Photo credit: Danny Clinch
I first meet Glen Hansard by accident. We're both in the lobby of a private members club in Soho. I've arrived early while Glen is running late. The receptionist looks at us both suspiciously. It's understandable, there's Glen a slightly scruffy, slightly flustered Irishman and me a women who has been walking around the same block for the past fifteen minutes. We do not look like we should be here. After some explanation, and only slightly reassured, the receptionist agrees to lead us past the oak panelled walls and comfy fireside chairs and up a flight of stairs to a small room where the interview is set to take place.
It's practically impossible to be Irish and not know who Glen Hansard is. Whether it be from his role in The Commitments, as lead singer of The Frames, his turn in Once or as a successful solo artist, Glen's music, character and song writing has woven itself into the fabric of Irish culture.
"You're always conscious as a musician of heritage, you're always conscious of what came before you, where things are now and where it's going" he tells me in his thick accent.
Growing up in Ireland his first introduction to music was through his father's drinking buddies, or 'drunkunlces', as he calls them. "Our 'drunkuncles' are mates of your dad that come back to the pub with them, they're not actually your uncles but they're always referred to you as your uncles. There is a kind of beauty in it and there is an affection in it cos it's one of the few times you see your dad really beaming" he says with a laugh. "What was really great about those nights, of which there were plenty, was the songs. Someone would break into these beautiful, like heartfelt 20 verses about the Irish Struggle or the anti-British sentiment. You learn all of this stuff as a child and you learn it in some sort of abstract way. No one ever actually tells you what the story is but you get just these shades of hurt and from that you build up a picture of the person."
Of these drunken nights one story still holds resonance with Glen. "There were a couple of guys, 'Spanish Tony' for instance. 'Spanish Tony' was no more Spanish than this table but he had a sadness. In the arch of his drunk there would be this point where he would withdraw a bit and get quiet and seem to get very melancholic and you kind of put together that 'Spanish Tony' may have lost his wife. There might have been some tragedy in there so in a way we do have to put together pictures of other people through these experiences and through songs".
Putting together pictures of people through songs is something Glen has been doing for years; first as frontman for The Frames and more recently in his solo work. Never hugely successful when they were first together, The Frames recently reformed for two massive Dublin shows at Iveagh Gardens celebrating their 25-year legacy. Yet, despite the prestige of the venue the shows somehow felt off.
Photo credit: Danny Clinch
"I have to admit it felt nostalgic which I didn't want. There was no way it wasn't going to feel nostalgic but I wanted it to feel current and of course it couldn't" he says with alarming honesty. With a pause he continues, "I don't want to be a nostalgic act and I don't think anyone in The Frames wants to be either." The shows instead then were a way of appreciating the passage of time, as he tells me "at a regular gig you can dig into those songs and you can sing them from the present but in this gig we weren't allowed to sing them from the present. This gig was about looking back, celebrating, marking a moment and moving on. I think a lot of us felt, you know, unless there's new music sometime soon we're not continuing with this."
The conversation drifts to our mutual love of Damien Dempsey, Ireland's great bard of political music. However, unlike Damien, politics is something Glen is slightly wary of. "I've always been very nervous about it. The reason being my education was very much born of where I'm from. I'm from a working class background in Ireland, self-educated and a lot of it was to do with fear of not saying the right thing. I spoke about what I knew which was love and the heart and being and insecurity. Whereas when it comes to politics I kind of don't trust a lot of it anyway. I can get passionate on a point but when it comes to the song I kind of want to reserve the right to change my mind. I've always just felt more comfortable in the personal politic. In a way I've always felt that the personal politic is the major politic. I'll speak of what a fuck up I am and in a way that says the same thing."
Before forming The Frames Glen starred in The Commitments, a film about a group of musical misfits. The film, based on the novel by Roddy Doyle, was a box office success and threw the cast into a media frenzy. It was a kind of fame that Glen was unprepared for.
"In terms of cultural impact or celebrity there was definitely an opportunity back then to embrace a kind of a fame. To be honest with you I rejected it all. I was like 'fuck this, this is not me, this is not who I am'. That experience really taught me a lot, I was a little embarrassed afterwards. I loved the film, I loved the experience, I just reject all the nonsense that came after it. So when Once happened I remember going oh wow here we go again".
