Irishman Glen Hansard's band The Frames has been quietly (at least Stateside) putting out strong, earnest rock records since the early 90s. Everything changed in 2007, when an excellent, endearing low budget indie film called Once, starring Glen and Marketa Irglova and studded with songs written by the pair, exploded into the mainstream due to massive positive word of mouth buzz. Glen and Marketa were swept along all the way to the Oscars, where they performed one of the songs from the movie, "Falling Slowly." By the end of the night they had won the Academy Award for Best Original Song! Since then, Glen and Marketa have been touring relentlessly as The Swell Season and earning rave reviews across the globe for their performances. Their backing band is often The Frames! Glen was kind enough to chat with me about his inspirations, what he's recording now, Van Morrison, and, of course, the Oscar moment. Read on for the interview:
Miss Ess: You were in the studio in Feb recording -- can you tell us a little more about what you were recording and how it's sounding? What's coming up next for you?
Glen: Yes -- we [Marketa and several Frames members] were in the studio in February and March and April and finally it's done. I'm in New York right now mastering the final sequence; I'm happy with it. I'll go back to Ireland for a few days after this, then [Marketa and I] go to Korea and Japan to follow up on a tour we did recently that went well, so they invited us back to do some follow up dates. After that I think I'll rent a place in New York for the summer before going back on tour proper in late August early September.
ME: What is your creative process like when you are writing a new song? Does it come from the ether or are you structured about it?
GH: Well, if it's going the right way, then it's usually the ether first, then lots of looking at it and trying to see what's inside it, then chipping away and reworking an idea until it either makes sense or has died in the working...
No matter what the chord structure or rhythm of a song, at its core, the simple ones are best; if it takes too long to write, then the chances are it won't survive. It's important to work on a song while it's still exciting, still got its potential. I've started way more songs than I've finished. Michealangelo used to go to the marble quarry and work there through the night while the marble was still soft. Straight out of the mountain marble has the consistency of hard cheese, so he would work and work and after a brief time no more work could be done. I like this idea... although it's not true of song or poetry. It can be reworked over many years... but the first idea hardens, so it's important to have a respect for craft and work, but never let that become the central reason to write. There's too much credit given to inspiration and not enough to craft. They co exist and are equally essential.
ME: What aspect of the musical process do you enjoy most: writing, recording, touring, or something else?
GH: Well, it's hard to say. Each part of the process has its own value. Writing a song is the most exciting because it's new, it's full of potential, it may be the true song you've always wanted to write, the one that negates any further writing. It hasn't been judged by anyone-- it's alive and your close companion. Then to perform it is to introduce it to others and then the song becomes its own personality -- it doesn't need you anymore...if it's a good tune. Then recording is the part I'm still not entirely confident about because the recording is just one version but it becomes the version by which all other versions orbit, or are judged. And that's too much to think about, so it's best just to throw it down and not over think it. Confidence is one's best ally in a studio-- the confidence to throw the songs down on tape and allow the hidden and unknown elements to play their part. The more I try to control the musical or emotional architecture of a song the further I drift from the heart of what I love about music...its freedom, its magic...the things that my limited scope can perceive. What makes one tune good and another not?
ME: What is your most prized piece of musical gear and why?
GH: Well, I try to view instruments as tools and not invest in them too much. I just like the idea of keeping the relationship simple, although having said that, I've had my acoustic guitar for many years and it's served me very well and I've grown quite attached to it, mostly because I've not played another guitar as comfortable or sounding as good as this one, so if it eventually broke or got lost I'd be upset because replacing it would be difficult. It's not even an expensive guitar-- I bought a good case for it 2 years ago and the case is worth more than the guitar, but it is invaluable to me.
Was there someone in your life early on that recognized your musical interest/talent and nurtured it?
There were a few such people, luckily for me. My mother loved music very much and so would tolerate me bugging her and playing the new Dylan song I worked out while she was trying to cook. Then there was my friend Jim, who was much older than me and again loved the same music I did and we would sit up late into the night playing guitar and listening to records. He encouraged me to pursue music deeper. Then the principle teacher at our school was a d.j. and we talked a lot about records we liked and he encouraged me to take up street playing, "busking," which I did and pretty soon after that I quit school [at 13] and took it up as a more permanent job.
What was the first record you heard that really blew your head back and made you get into music?
