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Beautiful and Damned - An Interview with The Frames Frontman Glen Hansard
Auntie Annies, Belfast, Northern Ireland
By Ross Thompson
Glen Hansard plays with the Irish band The Frames. The night of this interview, he performed solo, equipped with an acoustic guitar, an electric guitar, and an effects pedal that did many wonders.
Even the good starsIrish band The Frames have been ploughing their own individual musical furrow for eleven years, but are yet to achieve as much recognition and kudos they rightly deserve. Of course, ploughing of any kind demands hard work, and a great deal of patience, but it is an unjust world where a band of genuine merit and capable of great songwriting beauty are passed over for the vacuous pop that normally clogs up the radio playlists.
I foolishly thought that I was the only person in the world who listened to bands like The Frames. However, judging from the swelled crowd of people that have packed out the venue for the Glen Hansard solo gig tonight, it transpires that I am not the only one with own secret music that no one else knows about. As Hansard opens up with a lilting version of the song "Plateau," a hush falls on the crowd, who are seemingly hypnotized by the singer's presence alone.
It is difficult to describe the music of The Frames, for the band has evolved naturally across four albums of increasing artistic creativity and songwriting strength. Grunge was just starting its mission to pummel the mainstream charts in the United Kingdom, but the album Another Love Song emerged this debut as more sophisticated than that. It could be described as folk rock, but even that mantle does not seem to fit right. That term is too suggestive of bearded men in Aran sweaters with electric guitars, if you can imagine such an abomination.
Another Love Song had hummable tunes in spades, such as "Masquerade" and "The Dancer," riotous bursts of the best of The Pixies fused with a distinctly Celtic sound. But it was the quieter songs that touched base with me. The impassioned honesty of frontman Glen Hansard's lyrics traversed the traditional rock cliches that were so prevalent at the time. Singing with emotion about the L word was just not done. I was also intrigued by the fact that this record boldly alluded to spiritual themes. Such behavior was reserved for the likes of Amy Grant and Cliff Richard. Surely, if a band wanted to be taken seriously by the music journalists and air-punching audiences in rock arenas, they would not admit to being sensitive and fallible.
However, Hansard has maintained this willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve across subsequent albums. Each record has moved one step closer to an understanding of both the ways of the heart and the workings of the spiritual realm. Before I met Hansard, I was wary of imposing any religious interpretations on his music for fear that I might be imagining what I wanted to see. I also did not wish to second-guess any faith that he may or may not have.
I should not have been apprehensive. Hansard was happy to speak with a lowly punter, and did so with friendliness and candor uncommon in the traditional rock star. His enthusiasm in discussing the issues which others may consider trivial made the experience less like an interview and more like a casual chat. After much hanging about feeling like either a deranged stalker or a very unfashionable fan, I finally pinned him down for some questioning. I should have been wearing an Aran sweater to make the look complete.
It is very late at night, or early in the morning depending on your point of view, and still he was merrily signing ticket stubs, beermats and whatever else members of the audience could find. Hansard's set finished about an hour ago, after numerous encores, but he was still beavering away on handwriting souvenirs, posing for photographs, all that malarkey.
Some critics have lambasted the informality of a gig with Glen Hansard, the fact that the audience sing along with nearly every word of the songs, or fill in the instrumental bits with whistling and clicking fingers. Those critics said that the nights are too familiar, too cozy, but this is missing the point entirely. Glen Hansard gigs are supposed to be familiar and cozy. From the moment he ambled onstage, there was a sensation of kinship and warmth between the audience. It was this reception that enabled him to play for two hours, to tell the stories behind his songs. These are probably more like tall tales, woven from gossamer truth, but all the more entertaining for it. It is this atmosphere that drove him to break off into unlikely covers of George Michael's "Careless Whisper" and Phil Collins' "No More Lonely Nights."
You really had to be there.
And it was Hansard's cheery, welcoming demeanor that enabled me to ask him questions about faith. Sitting across a table sticky with spilt beer, I asked him if he is at all interested in spiritual things, or if I am just making it up.
