Glen Hansard’s Swell Time
By Brian Wise.
The last time Glen Hansard was in Australia his shows almost rivalled Bruce Springsteen for their duration and audience involvement.
Both times I saw him – at Meeniyan Hall and the Recital Centre – Hansard led the audience out into the streets like a rock ‘n’ roll Pied Piper. People flocked to follow him and huddled around to listen to him sing them home with just his voice and acoustic guitar. In Meeniyan he people across the main road, at the Recital Centre it was out to the busy corner to stand busker-like until his songs and himself were exhausted. It was almost as if he didn’t want to leave.
These were the generous shows of someone who not only realised how far he had come in the past several decades but also how much he owed to his audiences. Hansard’s success in the past decade shouldn’t disguise the fact that there was 15 years of hard work behind it.
It is over 20 years since the now 46-year-old Hansard had formed his first band, The Frames, the much-loved Irish band that toured Australia several times and seemed to have a ready-made Irish audience wherever they travelled. While the band achieved almost legendary status in Ireland it was only when Hansard starred with Marketa Irglova in the acclaimed film Once that he achieved the sort of international recognition that many felt he had long deserved. The duo, known as the Swell Season, won two Grammy Awards in 2008 that help propel Hansard’s star even further upwards.
After the break up of The Swell Season around 2012, Hansard concentrated on his solo career. Rhythm & Repose in 2012 featured the song ‘Come Away To The Water’ which was later to appear on the soundtrack for The Hunger Games. Last year he released his second solo album, Didn’t He Ramble, which was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Folk Album category.
One of the measures of Hansard’s character is not only his generous performances but also the fact that he has other former members of The Frames in his backing band. They will be touring Australia over the next week, starting with Sydney’s Opera House tonight.
“It’s about the best people for the job,” says Hansard when I mention his loyalty. “If I was the kind of guy that wanted a whole different thing, I’d go about getting different people, but so much of what I do relies on me being able to turn on a dime, and say, ‘No. We’re going this way.’ For instance, yesterday we covered ‘Gimme A Bullet to Bite On’ for Bon Scott’s 70th birthday. So there’s no one else I can do that with but The Frames. Those guys, they know me, I know them. I’m able to just turn on a dime. They get it, I get it, boom!”
When I spoke to Hansard he was in the midst of festival season and was looking forward to performing at both Montreux and the Newport Folk Festival before heading to Australia with a 10-piece ensemble.
“We’ve done a bunch of this kind of open air, big stage gigs, which are no sound checks, which they’re great,” explains Hansard. “The good thing about festivals is you’re really relying on the energy of the audience, and you’re relying on the energy of the band to just get up and go for it, and the crew. Everybody has to get it – you know, no sound checks – so it usually sounds pretty rough, but you can have amazing shows like that and then you can have disastrous ones.”
“I have done the Newport Folk Festival before and we had a wonderful time there,” he continues. “We got to play with Levon Helm during his last, that was his last Newport. We jumped up and sang with them, and jumped up with Richie Havens, got to meet Richie, which was really special. Newport kind of has an energy all of its own. It’s got such history. I’ve never played there alone. I played there with The Swell Season, so I’m going to be going there with just my guitar, so that’ll be a challenge, but I’ve already spoken with Elvis Costello. He’s going to be there, so maybe me and him will get together and do something there, so we’ll see.”
“I’m going to go acoustic!” he laughs when I mention Dylan’s famous 1965 show.
“Your performances rely a lot on the input and response from the audience, don’t they?” I suggest to Hansard after he tells me about how much more involvement festival audiences have nowadays.
“For better or worse I still operate that way,” he replies. “It’s like, ‘Well, come on. What have you got?’ We are just as expectant as the audience. Let’s make something happen, because if it’s just about us, then that’s fine. If it’s just about us, we’ll play our set, but it’s about all of us, really. It is. All our acts, it’s about response and action.”
Not only does Hansard lead audiences outside at the end of his shows but earlier this year he performed ‘Ashes to Ashes’ outside David Bowie’s apartment in New York.
“Well, I just happened to be in New York when we heard that awful, awful news,” he responds, “and I knew where his apartment was, because anyone who has spent any time in New York knows where … You know where Bowie lives. Even though no-one hassled him, but you know where Bowie lived, you know where Lou Reed lived. You know. So I just wanted to walk down to the apartment block and pay my respects, and I just went down and I had my guitar on my back, and I went down there.
“There was probably 30 people, and they were just putting flowers and candles by his door. I had my guitar and so I asked a policeman, I said, ‘Hey, do you mind if I sing a song?’ Because I didn’t want to annoy the residents of the building. He said, ‘You’re good. Stand out of the way there.’ I just took out my guitar and I sang ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and it was actually beautiful. It was beautiful, and I enjoyed it, and people sang a little bit with me, and it was very quiet and people were very respectful.
“I sang it, I put my guitar back in my case, and I left, but some friend of David’s who was actually outside the apartment had filmed this, and he told me, he said, ‘I’m a friend of David’s. Do you mind if I share this?’ I think he put it upon the Internet, but I was just really, honestly, I was just there to pay my respects like everybody else.”
“It was such a shock,” says Hansard of Bowie’s death. “It was so out of the blue. I think it really, really shocked the world, and then Prince so soon after, which was such a shock.