I think it would have been around age 10 or 11 when I heard AC/DC and realized I wanted to be Angus Young. It was my sister's boyfriend that played the record in her room and I listened outside and later he lent me the album-- it was the live record, If You Want Blood You've Got It, and that really opened my head up so wide. He also loved Dylan and Marley, Pink Floyd, Skynyrd, ZZ Top, etc, and all of these people would become at some point my favorite musicians on the planet. I got into Leonard Cohen later and that's when I began to write my own songs, around 12.
What kind of music was playing in your parents' house before you had a choice? What kind of influence do you think it had on you?
My mother would vacuum the flat every Sunday and she'd play her records loud enough to hear over the hoover. I loved these days. She'd play "Stand By Your Man" by Tammy Wynette, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" by Charlie Rich, Perry Como, the Animals, The Beatles, Cohen, Beach Boys; she had great taste and she would sing at the top of her lungs as she vacuumed. It was definitely where I got a love of music.
What have you been listening to lately?
For the past year I've listened to pretty much only rocksteady reggae. It's become my favourite music. I've bought maybe 10 compilations and I've heard nothing I didn't like.
That's funny, a few of my friends are feeling reggae lately too! It's going around right now. Is there a record that has flown under the radar but that you really love and think more people should listen to?
There's a record that came out about 5 years ago called Twilight by John Hegarty here in Ireland and it blew me away. It didn't sell and disappeared and it's hard to find now. I love that record and that singer.
If you could form a one-night only bill with any other bands, regardless of if they exist in the past or present, who would it be?
Bob Marley, Claude Debussy, Blind Willie McTell, Planxty, Serge Gainsbourg, early Velvet Underground with Nico, Bon Scott era AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, Joe Jackson, Luke Kelly -- it'd have to be a festival.
Sometimes I think the best parts of music come in little tiny moments -- the kind that make your hair stand on end. I think Van Morrison produces more of these moments than most musicians so I am wondering, since I know you are a fan, if you'd care to share maybe even a tiny little moment in a Van Morrison album that really gets to you.
There's a moment in "The Healing Has Begun" on Into the Music where Van randomly says, "I can't stand myself," that I find incredibly potent...honest and dangerous and real...he is out on his own as an artist..
None of us could even dream of where he's been and left already.
I first heard about the Frames almost 10 years ago because I was/am an avid Will Oldham fan and I heard you'd covered "New Partner" -- what was it about that song that made you want to cover it yourself? How do you decide what songs to cover when you are on tour?
Sometimes you hear a song and it hits you so hard that you don't even learn it, you just start playing it because you want everyone to know the song. That's how it was with this song; a friend made me a compilation tape called Slicing of Eyeballs. I still have it here. It had many great bands that were all new to me-- Smog, Magnetic Fields, Come, Rachels, Daniel Johnston, Palace, etc, and it opened me in a way I hadn't been since I'd heard music first. "New Partner" was just jaw dropping... simple and plain and thrown away. I wanted to share it with all my friends, so I sang it. It was a popular song among Frames folk so we recorded it as a b-side.
Since Once really has become a phenomenon, I am curious -- when did you realize it was going to take off in the way it did and not just go straight to dvd, as you'd feared it might? While you were filming did you feel that certain magnetic quality within the material and the moment, or did you have no idea how huge it would become?
When we got accepted and invited to Sundance it felt like a miracle had occurred. We were proud of the film from the start and we'd worked hard to make it as good as it could be, but going to Utah was just beyond what we had hoped. I brought my guitar and we played at all the screenings and I busked a bit in Park City and we had the best week... trying to get into films and parties and failing most of the time. It was a holiday for us and afterward it got taken by Fox Searchlight and I was afraid they'd want to change it, but they treated it with respect and put it out in a way that made sense to the film and when we heard people were going to see it we were completely overwhelmed and overjoyed. It couldn't have happened at a better time for me, as I and my band had been trying and trying to build an audience for years and we were slowly getting there, but Once made it possible to go on tour with the guarantee of a good room and a good number of people at the shows. It's been a real blessing... no other word for it..
What was the easiest part of making that film for you? And the most difficult?
The easiest was the musical scenes, as this is the area I felt most capable.
The acting was fun, but not always. We were very relaxed about what we were getting on tape and we just went with whatever came out a lot; [Director] John [Carney] was very patient and smart enough to know that we weren't going to respond to direction the same way a professional actor would. I've a lot more respect for actors after making that film.
