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New musical expression: out of The Frames and into a New York story 

Glen Hansard had a great idea: he would take a year off and move away from his city, his fans and his bandmates. And that’s how, less than a month later, he ended up in a studio with a group of strangers making his first solo album

IT SHOULD COME as no surprise that Glen Hansard’s plan to take a year off saw him make an album instead. The history of Hansard and his various bands indicates that any time off becomes time to try something new.

Hansard remembers talking to his bandmates in The Swell Season and The Frames over dinner in Iceland at the end of 2010. “We had just finished up the Strict Joy tour and I said I was taking a year off. But when you say ‘taking a year off’ you really mean a month. And although I hadn’t planned it I found myself in a studio a few weeks later, knocking out tunes with a bunch of guys I didn’t know and having a great time.”

That was in New York, where Hansard hung around and strummed his guitar down by the Bowery, in a flat that Steve McQueen had once lived in.

“Dublin, as much as I love it, has always been about drink and that social aspect. It’s very difficult for me to say no to any situation here. You have people saying, ‘Will you do this for me?’ or ‘Will you come to my gig?’ . . . and that’s why New York made sense.

“My fondest memories of New York are the nights when I don’t go out, the nights where I read or play guitar and order food in and stay in. And you’re not alone. New York is full of people noodling away at home and getting things done. It can also be the city where you never go home. You can go on a bender for a week because there’s always another bar to go to, especially in the Irish bars, where they’ll close the doors and not let you out. You can lose yourself in New York.”

Hansard found he was coming up with a lot of ideas for songs, so he gave Thomas Bartlett a call about using his studio and playing with some other musicians. He had known Bartlett, a musician who has worked with everyone from The National to The Gloaming, for 10 years, but the others who played on those sessions, such as the bass player Brad Albetta and the drummer Ray Rizzo, were new to him.

“I thought I was going in to record one song and came out with seven. That often happens because you think you have one pot on the boil and it turns out you have much more – or sometimes much less – than you thought. I never thought of it as an album. It was a nice bunch of recordings because I was still thinking of The Swell Season or The Frames. But it didn’t sound like or feel like The Frames.

“Two weeks later I went back in and did about five songs, and that was the record. I did some fixing up, but that was largely it. I’m really proud that it was knocked out by guys who didn’t really know me or the songs but who were so good at what they did that it didn’t matter.”

THE ALBUM THAT came out of those sessions, Rhythm Repose, is Hansard’s debut solo release: strange to consider given the length of his career.

“I have to admit that there’s an ownership to it that I’m okay with,” he says. “It helps that I’m older and more grounded than I was. If I did this when I was 22 I’d be more apologetic and unsure about it. I’ve been making music for a long time and, at this age, I know I can do it. I had the confidence to do this.

“There’s a lovely thing you get with strangers where if it’s feeling wrong, you can say ‘No’. You don’t have that with your best friends. You think you can say ‘No’ to your best friends in the studio, but that’s not the case. With The Frames, democracy was never really part of it. We had a policy that whoever cared the most got their way. But I was referred to as Customs because everything had to pass me in the end.”

Hansard clearly enjoyed the loose, laid-back recording experience that produced the new album. “It was not about thinking; it was about playing. That was the headspace I approached the record with. What I wanted to do was just go in and knock it out and see what happened. The Frames were always meant to be that band. We’re buskers; we started on the street. The idea of spending a year making a record f***ing depressed me.”

He brings up The Frames again and again during the interview. “I don’t know what The Frames are any more,” he says. “I know it’s a rock band I love being in, but I need to feel inspired by it again. I didn’t want to play any gigs unless we had new music because I don’t want to be a cabaret act. As The Frames we have done nothing since The Cost [in 2006], which was a long time ago.”

Hansard says he was unhappy with some of the albums The Frames released in more recent times. “I don’t think the rock band who made Set List were necessarily the natural band. I look at The Cost and it’s a decent record, but my heart wasn’t in it, I wasn’t passionate about it. We did paint ourselves into a corner in the last few years. You’ve an audience who have got their hands in the air and you become the band they want you to be.

