In June of 2013, one year after releasing his standout debut solo album, Rhythm and Repose, Glen Hansard and his band booked time at Wilco's Loft studio on the north side of Chicago. The Irish singer-songwriter was in the midst of an extensive tour behind his solo debut, but he had new material he wanted to record. And plus, being on the road, his band was extremely tight. Soon after recording those 15 songs, however, Hansard more or less forgot about them.
"Well, I didn't totally forget about them, but I had put it in the attic of my mind," Hansard, who the following year would begin work on 2015's more stripped-down Didn’t He Ramble, clarifies with a laugh. The Chicago sessions, it seemed, might be destined to waste away in a digital database of the troubadour's unreleased material.
Until last January. At the urging of one his close friends and collaborators, Hansard revisited the 2013 material and, much to his surprise, was amazed at how vital it all still felt. While he admits the lyrics were too vague, he says, "I heard how great the band sounded. I thought, 'These tunes are good! These tunes are worthy!' So I went into the studio, we laid down a bunch of vocals on it and that was it."
The result is Between Two Shores, his third solo album, due Friday, January 19th.
"I'm glad to have gone back and tidied up that bit of unfinished work," he says of the LP, one of his most potent and lively sets yet. Despite starting the songs nearly five years back, the singer considers this a brand-new album "because the lyrics are new. The lyrics are my most recent set," he says. "Whereas the tunes, the ideas themselves, they were just thoughts."
Hansard is quick to downplay any sort of grand artistic revelation garnered from this seemingly unorthodox process. "Musicians do this kind of thing all the time. For every 20 songs you start, you probably finish two. It's just always been the way. If records were just the ideas, Jesus… I'd be knocking records out once a month," he says.
On Between Two Shores, Hansard accomplishes that rare feat of mixing loose and tender vibes with poignant lyrical precision. "Lucky Man" sways with a slow rolling and gentle touch, while "Movin' On" is the sort of contemplated acoustic guitar-anchored kiss-off of which Hansard is a master. Hansard brushes off any praise for his craft. Ask him about his songwriting process and he'll say his principal duty is to stay out of a song's way.
"Oftentimes you're not trying to write great music or write great lyrics," he says. "You're just trying to make something that marries the two." Over more than 25 years as a professional musician – with stints in acclaimed bands including the Swell Season, with Markéta Irglová, and the Frames before going solo – Hansard has found that losing one's sense of ego is paramount to creating meaningful work.
"I don't necessarily care to be this great poetic lyricist," Hansard says. "It's just about getting the song over. If you specialize in any one area you fail in others. But if you kind of specialize in none?" he says with a laugh.
"The thing to do with a song is not overthink it," he continues. "People are going to hear the fact that you're trying too hard." In fact, some of Hansard's favorite musicians – like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen – embrace simplicity. "They were all masters of lyrics and masters of music, but actually quite often their music was also incredibly simple."
Between Two Shores is often far more propulsive than his previous works – see the groove-laden "Roll on Slow" – but Hansard was keen on not betraying his solo acoustic roots. "I genuinely love playing alone. I'm quite comfortable in that place," Hansard says of the decision to play a pair of solo acoustic shows on his upcoming tour, including a release-day gig at Town Hall in New York City. "You have to come at the song from a very different place. You've got nothing but your intention and this piece of wood with string pulled over it that's accompanying you. It is an amazing challenge and the more I do it, the more I realize I have to keep on playing solo alongside playing with the full band. It's almost like a sharpening of your own instincts."
With Between Two Shores ready for the world, Hansard says he's already looking ahead to his next project. On the day we speak he's recording in a studio in his native Dublin. "I need to take a risk now," he says. "I kind of feel like it's time for me to go to a different place with the songs. I don't know exactly what that means and it kind of freaks me out a bit. Whenever you're in a creative space you're constantly polarizing between 'This is the worst shit I've ever come up with' and 'This is so important.'
"The biggest fear an artist has is stagnation and repetition," he says. "The older I get the more I realize I don't know a fucking thing. And what a joy to be able to really own that."