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The Swell Season: Solitary Refinement

By Liz Countryman; Photos By Piper Ferguson on December 15, 2009


The Swell Season: Solitary Refinement

"If you flirt with fame, don't be surprised when it offers you sex," Marketa Irglova once told her bandmate Glen Hansard. Nobody could have predicted that the unlikely pair who comprises The Swell Season-classically trained Czech pianist Irglova and The Frames frontman Hansard-would be transformed into international celebrities after winning an Academy Award for Best Song for "Falling Slowly," the slow, lovelorn ballad that wooed audiences of the low-budget film Once. But these days, it's far too late to go back, and Hansard and Irglova are keeping themselves grounded even as they're obliged to balance between candidness and self-protection. Popularity might be overwhelming (just imagine the entire English-speaking world feeling entitled to the details of your love life), but listening to The Swell Season is still an intimate affair.

The duo's new album, Strict Joy, like the Once soundtrack, concerns itself with the difficulties that arise within relationships when the ideal is limited by the contingencies of real life. "OK, we're not what I promised you we would become," sings Hansard in "The Rain," the building, thickening energy of the music behind him signifying a refusal to give up hope in a hopeless situation. In "Fantasy Man," Irglova's description of a doomed relationship is set against a childlike and haunting waltz: "If everything is measured by the hole it leaves behind/then this mountain has been leveled/and there's no more diamonds in the mine." 

The Swell Season thrives on the curious balance between its two members, even as they downplay what sets them apart. Their differing cultural backgrounds and temperaments as well as the 18 years between them all add to their charm, but upon closer inspection, many of these distinctions collapse. Asked about their age difference, Hansard simply replies, "Mar's an old soul." Certainly, listening to Irglova's intricate imagery, it's hard to believe not just that she's young, but that English isn't her native tongue. Born and raised in the Czech Republic and classically trained in music, Irglova still got plenty of exposure to English-speaking musicians like Bob Dylan, Kate Bush, and Joni Mitchell via her father. ("I've never written a song in Czech," she admits.) Although Irglova's understated vocal and instrumental style seems diametrically opposed to Hansard's violent strumming and impassioned cries, both value the unprocessed sound of their instruments. When asked why she prefers the cumbersome piano to a keyboard, Irglova replies, "A piano resonates and vibrates; it's a physical thing. You don't have to plug it in. I never saw the keyboard as the same instrument."

Although neither Hansard nor Irglova is eager to characterize the new album ("I just look at it as a collection of songs," says Hansard), both acknowledge that the writing process on Strict Joy, though "still collaborative," was a different experience than on the Once soundtrack. "Once was the two of us," says Hansard, "with this album, we haven't had as much time in each other's company." No longer a romantic couple but remaining close friends, Hansard and Irglova live in the Irish cities of Dublin and Wexford, respectively. After finishing work on Strict Joy in April, both enjoyed a "grounding" summer-Hansard doing some carpentry, planting potatoes, and traveling to New York; Irglova dividing her time between the Czech Republic and her Wexford home, where she says, "I walk the dog, make a pot of tea, light a fire, paint-I'm just enjoying keeping my own company." 

A little respite was definitely in order for this duo, whose sudden fame in the aftermath of Once and the Oscars resulted not only in multiple television interviews (and a guest spot on The Simpsons) but also in thousands of strangers assuming that the story depicted in the movie was real. "We were elevated into an area of celebrity that I wasn't comfortable with," says Hansard. "So much of what my currency is based on is observing, and self-awareness makes this more difficult."  

To see Hansard and Irglova perform and speak at the Oscars was to understand that this duo belongs to both everyone and no one-at once welcoming new fame yet reluctant, perhaps even unable, to assume the reality of stardom. Just as "Falling Slowly" seemed all the more guileless and three-dimensional in comparison with the three songs from the movie Enchanted it was up against, Hansard and Irglova themselves appeared startlingly, well, real among all that vapid glamour. "It's a different world we don't really belong to," says Irglova, who was just 18 years old when the film was released, "but it was great to be part of it for one night." 

The universal message of hope delivered in Once gave the film and its soundtrack a mass appeal, but the independent streak inside both Irglov‡ and Hansard ensures that no matter how large their audience, they will reach it through music and not through celebrity. "It's easy to become addicted to applause and suck on the limelight," says Hansard, "but when the light shines on you, deflect it."

Hansard's openness, born out of gratitude for his own talent, distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries; whether playing the festival circuit or a small venue, he makes it his mission to collapse the distance between himself and his audience. "The duty of any real artist is to destroy the stage as much as you can," he says. Still friends with Dublin's buskers, Hansard last played Grafton Street just weeks before this interview, and he still strums the guitar he bought with the money he earned appearing in 1991's The Commitments. "If you don't know where you're from, you don't know where you're going," he says.

Once is the story of two strangers recognizing each other, and Hansard's and Irglova's music similarly focuses not on strangeness but on recognition-rather than distorting life, they distill it and render it accessible. "We all go through similar experiences," says Irglova, "and when you put those discoveries into a song; it lets people know they're not alone." Seems like a simple strategy, but it's a surprisingly rare one these days; in a landscape crowded with musicians eager to reproduce alienation and urban insularity, The Swell Season has maintained the courage to keep its sights set on loyalty and mutual respect.

This article is from FILTER Issue 37