Former Busker Is Now Back as a Solo
But Mr. Hansard, 42, had different plans. He was scribbling furiously on scrap paper in the greenroom just before he went on. When he bounded onstage, he said, “I’m going to start with a song I just finished right downstairs.”
Then he sang an aching, a cappella melody:
We’re all bound by certain forces
The same as anyone
Step out of the shadows, little one
There’s a hurricane a-blowing
A will that will be done
Step out of the shadows, little one.
Surviving storms, moving on, becoming oneself: All are motifs in Mr. Hansard’s latest songs. Little wonder. For the past 18 months he has been toiling to put some distance between himself and “Once,” the 2006 low-budget Irish film that catapulted him and his co-star Marketa Irglova to international fame and won them an Academy Award for the song “Falling Slowly.”
Whatever “Once” has is “real magic,” the Dublin-born Mr. Hansard said during a recent interview at Cafe Gitane, also in SoHo. “But I’m really happy to report I don’t feel like it’s mine. I don’t feel any ownership over that anymore. It’s theirs.”
In late 2010 he stopped touring with Ms. Irglova and put their duo, the Swell Season, on indefinite pause. Their off-screen love affair had ended a year earlier (she has since married), and he was exhausted from five years of nonstop touring, first to promote the movie, then to ride its momentum. A concertgoer’s suicide at a California show had badly rattled him. “I needed time away from the tour bus,” he said.
So he moved to New York for a year to write and record“Rhythm and Repose,” working for the first time with a group of New York studio musicians rather than theFrames, the Dublin folk-rock band he has fronted for two decades. (The album came out on Tuesday on Anti- records.) The only touring he did was a short summer stint opening for Eddie Vedder.
“It seemed like Glen was doing this thing that he always wanted to do: to have a record that he could be completely free with,” Ms. Irglova, 24, said.
The album mines many of the wistful and romantic themes Mr. Hansard wrote about on the soundtrack to “Once” and on “Strict Joy,” a follow-up album he did with Ms. Irglova in 2009. Yet those albums were heavy on songs about the throes of love, and this one is laden with songs about surviving emotional catastrophes and reaching reconciliation.
It is a sober, slow-paced set with tunes that build in intensity, like “High Hope,” a hymnlike track expressing optimism that the singer can, in time, be at peace with a former lover. The only upbeat tune is the lilting, calypso-inflected “Love Don’t Leave Me Waiting.”
Mr. Hansard began his career as a street musician and is still at his best live. He still plays an inexpensive Takamine guitar, a busker’s tool, with holes worn in the body where his picking hand strums. His voice is elastic and strong, a many-timbre instrument, and he uses them all, from a clear tenor to an anguished, grungy roar. He commits himself to every song with a scary intensity, draping the melody almost recklessly over the driving rhythm from his right hand. He accents that rhythm by hammering the stage with his right foot.
“There is a quality of mania about it,” said Thomas Bartlett, the piano player who has toured with him and produced “Rhythm and Repose. “As a writer he’s very in control. But in his performances there is something a little unhinged.”
Mr. Hansard said the new songs are not all addressed to Ms. Irglova, though he acknowledges “Marketa’s in there.” He is trying these days to write “a deeper song,” he said, one that operates on multiple levels.
“I find myself always singing within the vernacular of the love song, so I always speak about the relationships,” he said. “But it’s also the relationship between me and my country, me and my friends, me and myself, me and my god. It’s not always about me and my girl. That’s just the language I’ve gotten used to using.”
He’s also trying to slow down. When he finished the album in January, Mr. Hansard said he took the first genuine vacation of his career, going to Jamaica to indulge a recent obsession with Rock Steady music. “I had a bit of a meltdown when I was there,” he said. “But that’s what happens on holidays. You catch up with your life. Your soul catches up to you.”
There was a lot to mull over: the recent death of his father, a heavy drinker who never expressed his love for his children; the love affair with Ms. Irglova, which played out its end, painfully, on a public stage; and the unexpected success of the theatrical “Once” after he had resisted the idea. What’s more, he found himself wrestling with a growing desire to start a family, a longing at odds with his drive to make music. (He is in a new relationship, one he is determined to shield from the public.)“At some point you need to have a bunch of kids and go live on a farm,” he said. “That’s the deeper song. That’s when the artist goes to another level. If you’re a dude who’s doing gigs and pulling chicks, still doing that at 55, then, dude, you haven’t gone to the next place.”
Those family-man stirrings will have to wait until next year, he acknowledged, since he will be touring much of the next six months to promote “Rhythm and Repose.” He plays the Beacon Theater in Manhattan on Friday.
This spring he let go of the lease on his East Village apartment. These days, he said, he spends all his time when he is not on tour in his rustic cottage in Kildare, on the outskirts of Dublin, where he gardens, builds furniture in a wood shop and does a lot of cooking. “My life at home is super simple,” he said. “My local bar with my mates, cooking for my mother, making tables, planting vegetables: It’s the classic idea of the artistic existence.”
Mr. Hansard said he grew up in a turbulent, working-class household, with an alcoholic father, a beleaguered mother and frequent storms of domestic violence. “My dad was quiet, angry, shut down,” he said, “so my thing is: I express everything that’s there. I want to get it all out.”
He learned to sing and play guitar when his uncle, a janitor who moonlighted as a singer, went to jail for a stint and left a guitar behind. Mr. Hansard fell in love with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison — they are still his holy trinity — and quit middle school to start playing on Dublin streets. While he was a teenager, he became a sideman in his uncle’s bands, learning, he said, to read the slippery mood of a drunken crowd.
Mr. Hansard is a font of barroom wisdom about art and life. His swears his goal is not fame or money but to write “10 good songs.” He tells how he learned to celebrate his milestones after his 2008 Oscar win, thanks to a talk with Bruce Springsteen. “If you don’t mark your successes, the day your ship comes in could be just another day at the office, and there’s no poetry in that,” he said. From Mr. Cohen’s essays on poetry, he said, he learned that making music is ultimately “a mating dance.” “You are trying to seduce your god or your woman,” he said.
Mr. Hansard said he was appalled when the producers John Hart and Fred Zolo proposed, in April 2008, putting “Once” onstage. He was afraid the story would not work there. “I fought it as much as I could,” he said. But he only controlled the song rights. His old friend John Carney, a former bass player with the Frames, had written the film and favored a theatrical version.
In the end Mr. Hansard gave the production his blessing. Last year he even helped coach Steve Kazee, the actor who took on the Hansard role in the film, advising him to loosen his style by busking for a month. “Forget about being correct,” he recalled telling Mr. Kazee. “The muse hates correct.” (Mr. Kazee won the Tony for best actor in a musical.)The new album, Mr. Hansard said, came almost by accident. Early last year he was sitting in his East Village apartment with nothing but time on his hands. “I found myself playing my guitar a lot, semi-panicking and semi-excited,” he recalled.
One night he sat in on a monthly jam session in Greenwich Village at Le Poisson Rouge, hosted by Mr. Bartlett, and he liked the sound of the band so much, he recruited the players for an impromptu studio session. They recorded seven songs in a week.
“I didn’t even know I had seven songs written,” he recalled. “I went off and lived with it for a week or two and realized I had started my own record.”