Interview: Glen Hansard (Ireland) talks Didn’t He Ramble, songwriting, performing & his upcoming Australian tour

Earlier this year it was announced that Irish singer-songwriter Glen Hansard would be returning to Australia for a run of shows this October, in support of his latest record, the Grammy nominated Didn’t He Ramble.

While Hansard has been on something of a solo run since the release of Rhythm and Repose in 2012, he is of course also well known for his work with The Frames, and with The Swell Season; the latter earning him an Academy Award, along with Marketa Irglova for their song “Falling Slowly” from the movie Once, which the pair also starred in.

We had the absolute pleasure of catching up with him ahead of the upcoming tour to have a chat about that latest album, songwriting and the philosophy of performance more broadly. We also touched on Glen’s recent experience rowing the ‘Camino by Sea’ and the perhaps surprisingly influence of Jamaican Rocksteady on his work.

Didn’t He Ramble was released a year ago next month, what are some of your reflections on the album looking back?

It is interesting, you know Simon, time passing. It seems like only yesterday that I was worried about getting it finished, and making sure it had the right tone and the right feel. And already a year on, my memories are quite vague on the whole thing.

I look at it as a piece of work and think, ‘God that could have been so much better.’ But that’s typically where you’ll be with a record. You put so much into doing it, you find yourself looking at your past; it’s not that it’s better now, it’s just you’re beyond it somehow. So now I find myself at this point looking at the songs, and looking at the tracklisting and thinking, ‘Well I thought I made some interesting choices there,’ and of course, my head is already in what’s next.

So it is interesting to look back on it. I’m happy with it. I think it was the best record I could make at the time. As always these things they move on and you’re moving on to the next project I suppose, constantly.

I imagine that looking back at the previous work also influences what comes next. It gives you the chance to revisit things that maybe didn’t work so well last time.

Exactly. We dedicate our lives to writing and creating, trying to get somewhat closer to your own version of the right song. You’re always trying to get to your truth, or get to whatever it is you’re trying to precisely communicate.

It is interesting to look back. That record was very much, in a very subconscious way, about dealing with my Dad’s death. My Dad died, gosh, almost six years ago, and it surprised me how long it takes, how long certain things take to process. I feel like I hadn’t processed that up until this batch of songs and it wasn’t even consciously.

It’s interesting you say that, from listening to the record, one of the themes I took away from it was almost a sense of spirituality; there are references to grace and mercy. There seems to be that undercurrent there.

For sure. I remember a lot of it, or a good portion of this record came to me when I was in Australia. I remember I was on tour with Eddie Vedder and I was given perhaps the only holiday I’d had in probably a long time. I took ten days between touring with Eddie and touring solo; so I took ten days up in Byron Bay, and went to a little place called Watego Bay which is just north of Byron. It was one of those points where I got so much written.

You’ve touched on the idea of the record being cathartic, if subconsciously, but what were some of the other themes or influences that made their way onto the record? Were you drawing from what you were listening to, or reading at the time?

Yes, absolutely it’s stuff you’re reading, stuff you’re listening to, stuff you’re going through, and stuff you’ve been through. It all has this funny way of filtering back through your creative process I suppose.

I had been asked a few month’s previous, would I submit a couple of songs for consideration for Mavis Staples’ then record. So “Mercy”, another song called “Moving On” and “Grace Beneath The Pines”, those two songs that made the record, “Moving On” didn’t, I had geared towards maybe Mavis singing them, in my head.

It’s really interesting to write a song with the knowledge that someone else might end up singing it, and not yourself. It kind of somehow frees you up a little bit. It allows you to maybe put a little more swagger on it, or something, I don’t know. But I was really thinking of Mavis at that point, with those songs.

As it turns out, I submitted the songs too late and she had already decided on what she was going to do, and she was already at that point, which was fine. Because we share the same label, the label manager wanted me to submit these songs to her, but I got them to her too late, but I ended up using them myself. So it ended up putting me in a slightly different spot. I ended up singing these slightly more soulful, Black-inspired songs, which definitely influenced things in a different way. So I found that fascinating.

There was also the nod toward the more traditional folk on that record as well, especially with “McCormack’s Wall”…

I grew up on that music. At some point I must make a record of just Irish music. Because its one part of my well of influence that I’ve never really delved into properly. But you know we grew up singing those songs in my house. That song, “McCormack’s Wall”, really just came out of that tradition.

I sat down and played it one day at the piano, slightly hung over, there’s that lovely thing in the hangover where your inner critic goes for lunch, and you find yourself just singing something and it coming out and you just go, ‘Oh that’s interesting’. It was interesting to feel that kind of thing come into my music, come into my field of writing.

