The Irish Songwriter on His New Album, Touring, and the Artistic Process
How does an artist evaluate their art? How does, or should, an artist evaluate their legacy? How does an artist respond to, and recover from, massive success, in this age of social media and instant fame, and the expectations of a diverse worldwide audience?
At the 2008 Academy Awards, a little-known singer/songwriter duo from Ireland won the Oscar for Song of the Year for the song “Falling Slowly” from the indie drama Once. When Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova shuffled up the steps of that stage seven years ago they were ascending to a level of fame that would have been unthinkable a short time before, for independent Irish musical dramas with shoestring budgets do not tend to get much attention at the entertainment world’s biggest night. In the midst of the pomp and circumstance of that evening, the stars of Once gave hope to struggling songwriters the world over that, yes, even in the face of Hollywood blockbusters, auto-tune, and enormous marketing budgets, the music can still prevail.
In the unlikely event that you missed “Falling Slowly” in 2008, your mom probably didn’t: it’s a gorgeous, striking tune in the vein of late-period Leonard Cohen, with a hymn-like melody and cross-generational appeal, and it transformed Glen Hansard’s life. The song opened the singer up to a vast new audience, and it’s possible that critics like myself would not be taking notice of Hansard’s fine new album Didn’t He Ramble if we all hadn’t first fallen in love with “Falling Slowly” seven years ago.
Hansard’s apparent “overnight success” was actually about 20 years in the making; he spent much of the previous two decades slinging his axe all over the streets of Dublin, busking Van Morrison songs and honing his craft, and later touring the world with his band the Frames. Of course, Once and “Falling Slowly” changed all that. Today, the guitarist is more likely to be busking with Bono and inadvertently shutting down city blocks than he is fading into the grey architecture of Irish streets, cavity-ridden Takamine in hand, as distracted commuters pass by.
In 2015, Glen Hansard could be forgiven if he was surly with interviewers, and burned out after answering endless questions in recent years about “Falling Slowly”, Once, and what it’s like when an Academy Award catapults you out of obscurity. Instead, the 45-year old is generous, gregarious, and there is no hint of pretense in his voice. Hansard expresses gratitude for the opportunities afforded to him by the success of Once, while at the same time has his eyes firmly set on the future.
And it is a future that looks bright indeed. Didn’t He Ramble represents Hansard’s finest work since Once, with simple, often sparse production, clear-as-the-morning-sun vocals, and strong performances throughout. There is no “Falling Slowly” on this album, and the album is stronger for it, for this is an “album” in the purest sense: a document that demands multiple front-to-back listens in order to tease out its intricacies, dark and light. More than anything, Didn’t He Ramble is a testament to resilience, and the sound of an artist shedding what remains of the weight of old expectations.
PopMatters got the chance to catch up with Glen a few days before the release of Didn’t He Ramble.
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First off, congratulations on the new record.
Thanks, Zachary. Yeah, it’s been a surprise, this one. I kinda went from thinking it was the worst pile of shit I’d ever recorded to sort of, somehow, in the last month, going “Actually, it’s pretty decent.”
So you found yourself second-guessing yourself quite a bit, then?
Absolutely. And in a way, I kind of feel like the more grief you’re suffering … It’s not really about “What will people think of me?” because [that] is some kind of fucking psychologist shit that hopefully we dealt with in our 20’s.
But, it’s more to do with “Will it land?” Because really what you’re trying to do, to quote Bill Callahan, is you’re trying to “of use.” You want your songs to be of use. You want them to actually have a practical place in someone’s life. In a way, if your album is sitting at the bottom of someone’s pile of records, then you know you’re not really being of much use. The fact that it’s there is a great thing, but I sort of feel like as a creative being in the world, and an artist, you’ve got to do your thing and step aside.
But I think it’s important, and I kind of find myself saying it for the first time, I think it’s important to get played on the radio. I think it’s important to be visible in the world. And I don’t mean you start tailoring your work to that, but, in a way, you kind of have to be counted.
So basically, I went through a whole load of questions after finishing the record, between the mastering and the release. Like, “What have I made? Is it any good? Do I mean it?” These are the important questions. When I listen to that song, does it touch me? Do I believe that guy? And as it turns out, I do. Because, I was there. [laughs]
But it is a total rollercoaster. Really, I went from thinking “This will be a placeholder record in my career.” And I said to [my manager] Howard, “Let’s just put it out and not tour.” And then I said “Let’s not put it out at all. I’ll keep working on it, and maybe next year we can put it out. Let’s put it out as an EP or something,” and Howard said, “Glen, you’re putting the fucking record out and you’re going on tour, and then we’re moving on.” And so thank god I’ve got a manager who can think like that.
When you’re in the recording studio, and you’re writing songs, how do you go about evaluating which ones are any good, and which aren’t? What’s your process for deciding what should go on the record and what shouldn’t?
Again, it comes back to which ones do I mean? It doesn’t always necessarily mean they’re the best songs, but do I really fucking mean this? Or is this just me posturing?
But you know, posturing is great fun, pretending you’re fucking Sam Cooke, or you know … That’s all great, and a lot of musicians make music that way, and I actually find more and more music made that way. And that’s fair enough: I don’t want to argue with it. But, you’re basically trying on a mask, and you’re writing your version of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay” or your version of “Amazing Grace” or whatever it happens to be.
So what makes the songs worthy? You have to break it down to this, because it’s the only kind of “guide” that your gut and your instinct really has is “Do I mean it?” And I do. I actually “mean” all those songs. And then I left off a bunch of songs that sounded great and had interesting riffs and they were fun, but maybe I didn’t mean them as much, and they wouldn’t have lasted.
