For The Swell Season, Life Imitates Art In 2007 Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Falling Slowly." The song was from the film Once, a touching musical love story that starred Hansard and Irglova as struggling musicians and kindred spirits — a relationship that carried on off-screen.
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For The Swell Season, Life Imitates Art

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For The Swell Season, Life Imitates Art

For The Swell Season, Life Imitates Art

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for Terry Gross.

The 2007 movie "Once," which told of young musicians in love, introduced a song called "Falling Slowly." It was sung by the film's two stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who also performed it at that year's Oscars. They had fallen in love while making the movie, and at the Academy Awards, they won for Best Original Song.

The press embraced their love story as a sort of real life fairy tale, but it wasn't happily ever after. Shortly after the Oscars, their romance dimmed, but their friendship and their musical partnership did not. Hansard and Irglova continue to make music together. Their band, The Swell Seasons, has just released a new album. It's called "Strict Joy," and here's the opening song called "Low Rising."

(Soundbite of song, "Low Rising")

Mr. GLEN HANSARD (Singer/songwriter, The Swell Season): (Singing) I wanna sit you down and talk. I wanna pull back the veils and find out what it is I've done wrong. I wanna tear these curtains down. I want you to meet me somewhere tonight in this old tourist town, and we'll go low rising 'cause we've gotta come up, we've gotta come up, low rising, there's no further for us to fall, low rising, 'cause I fear we've had enough, low rising, oh, for the love of you.

BIANCULLI: The movie "Once" presented Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as characters whose pasts closely resemble the people who play them. He is a street musician from Dublin, and she is a recent immigrant from the Czech Republic. They meet, share a love of music and performing and find themselves connecting, both musically and personally.

Glen Hansard also is known for his work in the band The Frames. The writer and director of "Once," John Carney, used to be in The Frames. Terry spoke with Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova last year. They began with the big song from the movie, "Falling Slowly."

(Soundbite of song, "Falling Slowly")

Mr. HANSARD and Ms. MARKETA IRGLOVA (Singer/Songwriter, The Swell Season): (Singing) I don't know you, but I want you all the more for that. Words fall through me and always fool me, and I can't react, and games that never amount to more than they're meant will play themselves out.

Take this sinking boat and point it home. We've still got time, raise your hopeful voice you have a choice. You'll make it now. Falling slowly, eyes that know me.


Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the Oscar and all the success you've had with "Once." You co-wrote "Falling Slowly." Had you ever written a song together before writing for the film?

Mr. HANSARD: No, that was actually the first song we wrote together. And it was one of those things where I'd been working on the song, and I wasn't really sure where I was going with it. All I had was, you know, it was diverse, and I had an idea for the chorus. And it was only when I sat down with Mar, and I played her the idea - because I was talking about a harmony in the chorus, and she said, well, what if you take the lower one, or you take the higher one, and I'll take the lower one, and you know, on the moment where it goes…

Mr. HANSARD: (Singing) We've still got time…

Mr. HANSARD: And it was - for me it was, like, the key of what made the song suddenly work. And then so I wrote the chorus with Mar, and then I really felt like we had a solid song on our hand, and it was something that I could give to John and feel confident with.

GROSS: Marketa, you were cast before Glen was. How did you get the part? You hadn't acted before.

Ms. IRGLOVA: No, well, John Carney, the director, approached Glen about this, you know, as you know, about the idea for this film. And throughout the years, that meant many years in cafes over teas and coffees, and this goes to the idea of the film. And when the project was getting closer to happening, John said to Glen, well, you know, the only thing is I have (unintelligible) for the male part, but I can't find a woman for the female part. I have trouble finding this woman because I want it to be an Eastern European woman who can sing and play piano and act. And you know, would you know any people, because you travel a lot?

And Glen said well, yeah, I know a girl from Czech Republic, and she does play piano and sing, and I'm sure she could pull off the acting, but the thing is, she's only 17, and John was looking for a 35-year-old woman, originally.

So John kind of thought that 17 years old was too young, but he decided to meet me anyway. And so I just got on the plane to Dublin from Prague and met John, the director, and just kind of played a few tunes on the piano for him, and that was my audition, really.

He didn't get me to read any lines or anything. He just cast me right then and there. And that was it. I was part of the project.

GROSS: You were 17 when the movie was shot?

Ms. IRGLOVA: Yeah.

