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Irish Folk Music: Once More

Elvis Costello and Quest Love

AT A music hall in Atlanta, a few hundred glowing iPhones bob to the rhythm of a strumming guitar. Glen Hansard, an Irish singer, is on stage with a dozen musicians, playing a tune called “Talking with the Wolves”. The crowd wiggles in time to its thump-and-shuffle beats. Deeper into the set, cups of beer are hoisted into the air, and a singalong erupts when Hansard pleads “Say It to Me Now” in his signature guttural wail.

It is the kind of satisfying finale fans have come to expect from Mr Hansard, who has carried the torch for Irish folk rock for two decades, redefining the genre through dynamic, sweat-drenched performances of The Frames, the band he founded (their best-seller is a live collection called “Set List”). But mainstream recognition has so far eluded him. That is changing.

Mr Hansard’s story has a romantic appeal: he left school at 13 to busk on the streets of Dublin. By the age of 20, he had signed on to Island Records, a major label. His popularity grew when he starred in “The Commitments”, a hit 1991 film about Dublin musicians. Mr Hansard had by then become an established club performer with a distinctive voice and a cult following. But it was not until he portrayed a busker in “Once”, a 2006 independent film featuring music made by him and his co-star Marketa Irglova, that people began to take notice of him as a songwriter. In 2008, the pair won an Oscar for the movie’s theme song, “Falling Slowly”.

Awards alone do not pay bills, so Mr Hansard, now 42, continues to do what he has done for nearly 30 years—perform for an audience. Mr Hansard is touring America to promote his first solo album, “Rhythm and Repose”. It is an album filled with yearning and reflection; themes include the death of Mr Hansard’s father and his recent breakup with Ms Irglova, whom he started seeing during the filming of “Once”. The absorbing lead track—“You Will Become”, written for his younger brothers and for Ms Irglova—makes it clear that Mr Hansard prioritises poetry over accessibility; the song’s contemplative refrain and raw vocals are perhaps too thoughtful for pop radio.

But Mr Hansard is finally tasting success. Even as he tours the country, a musical version of “Once” is selling out every week on Broadway. As the play progresses from song to song, audiences are so struck by the intimacy of the music, they often weep openly. In June, the play won a Tony award for best musical. Although he is not involved with the production of the musical, Mr Hansard deserves some of the praise. He wrote the original music and aspects of his street-corner soul emanate from every tune in the play. “It’s ‘Once’ being on Broadway that has afforded me some luxuries, not being in a band,” he says. “It affords me to maybe sometime next year buy an apartment in Brooklyn. So it is something I can really put my hand on my heart and be grateful for.”

The musical will travel to London early in 2013 and to cities across America next summer. His solo tour too goes global later this year. With success comes a degree of comfort. “When I was a busker, whenever I went out on the street and I was really stuck for money and needed it, I rarely made any. But those days when I was out having a laugh with my friends, that’s when I made the most money. Energy comes and energy goes. Don’t question it.” Mr Hansard may never abandon the street corners where he honed his craft. But those that hear his music—whether sung by him or Broadway actors—believe he belongs on the world stage.


Photo: Press image courtesy of ANTI




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