Once upon a time there was a boy. The boy played in an Irish band called the Frames, who had a few fans but weren't even close to U2 on the Successful Irish Bands list. The boy made a movie with an unknown Czech girl. The movie became a surprise hit — bigger than the Frames ever were. Everybody fell in love with the movie and the boy and girl. And they fell in love with each other. The boy and girl's movie won an Oscar. They toured. They were a hit.
Then something happened on the way to Happily Ever After. The boy and girl fell out of love. They broke up. They wrote songs about their relationship — the good parts and the bad. And they made a record about it.
The boy is Glen Hansard. The girl is Marketa Irglova. Their band is the Swell Season. And their album is called Strict Joy.
Hansard formed the Frames in Dublin 20 years ago. They're huge in Ireland (their 2004 album, Burn the Maps, debuted at No. 1 on Ireland's music chart), but they're not so well known in the U.S. By the time they released their sixth album in 2006, Hansard was on his way to his first solo project, The Swell Season, with young Czech singer Irglova. At the same time, they starred in an independent Irish film called Once. He plays a street busker; she's a shy singer. They make beautiful music together, but fall short of falling in love. It's a wonderful movie.
Once won an audience award at Sundance in 2007. The following year, the film's centerpiece, "Falling Slowly" (which first appeared on the Frames' 2006 album, The Cost), won the Academy Award for Best Song. Not long after, Hansard and Irglova went on the road with a band as the Swell Season. "Put a bit of a story behind it, and it can take on a whole different meaning," says Hansard. "It ended up becoming the catalyst for a whole shift in my career."
Suddenly, after nearly two decades of relative obscurity, Hansard was a star. He and Irglova even appeared on The Simpsons — that's how big they got. With the Swell Season, he was attracting audiences that skewed older than those who came to the Frames' noise-drenched shows. The Swell Season's soft, polite music was NPR-ready, and Hansard was ready for the career upswing. "Context is everything in this world," he says. "But I'm not going to change what I do just because I've got people's attention. When an artist tries to become his audience, he's just chasing something. And whenever you chase the affection of others, you'll always be let down."
Hansard and Irglova spent most of 2009 writing and recording Strict Joy. They became a couple not long after Once premiered. But by last year, they had split up. The songs on Once's soundtrack reveled in the open possibilities of new love; Strict Joy is the sound of two people falling out of it. (Hansard, 40, and Irglova, 22, write separately; he usually sings his songs, and she sings hers.)
"Of course she's in my songs, and I'm in hers," says Hansard. "We've both moved on; we've both had other lovers and other relationships. But she's all over these songs. The only difference between this collection of songs and any other collection of songs is that the person you're singing about is actually present."
In the album's best tracks — "In These Arms," "Low Rising," and "Feeling the Pull," particularly — Hansard and Irglova chronicle a relationship that's as stifling as it is liberating. It's easy to read their fallout in the songs. They're still close friends, says Hansard. "My relationship with her has been one of the best relationships I've ever been in and for sure the most fruitful," he says. "What an incredible journey we went through."
The Swell Season are back on the road, performing marathon shows — most concerts run at least two and a half hours ("We have a lot to get through," says Hansard) — and charming audiences (Hansard is a funny and gifted Springsteen-style storyteller).
But he isn't sure what's next (Sunday's House of Blues show is the Swell Season's last before a five-week break). Maybe he'll do another Swell Season record, or maybe a new Frames album — the band hasn't released a record since 2006, even though most of its members are part of the Swell Season. "I'm just going with the flow," says Hansard. "The only clear difference between before and after is that there's an audience now."
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