Glen Hansard: Songs of Good Hope

Music Features Glen Hansard
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The Irelands that Glen Hansard and I come from could hardly be more different. His is Dublin’s winged and winded North Inner City, the country’s wounded heart, a focusless urban tear on a once imperious city’s face. I come from a tiny rural village perched half way up a mountain that straddles the faultline we call the border, occupied for decades by the British Army and now bereft of them, like a widow mourning the husband she hated. There’s no doubting though that we’re both stamped with an indelible Irishness. We share the same conversational gambits and national neuroses, an obsession with the weather—as the hours tick past while his New York-based PR company try to locate him on Irish soil, a month’s worth of rain, four full inches, falls in a few hours—and an obsession with home, whatever that means to us.

Glen Hansard has become one of the most perennial of Irish archetypes, the emigrant. True, he hasn’t been driven from our shores; like Joyce and Beckett before him he’s an exode more than an exile. But there’s an innate tension in his relationship with Ireland now. Pulled away across an ocean by the success of an Irish film which found a warm hearth and a good roof over its head in the USA, he has tarried there since.

There was a time when going to America was an act with a finality to it. Families left behind here held wakes for the departing emigrant, knowing that in all likelihood they would never see them again. My own grandparents left these shores in the 1920s, returning with my infant mother less than a decade later heartbroken at the death of their other daughter. Even then their story was atypical; most would have had no choice but to stay. Now though, the Atlantic is like a tidal pool and the Irish wash back and forth across it, rootless on both sides. Our fragile grasp on our own nationality is threatened and eroded not just by emigration but by our suspicion that we are being absorbed into an ever more unitary Europe. We don’t, in our own parlance, know if we’re coming or going. There’s a perception abroad of Ireland as an ancient, timeless place. People overlook the reality that as the “Republic of Ireland” we’re less than a century old.

Hansard feels that he’s still among us; we, for whatever reason, can’t be so sure. The Frames are certainly an Irish band, the Swell Season almost certainly not. And with his first solo record, Rhythm And Repose, due out June 19, this seems like an entirely apposite time to reflect on whether Glen Hansard on his own falls into either camp. The album has been recorded, not with the Frames this time, but with a cast of musicians drawn from among both his influencers and his peers—David Mansfield who played with Dylan on the Rolling Thunder tour and Javier Mas from Leonard Cohen’s band make an appearance, as do members of Springsteen’s current touring band and collaborators from Bon Iver and Y Music.

With Hansard due on a plane back to the U.S. tomorrow, I’m all too aware, as the clock blinks through the minutes, that the chances are slim of us connecting before he . . . before he what? Before he leaves home? Before he goes home? Then, just as I’m mentally writing it off as a missed opportunity, the phone shudders in front of me on the desk and it’s him at the other end, calling from a restaurant where he’s stepped in from the pouring rain to grab a bite to eat.

Paste: I believe you’re flying back to New York tomorrow. Does New York feel like home nowadays?
Glen Hansard: Well, I’m heading back on Sunday I think, but no, Dublin is still home. I’ve been living in New York for a couple of years now and it’s great but there’s still far too much here for me to think of New York as home.

Paste: You’ve been releasing music for more than 20 years now. How come you felt this was the right time for a solo record?
Hansard: In a lot of ways it’s just the latest offering. I don’t think it matters what name you put on it really. I’ve never put too much stock in the name, it’s just a natural progression from what happened before. Although when your name is on the cover there is an expectation of it. For me though it’s not that different. It’s just one of those things . . . the latest installment of a life lived, another year in the life that I’ve lived—it’s the age I am.

When I listen back to one of those early Frames records I think to myself, ‘Wow, that guy was angry.’ Every song is a kind of self-therapy. Where I am now, at a certain age you come to a point—you need to sing a deeper song, you need to make it more and more personal. So many songs nowadays, that you hear, they’re . . . what’s the word for it? They’re assembled. As you get older, as you do this longer, you get the skills to put songs together, you know what goes where but when it gets like Lego, then you’re in trouble. Then you’re in trouble of losing your relationship with the muse. It’s a very sensitive thing but if you listen to a great song, they all have that one drop of the authentic. I believe in the magic healing power of music and it can be like a kind of self-therapy but you hear so many songs, and the writers don’t think of that, they’re just assembled.

