Every Song Full of Emotion and Heart
We interviewed the directors of the film The Swell Season; you can hear that podcast here. And stay tuned for the podcast interview with Glen (we saved some of it just for that!)
A version of this article was first published in Irish Examiner USA.
Glen Hansard’s Rhythm and Repose came out on Anti- records on June 19. He will be at (Le) Poisson Rouge on June 28, and at The Beacon Theatre on June 29.
When I told Glen Hansard there’s a John Lennon thing going on in “Maybe Not Tonight,” one of the most unforgettable songs on an unforgettable album, he said “I was trying to write a song… that you could play in a car.”
“There’s all this great music that you just put it on, and you travel through the landscape, and some music works really well when you’re driving in a car.”
He compared a great album to a hot bath. “You put it on and somehow it’s comforting.”
While some of the records he loves are more of a challenge, he said,
“I’d like to think that there’s at least a couple of moments where you settle in and there’s a comforting aspect. All the music that I love is both comforting and challenging.”
Rhythm and Repose, which comes out on Anti- Records on June 19th, is that. And more. It is a hot bath you’ll stay in until your fingers wrinkle. It’s the CD that you’ll want to play in the car as you drive across the country, looking out at the sky as the trees roll by, reflecting on where you’ve been, where you’re going.
If you’re unfamiliar with his sound, he crafts simple melodies that build to a passionate release, a little like Van Morrison, a little like Dylan.
Each song on Rhythm and Repose is full of emotion and heart.
The orchestration creates a different musical world for each of the 11 songs.
There’s White Album-like focus on detail. Yep, I’m back to John Lennon again.
Produced by Thomas Bartlett (Doveman), Rhythm and Repose is Glen’s first solo album.
It reflects his time in New York, which he said is
“a city of excellence. There’s a lot to be said for surrounding yourself with people who are better than you. And getting in a room and seeing what happens.”
He raved about playing with people who’ve played with Mingus, Levon Helm, Springsteen.
Still scruffy-looking at age 42, with a ginger beard and red cap, Glen began his career busking in Dublin at the age of 13.
He played with the band Kila, then formed The Frames, acted in the film The Commitments (1991) starred in the Indie film Once (2007) and unexpectedly won an Academy Award for the song “Falling Slowly.”He played and toured with costar and love Marketa Irglová as The Swell Season.
The Broadway musical Once recently won a bunch of Tony Awards. Glen also contributed two songs to the 2012 film The Hunger Games.
When I brought up John Lennon, I was thinking of the intro to “Maybe not tonight,” which sounds a lot like “Mind Games,” but then there’s Glen’s voice.
“Bird of Hope,” for example, begins with words of comfort so clipped they sound as if they were hard to express:
“Even if a day feels too long, if you feel like you can’t wait another one
and you’re slowly giving up on everything, love is gonna find you again.”
But by the end of the song he’s screaming, “I’m not leaving!” before it all quiets again.
“I’m getting older so my voice is maybe getting a little raggier here or maybe it’s getting a bit more expressive there, but I’m sort of happy with it right now. I do believe, for better or worse, you earn your voice. Your voice is something that comes to you over time.”
Take the first song, “You Will Become,” written, perhaps, to a lover who is growing beyond him. There’s a line,
You think that’s the end of the line.
Marketa Irglová sings harmonies on that one. She’s married to someone else now, but the pair still collaborate.
It would be easy to read much of the CD as rueful love songs to her, but that’s only one possibility.
“There isn’t a central sentiment you’re trying to get across. Songs are a bit like diary entries. Of course they’re personal, but I don’t get particular joy out of putting my personal life in front of people. I sing songs. They’re about the deepening of my own soul.”
And just as Chekhov’s heroines really want to get to Moscow in The Three Sisters, even the sad songs come from the point of view of someone trying to make sense of things, and find some peace.
“Love don’t leave me waiting” is one of the few breezy, relax-in-the-sun kind of songs (and the video, out now on youtube, shows Glen chilling by the water in Jamaica, with people dancing and a very calm looking black lab).
The chilling “What Are We Gonna Do” (the liner notes say the song is “after Paddy Casey’s ‘Sweet Suburban Sky,’ and it follows the melody of that song) is as powerful a song about the fear of the end of love that has ever been recorded.
Its silvery strings in the background add to song’s sense of hollow yearning. The shock of Marketa’s voice coming in to take a verse is like a sucker punch. And yet, despite the sorrow that drives it, the song doesn’t belong on your “music to be miserable to” playlist. I asked myself why, and I asked Glen too.
“People always say to me, ‘your songs are really sad,’ and I’m like, really?” His voice went up about an octave on “really,” and I had to laugh. He certainly sounded happy when we spoke, conducting the telephone interview with me as he walked down the street.
“I would say reflective sure, but not sad,” he continued.
“I’m not a defeated person. I’ve never felt like that, and yet, I think all art is born of sorrow. I think sorrow is a place in us all and if you deal with it correctly you might make something artistic out of it.
The thing I can’t stand is when people whinge. If I thought for a second that my music was whingeing I would be very upset. I think it’s OK to speak about the darker places, it’s OK to speak about sorrow.”
He grew up listening to Leonard Cohen, he said, who he never found depressing. “It just always put me in an interesting spot. It was beautiful warm music.”
I asked him if he he thought he could ever write a happy love song?
There was a pause, and then he said, sounding bewildered, “They are happy love songs.” Again I had to laugh.
“High Hope” is a happy love song, he said. Well – it is in a way, because the singer does say “I’m going to see you there,” but it is preceded by lines such as:
“Maybe when we’re both old and wise, maybe when our hearts have had some time.”
It is not exactly “Suzanne” (by Leonard Cohen) but no, it’s not a complaint. Glen continued,
“I’m really not interested in complaining about love. I think melancholy and sorrow are not things to shy away from, but they’re absolutely beautiful and real things and they’re in our every day. It’s a bit like shame, the more you push it down the more you have.”
He acknowledged that “What are we gonna do” is a sad and reflective song, with
“What are we gonna do if we lose that fire.”
But, he added that it also says says,
“I don’t want to lose youto some bullsh**t hurt that could have been helpedI want to tell you something.
A good good heart is your greatest wealth.”
There’s no self-pity, and this is not whingeing. Which maybe helps explain how he can split himself open, and spill himself out to the listener. Glen said,
“You’re never thinking about am I being too personal or not personal enough, you’re just singing your song.
“It’s not about me. It’s the song that’s king. The song is the thing that wants to be sung. A song needs to be loved. It works best when it serves. And really once you write a song, you spend the rest of your time serving the song. The song’s not serving you.
You’re part of the birth of something, and from there on you serve it. It is a wonderful thing when someone says you know what, that gave me a lot.”
Beauty, he said, is “in the ear of the behearer. I hear open-ended songs.”
So then, it should be OK that in “Races,” most probably conceived as a love song, the repetition of piano keys over extended chords, the lower range of Glen’s baritone, the lines about throwing away “old glories” and letting “you go gently among your kind” makes me think of the sidhe, and their hurling matches, their mischief and their melancholy.
And that for some reason “Song of Good Hope,” the most tender, loving song on the CD, encouraging someone to,
“lift up your arms
and reach for it
and reach for it”
is the one song that brings a lump to my throat.
The songs are open, yes. And truly great.
Glen described New York as a city that says
“you know, are you good enough? You know, are you sure you’re good enough? You know, you better be on your game because this is, you know, this is it.”
So is he.
even for a while.