GROSS: Wow, you don't look it. You really look older in it.

Ms. IRGLOVA: I know, it's funny. Even now, people meet me in person, and they tell me I look much younger than in the film, and it's ironic because I'm now older than I was in the film. It's a funny thing.

GROSS: Since neither of you were really actors when you started making "Once," although Glen, you had a part in "The Commitments" as a member of the band. Did you go seeking advice from people about how to act or how to behave in front of a camera? Did you just learn from doing it? And if you got advice, like, what's the best thing that you were each told that actually helped you?

Mr. HANSARD: Well, the thing that I was told, and I can't remember who told me right now, somebody said to me: just remember that Marlon Brando was always Marlon Brando. He wasn't - like, the reason people hired him to be in films was because he was Marlon Brando. And, you know, I kind of like the idea that no matter what character you're playing, no matter whether you embody it or not, and there are many different styles of acting, of course, there are many different styles, but this is the thing that I always, that resonated with me most was the fact that just be yourself and embody the character. And I think that for me, that meant that, I guess, my range as an actor was probably quite limited, and let's face it - I was pretty much playing myself in this film.

You know, I am a street musician. I was a street musician. You know, I did - I fixed bicycles and not Hoovers - John changed that detail, I guess. When I went to the bank to get my first loan for The Frames, the bank manager took out his guitar and played me a song. So there are many details in this guy's life that are very similar to my own.

GROSS: I want to play a scene from the beginning of "Once," and this is a scene where Glen, you're playing on the street, for money, but no one's paying any attention to you at all - until, Marketa, you walk over and start asking him questions about himself and the music. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of film, "Once")

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) This song you just played, you wrote it?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) Working on it.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) It's not an established song?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) No, it's not an established song.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) How come you're not playing during daytime? I see you every day.

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) You know, during the day, people want to hear songs they know, just songs that they recognize. I mean, otherwise I wouldn't make any money. I play these songs at night. They wouldn't listen.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) I listen.

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) Yeah, but you give me 10 cents.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) Will you do it for money, then? Why don't you get a job in a shop?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) I have a job in a shop. Listen, let me get back to this, yeah? Nice to meet you.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) Who did you write this song for (unintelligible)?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) No one.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) (BEEP) Where is she?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) She's gone.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) She's dead?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) No, she's not dead; she's gone.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) Do you love her still?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) Jesus, man.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) You're over her. Rubbish. No one who would write this song is over her. I'm telling you, you play this marvelous song to her, you get her back.

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) I don't want her back.

BIANCULLI: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in a scene from "Once." We'll hear more of their conversation with Terry after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2008 interview with Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Their performance of the song "Falling Slowly," from the 2007 movie "Once," won that year's Academy Award as Best Original Song. The duo, under the name The Swell Season, has a new album out called "Strict Joy."

GROSS: Glen, you started off as a street musician when you were in your teens. You dropped out of high school to play on the streets. Where did you choose to play? Like, what was a good street for you in Dublin?

Mr. HANSARD: Well for me, Grafton Street was the - it was a bit like, in Dublin, if you can imagine, if - you know, the microcosm of your life, I suppose. For me - I loved on the north side of the City. So Grafton Street was on the south side of the city, and that for me made more sense because it meant that I wouldn't bump into anybody from school and that I wouldn't bump into any of my mother's friends or my mother, indeed, because my mother was a fruit seller on Moore Street(ph), which is on the north side of the city, and I wanted to get as far away from anybody I knew as possible.

So I went over to Grafton Street, and also, Grafton Street was kind of the more posh part of Dublin. So the chances of me having a career or getting beyond just being a street musician were - I had better chances, if you like, on the south side of the city because that's kind of where all the artists lived, you know.

So I went over there, and it was a great - for me, it was the beginning of a whole new education. I mean, I left school at 13. I went over there. The day I left school, I went busking, and what started was I met a man who sold magazines on the street. His name was Pete. And Pete was, you know, he prided himself on the fact that he was a Dylanologist(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSARD: You know, he loved Dylan and loved everything about… And because I was such a Dylan fan, this guy took me seriously because I was playing Dylan songs that weren't necessarily the ones from the greatest hits record. And so this guy was, took an interest in me, and I guess took me under his wing, and I remember going and living with him for a while, and he took me around to, like, poetry readings, and pretty much from there on, I remember meeting this lady, Philippa Garner, who was kind of a famous painter in Ireland, and she took me out to her house in Kildare, which is in the countryside.