Photo credit: Danny Clinch
Once, an independent film shot on a minuscule budget, became the unexpected hit at Sundance Film Festival where it won the audience award in 2007. Its subtle charm and confessional songs gained traction with fans. Its popularity culminated in its lead song 'Falling Slowly' being nominated and winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song at the Oscars. Now in his mid 30s, Once brought about an opportunity for a lasting career. "Seventeen years later I was absolutely ready for it! I was like give me some good news" he says laughing.
Fans of Once became intensely attached to the music he made with co-star Markéta Irglová now under the moniker The Swell Season. While Glen welcomed this newfound attention Markéta withdrew from it. "I totally embraced it. Markéta didn't embrace it so much and I completely get it, she was a bit like 'I love making music with you, I love hanging out and I loved making Once but I'm not into all of this'. She just wasn't into it. She never asked for it and it was never something she was aiming for."
"I was also very aware of the fact that this earns you, it doesn't earn you celebrity, I mean sure you can buy into that shit, but what it earns you is an audience." Having rejected the media spotlight surrounding The Commitments and having never quite broken out of cult status while in The Frames, Once provided Glen the opportunity to have a growing career as a musician and to tour the world. "I was aware that this could be a moment. This can be your kind of 'Falling Slowly' moment where you've got one song and if it ends up being the moment of my life fair enough, it's a beautiful moment, but there is more to me than that. This is an opportunity to start a new chapter."
This new chapter manifested itself in Glen's solo records. But even so it took time for him to work through the past couple of years. "The first solo record was something I did coming out of The Swell Season, you could still very much feel that sentiment in Rhythm and Repose. Those songs still very much had that period, it's a bit like eating garlic you're gonna stink of it for a while. That period was very strong."
In this way his latest record, Didn't He Ramble, signifies a fresh start. "With this record I feel it's a completely new part of ones life. It doesn't involve any of that period." The process of change is something that has been preoccupying his mind for some time as he tell me "again to come to The Frames I don't want to sing about who I was 20 years ago, I want to sing about who I am now! We're all changing; so you've got this amazing opportunity to sing about what it's like to be 40, 45 or whatever it is. Don't be afraid that people aren't going to get it; you're not going to be loved by the masses, don't be afraid, just go and be who you are."
The recording studio and the live show offers him different experiences as a song writer he explains, "in a way when you're in a studio you're trying to lure something natural into something cultural" he tells me. "When it's live it continues to live. That chest of lyrics and those chords, they are sort of thrown into the air and you see a little firmament shoot around. So in a way you're calling ghosts into the room."
Talking about songs it's clear he treats the process with respect. Song writing is craft and his favourite moment in that process is when a song is its infancy. "The best moment in a song for the songwriter is, I believe, when the song begins to take shape. So you've one verse and then it just begins to come into focus. You start to see what it could be, the skeleton of the song and it's fleshed out and that's when you're at your happiest. You spend hours walking around the street and you're in the song, that's the exciting moment."
It was meeting Leonard Cohen at 15 that set everything in motion for Glen. "When I was a kid I saw Leonard. Me and my cousin were sitting in the audience and my cousin had a fit. Leonard stopped the song and said 'is that boy ok?'.There were two shows that day. We were taken out by the St John's ambulance and some man with a pass on came and gave us tickets to the later show and said come back if he's ok. We came back to the later show and they put us in a box, it was in a boxing arena, the box was the commentators! After the show the guy with the pass, who was obviously a tour manager but I didn't know at the time, said just wait here a moment. We waited and the crowd were all filling out and Leonard came up to the room! Then Leonard shook my hand and I remember at that time the soft pad of that and I remember thinking I'm doing that! Whatever that guy is, this is it!"
A lot of people come up with far fetched ambitions at 15 but not many actually achieve them. Glen Hansard is one of those lucky few who has and knows it. If 'Falling Slowly' turns out to be the moment of his life then fine, but i'm fairly convinced it won't be and that more is to come.
Didn't He Ramble is out now on Anti.