As you’ve mentioned, traditional Irish music has had a direct influence on your work, are there any other influences that have filtered through over time?

Yeah, I went to Jamaica. There’s an old wrecked car in my garden that’s been there for years. I live in a house with a bunch of friends, and one of the friends had left this car, it’s kind of been sat out there for about eight years. One day I was on the phone and I just stuck my head in through the cobwebs and pulled out a tape from the tape deck of this car. Because I drive an old Land Rover, my Land Rover is equipped with a tape player and nothing else, ‘Ah, so here’s a tape I’ll listen to that’. I stuck the tape in my Land Rover and was driving around for a couple of years playing nothing else but this one tape. This tape was a thing called Dance All Night.

Dance All Night was the name of the compilation; it was a compilation of all Jamaican Rocksteady. I’ve grown up of course listening to Bob Marley, like everybody has, and Marley was the great Jamaican export. But to hear this particular era of like 1960’s, I want to say ’64 to ’66 area of Jamaican reggae on this compilation was so inspiring. The songwriting was so direct, so simple, like Jamaican soul I guess. It inspired me; it actually inspired me to go there.

I went to Kingston; I went there to seek more of this music, because I was so taken by it. I really, really, fell in love with it. I started to gather up the Trojan collections, and I went over to Jamaica, found a little bit more of it, but not much. Actually probably the best place to find it is New Orleans, really.

I got really into it and in a way, even though there’s not a touch of reggae in any of my music, I feel like it’s probably been the single biggest influence on what I’ve done in the last five years. For me, a song like “Paying My Way”, which is a very simple song about working a job and making some money, it would have been directly influenced by the Rocksteady tapes that I found in that car.

How do you approach songwriting normally, or indeed is there a process, or does it change every time?

I’d love to say that you get up, you go down and sit at the computer, or you sit at the typewriter and you have your coffee, or you sit at the piano and you knock something out. You pick a subject matter, and you knock something out. Sometimes it actually does work like that, sometimes you can come up with a title of a song, you sit down and keep at it until something occurs.

More often or not, most of the time, I would say 99% of the time, the song either wakes you up in a dream, or comes to you whilst you’re on a bus or whilst you’re walking. It usually comes when you’ve got nothing to document it. It usually comes when you’re not prepared for it at all. Those are the times when you get this flash in your mind of something. If you’re conscious enough you might write it down, you might somehow press record on your phone or something and just do a little voice memo.

My phone is full of them, full of these little half whispers, but then something about that idea might just stick in your head, and you might just find yourself humming it the next day. Then you might find yourself humming it in four days. Usually there is a very brief period, by which you get that idea into some kind of shape. If you can stick a verse on it, stick maybe a bit of a chorus on it, on to that simple idea that you’ve come up with, then that song has every chance of surviving, and becoming a real song.

More often or not these kind of fragments, they remain these unpolished gems in your mind, because they’re so beautiful. They’re not realised, they’re not judged by anybody, they’re not up there to be taken apart. They are just these kind of inspired moments of thinking.

In a funny kind of way it would be interesting, I don’t know of any artist that have done it, but it would be interesting to release records of just these little glimpses of a song. You know, a song that is like forty seconds long, a bit of a verse and it goes somewhere…a lot of bands I suppose would build whole albums around these sort of ideas. I think it’s a wonderful thought that there are these little gems of things aren’t finished. Often times, finishing one of these things can leave you with a finished song but it’s a dead song, because you’ve looked at it too hard, it’s just lost its energy. It’s an interesting thing.

It’s amazing how much technology has helped in that regard, we’ve got mobile phones now, we can document these snippets of songs and flashes of inspiration. Ten years ago, that song, that idea would’ve been gone.

Oh yeah, you’d have forgotten it.

So you don’t need to be in a specific place to write, you’re quite happy writing whilst out on tour?

I find generally speaking Simon, when I’m busiest is when I’m at my most creative. So just the simple idea of energy creates energy. So when you’re on the road, generally speaking…

I guess it’s as simple as whenever you have a guitar in your hand, you have every chance of coming up with something. When you don’t have a guitar in your hand, those chances are less. It’s really that simple. That you might just get something together at that moment, that is really good, if you’re playing. So when you’re on stage at sound check, those are usually the moments when things develop.

Now I think it was last month, or it might have been the month before, you did the Camino by Sea. What sort of experience was that for you, given that you’d apparently not rowed any distance before?

I’d never rowed in an Irish currach before and I was in a very, very casual way asked by a friend if I fancied the challenge. And I said yes. Gosh it was a challenge, but it was a really worthy and exciting thing to get involved with.

