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All artists are essentially storytellers, and the Irish are legendary storytellers (if you disagree, go immerse yourself in some Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Neil Jordan, or Christy Moore, and get back to us). For three decades, musician and sometimes-actor Glen Hansard has told his tales through song: first as a street busker, then as frontman for Irish band The Frames, next as half of folk rock duo The Swell Season, and now as a solo artist. If his early family life was a bit difficult and alcohol-dampened, it was also kind of enchanted. Household gods like Dylan and Van Morrison, a tradition of gathering to sing, and the folks he met on the streets of Dublin gave him as good an education as he’d ever have received in school—if he’d stayed there.
Hansard’s ear and general disposition are finely tuned to the tragi-comic, ironic side of life—the Irish seeming to have caught on earlier than most that life doesn’t really offer up an alternate side—and that sensibility helped propel The Frames to native-soil popularity. Their second album (Set List, recorded live) hit the top of Irish charts, The Sydney Morning Herald raving, “This glorious live recording shows exactly why The Frames are the darlings of Ireland’s music scene…There are moments of transcendental magic on this album, showcasing their ability to capture an audience’s interest as the crowd sings along to songs and reacts to frontman Glen Hansard’s anecdotes.”
We’re not sure if one of those anecdotes was one Hansard has told about seeing an advert for the film The Commitments floating in a dirty puddle on the streets of New York. While The Frames’ popularity remained chiefly confined to Ireland, Hansard’s popularity jumped the pond along with his appearance as guitarist Outspan Foster in the wildly successful film. It read as a soggy reminder for Hansard, who didn’t enjoy the acting experience and felt it overshadowed the band. Like many of his countrymen, he displays a cocked eyebrow at fame: “I make art, and that’s great; but digging in the hole and growing potatoes is a higher calling. In Ireland, the land is pulsing.”
Maybe so, but eventually the lure of a great story (or maybe just perversity) brought him back to the screen with fellow musician Markéta Irglová in Once, a film that charmed critics and virtually everyone else who saw it and went on to become a smash stage show. More music than dialogue, Once is a testament to what Hansard seems to always have known: some things are better conveyed and more profoundly understood through words that we sing than those we speak. Of the score (co-written with Irglová) The New York Times said, “What lends a special, tickling poignancy to [the] songs is their acceptance of loneliness as an existential given. These are not big ballads that complain angrily about how we could have had it all. An air of romantic resignation, streaked in minor-key undercurrents, tempers the core heartache of numbers like “Leave,” “When Your Mind’s Made Up,” and “Falling Slowly,” which earned the duo a Best Song Oscar.
His ability to temper a healthy respect for the muse with the nuts and bolts of his craft is most evident on his 2015 solo album Didn’t He Ramble, a hard-won work that’s at once sad, hopeful unsentimental and beautiful. If Hansard’s music—and Hansard himself—embodies worlds of contradiction, he holds true to those contradictions. After all, they’re what make all of us human; and they’re what make the humans who can write and sing about them, artists. You’ll still find him busking out on the evening streets, albeit mostly for charity and with friends like Bono and Eddie Vedder. “It may be a little cold,” he’s said, “but it warms my heart.”