Published May 23, 2012Glen Hansard has come a long way from busking on Dublin's busy Grafton Street (although he does return once a year for charity), but he's never strayed far from his roots. Having spent the past two decades making records with the Frames and later the Swell Season, the Irish-born, Academy Award-winning songwriter has at long last made Rhythm and Repose, an album all his own.
Why did you need to make a solo record?
I just needed time away. I needed time away from the people I loved the most. We had finished our tour up in Iceland and it was the last stretch of gigs for Strict Joy. And I remember just sitting with everyone and feeling that I wasn't there anymore. I was like, "I need to take a year away from being on a bus and traveling this much." And everyone was basically like, "Yeah, we all agree. Go and rest. Don't fuckin' work." Because I always work. I'll take time off and just keep working, which is kind of what I did.
I took time off and rented a little apartment on the corner of Bleecker and Bowery in New York. I spent some quiet weeks with my guitar, getting up late and going for coffee and doing that New York thing, going to galleries… I bought a bicycle. My friend Thomas [Bartlett, aka Doveman, who produced Rhythm and Repose] has this great session called the Burgundy Stain Sessions at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street, a few blocks from where I am. The whole idea of the gig is that you just go up and do something ― with the band or without the band, whatever you want. It's all about being present. So I got up and I said, "Alright, this song's in E, it's got a bit of a Levon Helm groove, a bit of a "Don't Do It" feel. It's got a C-sharp minor in it and the chorus is basically two chords repeated." And they were like, "Right, let's do it." And I was so impressed with the musicians. They just got it. They nailed it. I was so impressed that I said "Thomas, could we book a room? Because I'd love to live with these tunes." I didn't even know that I had that song. So we booked a studio and we went in, and I got seven songs that day. I didn't even know I had seven songs. I lived with it for a couple weeks, and then we went in and did a couple of other ideas. Then I booked another session where I did a bunch of solo stuff. And I sort of found myself in the middle of making another record. But I didn't know what it was; it sort of just seemed natural that this would be a Glen Hansard record, to further confuse my manager. He's like, "Okay, what is it called? The Frames? What are you called?" So now I've got a different name again.
But there comes a point in your life where you have to sort of own your own art. You just have to own it. And as much as the Frames or the Swell Season [are] an identity, when you call something your own name, it really, truly calls it into your own space.
You're such an integral part of the Swell Season and the Frames. What about this album, other than your name, made it so much your own?
When you're in a band, there is this idea of democracy. There is this concept of partnership with the Swell Season. And those things do exist, whereas I needed to make a record where every single decision was mine. I just needed to do it. I needed to not argue. I needed to go get lost and come out the other end. It's not even a control issue. Sometimes you might end up going full circle and coming back to the beginning, but it was important that you did it, and that it wasn't the result of democracy.
So does the end result feel different?
Yeah, more pressure. And all the joy, too. But you need to know who you are. You need to dig deeper into yourself. I've noticed that with Frames records, especially with the last one, I was kind of leaving it up to the boys a bit. I kind of wasn't there. My head was in Swell Season, to be honest. I was just about to leave the Frames and go be a Swell Season guy. My head wasn't in it. My heart wasn't in it. I found myself drifting, whereas with this, it's like, "This is you." You can't drift. It's about ownership. I'm 42; it's about time I owned my shit. It's about time I owned my feelings. It's about time I owned everything, and that I'm able to explain everything I write and everything that I do. I feel good about it.
As you should. It's a great record, by the way.
Do you like it? Thank you so much. That's all that matters ― that people like it. If I could be selfish and want anything for this record, and for any of the records I've ever made, it would be that people find a song or two on it and actually have a relationship with the songs. That's all that matters.
There was quite a grand guest appearance at your Living Room show a few nights ago in New York…
Oh, that was lovely. Because [Bono] doesn't do that at all. We go busking together at Christmas. That's something we do every year. I would love to think, and Bono would be a good man to make it happen in a lot of ways because he's got all the numbers, but I would love to think that everyone goes home at Christmas. So what if you've got Lou Reed in New York, and you've got Radiohead in Oxford and Coldplay in London, and you've got Paul McCartney in Liverpool, Bill Callahan in Austin or whatever it happens to be. What if they all just went busking on Christmas Eve in their hometowns? And just made some money and gave it to the shelter? We just do it for a homeless shelter in Dublin. It's a lovely idea ― no security, no bullshit, no PA, no lights, no stage. It doesn't cost anything to do. And you make some money and get a sense of community. He's been really gracious with that. Every year he's come out and done it. It's always a lovely surprise for the audience when he shows up at Christmas. It's a couple thousand people on Grafton Street just watching guys sing songs.
So anyway, he was in town [in New York], and he was like, "What are you up to?" and I said, "Well I'm playing the Living Room for this radio thing." And he said, "Maybe I'll come down." And I thought, "There's no way he's coming down." I totally get it. He really can't go anywhere. And yet, he came down and was standing at the back of the room. Just before I went on, he said to me, "Are you doing 'The Auld Triangle' in your set?" And I said, "I can if you want." And he said, "Why don't you do it last? Maybe I'll do a verse." I could see that he was like, "I'm in." The audience was genuinely surprised and really happy. And no one bothered him. No one asked for an autograph. He was just another singer in the band. He got up and then he sang and then he left. And I was so happy he did it, because he just never does that. I was so happy that he had it in him, to step outside of that massive position. It's humbling.
Is Bono a big hero for you?