I like the idea that you can put a bunch of songs in your record that you’re pretty sure that, for at least the next five years, you’re going to sing these songs and care about them.
My favourite song on the new album is “Wedding Ring.”
Could tell me where that song came from?
Literally, Zachary, it came out of the fucking sky. I was in the studio with the band, and we were setting up, and I started playing that riff, that noodle-y “E”, And I started singing some lines, and there must have been something, but I don’t have any voice recordings from before. And when I went back afterwards, when we were mixing it, I wanted to get a different chord, like a “conclusion chord” at the end. So I went back to the master tapes and tried to pull up a different version to see if we could find a better ending, and Pat, the engineer, said “No Glen, you played that song once.” Never played it again.
So it was literally one of those things that happened in that moment, and it was gone. And I think I changed maybe two lines in the song, because I was making it up as I was going along, there was a couple of fluff lyrics. But I went in and fixed them and I thought “You know what, I love this recording, it’s really simple, I don’t know what it’s about, but I love it. Let’s go with it.”
And I actually kind of wanted to open the album with it, but then I thought “Grace” kind of feels like more of an “entrance point.” But I was interested in putting [“Wedding Ring”] first. And again, it comes back to that thing of … part of the reason I like that record the most is because I’m least “in it.” There’s less Glen Hansard in that song than there is on any other one.
In past interviews, in the wake of Once, you’ve talked about mourning the loss of your former “struggling artist” self, almost like you were mourning some kind of artistic death. At this point in your career, do you feel like that “mourning period,” if we can call it that, is over?
Yeah I do, Zachary, and it’s a bloody good question. I do feel it’s over, and I do feel, finally, that I’m back to being a “struggling artist.” [laughs]
Yeah. And of course things are entirely different now than they were before Once. They’re entirely different: I’ve got an audience, that, you know — touch wood — have stayed on board since Once. So things are very different, but in terms of the struggle to make sense of life, and in terms of the struggle to make sense of where you are in your work, and what the context is, and all that, I feel like Once has finally passed me by.
And the truth of the matter is, if I’m remembered as the guy who wrote a song [that] won an Oscar for that film, so be it. That doesn’t faze me, or make me angry. Because I’m proud of it. Very proud of Once, and very proud of that chapter. But actually, I just feel like there’s a lot more for me to … You know what it is, it’s like “OK, brush yourself off, and get back to work.” That’s kind of where I feel like I’m at.
You put a lot of energy into your concerts. I’m curious if you have any sort of pre-show routine. What do you do right before a concert? Is there anything you do to sort of get “in-state?”
I usually go off and spend a bit of time on my own before I go on. I’ve noticed that more and more. It’s not that it’s a “ritual” it’s just something I’ve noticed as a kind of habit.
If we’re on tour, for instance, I’ll stay on the bus while the band are in getting ready, and I’ll stay on the bus until pretty much the last minute. And I’ll have a cup of tea, and I’ll just sort of pace up and down the bus and hang out.
I don’t really have a “ritual” per se, but, you know, what you realize on tour is that your whole day revolves around two hours. Like, every single minute of your day is about building up to, or coming down from those two hours. So, in a way, what I like about being on tour is that life is very simple. You’ve got one task today: your task is to be present. That’s all you have to do. And no matter what happens, [even] if the fucking stage falls in, be in the moment.
I never drink before I play, because I want to be present. I usually drink too much after I play. It’s just about being there. Being there for the time that you’re up on stage. Actually, there’s a wonderful Bill Hicks thing that I’ve found very useful: you go on the net, and you type in “Bill Hicks Top Ten [Pieces Of] Advice For Performers.” It’s actually something I’ve drawn a lot on.
You tell a great story about meeting Van Morrison for the first time. Have you met him since then?
I have. I’ve met him a few times since then, and there’s probably no way for me to know if he remembers me. [laughs] Because Van is not a communicator. He’s absolutely happy to sit down and play music all night, but Van is not the guy you’re going to sit down and have chit-chat with. He’s not available for that.
He’s an introvert in an extrovert’s business. So, when everyone’s sitting around chatting with each other, schmoozing, whatever you want to call it, Van is just not in the room. So I couldn’t say to Van “Hey, do you remember I met you back when I was 22?” He’s not even going to respond to that.
So I’ve met him a couple of times. He came up to me once and said “Hey Glen, have you ever met Bob?” Which is kind of an interesting question: we were at a Dylan gig. And out of the blue Van came over and said “Have you ever met Bob?” and I said “Uh …” and he said “Come on,” and so before I even had a chance to answer he grabbed me and we went backstage and he introduced me to Bob Dylan. Think about that as a 24-year old: Van Morrison introducing you to Bob Dylan.
What was that like?
It was one of those moments where you’re looking at it from outside of it. You’re just seeing your whole life from another angle, you know. It was fascinating. I ended up going for dinner with them, and it was a really bizarre dinner. Van invited me along, and Van and Dylan and Elvis Costello sat there, and I sat there at the table with them. Dylan didn’t say a word for the whole dinner. [laughs]
I was just so pleased to be there. For me, it was a complete trip. Because it absolutely illustrates the one great thing: to sit in the presence of masters, and obviously Dylan, Leonard, and Elvis — they’re all masters at what they do. And so, to see these three men just sitting there and eating was a huge education for me.
You realize that everyone’s gotta get up in the morning. Everyone’s gotta drag their fucking ass out into the day, no matter how bad they feel. Everybody’s gotta go and eat something after the gig. Then you’ve gotta get in the van, or get to the hotel room and get some sleep before the gig tomorrow. So there’s something about it that was really huge for me, as a 24-year old, realizing that these men actually live, you know? [laughs] That they live and breathe, you know.