She lived in an old, converted schoolhouse that she had rebuilt. And I went and lived with her for two years, and really, a whole new education began. I remember staying at Seamus Heaney's house when I was a kid, and getting to hang out with poets and other musicians was really the basis of my artistic beginnings.

GROSS: So what's the best thing that happened to you on the streets?

Mr. HANSARD: Well, for me, I guess overall, it was my education. I learned how to sing on Grafton Street. I learned how to entertain. When you are on the street, you are a still point. You know, you're part of the architecture, you're still - and if you stand still on any street in any city in any country in the world, if you stand still long enough, every single person in that city will pass you by.

So like, you know, I'd be busking, and Van Morrison would walk past as I was singing a Van Morrison song, or, you know, Bono would go by or…

GROSS: Is that true? Really they'd go by?

Mr. HANSARD: Oh absolutely.

GROSS: Okay, so Van Morrison is walking by. What do you do? Do you say excuse me?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSARD: Not at all. No, with someone like Van, you would just give him his space. And actually, ironically, the reason I guess he was passing by was because we were, myself and my friend, were busking together, and we were singing - because Van songs are amazing to busk.

So one day we were busking, playing one of his songs, and he passed by. But actually, the irony was that we were busking enough money to go see him that night. So actually we ended up busking up enough money to go see him.

Then the same thing happened to us with U2. We were busking up the money to go see them one time, and we saw them the same day, which is very interesting.

GROSS: So Glen, when you dropped out of school at the age of, what, 14 so that you could perform on the streets, what did your parents think of that?

Mr. HANSARD: Well, I'm very lucky in that my mother - again, my mother was very, very liberal. She grew up in a very, very tight household where she had to be home at a certain time, and you know, she had 12 brothers and sisters, and I guess the family had to keep everybody, you know, herd them together, I guess I would be like. So my mother grew up in the '60s, you know, and so during that time, she wanted - she wanted basically to give her kids the freedom that she never had.

So my mother was, like, very, very liberal. She said to me anytime you need, you know, if you want it - you know, when I came home to her and said ma, I really want to do music, my mother just said well, do it then, and she said well, do it, and if you're going to do it, do it properly. So go, you know, go and earn a living from it and do it and get really involved in it.

So I was lucky, and my dad, my dad was - I guess my dad was one of those guys who was - he worked hard, but he was a hard-drinking man and didn't - and supported in whatever we wanted to do but didn't really play much of a role in our lives except to say yeah, (unintelligible) son, go for it. So me dad was, I guess, was on board with it, too.

I was very, very lucky. I mean, my headmaster in school, my head teacher, he was a great guy. He - I was in his office so many times, and we talked and talked, and I guess he was a smart guy.

He's figured out that music was the one subject I really enjoyed talking about, and because - he was - in his part, in his spare time, he was a DJ. And so myself and himself would talk about Dylan and Cohen and Neil Young and all the stuff that really impassioned me. And he basically said to me one day, he's calling me down to the office, and he says Glen, you know what?

You're in this school. You're not learning a thing. You're frustrating all of the teachers, and I know you love music. So I have an idea. Why don't you go, take your guitar, go over to Grafton Street or go to any street you want, but start your musical career at the very bottom today.

He said, you know, go and, go and, you know, take your guitar out. And if in a year, you're not enjoying it, or it's not working out for you, come back to school, and I'll figure out a way of getting you back into class, and you can continue your education, he said, but I don't think that your education is going anywhere here.

He says, you know, you can tell me all the musicians who played on "John Wesley Harding," or you can, you know, you can tell me who produced the first two Leonard Cohen records, but you can't tell me the square root of nine.

And he says, so you're not really any good to us here, and I'd like to see you succeed. So he sent me home that day to take my guitar and go to Grafton Street, and when I went home, I said to my mother, I dropped my school bag in the hall, and I said to my mother: ma, I'm going to start my career as a musician. And my mother was like, what, really? And I was like, yeah. She says, well, go for it, son, and good luck.

GROSS: That worked out. And Marketa, how did your parents when you, at the age of 17, took a break from school, left home, went to another country to make a movie?

