GLEN HANSARD GIVES HIS TAKE ON MUSICAL THEATRE
Ahead of the Australian premiere of the musical Once, Jane Cornwell meets musician Glen Hansard in a Dublin pub and asks how it all began
‘IREALLY do believe that the world rewards the courageous,” says Glen Hansard, blues eyes flashing under rowdy red brows. “‘Cause out there” — he tips his curls at a window — “there’s no protection. You might be robbed, beaten or killed. You might get your big break, or meet the love of your life. You’re that exposed.”
Here in the armchaired splendour of the Library Bar, a genteel drinking den in downtown Dublin, it’s easy to forget that Hansard, 44, busked this area for five years as a teenager. Most days he’d pitch up on busy, pedestrianised Grafton Street, stand near his open guitar case and wield his Takamine acoustic like a weapon as he belted out tunes by his heroes. Leonard Cohen. Bob Dylan. Van Morrison.
“One time I was singing a song by Van when the man himself walked by and looked right at me,” says Hansard, open-faced in jeans, checked shirt and desert boots, a beaded leather choker — the street performer’s man jewellery — tied around his neck.
He flashes a grin. “The funny thing was, I was raising the money to go and see him play that night.”
A singer, songwriter, occasional actor and self-confessed workaholic, Hansard has maintained his busker’s aesthetic throughout a career that has variously brought him international renown, first-name terms with the likes of Van, Bob and Leonard and — since his role as guitarist Outspan Foster in Alan Parker’s 1991 smash-hit flick The Commitments — household name status in Ireland.
“Glen Hansard? He’s a good working-class lad,” said my taxi driver en route from Dublin airport. “You still see him busking around.”
It was an unorthodox school principal who sent Hansard, the third of several kids born to a hard-drinking ex-boxer and a housewife with a penchant for gambling, on to the streets with his guitar, aged 14. Told him he was wasting his time at school so he might as well kickstart his musical career, starting at the bottom rung.
“Grafton Street was all the education I needed,” says Hansard, whose earliest musical memory is of his mother teaching him the lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire as she bathed the then four-year-old in the kitchen sink. “Busking gave me everything.”
He admits that playing struggling Dublin busker Guy in the surprise 2007 cinema hit
Once wasn’t much of a stretch. There, onscreen, is the bold charisma and whisper-to-a-roar singing style that Hansard honed on the streets. There, too, are hints of the real-life romance that bloomed with his younger co-star, Czech songstress Marketa Irglova, with whom he founded folk rock act the Swell Season. “This is mad,” said Hansard as he stood onstage with Irglova at the 2008 Academy Awards, clutching the Oscar for best original song for Falling Slow
ly from Once. “We shot this film on two Handicams. It took us three weeks to make. It’s been an amazing thing.”
Once might have been enough for Hansard, who toured the world for two years with the Swell Season while taking part in an eponymous documentary that detailed the pressures of fame, the cracks in his relationship with Irglova and their eventual, inevitable break-up.
“When you take the struggle away from a man who only knows how to struggle,” he says in his earnest, personable way, “I believe he’ll just go looking for it. But I don’t want to keep messing things up.”
After touring the US as support act to his mate Eddie Vedder — who reached out to Hansard in 2010 after a man publicly killed himself at a Swell Season gig in San Jose — Hansard released an intimate 2012 solo album titled
Rhythm and Repose that he recorded fast (“I didn’t want to sweat the details”) and swears he hasn’t listened to since.
In the meantime, the stage production rights for Once had been snapped up by American producers and in 2012 the “quiet, delicate film” beloved of millions became a musical playing on Broadway. Critical reaction was hesitant, then effusive: “A modest little love story, played with fierce sincerity,” declared The Wall Street
Journal. “As vital and surprising as the early spring that has crept up on Manhattan,” swooned The New York Times.
Adapted by celebrated Irish playwright Enda Walsh ( Disco Pigs, The Walworth Farce) and award-winning theatre director John Tiffany ( Black Watch), Once scooped eight gongs at the 2012 Tony Awards including best musical, best director of a musical and best book of a musical: “Holy shit,” said Walsh, stepping up to accept the latter.
Once opened in London’s West End last year; a production is touring North America. Next month the musical makes its Australian debut in Melbourne, with British actor Tom Parsons and Australian performer Madeleine Jones in the lead roles, and the city’s Princess Theatre transformed into an Irish pub with a working bar at which audience members can purchase a drink.
So how does Hansard feel about the musical opening in Australia, which he first visited in
the 1990s with his long-time backing outfit the Frames, and where he regularly plays sell-out houses? (In February and March he was back in the country as the support act to Vedder and to do his own solo gigs, many of which culminated in sing-a-along audiences following him out the door, Pied Piper-style.)
