Glen Hansard: 'Sing Your Song Like Someone Else Wrote It'
Photo by Danny Clinch
“I wasn’t even in the country when my father passed away. I was on tour,” says Glen Hansard, calling the Voice before soundcheck at a venue in Cincinnati. “I’ve been on tour for most of the major things that have happened. You begin to realize a pattern — you’re just on tour, man. That’s your thing.”
While the Irish singer-songwriter’s latest record, September’s Didn’t He Ramble, evolved into a work largely unpacking the loss of his father five years ago, that wasn’t Hansard’s intention from the start.
“I made some decisions before I made this record: I decided not to write any love songs,” Hansard says. “That’s all bullshit, because I ended up writing love songs to my family and love songs to my friends. The vernacular of a love song is kind of what I do — whether it’s encouraging or admonishing myself, love is an essential drive in the way I write.”
For decades, Hansard has been making his living writing and performing songs, whether with band the Frames, duo the Swell Season, or via film work (the 2007 musical Once). But music has been a part of his life since he was a child: He was schooled in the songs of Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison by his mother and father from an early age, and he busked on the streets as far back as his early teens.
“You realize with street performances that intimacy is your goal,” he says. “If you could play a quiet, intimate song on the street and have people stop and listen, then you’re really on top of your game — most songs you have to end up playing on the street are big songs, with a big shouty voice and a big rhythm.”
Hansard’s music has never tended toward the big and shouty, but singing songs by his heroes has been a blueprint for performing his own work in a way that extends past the surface-level success of a catchy hook landing with an audience.
“You almost need to sing your own song as if someone else wrote it,” he says. "When we play our own songs we’re so nervous [about] how the hell it’s gonna land that we end up blowing it. We end up creating a situation where our song doesn’t sit well in our own hands. You’ll hear people say, ‘I love Bob Dylan, but I actually prefer other people singing [his music].’ It’s that thing. Oftentimes we’re not the best performers of our own music because of all the nerves and because of all the personal stuff attached to it. If you can find a place where you can sing your own song as if it was a song written by someone else, then you’re in a place where the song can be allowed to soar.”
With Didn't He Ramble, Hansard applied that removed perspective to his songwriting. While his intention was to pen odes to his family members — a markedly personal endeavor — his approach to the task was less emotional. He described writing songs as though he were peering in on the wake of his father as an outsider.
“I decided on this record to report it almost as if it was not my dad — almost as if you’re reporting a man’s life,” he says. “I found that I could get into it much easier.”
A closed-off perspective can only be taken so far, though, and anyone who has ever seen Hansard perform, whether that was on a stage or in a movie or as a member of a group, can testify to the emotion that radiates in his every breath. There's a trust that's established between Hansard and the audience. That dynamic isn't something he takes for granted.
“All that shit in France last week — since that gig.... It’s like music has been fucking kicked out of us or something, through that shock,” he says. “The music has fled. Even though we need it more than ever, somehow it’s been very difficult to get inside the songs since then. We’ve been playing the songs, but it’s mechanics; it’s sounds. It’s not music. Music is the element that arrives last, when you play your guitar or you bang a drum. It’s been a very strange tour for me and I’m sure for any band who’s reading this.”
As a performer, Hansard acknowledges that he isn't infallible — no one is. But there's a determination in his voice every time the conversation drifts toward his audience and the stage and the time he spends with the two. It implies that maybe his major moments happen while he's on tour because touring, in its own abstract way, is about the pursuit of something major, too.
“We know how to put our hands on a guitar and we know how to strum. We know how to sing. But we don’t own a sound. Night after night, the songs move from being very hospitable and wonderful to completely impenetrable," he says. "There are nights when music locks you out and you’re kind of just left sitting there with nothing but your ambition. In a way, because music is a natural thing, you have to come at it with a gentleness and a humility that allows you to open up and be where it is.”
Hansard may have been on a tour for most of the major things that have happened. That’s his thing. But for every time that music has fled or locked him out, there’s been the next show or the next song and therein the next opportunity to live in his lyrics and his melodies as though they were someone else’s. From street performances to films to band gigs and theaters, intimacy is still the goal.
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