Glen Hansard on “This Wild Willing” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, May 23rd, 2024  

Glen Hansard on “This Wild Willing”

Musical Chairs

Mar 13, 2019 Glen Hansard Photography by Stephan Vanfleteren Bookmark and Share

Glen Hansard had every intention to make another solo album in the much-loved troubadour style fans have to come to expect of him. However, a chance meeting at a Parisian gathering with the Khoshravesh brothers, an Iranian trio of classically trained musicians, set him on a different path. In need of some stillness and stasis after the endless song cycles of three successive albumsRhythm & Repose (2012), Didn’t He Ramble (2015), and Between The Shores (2018), punctuated with a tour alongside Eddie Vedder and capped off with a sea voyage in a traditional Irish naomhóga worn Hansard was grateful for a Paris sojourn on dry land, sans a tour van or bus. He booked some sessions with longtime collaborator David Odlum for what he imagined would be “an acoustic record with little accompaniment.” This Wild Willing, his fourth album (due out April 12 on ANTI-), proved another beast altogether.

It includes songs that build in a slow, cinematic way. They clock in much longer than the three-plus minutes pop format of “Falling Slowly,” the winner of 2008’s Best Original Song Oscar that brought Hansard’s music to an international audience. Several tracks require you to lean in as Hansard’s vocals are whisper soft, almost croakydue to a persistent chest infection as much as his deep dive into the chansons of Serge Gainsbourg, Georges Brassens, and Jacques Brel.

There is lush orchestration featuring traditional Iranian as well as Irish instruments and a myriad of other collaborators, most surprisingly electronic musiciansDunk Murphy (aka Sunken Foal) and Deasyplus former flame Marketa Irglova of The Swell Season (with whom he sang “Falling Slowly” in the 2007 film Once, which they both starred in).

“A friend of mine was having a salon showan evening of music with Persian food, it was very relaxed,” explains Hansard of how he met the Khoshravesh brothers. The Khoshraveshs came from a storied musical family back in Iran, but were now based in Paris. They played their set with traditional Iranian instruments: the kamancheh, ney, and setar.

“I thought it was really nice,” Hansard remember. “I didn’t even think about it further. It’s only when I played my songs and the boys joined in, and they did it so masterfully; suddenly my song, this simple idea that I had been working on, was brought to a whole other place. I saw the potential to make something quite different to what I set out to make, something that had a very strong flavor.”

So enamored was Hansard by the possibility that right there and then, in his very pigeon-French he asked if they would consider going into the studio with him. They were delighted. Once in the studio, something completely different emerged. Not wanting it to simply sound like pastiche, he invited electronic musicians from what he felt was a diametrically opposed genre, and adopted an alternate modus operandi.

“I thought if the brothers were to play on an acoustic record of mine, it would feel too traditional,” Hansard explains. “I felt the need then to balance the Persian influence with something elseI had it in my mind to introduce two electronic musicians from Dublin, my direction to them: I just want you to disrupt the music.”

The result is an unexpected record of improvised songs that have an elegance from the Middle Eastern elements, gravitas from Hansard’s lyricism and a complex soundscape of foreboding from the blend of electronica, piano, and strings. In fragments, there are echoes of Sigur Rós as well as atmospheric elements similar to Irish musician Dermot Kennedy’s 2018 mixtape.

Once it became apparent that it would be less didactichim telling musicians what to playand more improvised, Hansard gave over to the process willingly and entirely.

For “Fool’s Game,” a six-minute epicwhere a battered Hansard sings of a lover who we are unsure will stay the coursebuilds with sparse electronica to a wild and explosive crescendo, that quietly segues into a beautiful solo by Aida Shahghasemi.

When asked if it was always the intention to have a female voice bookend the love song, Hansard replies, “Not at all.”

“It was a lovely, lightning in the bottle moment that happens in the studio,” he continues. “She was actually there to play dafthe Iranian drum. She played this big beat that sounds like weather. And at the end when the music died down, she began to sing this melody and we thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s beautiful!’ And we kept recording for about six minutes.”

At a pinch, you might think Shahghasemi sings in Irish or Gaelic. The dulcet tones, crisp though unknowable pronunciation ,and almost Celtic melody calls to mind Enya; but it becomes clear that it’s far less twee and New Age, you sense the depth of sadness.

