to win it. [Laughs.] “How do we win this room?” Whereas now, it seems like something has shifted, where it feels like probably 90 percent of this room is on our side. And it puts you in a very interesting place, where you don’t have to go win the room, so much as you’ve just got to be as good as you can be.
AVC: There was so much intensity in that Hideout show. Can you maintain that on a tour? Are there nights where everything is mellow and turned-down?
GH: No, I think there’s always intensity. Some nights it is mellower than other nights. But on the tour, I think what really happens, certainly with me, is the whole day becomes about that two hours. It’s almost like you slip into a zone where you’re not even looking around you, you sleep as long as you can, you get up, you eat some food, you go to sound check, you almost slip into this stupor. You’re sort of disconnected. And then when it comes to those two hours, you’re completely on. And then when the two hours are over, you switch off again, and you go back to preparing yourself for the next night.
My heroes are Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley, the people who… Springsteen goes out and gives it everything he’s got. When you have this sort of stand-offish dude who’s aloof, and just doesn’t really have any connection with the audience, and everyone adores him because he’s so weird… I can see the value in that, but I’ve just never been a fan of it.
AVC: NPR recently streamed Strict Joy online, with a write-up by NPR producer Stephen Thompson, the former editor of The A.V. Club. He described you as the “bard of big-hearted but emotionally delayed men.” What do you think of that description?
GH: [Laughs.] I didn’t read that.
AVC: It’s both supportive and maybe taking a potshot at you at the same time. He’s a personal friend of yours, so it clearly comes from a friendly place, but do you consider it an apt description of your work?
GH: “Emotionally delayed.” God, that’s an interesting criticism. He’s right. It’s a tough one, you know. Some of us have this weird fucking thing in us that’s… I remember doing deals with God, or the devil, or whoever it happened to be, when I was a kid, going, “Just make me a good songwriter. I’ll gladly live a miserable life.” And I think a lot of people experience that. Or listening to Pink Floyd and standing in the mirror in your bedroom and thinking about your girlfriend’s parents sitting in an audience, and thinking that they think you rock. This weird thing that musicians have… it’s got something to do with approval, and not feeling good enough, and therefore going out and being great somehow makes your life valid.
It’s a funny one, you know—I’m almost 40, and I’m singing songs about how I still haven’t figured out where I’m going. I read an amazing Leonard Cohen poem recently. It was a four-line poem, with a little picture he drew, and it just said, “I’m almost 70. I never found the right woman. I’m broke. Follow me.” And it really fucking shocked me, because here’s a guy who’s lived a wonderful life of song, but maybe not lived a wonderful life of happiness. And to say I’m emotionally delayed, that’s contextual, that’s got to do with… emotionally delayed compared to who? So I don’t necessarily accept this, but I understand where he’s coming from. And I think inside every rock journalist, there’s somebody who wishes they had the courage to live the life that they’re not, and that they’re writing about. But at the same time, inside every songwriter, I guess there’s a wish for happiness.
AVC: You and Markéta recently cameoed on The Simpsons. How did that come about?
GH: Well, jeez. That was one of the great and wonderful side effects of what happened to us with the awards and everything. You know, it’s been amazing for me—the most unlikely people have come up and shook my hand and said, “I loved your film.” It’s been amazing, the people that you would never have imagined would have responded to it. And those people, the Simpsons people, got onto us, and they were just like, “Listen, we love what you did, and we’d love to parody you, would you be up for it?” And I go, “Fuck, what? Of course.” So we went down and did a voiceover, and we had a bit of fun with it, and there it was. But what an amazing experience, jeez.
AVC: Have there been other experiences like that, where the Oscar win and the fame of that movie, where you’ve ended up in places you never thought you would?”
GH: Yeah, there have, there have. There have been some incredible… I was in New York, and I got a phone call one day, and it was Bono. Which is amazing in and of itself. But he asked me to go up to Boston, because Eunice Kennedy Shriver had died, and she had specifically requested an Irish wake. And he rang me, and he was like, “Would you go and be available to the Kennedys? And just go up and sing them songs, and basically represent the Irish? Because they really want this.” And I was like, “Oh my God, is this a call to arms?” And he was like, “Yes, this is a call to arms. Will you go do it?” And I said, “Fucking right.”