It was five weeks, on the North Atlantic, following the coast of Spain, camping every night on beaches and harbours and basically living the Kerouac, living the Dharma Bums, existence for five weeks. It was really fascinating experience, I’m very glad I did it.

Presumably it was quite an inspiring experience as well?

Yeah absolutely, I’m making up songs on the boat. The boat had a very monotonous… I mean what you’re doing on the boat is physically pretty monotonous, you’re just rowing for hours, and there’s a rhythm to the oars, there’s a **Pssssssst Chk** **Psssssst Chk** **Psssssst Chk** all day, you know.

I kept on making up little songs to go with that rhythm, of course acapella songs because there were no instruments. Well, there were instruments, but we didn’t play them on the boat, we were too busy rowing. So you would come up with these simple songs that would just help you get through the day. They were actually very powerful; because when you’re singing, you’re not thinking about your arms, you’re not thinking about how tired you are, you’re in a different headspace.

It was really fascinating to do. So we made up a few little songs about getting there, and about rowing, and about different characters of the boat. It really got me back into the simple idea of folk songs, of what folk music is. Which is about singing to pass the time. I remember, I came back and I felt more connected with certain songs, with spirituals for example. The monotony of doing one thing, and they’re just passing the time by creating a rhythm out of their actions, and creating a melody from the rhythm. So like:

Row on, Row on
You know you’ve got to row on
You’ve got to keep on going, so

Danny is a holy man on this boat
Danny is a holy man strong as steel
He runs this boat like a prayer wheel
He talks to the whisky everywhere we go
He’s going to get us all the way to Santiago!

Row on, Row on,
We’ve got to keep on going
Row on, Row on,
Row on, Row on,
We got to keep on going
Row on.

You know very simple little songs like that, that are just melodies to the rhythm of the oars, to the singing of the oars. It was a fascinating creative spot for me to find myself in, completely different to standing there with a guitar and a band.

Listening to that then, it’s definitely got that soul or blues feel.

Yeah all simple rhythms, a simple melody. In a way, when you think about great songs, great songs can be sung with instruments and without, with great orchestration or not. A song like “Amazing Grace”:

Amazing Grace / How sweet a sound

The melody is so strong, and the sentiment is so clear, that a song like that can just transcend, and it doesn’t need explanation, it doesn’t need orchestration. In a way, as a songwriter that’s the goal. The aim is to get yourself to the point where you’re writing a song – you look at someone like Nick Cave, he wrote “Henry Lee” or he writes “Nobody’s Baby Now”, and you go to yourself “that’s great songwriting!” Because it doesn’t need anything, except what it is.

Do you see yourself recording with The Frames or as The Swell Season again in the future?

I’m just following where I am. I’ve just got to do what’s real to me. I’d love to make another Frames record. The Swell Season is less likely, only because myself and Marketa live in different countries, and that particular period of our lives came and went, so in a way that band is a very simple one to sum up. I don’t see that band doing much in the future, although I don’t rule it out of course.

But The Frames I definitely see getting back together, and making some music with. I’d love to go and make a rock album with my friends, and it would be good for me to get back into being in a band, rather than being at the forefront of it, you know as the only creative source.

Absolutely I see that as something that we will go back to. But if we do go back to it, I want to go back to it for the right reasons. I don’t want to go back to it because I feel guilty for not being in it, I don’t want to go back to it because we might make some money or we might do gigs. I want to go back to it because it is the best creative outlet for me at that point in time. That’s the only reason I’d ever want to do it.

I noticed that you’re still quite active busking and playing smaller more intimate pub gigs; do you still get a lot of satisfaction in that kind of outlet for your music?

Oh absolutely. At the end of the day that’s the real stuff. Ironically it’s a lot easier to play to a thousand people than it is to a hundred, or to fifty, or to ten. Playing music on the street, or playing music in a small bar, it keeps you sharp. It keeps you on point.

The worst thing that can happen to a musician is they get a show together, they go out and they do their show night after night, and that show has good nights and it has bad nights, but essentially it’s a show every night. I have no problem with that, I think it’s important to have, if you’re completely ruined and have no energy, to be able to fall back on something, and to be able to do a good gig.

But, I don’t believe in the show, essentially what I believe in is, I believe in the moment. Not that I believe in spontaneity, because spontaneity doesn’t happen sometimes, but I do believe in presence. I think whether you’re U2, or The Rolling Stones, or whether you’re The Dirty Three, if you can be spontaneous and present on the stage then the show has every chance of being great. But, if you’re up there and you’re just going through the same moves you went through last night, in exactly the same order, then you might want to look at it, you might want to have a look at what you’re doing, and maybe question it a bit.

One thing I’ve always noticed about your performances is that it’s always full of passion. Are there some nights where you can’t deliver that right off, are there moments where you have to draw from the audience, and build up to it?