“She is singing in Persian,” Hansard confirms. “Aida told me later it was a Rumi poem-about a woman who can’t have the man she loves. She retreats to the desert and weeps. This random moment in the studio was really magical; it sounded so beautiful. And we kept it.”

In the “Fool’s Game” music video that the singer helped edit, a bittersweet melancholia is juxtaposed with the quotidian familiarity of Parisian tabacs and lamp-lit cobble-stone streets, it invariably takes your thoughts to the Bataclan and more recently the gilet jaunes riots. This contradiction of atmosphere it evokes and the schism it raises for the viewer mirrors what Hansard was experiencing on the streets of the French capital.

“Paris during the time I was there was full of violence and unrest. On ‘Race to the Bottom’ I originally sang, ‘I’m sliding along the Seine. Mayday. There’s blood on the streets again.’ I took that line out because I thought it was a little bit too crass. But we were seeing marches; this tempest passing through the streetsone minute everything is normal and the next all the windows are smashed. Cars are burnt over.”

Still he admires the confidence of the French to fight in their corner and noted that the whirlwind of energy in the shape of protests and what the gilet jaunes were fighting for seemed a worthy cause to him. The movement was ultimately tainted by nationalist agendas and at it’s most destructive contributed to a shattered statue inside the Arc de Triomphe of Mariannethe French Revolution icon and personification of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

“The organism of revolt is constantly changing and getting hijacked,” Hansard says, “but no, there was this wonderful spirit of revolution in moments, during my time there. Of course, you have the other possibility, that at any moment things could go really badly.”

He recounts how one afternoon he saw two men try to kill each other in a violent confrontation. “It was nothing to do with religion,” he explains, “one man had knocked down another man’s motorcycle. What was really shocking was the energy that erupted was so specifically violentyou realize there’s a lot of tension beneath the surface. But you do learn you can’t stop living your life. Paris is still vibrant ... Parisians aren’t changing the way they live.”

This Wild Willing bears the trace of all this strife, and pulls the lens out on the deeper unrest permeating society everywhere, yet there is a sense of equanimity that threads through the record. Even, if this is not the record that his fans may be expecting.

“I think people are a lot smarter than they think. And know when they are being bullshitted to and when something’s real.” He is quick to add, “My record is just as bullshit as anybody else’s. But I took risks with this set of songs.” He allowed himself to make an album where he didn’t pare them down to three-and-a-half-minute pop songs. Didn’t try to dress it up in a way that made it more palatable.

“I left it as it was because for me it spoke truer to leave the songs at seven minutes long,” Hansard continues. “Truer to leave the mistakes and leave the vocals where I didn’t quite make the lyrics fit. There’s something about this recordI personally feel more connected to this record than I have with any of my other solo albums. I don’t have the vocabulary to say exactly why but I am vey very proud of it.”

Hansard has always traded in grit and authenticity. Having had his start as a busker in his teens, then in The Frames, an Irish rock band of Dublin lads, it was with Irglova that he realized how natural being vulnerable, romantic even, was for him. He hasn’t shirked away since.

Perhaps this record is a truer testament to who he isan artist open to new ideas and cross-cultural influences. A weathervane that others can look to for direction as he chooses to hold a mirror to the times and speak out to injustices. His consistent whittling at his craft and ability to set aside ego to recognize that others have had a hand in his success and evolution.

“In bringing out all the different Irish musicians and some of the members from The Frames,” Hansard explains, “I realized pretty quickly it’s not what people play, it’s who plays it? For me, it was important to then have Marketa there, to have her spirit, what she brings into the mix.” It was Irglova that actually introduced him to Persian music years ago. “Aida who sings on ‘Fool’s Game’ used to sing in Marketa’s bandthat’s how I met her, so I wanted Marketa involved because she’s part of this story.”

This record may be a long view acknowledgment to all the people that he’s played with through the decades and have helped shaped his sound but he doesn’t want it to be just that. He wants people to listen and find it useful. “At the end of the day, your music needs to serve a purpose. If it’s just your creative expression and people don’t listen to it then it’s bullshit, ” he says emphatically.

He makes a case for how crafting a good record is akin to making a sturdy piece of furniture. “There’s no point in making it if it’s some awkward piece. There’s definitely a good argument for beauty, filigree, and all the rest but if it is just filigree and you can’t actually sit on it, then it’s no use,” he says, before pausing.

“So in a way I’d like to think that in making this record, I made a chair that you could sit on,” Hansard laughs. With any luck, it’s one that will outlast him.

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