Ms. IRGLOVA: Well, first of all, like Glen's parents, my parents are very liberal themselves. So you know, it's not like they ever restricted me much in, you know, whatever I wanted to do. But I guess there was - you know, they were always concerned, ever since Glen came into my life as a musician who left school at 13. I think they're always concerned that I would just forget about school and try walk in his footsteps. And they were only concerned about that because they wanted me to have something to fall back on in case music didn't work out or something, you know.

But at the same time, I think I was always - I always had a very good sense of, that if I was quite sensible at home, and if I didn't get into too much trouble, then I would have that freedom, because they would trust me, and they would kind of know that I'll be all right on my own.

And so I stayed out of trouble, and I did all my homework in school, and for that, I had the freedom to travel and then miss out on school at times. So, you know, it was great. And they did - and my parents are very supportive, you know, so they wouldn't - would have never kind of stood between me and my dreams or anything like that. So I'm very thankful to them for that.

GROSS: I want to ask you about another scene from "Once." There's a great scene in what I think is a pub. It almost looks like a living room, but I think it's actually like a small pub, and everybody's kind of eating dinner and drinking, and the rule of the game here is that you have to be able to sing to be in on this dinner and people just kind of alternate singing. And there's a kind of middle-aged woman and a middle-aged man, or slightly older man, who sing a few bars in this sequence. And they have really interesting voices, and I was wondering, like, who are they, and is this based on a real pub in Dublin?

Mr. HANSARD: Well, actually that room is where me and Mar live.


Mr. HANSARD: Yeah, and because we didn't have money to hire a venue, we just, we decided to have a party in our flat.

GROSS: No wonder it looks like an apartment, okay.

Mr. HANSARD: Yeah, that's our place. That's where we live. And also, the guy, the guy I was telling you about earlier on, the guy, the first person I met, the Dylanologist in Grafton Street, that's Pete, and he's the guy who sings, and then the woman who sings is my mother.


Mr. HANSARD: Yeah, that's my mother Catherine(ph). So, and again, how we did it was instead of trying to hire a room and put lots of extras in it, we just threw a party and invited all our friends over and filmed it for, like…

GROSS: I really liked her voice. You know, there was something vaguely Marianne Faithful-ish about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSARD: How interesting, Marianne Faithful.

GROSS: The older Marianne Faithful.

Mr. HANSARD: Yeah, yeah, well interestingly, Marianne Faithful used to live in that flat, also.


Mr. HANSARD: Which you might have somehow picked up on, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSARD: We're very lucky in that we live - one of the other people that I met when I was younger was Marina Guinness, who's part of the Guinness family in Ireland. And - like Ireland doesn't have royalty, but if we did have royalty, it would have to be the Guinness family because they're such a strong and powerful family in Ireland, in a very nice way, and of course we all admire them because we drink their product constantly.

It's an amazing thing. So - but I'm really glad you pointed out the guy and the woman because the guy is the guy I was talking about, who took me on board, and I spent a lot of time with him when I was younger; and of course, my mother.

GROSS: Now we have to play that scene.

(Soundbite of film, "Once")

Unidentified Man #1: Great to see you here. Can you sing?

Ms. CATHERINE HANSARD:(Singing) There's one request I'll ask of you. When your liberty came, remember Mitchell(ph) far away. I come (unintelligible) in shame.

(Soundbite of applause)

PETE: (Singing) (Unintelligible) that once helped this heart of mine.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: That's a scene from "Once," which stars my guests, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who are both musicians and songwriters who are performing together. Did your mother sing a lot when you were growing up?

Mr. HANSARD: Yes. My mother sang constantly when we were kids, and my father. My mother used to win, like, she won a bunch of competitions when we were kids, you know, in pubs, and you know, they never - my mother of course never took singing as seriously as, say, I did, but - and my father. My grandfather was an opera singer, and my grandfather sang. I remember my great-grandfather sang in the same competition as James Joyce and beat him, apparently, in an opera competition.

GROSS: Gee, wow.

Mr. HANSARD: Yeah, competition a long, long time ago. So music's definitely been in my family.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us, and congratulations on your lives together and on the success of "Once" and your music. Thank you.

Mr. HANSARD: Thank you very much.

Ms. IRGLOVA: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, speaking to Terry Gross last year. Their new album is the band The Swell Season, is called "Strict Joy" and has just been released. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

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