I just basically went to the Kennedy compound, got welcomed in—Arnold Schwarzenegger opened the door, invited me into the house, and was like, [Schwarzenegger impression.] “The Irish are here!” And I sat down and played Irish songs and sat there for days, while Eunice was laid out in the living room of the house. They were doing decades of the rosary, and I’d sing songs and drink cups of tea and whiskey, and tell stories, and it was just an amazing experience. A huge experience. Like, real. Because I knew the work that she had done, and here I was in the Kennedy home, with the whole family, and it was just the most…
I was sitting next to Oprah, you know what I mean? On the couch, singing songs. It was just the most amazing, wonderful experience. And the biggest moment of it all was, the next day, after singing in the church, we went to the gravesite, and she was getting lowered down into the grave, and a few thousand Special Olympians had showed up, because she was the founder of the Special Olympics. I’m standing at the gravesite, singing “Forever Young” by Bob Dylan, with Stevie Wonder standing next to me, and thinking to myself, “You get to see the maddest things in life. You get to be in the craziest situations. It’s a truly classless profession.” But the most fascinating part of it was that Bobby turned around, because all the Special Olympians had been kept at a distance, and he said, “Come on in. Everybody come in, come in, come in.” And so we were all singing “Forever Young,” and everyone was wearing Special Olympics medals. And one of the lads took his gold medal off and put it in the grave, as the casket was being lowered. And it was so beautiful. And then everyone did it. And so Eunice went into this grave of pure gold. It was just such an interesting metaphor, and such a cinematic moment to have witnessed. Just absolutely wonderful. And the fact that these guys, these kids had given over their medals. Given them back to the woman who I guess made them possible.
AVC: It seems like that’s how a lot of people visualize fame—you get to a certain level, and then you’re ushered into a secret room where you sit on a couch with Oprah on one side and Arnold Schwarzenegger on the other side, and you’re all buddies. When you started your career, did you have a conception of fame like that?
GH: No, I didn’t. I never really knew. I guess we all have a fantasy about what it would be, but no, I didn’t really imagine it. But I tell you, I felt totally humbled. It’s not like I felt equal to these people. Not that I should be there or shouldn’t be there, but I just felt very lucky. It’s a funny thing to say about going to a funeral, but I felt very fortunate that I was asked to go be there, and I was very much in the zone of representing my people. I was just blown away that Bono would ask me to do it. And being there in that situation, I just felt really fortunate, but I was drinking it in. I wasn’t sitting there going, “This is the life I’ve earned.” I was going, “This is fucking amazing.” Do you know what I mean?
AVC: You’ve talked in other interviews about how you’ve been offered other acting roles since Once, but they’ve all been “sensitive Irish troubadour with a guitar” roles, and you don’t want to do that again. Have you been offered anything remotely tempting?
GH: There was one. There was one that was really tempting, and I just couldn’t have done it, because it was happening around the same time that we were doing the run-up to the Oscars, so I wouldn’t ever have been able to do it. So it came in quite early, and it was to play Rorschach in Watchmen.
GH: Yeah. Isn’t that mad? I was a big fan of the comic as a kid, so to have been offered… I mean, I wasn’t offered the part, I was offered the audition for the part. They liked me, the director liked me and thought I might be good for it. So I was offered the audition, and I really wanted to do it, and everyone around me were like, “You know what, you really can’t, because this is too important.”
AVC: Did you go watch the film and sit there thinking about what you would have been like in that role?
GH: I have to admit, I did. And I went back and I read the comic again, and I got very excited about it, and it made me sad that I couldn’t do it. But when I watched the film, it wasn’t that I was glad I didn’t do it, I just thought, “Yeah, okay, it is what it is.” Because I thought they were going to do something very different with the film. The film didn’t really make that much sense to me, and somehow the comic did.
AVC: I’d really love to see the alternate-universe version with you in that role.
GH: I know, but I think I’ve got too much of a smiley face. Because Rorschach… I mean, think about it. They were saying, “It’s going to be a challenging thing to do, because you’re spending one half of the film in a mask, and the other half of the film with no expression on your face.” So certainly for anybody who’s got a vague interest in acting, it’s super-exciting.
AVC: When Once came out, you and Markéta were a couple, and most news stories about the film and the Oscar focused specifically on that, how your relationship gave the film an intimacy and a real-life storybook ending. Was there a feeling of pressure to stay together in the wake of that? Has your breakup changed how the media’s interacted with you since?
