After three years, Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard is back in the spotlight.
You may know him for his role in the celebrated film The Commitments, as the lead singer of The Frames, or as the driving force behind the award-winning musical Once. In more ways than one, the Irish troubadour’s songwriting has become woven into the cultural fabric of his home country. But today, he’s a solo artist.
Didn’t He Ramble is Hansard’s latest release and arguably his most personal, emotive album to date. Known for his strength in vulnerable songwriting, it’s clear that Hansard is thoughtful and intentional about the process. But the difficulty he experienced this time around turned into a hard-fought journey.
“The recording process for this record was maybe the most difficult I’ve ever had,” he says. “For this record, I spent more time on the songwriting than ever before. A lot of self-editing and reworking of words, ideas. Asking myself, what do you mean here? What can you say more efficiently there? I did my best to get myself out of the way and let the words do the work. At the same time, I need to believe what I’m writing, or why would the listener believe it?”
The first recording session set up for Didn’t He Ramble happened in Chicago with his touring band. “That session rendered what could have been a record, but it didn’t feel like the right record to follow up Rhythm and Repose,” Hansard says.
Working on the album with The National’s Thomas Bartlett gave Hansard the extra drive he needed at just the right time. “No one plays like Thomas—he’s truly one of a kind,” he says. “What he did for me on this record was challenge me to write better songs, which seems instinctive but on the last record, he was sort of a supporting character to the songs, whereas on this one, he was a guiding hand in pushing me to make them better.”
From New York to Dublin, Chicago and France, the album was recorded in several cities that all offered their own unique perspectives. “It really came down to the fact that each session and location loaned itself to different musicians, and the job became to keep the thread running through it so it didn’t feel disjointed. New York was great, as it was very familiar. Things like ‘Wedding Ring’ and ‘Winning Streak’ came out of those sessions. The time in France was maybe the most fruitful. And Chicago gave us ‘Her Mercy,’ which is fitting since in its spirit are people like Mavis Staples or Curtis Mayfield.”
Upon the release of his second full-length solo album, Hansard is certainly one of Ireland’s most successful musicians. But he remains seemingly unaffected or driven by fame, perhaps staying true to his humble beginnings as a busker on the streets of Dublin.
Thirty years ago, Hansard was just a 13-year-old kid with dreams of making a simple living through his music. The Oscar-winning songwriter quit school and headed to the streets of Ireland to sing. Busking introduced him to a new circle of people—artists, singers, fellow musicians and songwriters. Shortly after, Hansard earned his first record deal and was later cast in The Commitments—a film about musical misfits by Roddy Doyle, which became an international sensation.
Sixteen years after his first acting job, Hansard was asked to be in another film. This time, it was his former bandmate in The Frames, John Carney, who was working on Once—a musical love story about two Irish buskers in Dublin. At first, Cillian Murphy was cast to play the part alongside 19-year-old newcomer Marketa Irglova, and Hansard’s job was to write all of the songs. When Murphy opted out and funding was lost, the project seemed to be finished. But Hansard stepped in—although acting wasn’t his chosen forté. And then the real life love affair of Hansard and Irglova began.
But it didn’t have a Hollywood ending. The two split shorty after winning the Best Song award at the Oscars for their track “Falling Slowly.” As an independent film shot on a small budget, Once became an unexpected indie favorite on the back of its undeniable charm and beautifully vulnerable music. Fans became enamored with the story and the songs that Hansard created with Irglova. “It was never our intention to have our private life be public, but it was a good story for the press. We were friends who made music together, and then a film, and then the world responded in a really humbling way,” Hansard says. “Maybe we could have done more to protect that privacy, but in some ways we got caught up in the tide.”
After earning the Oscar, Hansard admits things for him went quite dark for a while. Everything he’d encompassed—the struggling busker on the streets—almost died in a way the day he won the Oscar. He was propelled into a new stage of life that he had to embrace. Once went on to become a hit Broadway musical, winning eight Tony Awards and giving Hansard a venue for creating a lasting career. Though he may always be known for “Falling Slowly,” Hansard’s solo records have given him a chance for a fresh start.
“Every record is a new chapter, and this record is no different. In some ways, whether it’s The Frames, Once, Swell Season, or a record with just my name, they’re all my songs. So I don’t find it that much different, and presentation is determined by the musicians who are in the room,” Hansard says.
While his beautifully raw vocals still take center stage, this record conveys new themes of hope and encouragement instead of love and heartbreak.
“I wanted these songs to be real, in a way that you believed what the singer was saying. And I was trying to not be the lovelorn guy in all my songs ’cause I’m not that, but those songs come easy to me for some reason,” Hansard says.
Didn’t He Ramble proves Hansard’s songwriting is better than ever. And though it was perhaps a difficult process, the result is arguably some of his best work to date. “I found myself wanting to write about anything besides unrequited love. That led to songs about work, living life, redemption,” he says. “So yes, there was a conscious decision to convey the ideas of hope and satisfaction, and that if you work hard, success and happiness are attainable. Which may not always be correct… but it’s better than sitting around feeling sorry for yourself.”