Glen Hansard once received a nickname from his friend Nico Muhly: Earnest Strum. The name was a way for Muhly, a contemporary composer, to poke fun at the type of exceedingly sincere, traditionally-rooted folk that Hansard has mostly been making for the past dozen years, ever since he rose to unlikely mainstream fame with the success of the 2007 musical drama Once.
In recent years, Hansard himself has grown a bit restless with his reputation as a bearded balladeer. After 2018’s Between Two Shores, the latest in a steady stream of heartfelt solo records, he was ready to move on. Enter his new collection, This Wild Willing — a moody, left-turn statement that features low-register whispering and expansive, electronic-influenced arrangements born out of that anxiety.
“I was thinking about Earnest Strum when I was making this record, and I was thinking, ‘I’m kind of bored with the music I make,’” says the Irish singer-songwriter, 49. “What I realized is that I needed to let go of expectations. I had to let go of who Glen Hansard is, of who Earnest Strum is. I had to let go of the concept of being being a folk singer, or an emotional singer.”
To jumpstart that process, Hansard decamped to Paris to try out a new way of writing songs, experimenting with a newly stream-of-conscious, impressionistic style that reflected his day-to-day life in the French capital. He says he didn’t discover the key to shaking up his musical identity until he met the Khoshravesh brothers, a trio of classically-trained Iranian musicians whose mastery of traditional instruments like the setar, the kamancheh and the ney ended up providing Hansard with a fresh musical palette.
“The truth is, yeah, I was originally going in to make an acoustic record, but I was going in to make an acoustic record because I didn’t really know what else to fucking do,” says Hansard, who also invited a number of electronic-leaning musicians into the studio to help reconfigure his sound. “What these musicians brought was so fucking beautiful. It utterly changed the tone and power of what I created.”
As a result, This Wild Willing is a marked shake-up for Hansard. Songs like “Weight of the World” and “Who’s Gonna Be Your Baby Now” are meandering, jazz-inflected ruminations that feature zero strumming whatsoever. “Race to the Bottom” and lead single “I’ll Be You, Be Me” are mumble-folk meditations less reliant on traditional Western melody than anything Hansard has ever released. (The latter song, which includes a bass and drum sample from Queen’s 1982 song “Cool Cat,” delayed the release date of the entire album by several months when Queen’s Brian May “took for-fucking-ever” to clear the sample with Hansard’s team.)
Hansard adds that by toying with drum loops, samples and new production styles, he was trying to reflect the diversity of the music he listens to in his spare time. “I consciously set out to make a record that I would like to listen to,” he says, “Because the irony is, the music I listen to doesn’t reflect the music I play. You get locked into a kind of gang. People might say to me, ‘Damien Rice, blah blah.’ I don’t listen to Damien Rice, and I never have. I know him, and we’re friends, but I don’t listen to him. The same way I don’t listen to Josh Ritter, who is another friend of mine. It’s not that I don’t like him — it’s just not my music. People would assume that because you make this kind of music, that you listen to it, and it’s absolutely not true.”
But the longtime frontman of the Irish alt-rock band the Frames, who last released an album in 2015, says that the biggest motivator to shake up his artistic framework was the fraught release of his previous solo set last year. “I must admit that when I released Between Two Shores, it rattled me,” he says. “It freaked me out, and the reason is because that album is just a bunch of demos that didn’t make [2015’s] Didn’t He Ramble. I had that awful fucking feeling — you know when you write something and you kind of feel like you dialed it in a little bit?”
By that point, Hansard had already begun exploring his new improvisational songwriting style, so he was conflicted about releasing music that didn’t reflect his creative state of mind. “If these are the songs I’m writing right now, and this is the mood I’m creating, what the fuck am I doing releasing this record?’” he asked himself. When Between Two Shores came out, Hansard told his manager to limit the amount of touring on the album.
Had Hansard ever felt this way before in his nearly 30-year career? “It was absolutely the first time, and it really shocked me. I allowed myself to put something out that wasn’t at the highest level I could achieve. The good news is, I responded to it.”
“I had to let go of who Glen Hansard is. I had to let go of the concept of being being a folk singer.”
On a deeper level, This Wild Willing serves as a mid-career palette cleanser for Hansard, who likens the process of making the record to his earlier work with the Frames. In that band, he says, “We made rock music, and we made the kind of music we liked, the music we were interested in. It was less about creating a character, less about being sincere or true.”
When Hansard talks about “creating a character,” he is referring, in part, to the blockbuster success of Once and its Oscar-winning single “Falling Slowly” — a period in which he recalls feeling thrilled, though often anxious and more than a little creatively boxed in. Although he’s long past the years of Once-mania, there’s a sense, speaking with him, that he’s still working through some small slice of residual angst left over from that experience.
For several years after the release of the film, Hansard and his musical, on-screen, and at one time romantic partner, Markéta Irglová, performed their relationship on stages around the world, night after night, as members of their group the Swell Season. A few years into their partnership, Irglová and Hansard broke up, and after keeping the band going for a couple more years, the Swell Season gradually dissolved.
“Once was a wonderful, wonderful chapter in my career, and in my life, but it also kind of designated me as the folky guy,” he says. “If you look at my career before Once, the music was quite different. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life regurgitating that incredible moment. I’m still behind every song on the Once record, 100 percent, but it doesn’t mean that I’m restricted to being that guy. I absolutely refuse to spent the rest of my life hoping that Markéta will come back on tour with me. I refuse to go there.”
These days, Hansard seems to have mostly arrived at a sense of peace. “I’m very, very happy to say that there are nights when I don’t play any songs from Once, and then there are nights when I play only old songs,” he says. “I feel like I’m in a position right now with my audience where it’s okay if I decide not to play certain songs. They’ll go along with me, because I’m not bullshitting them, and I’m not willfully trying to upset them.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be that artist that goes, ‘Fuck you, this is what I’m doing tonight,’ like Lou Reed,” he adds. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that guy, and I don’t think I ever will be. Because, ultimately, I feel like the guy who wrote those old songs. The guy who wrote ‘Falling Slowly’ and the guy who wrote ‘I’ll Be You, Be Me’ — that’s the same guy.”