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

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‘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-



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

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