Glen Hansard is still pleasantly stunned a couple of days after Once – the Broadway musical based on the 2006 indie film starring him and Markéta Irglová – took home eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. “It’s fucking amazing!” says the Irish singer-songwriter. “We just couldn’t believe it kept on winning all those awards. After the ceremony, I was so floored and blown away by the whole thing that I went and took a 40-block walk, just to clear my head.”
Next week, Hansard will release Rhythm and Repose – his first solo project after six studio albums with his Dublin-based rock band, the Frames, and two with Irglová as the Swell Season. He and Irglová also began and ended a real-life romance after Once, but they remain friends; last night at New York’s Housing Works bookstore, Hansard capped off a joyous solo set by bringing her onstage as a surprise guest. Hansard checked in with Rolling Stone from New York before launching a full tour that will take him across North America and Europe through the fall.
Did you and Markéta have fun at the Tonys?
Very much. We didn’t even know we had tickets until the day before – I was actually in Dublin the day before the Tonys, and then I ended up flying that morning. It was an incredible night. What a journey! Sometimes you give birth to something or you’re part of a team that gives birth to an idea, and it grows and has a whole life of its own, and you feel grateful. It’s just so humbling.
How involved were you in adapting your songs from the film into the musical?
Oh, not at all. I kept my distance. I was kind of horrified with the notion of it going to Broadway, to be honest. John Carney, who directed the film, kept assuring me, “I wouldn’t let it fall into bad hands.” I pleaded with him not to do it. But after seeing rehearsals, I was really overwhelmed by just how much grace they treated it with.
One of the things that makes the movie great is how personal and homemade it feels. Was it weird for you to see that turned into a big production?
Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like it’s not a big production. It was all about the little things for me – the actors pushing on the piano, the fact that the music is all happening on stage. What I really like about the production is that there’s no smoke and mirrors. It’s a sort of anti-big production, if you like. Yes, it’s playing on Broadway, and yes, it’s playing in a big theater, but what’s actually going on onstage is incredibly simple. It’s like going to see the White Stripes – you’ve got two people on stage, there’s no hidden keyboard. And that, apart from the great music, is what makes you love it.
How did your new solo album come together?
I took a year off from touring and moved to New York, and I ended up hanging out with my friend Thomas [Bartlett]. We jammed a couple of things one night at a session he runs called the Burgundy Stain Sessions, down at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street. I was kind of fooling around, and it sounded really good, so I said, “Why don’t we go into the studio and try some things out?” It was very, very mellow. This was the easiest record I’ve ever made. It was all done in this really leisurely fashion – you know, it wasn’t a tortured process. I didn’t go off, have a nervous breakdown then write a bunch of songs. That’s why I called the album Rhythm and Repose, because I’m beginning to believe that rest is as important as work.
Before you took that break, you’d been touring and recording with the Swell Season for a long time.
It was pretty much five years. I mean, we were busy before the Oscars [in February 2008], but after that it got super busy. I don’t want to throw names off too much, but I remember sitting next to Bruce Springsteen, and he put things in perspective for me so, so well. He said, “When you have success, you need to mark it, even if it’s opening a beer or a bottle of champagne or going to dinner with your family or taking a holiday. If you don’t mark your success, then the day your ship comes in might just be another day at the office.” And I remember thinking, “Jesus, that’s so true!” Because what happened after the Oscars was we just started working harder. I have to admit, it wasn’t really until I took that time off that I dealt with the whole thing.
This is technically your first solo album. Was it any different making a record on your own?
Yeah. It’s a funny thing, you know. Making a record on your own, you wouldn’t think it’s that different, but Jesus, it’s different! It’s a big change. It sort of means that you’re captaining every decision. Making this record was a real lesson to me. I’m actually surprised at how much I enjoyed it.
The first time I saw Jake Clemons, who plays some of the horn parts on the new album, was at a Swell Season show a few years ago. Have you seen him play with Bruce since he joined the E Street Band?
I’m really happy for him, and I think it’s the perfect path. I think that path was open to him all the way, and it was really up to Jake whether he wanted to fill it. He had to really work hard – I mean, not only does he have to be as good as Clarence, he has to be as good as people’s memory of Clarence. And he knows that there’s no way to do that. But he’s just such a beautiful dude that I’m so overjoyed for him. I’ve seen a couple of Bruce’s shows since he joined the band, and Jesus – he’s really standing up there and he’s really doing it. He’s never overstating the mark. He’s always humbly nodding to his uncle. I have to say, I think they’re doing it really, really well.
Are you excited to be getting back on the road for this album?
You know, I made this record all through last year, and it feels like it’s been a really, really long run-up to its release. I’m really happy that it’s finally coming out and that I get to do some gigs. I’ll get to bring in some brass or some backing vocals, and I’m really enjoying sort of playing around with the lineup on this tour. It’s exciting for me.
You’re a very emotional performer. How do you prepare for a summer of pouring out your heart onstage?
I think you have to take care of yourself and take care of your head. It’s like Tom Waits says: “Put yourself in good soil and put yourself in the window and get some good sunlight and make sure you’re well watered and let the magic happen.” [Laughs] You just have to keep yourself in a fairly good headspace, and then when you go onstage let the moment be the master. ‘Cause it’s not about me. If I start thinking it’s about me, then I start losing sight of what it is. And the muse is a very shy bird – if you’re desperate for it, if you call upon it without respect, you know, sometimes it will show up, but more often than not it doesn’t.
Do you think there might be any more Swell Season music in the future, or is that chapter closed?
I think the only way there will ever be Swell Season music is if me and Mar end up hanging out. Right now, this second, we’re living very separate lives. You know, who knows? The thing is, we really enjoy playing together, so that gravity still exists. I hope in time we get together and make some music, but for me, I need to go back and concentrate on the Frames for a while. Those guys deserve a fucking medal, man. I’ve been off doing my thing for so long. The boys are coming on tour with me this time, so I’m really looking forward to being onstage and doing sound checks and just getting to hang out with the lads and make music.