You’re working off the audience whether you like it or not. I really believe that. I believe every band more or less, you know that’s not true – Dylan!. Dylan just goes on and does his gig, it doesn’t matter who’s in front of him, I think that’s great and I admire it. But it’s not me.

I think if you walk into the room anywhere in the world, tonight or tomorrow night or whenever it is, you’re responding to that room. I can’t ignore the room. The room, if say for some reason it’s not right, or for some reason it’s not feeling right, or if it’s low energy, I’ll do my best. But if I realise halfway through the gig that there’s nothing I can do to get myself into it, then I’ll just play my songs, and I’ll play them the best I can, and hope that something happens.

Sometimes it does happen, sometimes I’ll play a song and I’ll think it’s terrible, and I’ll think I just played the worst version of that song that I’ve ever played, but someone else might feel they connected to it, or someone else might get something from it.

So in a way, playing concerts is a real practice in getting out of your own way. The more I’m up there thinking this is terrible, or this is great, the less I’m just letting the song do it’s work. Because, the more conscious I am in it, then the more in it I am, the more in it I am, the less free the thing is. So in a kind of a funny way my job is just to get up there and play the song and enjoy it, have fun if I can, and if I can’t, then I’ve just got to play the song. There are some nights when you go up there and you’re just not feeling it. It’s tough when that happens, those are the nights when you’ve got to dig deeper.

How do you approach the setlist, presumably there are songs that the audience almost expects you to play now? Are there songs that you’re sick of playing now?

To be honest, no. There are a lot of old Frames songs that if I never went back to, I wouldn’t mind. Because you write songs and you perform them for a while, songs are a bit like a pair of shoes, you go through them. Sometimes that pair of shoes become your favourite pair of shoes ever, you only wear them on certain occasions; you love them, you keep them polished, and you keep them clean. Other songs, you wear them out and you throw them out.

I sort of feel like the creative process and writing songs is a bit like that. I’m just like anyone else, I’m trying to write a few good songs. Just trying my best to write myself into an area where I’ve written a few good songs. There are a certain bunch of songs that I know that if I play them, I can stand by them, and really at the end of the day it’s really about being able to stand by your work.

A song like “Say It To Me Now” or a song like “Falling Slowly”, those are good songs, so I’m not going to not play it. It’s such a good song, it works. But then there are some nights where I might not just feel like playing it, so I don’t.

I want to present good work, I don’t want to present some kind of ambiguous setlist of unknown songs just because I’m having a bit of a fegary that day and I decide, ‘Fuck what people want.’ At the end of the day, you’ve got to be expressing yourself in the world and you’ve also got to be giving people what they’ve come to hear. People have been working all day, fuck it, they’re tired, they’ve spent their good money on your show. You’re going to show up and pull some weird B side gig on them? I don’t believe in that.

On this upcoming Australian tour you’re going to be doing a couple of nights at the Sydney Opera House, do you find yourself tailoring a set to a venue like that?

No. No I wouldn’t. I’d play the same gig I played in a club the night before. The venues are amazing, they’re beautiful. You know, I’m playing Carnegie Hall in September and for some reason I’m terrified of that room and it’s very similar to the Opera House. But at the end of the day, it’s just a venue.

People have come to see you play, or people are just interested in your music, they’re not coming there because it’s Carnegie Hall, or the Opera House, they’re coming there because it’s you and your music. There has to be a healthy pinch of disrespect to the beautiful room, otherwise you’ll be in trouble.

So as a way of wrapping up, what’s next for you after this tour?

You know, just writing songs Simon, and just spending a bit more time at home. The boat journey has really opened up an avenue in me, where I want to spend more time – well you know we write songs about our lives, and if one’s life becomes monotonous then it gets harder to write about it in a broader sense. In a way, it’s be good to be going out and maybe moving to a different part of Ireland, or moving country.

Next year I’ve kind of left wide open to sort of – adventure. Part of that adventure will be writing a new record, along with what I’ve got ready to go now. I feel like it’s important to take some time away from touring, and away from playing concerts, certainly with a big band. I might totter around a bit with just me and my guitar for a while and get back to what it is I do, which is play songs.

Don’t miss Glen Hansard when he tours Australia in October. Didn’t He Ramble is available now. His tour dates are below. For tickets and more information head to his official website.

October 18th | The Concert Hall at QPAC, BRISBANE
October 20th | Her Majesty’s Theatre, ADELAIDE
October 22nd & 23rd | Concert Hall @ The Opera House, SYDNEY
October 26th | Palais Theatre, MELBOURNE
October 29th | Astor Theatre, PERTH

Header Image by Danny Clinch


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Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.