Back in September, I had lunch with Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the couple made famous by their Oscar-winning film Once, and back with a new record with their band The Swell Season.
Below is the piece, which ran in the Post, and below that the concert review from their fantastic Massey Hall show earlier this week.
THE SWELL SEASON: ONCE IS THEIR LIFETIME
By Brad Frenette, National Post
The Swell Season’s Markéta Irglová and Glen Hansard may no longer be a romantic pairing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t remain a couple.
The Czech chanteuse and the Irish troubadour stormed into the mainstream in an unlikely way: Their starring roles in the 2006 indie Irish film Once took them to Hollywood’s biggest stage, receiving the Oscar for best song. Far removed from the media craze of that time, the pair sit close to each other on a sunny autumn day in a Toronto restaurant. Now recording under the moniker The Swell Season, Irglová and Hansard are in town to talk about the band’s first proper record, Strict Joy. And despite the fact that their romantic relationship has dissolved, a clear familiarity remains: echoing each others’ sentiments, sharing secretive smiles and picking food off each others plates.
“There was definitely a transition period,” Irglová says of the breakup. “For us it was the end of romantic relationship, although we knew that the friendship was going to outlast the romance. At the end of it, you have to cut your ties with it in order to move on. We were debating whether we should continue touring; were we just making things harder for ourselves? I think the hardest thing with breakups is breaking patterns that you had with the other person, and the different ways of being. That takes time. Time is the only thing that changes things.”
Hansard, who also fronts the Irish band The Frames, retains a less philosophical view, and gives all the credit to his Swell Season bandmate: “I’m a bit more dramatic, honestly. I might have freaked out more, needed my space. Markéta is a very strong woman. I believe her strength allowed the [band] to continue.”
Whoever you wish to thank for The Swell Season continuing to make music, it is thanks worth sending. Strict Joy, produced by Peter Katsis and recorded after the duo had come down from the “beautiful and violent time” that followed the Academy Awards, is a strong album, dense and layered, and a showcase for their two voices – his gruff, worn-in and impassioned and hers delicate but devastating – which work throughout in perfect harmony.
There is analyzing to do on the record, for those who care to. The songs of betrayal and remorse and heartache lend themselves to that. And given that their relationship was made so public by Once, it will remain part of their ongoing story.
However, it’s not an association that the two shy from. For The Swell Season, the film and the music are all part of the same creative package. Keeping things separate, says Hansard, is a mistake, one he learned with his screen debut in The Commitments. The start of his band The Frames and his role in the 1990 adaptation of the Roddy Doyle novel both happened around the same time. And keeping the two creative vehicles separate in interviews at the time wore on the singer. However, Hansard learned that drawing a line between creative pursuits “just clashes and you’ll catch on it every time.”
Irglová agrees: “[Once] was part of us, not something foreign to us. It would be like trying to separate ourselves from ourselves, if you know what I mean. I see the film as something that happened in a very natural way, and everything that happened after that was a continuation.”
For now, The Swell Season, which Hansard defines as “me and Markéta … and whoever we play with,” is that continuation.
“Just being honest, it’s worked out well,” Hansard says, finished with his meal and angling the leftovers toward Irglová. “That’s not to say we both aren’t fooling ourselves. We might look in eight months time and say, “what in the hell are we thinking?'”
He smiles and looks over at his partner.
“But so far, so good, right?”
Curling that secretive smile, Irglová pushes her fork into his plate of pasta and responds: “Right.”
• Strict Joy (ANTI-) is in stores now.
The Swell Season, November 3, 2009,
Massey Hall, Toronto
The first sing-along The Swell Season show last night in Toronto was a flop. But don’t blame the crowd. No, blame it on the full moon.
You see, the Irish band, fronted by the Oscar-winning duo of Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, has spent the previous night playing in Indiana. After a few songs, Hansard relayed the story of a local woman who approached them after the show, and expressed how she had the intention of only watching the band play live on full moon nights. So, after a few loud bays from the participatory audience, Hansard invited the crowd to howl out the chorus of their next song, “in memory of” that Indianapolis fan.
And, as mentioned, while it sounded like a promising idea in theory, it was not in practice. Hansard later joked that it was “a great mistake”. Granted, it was a challenge – for as they prove on wax, the duo further convinced the masses at Massey Hall that they have vocal chops, and charm, in excess, putting on a devastatingly good show for a near capacity crowd.
Sharing time at stage front, Hansard started the show with Irglova at piano. After a few songs, it was Irglova’s turn to take the guitar and centre stage.
Prefacing her first song of the night with a plea for awareness on behalf of Amnesty International for Canada’s First Nation women who have been “murdered or gone missing” , Irglova dedicated Fantasy Man to the victims. It gave the song an eerie aesthetic, and lyrics like “I never heard the warning” resounded in a new context.
After the song, the entire band save Hansard left the stage. Let’s call this part of the evening “the clinic”.
Starting with Leave, a song from their 2007 film Once, Hansard, glowing in a small yellow spotlight, began to work the crowd with his range of vocals and guitarmanship. Following that with Say It To Me Now, a clear crowd favourite, Hansard then continued with a more co-ordinated sing-along effort for the beautiful Back Broke, from their new album, Strict Joy.
Prefacing the song, Hansard called forth an unexpected reference point: “There’s a lovely Ravi Shankar song called I Am Dancing at the Feet of My Lord – All Is Bliss, All Is Bliss. It’s a great name for a song, and I wish I’d wrote it. But this is called Back Broke, and it’s a similar devotional.”
A more obvious influence came next as Hansard got on his loop pedals to deliver a wall of sound and vocals in his knockdown cover of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, which brought many in the seated theatre to a mid-set standing ovation.
Colm Mac Con Iomaire, violinist for both The Swell Season and Hansard’s other band, The Frames, got a turn in the spotlight, laying down a version of a 300 year old “County Mayo” Irish love song. As he looping his violin parts to form a droning, harmonium like backdrop for the instrumental, the Irish strands of my DNA, and those of many others in the pindrop silence of the moment, were a-shiver.
The set concluded with a four song encore, beginning with Irglova’s cover of a Neko Case Nico song. After she finished, Hansard came back on stage and the duo played Falling Slowly, the song for which the duo won an Oscar. After it finished, an audience member observed aloud: ”You should put that one in a movie.”
Hansard then cued to “bring the boys back out”, and the full band closed with the The Frames’ excellent song Red Chord. And , inserting the old Gaelic tune A Parting Glass at the end of the tune, the audience finally hit their note, joining The Swell Season with one voice to sing loud the lines: “Then fill to me the parting glass/ Good night and joy be with you all”.
– Brad Frenette, National Post