“I mean, Bowie really was such an icon. He really is the Bob Dylan of the pop world, reinvented himself all the time. He made incredible records, like incredible pop music, and had an enigmatic character. You never knew which way to take him or what he was up to. His final record was really beautiful and just what a way to leave it all. Anyway, it was a very, very powerful few days. Every, every single café I went into in New York that week, everyone was playing Bowie.
In my short life, I’ve never experienced mourning like this. Everyone played Bowie. Bowie, Bowie, Bowie. People were putting pictures of him in their window. It was huge, the response. There was so much love for him, from everyone.
I went back and I revisited all those records like I’m sure thousands of others did, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of others did, and Jesus, man, you know…. There’s some periods, like I got really into Scary Monsters again. I was really into it anyway, but I got into it again, and Jesus, what a fucking record, man.”
I mention to Hansard that he also has some sort of special bond with the city of Melbourne. The Frames, of course, played to packed houses whenever they visited.
“Melbourne is really, I guess, the place that we had made our base,” he replies. “The first few times we went over there we would always stay in Melbourne, and you know, of course, now when it’s kind of that, it’s AC/DC…..
“Also, I did some gigs with the Dirty Three a bunch of years ago, and for me, going there and getting in touch with Mick and the Dirty Three, their vibe and their feeling, Melbourne’s the town with the arts. I don’t know Australia so well, but I know that when I’m in Melbourne I feel it. There’s a palpable sense of the arts being very important, and putting out a lot of great music, and so we’ve always stayed with friends there, and I most prefer the energy, to be honest.
“I don’t mean to compare Melbourne to Sydney or Perth, or whatever. I like Perth too, actually, but Melbourne has a spirit, and plus I can deal with the weather there! I mean, we’re Irish, and God, some of the weather in Australia is unbearable.
“In all honesty, the name I took for my confirmation was Angus. I was just a massive AC/DC fan when I was a kid. Being in Melbourne was just such a huge deal for me. ACDC Lane and all that stuff, and then actually we got to know Bon’s son, Dave, and Bon had a son, and he runs a record shop down in St. Kilda, and just a really good people. We met good people there.”
I mention that there was always a ready-made Irish audience in Melbourne for Hansard since he first toured with The Frames.
“I think the whole of Australia, and thank you for that, by the way,” he says. “You know, a lot of Irish people went to Australia. I hope that we’re still behaving ourselves. I hope that we’re still good people to be around, but we’ve never, in all honesty, we’ve never encouraged that.
“I think it’s wonderful that Irish people come see us, but we never encouraged it. We always wanted to go to Australia and play to Australians, so when the percentages of Australians started to grow after once, we were very pleased. Not that we avoid the Irish. We don’t avoid the Irish. We’re very, very happy for them, but it would seem a little pointless going all that distance and playing only to Irish people.”
Hansard’s latest release is a 4 track EP, A Season On The Line, including the song ‘Didn’t He Ramble’ which is the title of the latest album but wasn’t on the album.
“The EP was really just something we knocked out. We were on tour, and I had been trying to get this song, ‘Didn’t He Ramble,’ onto my record, and my record ended up getting delayed because I wanted to try to finish this song. The song was a tribute to my father, so I wanted to get it right, and then I realised that there is no getting it right. The song is not going to get finished. It’s not right, and it never will be right, and so I started to play it in a different way.
“I started playing it as a rock song, whereas it was more of acoustic and string driven. I just threw it away and had fun with it and enjoyed where it went, and I said to my manager, I said, ‘Look, I’m really enjoying just throwing this song away every night. Can we go into the studio? I’ve this other song, ‘Way Back in the Way Back When’. I’ve got that and I’ve got ‘Didn’t He Ramble.’ Can we just get a studio while we’re on tour?’ We were passing through Chicago and we booked Steve Albini’s place. We went in for 5 hours and we knocked it out.
“Once it was knocked out it sounded really nice and I was like, ‘You know what? It’d be great to get this out at some point.’ We put out those two songs, and then there was two songs that didn’t make my record, so we put them on, ‘Let Me In’, and ‘Return’. It felt good. It felt good to put those songs out and for those songs to have a life. In a way I’d imagine maybe at some later point, the ‘Didn’t He Ramble’ album would include those songs. Maybe there’ll be a version of the record with the 14 songs.
“Originally there was a jazz tune called ‘Didn’t He Ramble,’ but I actually got the title from Jason Molina, from Songs Ohia. I can’t remember, but we were jamming something, and I remember that being one of the lyrics, and I remember kind of going, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful’ and something we were working on together. So I took it from there, and then I only found out later on from Curtis, our trombone player, that actually ‘Didn’t He Ramble’ is an old song.”
“I find I’m at my most creative when I’m at my most busy,” says Hansard when I ask is he is a prolific songwriter. “I find that when I’m not busy, I’m not really creative. Writing and music tends to all come together with playing and touring. It’s that old sort of adage that if there’s an instrument in your hand you’ve got more of a chance of writing a song with an instrument in your hand than you do when you don’t.
When I’m at home, I rarely pick up my guitar. I just get on with what the chores I have to do at home, and I just enjoy being at home. When I’m home I guess I’m not a musician. I guess I’m just goofing around and I pick up my guitar maybe once or twice a week. I find that generally speaking I write more when I’m travelling and playing.”