Paste: Listening to the new record, Rhythm And Repose, it doesn’t seem like you’re greatly in need of therapy. It’s a really open record. There’s very little complex imagery on it; you just seem to call it like it is.
Hansard: I don’t know how true that is. In some ways it is veiled. I’m still singing about relationships, but not necessarily the relationships that you might think. If it was just a 42-year-old guy singing about love, well that doesn’t work. If that was the case it would be like, “Get a shrink.” So the songs are about different kinds of relationship. “The Storm, It’s Coming” could be read as a break up song, but it’s about Ireland.

Paste: It struck me that “Bird Of Sorrow,” too, could be about Ireland. That whole idea of having to get out of the mess we’ve made, that could just as easily be about the political and economics as about the personal and emotions. Do you think there’s a sense of damaged Irishness in the air here?
Hansard: Thank you for spotting that. It is a song about Ireland, about the Irish, about who we are. People see us as the clever charmer. They think we’re song-and-dance men, light on our feet, performing for everyone, but that isn’t really who we are at all. We’re still a very young country and we’re still trying to figure out who we are. When I look at us, I think that we don’t have so much in common with England as we do with some of the younger European countries, even though they’re our nearest neighbours. I mean, you look at Dublin or at Belfast. Belfast, architecturally, is an English city but the people have nothing in common. Living in the U.S., traveling and touring, you see it more clearly. The gift of the emigrant is that you get to be Irish when you leave. When you’re not there you get to see far more clearly what it means to be Irish.

Paste: Those songs come from the big romantic heart of the record, those songs at the center of the record with the big, shouty, anthemic vocals and the heaving strings—“High Hope,” “Bird Of Sorrow,” “The Storm, It’s Coming”—but elsewhere there’s also a lighter almost airy touch to the production that calls to mind something of the early ’70s for me.
Hansard: Well I’m a sucker for romance. The heart is a resilient muscle. Love is an incredible thing, a special thing. I hope I always sing about it in awe. It’s important to capture it it in your work. Romance remains in your life even though your relationships may come and go. It’s always been important to me to hold on to that. I’ve never wanted to become cynical about love; you have to treasure it.

The early ’70s thing was definitely a conscious decision, though, in so much as I was digging that kind of music. I wanted to write a simple soulful song in the Van Morrison or John Martyn vein and I suppose the best example of that would be “Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting.” There’s a John Martyn song—“Love Don’t Pass Me By” [“Go Easy” from Martyn’s Bless The Weather album]—that’s got a really easy feel to it. It’s not trendy exactly to listen to that kind of music, but there is a huge renaissance in music like that at the minute. People listening to The Band, easy music, get-up-and-go music. Music doesn’t always need to be dark. I guess I’ve always put more stock in inward-looking music. I’ve found that much easier to do than to write a happy song; it just comes more naturally to me. This time around I tried to write less interior music. “Maybe Not Tonight” is the only song I’ve ever written and recorded in the same day. I had David Mansfield coming into the studio to record and we just sat down and jammed it out. On tour we would be driving across the country listening to music and looking out the window, and I always had this idea that I would love to write a song that could be listened to in the American landscape, that would make you feel a part of it, and I had some ideas. But we just sat and played together, and we ended up with that song and it does have that sense of openness and space.

Paste: How important was it for you to do this with a band that wasn’t the Frames?
Hansard: It was important to me to make a record with strangers. With the Frames it would have been very comfortable but I needed to get out of my comfort zone. The guys on this record have played on things I’ve grown up listening to, toured with people I really respect. When you make a record with guys like that, you’re not just playing with them, you’re performing to them, you’re trying to keep up with them. That makes you lift yourself up. Of course you’re going to try to impress them. It goes without saying that if you surround yourself with good people you’re going to make more of an effort.

When I go out to tour with the record it will be with the Frames, though. Onstage it has to be the Frames. With those guys I know I can turn on a dime and they’ll have my back. They feel like my A-Team. There is a tour booked, and I was also supposed to do some shows earlier this year with Eddie Vedder. And they had to be canceled because he hurt his back, and those will be happening later in the year.