He's sort of always been there. [U2 are] the biggest band in Ireland, of course. They're the biggest band in the world to some people, probably to most people. U2 are that amazing, funny thing where you kind of want to hate them and then every couple of years they release a song that makes you go, "Shit. That's really good. Respect." It's definitely a complicated relationship with U2. With him, it's a whole different story. He is a sweetheart. I remember meeting him as a kid, and he was a really nice guy.
Where did you meet him, as a kid?
I actually met him late at night. He was out of petrol. And I was on my scooter. And I was coming up the Strand, on the coast of Dublin. He was out pushing his car to a garage. I jumped off my bike and helped him push the car. We chatted a bit. I was really into R.E.M.'s Green at the time, and he asked what I was listening to. And I was like, "R.E.M., Green, do you know it?" And he said, "Oh I love that record." And he knew Pixies and Surfer Rosa really well. I was really impressed. I think it was around Rattle and Hum time, or maybe it was just after Joshua Tree. I know it was early on. And he knew all of this music. He would have seen me in town busking. The thing about busking on Grafton Street is that you see everyone in Dublin. They all pass by at some point. It's the main shopping street of the city. So if you can see them, they can see you, and if you make any impression on them whatsoever, they'll be like, "You're the guy who busks on Grafton Street." So he recognized me from that.
But the most significant meeting me and Bono had was just before the Oscars. There was a moment where our nomination had come into dispute. We got nominated and it was big news. Two days later, the nomination was being pulled because some Czech journalist had found a recording of me and Markéta [Irglová] a year previous, playing the song in a club. And apparently you could never have played the song publicly before the production of the film. We were being disqualified and Bono called me up and said, "I heard about this thing." We only had about 12 hours before they were going to officially knock us out. And he said, "Do you mind if I at least petition on your behalf? Because this is just a little technical thing, and it's not a big deal." He said, "Poetic arc is what we're all about. We believe in poetry. Poetry is what drives the world. We need to complete the poetry. A guy from Grafton Street making this film with his mates and then ending up on the Kodak stage in Los Angeles, that's a poetic arc that we need to complete." So he sent this beautiful letter to the academy, all about poetry. He said, "I can't try and help you with the nomination, but I will talk about poetry." And that's what he did.
Since we're talking about Dublin, what's your relationship with home like? Distance is a theme that seems to creep its way into the new record.
I've had a lot of time off this year, and I spent a lot of it in Dublin. It's not like I lived in New York the whole time. I've been working on making tables and very amateur carpentry. I started to plant potatoes and vegetables. These are all things I never really learned how to do properly because I was in a band for so long, and you're always eating out.
There comes a time in your life where priorities begin to shift, and you begin to need more time with your people ― your friends, and particularly your family. My mother's getting older, my father died a few years ago. I wasn't there when he died, I was in America. And I should have been there. The reason I called the album Rhythm and Repose is because I believe that when you're working you should work really hard, and really work, and really focus. But when you're not working, you should turn everything off. And you should just sit. You look at kids waiting at the bus stop nowadays, and their heads are in their phones. As a young boy, my imagination was the most important thing. I would sit on a bus and drift off into my thinking and write songs and imagine my life. That imagination was so strong that I have literally invented the path to that life, from back when I was a child. For me, when I was a kid, Bob Dylan was the only thing in the world that mattered truly. I obsessed on Bob Dylan. At 21, I met Bob Dylan and went on tour with him. It was a totally random meeting ― I met him in a rehearsal room, he saw me play a few songs with my band while he was having a cigarette. The next thing I know, I'm opening for him at the Hammersmith Apollo in London.
What I'm saying about Rhythm and Repose is that your imagination is so vital. When you just put the phone in your pocket or turn it off, better still, your head just goes somewhere else and it doesn't take long for your imagination to get to a place where you're actually figuring your shit out. You start slowly working things out. Us humans, we're complicated. We just need time to let the brain come to its own realizations. So when I go home now, I'm home. And people are saying, "Why didn't you answer my emails?" I'm like, "because something new has just happened to me." I will answer for only my girlfriend or my mother or my best mate. And then when I go back on tour, I'll catch up with those emails and I'll reply to them. But not before then.
So you're very strict about whom you give your time to.
I remember when I turned 40, a very important thing happened to me, almost overnight. I realized, "Okay, you're in my fucking garden. Get out. You, I never really quite liked that much anyway. You, I actually really value, so come here, let's get to know each other better and have a relationship that's not some bullshit, I'll text you every so often or see you when I'm in your town." You start to realize that time is finite. It's not like I'm obsessing on death or anything. But if I'm going to be more stable and have friendships and relationships, I need to tend them. I need to work on them. And if there are weeds growing in my garden, I need to cut those fuckers out.
I wanted to ask you about working with Nico Muhly on Rhythm and Repose. You guys have worked together previously, too.
Nico is an absolute gem. He's amazing. It was funny when we were doing this with him. We were on the phone to him and he was somewhere in Norway. And we were basically explaining the song over the phone. And the song was playing in the background. And as we were on the phone, the fax machine with the music was coming through. That's the way he is. He's got that obsessive nature. His brain is moving so fast. I love being around him. He's always speeding along.
That's an interesting juxtaposition, his speedy brain and your more relaxed methodology.
Super mellow, yeah. We're going to do something else this week. He's a great guy to be around and I like the idea of getting him in, just to be in the situation.
Last question: What's your favourite song on the new record?
For me it's "You Will Become," which is why I put it first. It's important to me. I sang that song to my little brothers. I sang it to people that I love. The message is that it's not what you do, but what you continue to do that defines you. So if you continue in this way, you will become this. Be mindful. Because we are literally inventing everything that's going on for us right now. Everything I am is a result of decisions I've made in my life. So make good decisions.