"Oh yeah, that's true," he replies, in a musical Irish brogue. I was deeply thankful that the conversation had not fallen at the first hurdle. One can be so overcome by the whole storm and bluster of the rock star image that it was pleasantly surprising to find that any of them take the time to think about anything at all, let alone the bigger issues.
Hansard then joked that when he was in America, he sent copies of his band's records to Christian radio stations. They neglected to play them. I resisted the urge to mutter the word "Philistines" under my breath, then remembered how a few years ago I was holding the same music back for my own private universe.
"When I was young, I loved to read The Bible," Hansard continued. "I was greatly taken with the poetry of it, the blood and fire, the passionate existence of it." Even a cursory glance at Hansard's choice of song-titles would hint at some sort of spiritual understanding. "Angel At My Table," "Dance The Devil," "Denounced," "Right Road, Wrong Road," these songs frequently allude to the idea of a journey, both in the physical and metaphysical sense. Indeed, during our conversation, he also employed the journey as an analogy for his own life, and the life of the band with whom he plays.
"Let me take you through the recorded history of The Frames," he said, tapping me on the elbow. "The sleeve artwork for each album was intended to reflect a journey. The first record, Another Love Song, deliberately flirted with the idea of Christ." This intention was made clear by the striking and beautiful image on the album's front cover. A perfectly green apple, somehow suspended in mid air, has a ring of nails running around its circumference, protruding from its flesh, pointed end out. It is a neat reduction of a journey to one moment, the passage of time between the Fall and the Crucifixion distilled to one physical entity. One could write an apologetic sermon on the record sleeve alone.
"The second album was all to do with the Ark," Hansard continued. This record was named "Fitzcarraldo," and the title was taken from Werner Herzog's 1982 film of the same name. The movie Fitzcarraldo is the story of a man obsessed with his own singular vision. A businessman nurses a foolhardy dream to bring opera to the native Indians in the Peruvian jungle. In order to get there, he must enlist workers to drag his ship between two rivers. What he does not know is that the rivers are separated by towering, near insurmountable hills.
Fitzcarraldo is not just a barmy shaggy dog's tale. It is a meditation on the transcendent nature of art, the lengths to which people will go to realize their artistic calling. This parallel is doubled by the fact that Herzog himself tackled near insurmountable obstacles in his journey to bring the story to the big screen. The picture suffered an even more troubled shoot than Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, which had its fair share of breakdowns, heart attacks and drug binges.
Jason Robards, later to star in the fantastic character piece "Magnolia," and Mick Jagger were set to act in Fitzcarraldo, but both were forced to pull out after film footage had been shot. Herzog thought that his problems had been solved when they were replaced and conflated into one character, to be played by Klaus Kinski. But, the director's problems were only just beginning. Kinski was a man deranged, prone to wild temper tantrums, but even his volatile character was eclipsed by the fact that the shoot soon ran into a border war between Peru and Ecuador, cast and crew injuries, and a prolonged period of drought. If the filmmakers prayed for rain, then their intimations were answered, by a rainy season unseen since the days of Noah. Fitzcarraldo was Apocalypse Now all over again.
Such is the price of creating great art. One suspects that Glen Hansard had all these things in mind when he was working with the band on the album Fitzcarraldo, which had its own troubled production. An integral part of making the album was fighting the demands of the record company.
Consequently, the songs on Fitzcarraldo were a lot darker than those present on the previous, more upbeat record. Earlier, Hansard played a few of the highlights from that record on his acoustic guitar. "Angel At My Table," which presumably is named after the Jane Campion movie, is preceded by a prolonged intro, as Hansard relates to the audience just what the song is about. The story goes that the most beautiful girl in town was locked out of her parents' house, and ended up sharing a coffee with a younger, less vocal Hansard. This anecdote is sweet and amusing, but on record the song swells with a dark and somber tone, detailing a conversation with the imaginary devil on the singer's shoulder. This should be a familiar notion to anyone who has ever found his or herself in a situation of unbearable temptation.