Paste: Lyrically the record has a few recurring themes. I guess one of the big ones is hope. There’s two song titles with the word “hope” in them and your new website for this solo record is named after one of them – “Song Of Good Hope”
Hansard: It’s a word I just found myself using a lot. Sometimes a word comes into your life and you find yourself using it. At the minute I see Ireland in a state of flux, the nation is in a state of fluidity, and there’s just no way to judge what way things will go. At the present moment everything is in flux. In life there are moments where you reach some kind of solidity, and there are moments where you are in flux and there’s a joy in catching up with life.

“Song Of Good Hope” just sort of fell out. I have a friend who was diagnosed with cancer about two years ago. Colon cancer. He’s still alive, thank God. I wanted to write something that would bring some hope. I put every ounce of good will into it, and the song felt like a gift. Sometimes you do this and it works, but it’s as if it’s out of your hands. You either find yourself with the song or without it, but there’s nothing you can do to control it. He’s an amazing guy—a bicycle builder called Ezra Caldwell. I always built bikes myself, in fact that’s where the name The Frames came from because there were always bits of bikes around my house. He kept a kind of diary of it. He has this beautiful blog called ‘Teaching Cancer To Cry.’ He’s in much better shape now. He had almost two years of chemotherapy, but he’s much better now.

Paste: “Races” is a song about throwing away fame to be with someone, about gladly giving away the glory. Do you still feel that tension between privacy and fame?
Hansard: I actually wrote that song when I was 28. I wrote the song when I didn’t have a pot to piss in, so at the time it was really more about the idea of giving up something, of admitting you’re not as important as all that. It’s somewhat more pertinent now. Like you would have to ask yourself, “Would you?” You think you know what you think about things, but are you really so sure. There’s a story about a zen monk, the head of the monastery. He has spent years up the mountain. He teaches the monks in his monastery that all men are equal, that no one is more important than anyone else. Then he is asked to give the wedding vows for a celebrity couple. The other monks don’t think he will do it, that his belief in the equality of men will prevent him from accepting the invitation. So when he says yes they are surprised that he’s actually going to do this, but he maintains that all men are equal and he should just do this like he would for anyone. When it comes to it though, he finds that his palms are sweaty when he holds their hands to join them together, that he is impressed by their celebrity, and so he goes back to his monastery and tells the other monks that he needs to go back up the mountain and learn humility for another eight years because what he thought he knew wasn’t so certain after all. Fame’s like that. You find yourself there and you think you know what it means. A lot of musicians think that once you’re famous it all becomes easy. I found myself there after years of campaigning and you realize that you’ve fought so hard for this and it’s actually not that different. You’re still looking over your shoulder. Success doesn’t solve all your problems, it just changes them.

Paste: So it must be a relief that your moment of celebrity has passed.
Hansard: That was never my game. That whole chapter happened by accident when we were being interviewed by some journalist in Canada who put two and two together, and it was like, “Oh, you guys are together.” That was never what we were about. I’m glad Mar is happy now and married. Celebrity is a self-defeating world. What is celebrity anyway? It’s as hollow as it comes. We all crave succes and the side result of that is fame but when that veers into gossip, it gets caught up in an industry that is so bad. I don’t pay any attention to it. That’s not interesting and it’s never comfortable.

Paste: Age and getting older and the whole idea of the passage of time seems to be something that has a significance for you. In the last year we’ve lost so many great old musicians, like Charlie Louvin and Doc Watson, guys who played until they fell. Is that the way you see yourself, playing into high old age?
Hansard: I love the idea of that. It would be a great honor to continue playing like that, but that’s not something that we get to decide. The audience will either allow or not allow that, but it’s not something I would want to do unless I had something to say. You need to sing a good song, a song that’s worthy of the audience. It doesn’t just happen. You need to keep looking into yourself and bringing something fresh to people. You have to keep learning. Wisdom is something you cannot depend on, you don’t always get that. Then you look at someone like Leonard Cohen who has so earned it. What a joy to see! For me, I believe that you have to live your life serving something. You have to live your life serving yourself. You have to look into yourself, to self-investigate. Living your life in song, for me, is a worthy and romantic goal, but it has to come from looking into your own heart, from self-investigation.