There’s tired, there’s exhausted and then there’s the state Glen Hansard found himself in three years ago after a 600-kilometre journey in a small boat, rowing – yes, rowing – with some tough Irish fishermen from the west coast of Ireland to Spain.
“I experienced an existential exhaustion that I’d never experienced before or since,” says the Irish singer and songwriter, founder of The Frames, actor, Oscar-winner (with Marketa Iglova, for Falling Slowly, from the film Once) and owner of a surprising and powerful new album, This Wild Willing, which melds western folk/rock and electronica with eastern traditional music and poetry.
So, if we are to believe the self-help guides and Sunday magazine profiles, this existential moment must have led to a revelation or two, an upending of beliefs, or at least something resonating through his work.
“In our modern times, we lose contact with simple stuff. As city dwellers, we lose contact with which direction are we facing; where is the sun right now in the sky; which direction is the wind coming?” Hansard says. “I became aware of that kind of thing and I find it even if I’m walking on the street now I’ll sort of gauge the wind and over the course of an afternoon on notice if it’s getting stronger, as before that sort of stuff would have been in the background. I find myself more in contact with the elements, even in my city life.”
Ok, so if you’re in need of a human compass, or a bearded friendly weatherman, Hansard’s your man. But deeper than that?
“Other than that I guess it made me more empathic, more compassionate. It really helped my album actually,” he says. “I would say it had a massive impact on my creative life, insomuch as realising that we pull together, and when we pull together something can be achieved. When it’s all about you, there’s only so much you can do alone.”
This is reflected in one of the themes running through the album, trust. Trusting other people; allowing yourself to be at their mercy; believing something would come from the involvement of three Iranian musicians, the Khoshravesh brothers, he’d met two nights before they were invited into the studio.
“I went in to make an acoustic record, basically me and a guitar and I brought in my friend Joe [Doyle] from The Frames and I brought Ruth [O’Mahony Brady] in, my friend who plays keyboards, and I was going to make a very basic acoustic record,” says Hansard.
“But I soon found myself meeting people in bars and I soon found myself excited at the concept, the notion of collaboration in a real way. As in going to the studio with these three Iranian brothers and Joe and Ruth, and two electronic musicians from Ireland [Deasy and Dunk Murphy, who work under the name Sunken Foal], and saying basically, give me a drone and then we would work off the drone. The courage to drift on.”
And that metaphor of drifting on is not chosen lightly as Hansard remembers one of those formative experiences on the rowing trip.
“There were a couple of moments there when the wind was taking us out to sea and there is something absolutely terrifying about realising that this tiny boat you are in is being blown into the distance, into the abyss if you like,” Hansard says. “And yet the confidence of the boatmen was to say, let’s save our strength, let’s not fight this but go with the wind, I’m sure that out there, there is a rock or a lobster pot, something we will catch on to. And when we do we’ll tie up to it and then we wait until the wind goes.
“There was something so fundamental in realising that the sea is absolutely ambivalent to our existence and yet there is a cunning in saving your strength. Relating that back to the music, if you put the right people in a room and you basically had often an exploratory adventure and allow yourself to get lost, you might find yourself in a new place.”
What’s most extraordinary about this discovery for Hansard, is that he wasn’t even looking for it. Remember he had gone to Paris to make essentially a solo acoustic record, something he could probably do with his eyes closed after three solo albums and 11 with The Frames and Irglova. Instead he ended up in this crowded room with friends and strangers.
“I had to trust,” he says simply.
How does one come to trust three people in particular, who he had literally known a matter of days and had no language to share?
“It was how I met them that mattered, and what they played that mattered. These guys were absolute instinctive musicians. I had an easy rapport with them even though we didn’t speak each other’s language and when they began to play along with my song I knew immediately that I was dealing with natural greatness,” says Hansard.
“What was really curious about the way they played with me is that would stop and say, could you explain the lyrics. Now, they speak Persian and here were speaking in broken French but I was able, with translation, to explain what my lyric was basically about. I was worried I might be offending their Muslim faith but afterwards they said, ‘no, no, no, in Persian we like to play to the lyric, so when you tell us what the song is about we can play better melodies because we followed the emotion of your lyric’.”
They, of course had to trust in Hansard and the process to take their contribution somewhere new. What did they see in the Irishman to engender this trust?
“My spirit. That was all they were interested in. They connected with the spirit of the music. They are not young businessmen; they are musicians of a very elegant and exquisite order.”
An interesting contrast was happening in the making of this album. While inside the studio there was trust and connections made across language and cultural backgrounds, outside and around them Paris was in some cases literally burning. Along with some terrorist activity, rioting protests by the so-called gilet jeune, the anti-government protesters who often wore bright yellow safety vests, rolled on and on.
Those worlds - in and out of the studio - were not entirely separate though surely. Listen to a song such as I’ll Be You Be Me and what you hear is something deliberately unsettled: the voice not prominent, the tempo dragging just enough to stop us feeling like we’re definitely moving forward, the mix of electronic sounds and analogue ones building into a discordant/distorted force.
Hansard explains that this song came from a studio jam and led him to think of something more thoughtful than difference to bring to the mix. He suspected that if he only had those Iranian musicians on this album with the standard acoustic base, the record would have a particular esoteric sound but run the risk of being merely exotic or the fruit of dabbling by a Westerner.
Hence the invitation to Sunken Foal, the electronic duo from Dublin, with the instruction “your job guys, if you’ll take it, is to disrupt whatever you hear”.
“So the beat you hear at the beginning of the album is one of my friends disrupting my song. That became almost the linchpin of the song,” says Hansard. “What we didn’t know at the time was what he was disrupting the song with, that beat, was from the Queen and David Bowie session for Under Pressure, a song called Cool Cat.”
That disruption was a little too effective, delaying recording for some months while they sought approval to use the sample. Luckily another experiment in reflecting the twin worlds in and outside the studio was less trouble. In the song Fool’s Game even as the sound enlarges beyond the simple acoustic the lone female voice at the centre of it doesn’t change, enhancing the sense of isolation.
It’s a striking and powerful moment, and it came by chance. The voice is that of another Iranian, US-based percussionist called Aida Shahghasemi, there ostensibly to play the traditional Iranian drum, the daf, not as a vocalist.
“We were playing the song and at the end she began to sing, [picked up] through the microphone we had for her drum, a ghazal [a poem by 13th century Persian poet] Rumi, ‘how can my heart have been so torn?/How can you have turned my eyes to a river?’. This beautiful lyric. And that was a moment. That moment lasted for six minutes and we were so captivated by it.”
So much so that they built the song around it, a moment of happenstance that felt inspired, a trusting in the forces of nature.
“There was a lot of that with this record, a lot of ‘well that was amazing, that’s gotta go on the record’,” says Hansard enthusiastically. “Fool’s Game, didn’t exist before we went in the studio. I’ll Be You Be Me didn’t exist before we went in to the studio. What I realised was that of all the songs I went in to record, only two remained on the record; the rest were improvised songs.
“They fell out of the sky in moments just like when Aida sang that song.”
This Wild Willing is out now.