“It was getting boring for me, and I have to admit I was more or less leaving The Frames. It was beginning to feel like a cul-de-sac. I needed something else, and I think that’s why I went off and did The Swell Season. I was feeling a bit hemmed in by that characteristic when I should have had the balls to go in another direction with The Frames.

“Right now I don’t know what The Frames should sound like. Through the years, we’ve managed to be a band who got on well and made decent music and had a great relationship with each other. If we do get back together we’ll forget about who we all think we are to each other, and what The Frames are supposed to be, and just make music.”

The Swell Season, his collaboration with Markéta Irglová that led to the film Once and an Academy Award for the mantelpiece, is also on hold.

“She’s married and living in Iceland and still making music and she’s done another solo album. Hand on heart, there’s no one I enjoy singing more with, bar Mick Christopher, than Mar. I adore her and always will, but it’s going to take me and her getting back into a room and singing songs again for The Swell Season to exist again.

“Can I see that right now? No. I don’t know if The Swell Season is or will be a band. I won’t dog-and-pony it, I won’t wheel it out and do gigs simply to make money. If me and her are good, it will be good. Right now we’re great mates, but we’re great mates because we don’t see each other.”

HANSARD COMES ACROSS as someone who is finally at ease in his own skin. The early years when few outside the faithful had any time for him or his band gave way to the Once years and huge success. Now, it seems, he’s content – of sorts.

“I’ve gone from being someone who was young and arrogant to someone who had no confidence back to someone who was probably full of their own s*** among my best friends,” he says. “It’s not that success sits uncomfortably on my shoulders, but there is a discomfort that comes from being defined by any one moment in your life.

“The trajectory of your life is a long one, and history will record things differently, which is something I really see from being in a band. There are some people who have become the songwriter or performer everyone admires where you say, ‘Really? That band? That singer? Really?’

“I had a great conversation with Bruce Springsteen – I know, I’m name-dropping again – after I won the award, and he said something really f***ing clear.

“It was like: ‘Glen, the guy you’ve been for 20 years has just died. The struggler, the guy who was in The Frames with his mates, gone. Now you have to put on this new suit, and it’s going to be uncomfortable for a while. You have money, which you’ve never had before, and we don’t know how that will change you. You’ve got validation, you’ve got fame.’ ”

Yet that validation is not something Hansard will hawk around at every opportunity. “You won’t find a sticker saying ‘Academy Award winner’ on the new album, because it takes my best moment from the past and creates this make-hay-while-the-sun-shines aspect to my career. It’s not what I’ve ever wanted to be. I’m super-proud of having won that award and of the fact that it has given me an audience. All you ever want when you’re in a band is the chance to win an audience, and not the big gaff.

“If you had asked me when I was 15 what I wanted to do, I’d have described my current life to a T. If you work hard and persevere and put your eye on an idea, you may find yourself living that life. I used to look at people like Mike Scott in awe. That’s who I sought to be. The music will always lead you to the right place. I started making a record with Mar back in 2005 without an idea where it would lead. I followed it because I had to. You have to trust that stuff.”

Once the musical: ‘I thought it was a terrible idea’ 

Many more pages of the Once story have yet to be written. John Carney’s film, which featured Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s Oscar-winning original song, Falling Slowly, has found another lease of life on Broadway. “I have to admit I was absolutely horrified when I heard the rights were sold for a Broadway musical,” says Hansard. “What a weird way to end this lovely chapter. I remember trying to talk John out of it, but he kept the head and wanted to hear them out.” 

Hansard admits his interest was piqued when he heard who the producers had approached to work on it. “When I heard they had got Enda Walsh involved, I thought that was interesting: a dude from Kilbarrack writing real dark s***. Then they got John Tiffany, another guy who does dark stuff and who had never gone near musical theatre. 

“When I met them the conversation was very honest. I told them I thought it was a terrible idea, and John and Enda said, ‘So do we, but we’re f***ing doing it’. They promised they wouldn’t turn it into a big song-and-dance show, and they ended up with something ambitious for Broadway. It’s very quiet and they didn’t turn the story into a schmaltzy love story. It shouldn’t work, but it does.” 

It has also become another awards magnet, winning eight Tony Awards for Broadway shows this month.