He sits back. “I’ve no opinion,” he says with a shrug. “Honestly, it’s not my project any more. I have songs in it, that’s all.”
I get a flash of the 20-something Hansard, with his red ponytail and sidies and flyaway curls, refusing to answer journalists’ questions about The Commitments. Insisting the focus be on his work with The Frames instead. (“I might have overreacted a bit to make my point,” he’ll say later. “People were like, ‘F..k you’. I get that now.”) But mindful that the Australian debut of
Once is the reason he’s talking to me — why he has made the half-hour journey into town from Pickering House, the rambling 19th-century home in County Kildare owned by brewery heiress and philanthropist Marina Guinness that Hansard has shared for years with a changing line-up of arty types including fellow former busker Damien Rice and, most recently, his filmmaker girlfriend — he tries again.
“OK, well, my first reaction to the idea of a musical was ‘F..k, no!’” he says. “I mean, nothing much happens in the film. It would be so easy to wreck it. Mar was just as resistant as I was.”
He name-checks Irglova, now a married mother of one living and working in Reykjavik, Iceland, where he recently sent her a new piano, and where he visits as much as he can.
“But our reluctance forced them to make good decisions. When I heard that Enda was on board I thought, ‘Now we’re on track’,” he says.
“I’ve always liked the idea of someone left field taking something successful and putting a new spin on it. Whenever people used to talk about a Commitments sequel I’d think, wouldn’t it be amazing if Mike Leigh or Ken Loach did it? If the film started 10 years after the band split up, when they’d gone back to other jobs?”
He’s pleased, he adds, that the stage version of Once turned out to be a sort of “anti-big production”, with the actors pushing on the piano and generally interacting with the audience, and the music all happening onstage. Nice and simple. No smoke and mirrors.
He pauses and sighs, his gaze level. “I just hope that when it runs its course they will put it out to pasture and leave it alone. It’s a nice piece of theatre. It would be sad to see it dragged out.”
This won’t be anytime soon. With Ronan Keating making his West End debut as Guy in November and productions scheduled to open in Seoul and Toronto as well as in Melbourne, the Once juggernaut — or for Hansard, jugger-
I’VE ALWAYS LIKED THE IDEA OF SOMEONE LEFT FIELD TAKING SOMETHING SUCCESSFUL AND PUTTING A NEW SPIN ON IT
not — is only just gearing up. His relationship with the musical feels complicated. A few weeks after our interview, in Los Angeles to perform a headline gig at the Hollywood Bowl, Hansard gatecrashed the touring cast of Once at the Pantages Theatre for an off-the-cuff rendition of that traditional Irish party piece, The Auld
For the past few months he has been taking time out to reboot and reassess, starting with time spent near Byron Bay, in northern NSW, just chilling and drawing and painting, watercolours mainly.
“When you call yourself a songwriter, the problem is that you have to write songs. For me painting is meditative. It’s a good way of freeing up the hand and letting the lyrics come.” He has just written a new song called My Lit
tle Ruin (“It’s me saying to a friend or a friend saying to me, ‘Come on, pick yourself up, you’re all right’ ”), which he’s adding to a bunch of songs for a new album he’s in the middle of composing in his head.
“The order of the songs is as important as the songs themselves. One song might change the meaning to the song before it, so I’m thinking about all that. Right now it’s great to be afforded a bit of time.”
The idea, he says, was to check in with life, with himself: “I don’t want to look up when I’m 50 and think, ‘ You’ve done exceptionally well because you’ve worked hard in this area of your life but you still don’t know who you are, and you still haven’t had kids.”
He checks himself, changes the subject. After I leave Dublin I read a rumour that Hansard’s girlfriend is pregnant; either way, and especially after his very public relationship with Irgova, he’s keeping this one private. He’d rather talk about other stuff, like the fact he’s reading Ani
mal Farm for the first time. That he has been taking photos with his old Hasselblad, and digging in the garden, and making tables — big, long kitchen tables — out of wood.
“I’ve always thought of songs like furniture,” he says. “If you build them well, if the drawers open and close, it holds stuff and it lasts.”
Some overzealous sawing and hammering meant that Hansard recently hurt his arm, badly enough to be treated by a physio. The best songs come out of struggle, I say, and he laughs before turning serious.
“Yeah, but you know, as much as I want to keep on writing great songs, I don’t want to live a miserable life. So things have to deepen. I have to re-imagine what it is that I do. It’s a difficult rebirth. The best way, I think, is to keep going out on a limb.”
A smile. “Really, “he says. “That’s what all of us should do.”
Once opens in Melbourne on October 4.
Glen Hansard, main picture, and with co-star and former partner Marketa Irglova in the film Once
Madeleine Jones plays the female lead in the Australian production of Once, above; Hansard, with guitar, in the 1991 film The Commitments, below
Three scenes from the London West End production of Once, which opened last year