I know that you are a passionate film fan -- what are some of your favorites and why?
I like all kinds of films. I don't really have a top ten or anything, or if I do, it keeps changing.
My Life As a Dog (Hallstrom), because it captures childhood so clearly; it's got the best atmosphere.
Come and See, because it's a perspective I was so glad was voiced, and it was so strong a film.
The Seventh Seal (Bergman) because it speaks of the search for truth and salvation. It's probably my favourite film.
Salesman by the Mayseles, it's just great.
Fitzcarraldo (Herzog) because, again, it's about the big stuff. The triumph of the will, so to speak.
Paper Moon (Bogdonavich) -- the O'Neals are insanely talented!
The Verdict (Lumet) -- Paul Newman is so tender and strong in this film, it just floored me.
The Wicker Man (Hardy) -- No, not the bullshit remake. It's just got a great atmosphere and amazing music.
Naked (Leigh) -- David Thewlis is one of the finest actors and writers alive and he proves both in this film.
Close Encounters (Spielberg) -- Richard Dreyfus is incredible and the film takes you away like all good cinema should.
There's a hundred more but I'll leave it there...
This is self-indulgence time for me because I am a big Oscars freak and you lived my dream of attending the Oscars -- let alone the fact that you won! So, if you'd please indulge me here for a sec: what was that moment like, how did you come up with what to say and how do you feel about it all now -- have you rewatched that performance/speech again and relived it at all or have you avoided it?
To be honest, I haven't watched it since the day. It's such a golden memory...the whole thing was sorta dreamlike; I'm sure if it's the world you inhabit, then there's a different perspective on it. We got nominated and we were shocked and couldn't hardly believe it-- then I panicked and thought, should we be doing this? Is it just self congratulatory? But I soon realised this was just a really good thing and it should be embraced. We were outsiders visiting a strange, exciting town. L.A. really took on a different face to what I'd ever seen before. We didn't plan a speech, as we felt it was bad luck, and when our name got called it was insanely surreal and time just stopped. It's as if the stars had aligned in that moment and there was nothing to do but accept the joy of it. On the way Mar said, "If we win, you say something -- I'll just say thanks." And in the moment I don't know what I said...nothing made sense...I fumbled my way through something and Mar didn't get to say thanks...that's all she wanted to say. Then, as we left the stage, there was a swarm of people around and I saw Marketa get taken off with Jon Stewart and as I got to her she was walking back on. She thought she was just saying thanks during the commercials to the people in the hall -- it was only after [that] she realised it had gone out live, and what she said just nailed it...she said it so clearly and so gracefully. I was so proud to be her mate.
Did you meet anyone you'd always admired at the Oscars or have any serendipitous run-ins there and at the parties?
I met the Cohen Brothers and got to talk [The Big] Lebowski with them, that was important. We met many great people during that time and have kept in contact with many since. We met some genuinely good people.
Going back even further in time, to the instore here at Amoeba SF you and Marketa did back in August 2007, I remember us having some technical difficulties-- you couldn't hear yourself in the monitor but you guys sounded flawless. I think those fraught moments and your excellent performance in spite of them gave the instore an extra bit of magic. I was wondering what the experience felt like for you, since I am sure it was quite different from a typical night time club gig.
It was a nerve wracking show because so many people had showed up to see us and I wanted it to be as good as it could be. The audience pulled us through it and the sound guy was doing his best to help us out but the speaker went and there was nothing any of us could do. In moments like that I'm glad to have a busking backround.
What song describes your life right now?
"Staying Alive" by the Bee Gees.
What has been the musical highlight of your life thus far?
Playing with Van Morrison late at night, both drunk, getting to hear all my favorite songs of his. Getting to observe the master up close, it was an education.
What has been your best find at Amoeba?
I bought Sweet Movie by Dusan Makavejev for the cover. It's a very sexy cover and I thought I'd try it as I'd heard of Mysteries of the Organism but I'd not seen it. I was floored at how good the film was. That was a find. Also I bought a Songs: Ohia record based soley on the cover also and loved it very much and subsequently bought all [Jason] Molina's work...another great Amoeba find. Thank you!
Thank you so much for your time!
For more, check out the video below to see what was in Glen and Marketa's bag when they shopped at Amoeba recently!