GH: It’s probably the one aspect of… everything about what happened during Once was magical and amazing, and the fact that me and Mar started going out, it was just private and lovely. And somehow, it got out that we were… It happened in this weird way, that it got out that we were together. And neither of us really cared, but then it turned into a bigger story than either of us were particularly comfortable with, because this idea of celebrity is a very insecure notion, and the fact that it became part of the story, like you say, “storybook ending,” or we were “living the sequel,” that also got mentioned.
And, to be honest, not over here, but in Czechoslovakia, where Mar’s from, there were people following us around with cameras and making up stories. And we almost became that “showing up in celeb magazines” kind of thing. But I don’t think either of us ever really wanted to embrace that aspect. It just wasn’t attractive, and isn’t, and anybody who’s involved in that aspect of fame, I think, has definitely got real mental issues.
So it was a little uncomfortable, and then we just kind of naturally came to an end. It wasn’t like we… it wasn’t political to us. This is our fucking lives, this isn’t career. This is different. It’s not about… these decisions are bigger than any kind of pressure to stay together. Fuck that. So when it passed, I guess myself and Mar honestly sat down and went, “Do we want to continue with this? Do we want to continue making music together and be a band?” And we both came to the conclusion that “Fuck it, we’ve known each other a long time, and we’re great mates, and we do enjoy it, so let’s do it.”
AVC: Has going in and out of the relationship in any way changed the way you collaborate on music together, or the way you perform together?
GH: It’s not changed the way we perform together—I can’t really say why it is, but thankfully, that’s the one aspect of our friendship that’s never changed. When we play music together, it always works. It definitely changed the way we write together, just by virtue of the fact that we’re not under the same roof as much. I write my songs, and she writes hers, and I’ll help her, and she’ll comment on mine, but ultimately, it’s a separate act.
AVC: Does the nature of your collaboration shift a lot depending on whether you’re the vocalist or she is?
GH: Yeah, it does. Someone will come in with an idea, and the other will comment on it, and maybe they’ll say, “You know, it’d be really great if you sang this one.” Or “What do you think of this idea?” And Mar will say, “I like that idea,” or “I think that idea’s a bit too smart-ass, why don’t you just simplify it?” And she’s been hugely influential on my songwriting on that level. But now, just by virtue of the fact that we’re not hanging out as much, I’ll finish my ideas and come to the band with a full idea, and she’ll either like it or not, and that might mean that we drop it or we keep it going, but she’s the one I go to first with everything, still. Even though we’re not actually necessarily writing them together fully.
AVC: The subject matter on Strict Joy isn’t any different from what you’ve always written about, but people are going to still read the songs in terms of your relationship together. Are there songs on there that are specifically about the two of you?
GH: Yeah, of course. But at the same time, it would be untrue to say that this album is exclusively about us. That would just be a lie. But there are, of course. Mar’s been in my songs for a long time, regardless of whether we were together or not. The life you’re living definitely comes into… It does come into your work, you know? And it would be a lie for me to… Is it a breakup album, or whatever? It would be a lie to say it isn’t, but it would be a lie to say it exclusively is. Because, you know, relationships can be about yourself, they can be about you and your god, you and your people, you and your family. It can be about a lot of different stuff. And it is. So I wouldn’t accept that basically this is a breakup record, and that we’re so cheeky that we would live our lives that much in public. I think that would be unfair.
AVC: You mentioned earlier that you don’t really know what you’re going to do next, in terms of more Swell Season, or more Frames, or solo work. Any leanings? What will ultimately make that decision for you?
GH: I guess touring. I guess this next chapter of our career is going to decide that. See, The Frames are 20 next year, and I kind of feel like we have to mark that somehow. And at the same time, I don’t want that to be the only reason I go back and do it. And at the same time, I love playing music with Mar, and I don’t want to stop that, sincerely. I kind of feel maybe if we do stop it, it’ll be her that does it. And I’ll totally accept that, and be cool with it. And at the same time, I do feel like it’s time for me to go make a record with people I don’t know, and I’m excited about that idea. So really, there’s no leaning right now. If I had to put my finger on one, I’d say I prefer the idea of continuing to make music with Mar. Regardless of whether The Frames are involved or anything. I just like the idea of making music with her, because she’s the one person that I’ve made music with in my life that I can honestly say, it’s just always been good.