That devil's on my shoulderGlen Hansard describes Fitzcarraldo the record as dealing with the "story of the Ark". As in that familiar Biblical tale, the rain must eventually cease; the fear of drowning must be tempered by the discovery of dry land. And despite its dark atmosphere, Fitzcarraldo is rescued by the belief in redemption and escape. The song "Red Chord," which Hansard also played tonight after many requests from members of the audience, is characterized by hope. As Andy Du Fresne says in The Shawshank Redemption, "Hope is a good thing, perhaps the best of things". In this case, hope comes in the act of reaching out to someone for help, perhaps even to God.
I'm pulling on the red chordFitzcarraldo was evidently a difficult record to make, but then maybe every record should be difficult to make, if these are the fruits of that toil. This, after all, is a band who entitled a later flipside "Taking The Hard Way Out." But, as Milton tells the reader in Paradise Lost, 'Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light.' For The Frames, that light came in the form of their next album, Dance the Devil. Hansard calls this work a redemption record, focused on the idea of, "Purging yourself of the poison that you are born with." It certainly is a happier, more optimistic record than its predecessor. For the first half of Dance the Devil, the listener may be fooled into thinking that this is another record on the subject of regret, that well-trodden path so many songwriters follow. Songs such as ""Seven Day Mile"" and ""Star Star"" employ poignant lyrics to make real feelings of resignation and disillusion.
Star StarI'm lost in the marsh
Hansard and I talked a lot about the feeling of being lost. Earlier in the gig, he recounted another tale of a religious education teacher he had when he was at school. Apparently, the chap tried to turn on a classroom full of disinterested teenagers to the idea of biblical studies. They resisted his over-enthusiastic attempts to bring God into their lives, but the experience has obviously touched Hansard's life in some small way.
After he leapt around the small stage, doing a vivid impersonation of his teacher, he told the audience, "It's okay to be uncool if you are found." Most people were too busy laughing at Hansard's gyrations to hear this, or perhaps dispensed it as a flippant witticism, but there surely was poignancy in those words. When I asked him about this later, he replies.
"At some point you have to put your hands up and say that you are lost. I know that I am lost and I admire people who know that they are found. But I enjoy being lost and I enjoy not having the answers." Hansard told me that he knows people who have given their lives over to a faith of some description, whether it be Christianity or otherwise. He admitted that he does believe in God, but has not yet come to terms with any kind of steady belief. Yet, I am still intrigued by his comment earlier. It sticks with me like a splinter, and leaves me wondering what people would do if they had to choose between being cool and being found.
The Dance the Devil album closes with the song of the same name, a song that urges people to purge themselves of the poison that sits in our souls like silt at the bottom of a river. Keen listeners will pick out the line "There's no life I know that compares to pure imagination", a lyric lifted from the musical cinematic version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, of all things.
Speaking about things similar to those discussed in this song, Hansard described the role of the singer as akin to that of a preacher. "I love the preacher role, the idea of giving a sermon. You're having fun, but you are also saying, 'Be aware of this.' You have to tell people to push Satan down and to praise the Lord." Again, I was surprised that Hansard was so open with his feelings on the subject of faith. I must confess that I am a little saddened that someone should be able to be so poetic and so candid about the issue of belief, yet still claim to be lost. The way I try to excuse this is that the singer's plight is this: that their life must be sad so they may write good songs. Great art is all about struggle, about grappling with the disappointments of the world. As he himself joked, "I am sabotaging my own happiness for those nuggets."
American specialists with Ph.D.'s in not particularly useful subjects write self-help manuals to tell their readers how to achieve happiness. Television advertisements inform viewers where to buy it. The songwriter, on the other hand, well, they avoid it at all costs. As any artists worth their salt knows, happiness deadens the muse, and weakens the music. At one point during tonight's concert, a young lady in the crowd shouted, "Play a happy song." She apparently had endured listening to enough melancholia and introspection. Hansard, with his usual amount of charming self-deprecation, laughed it off.
For the Birds, the most recent Frames album, is a record heavily concerned with disappointment. Glen Hansard calls this record an expression of despair, a declaration that, "Your will is all you have." The sleeve this time is decorated with crucifixes, continuing with the spiritual theme that started with the pierced apple ten years before. For the Birds is a fantastic record. It is the sort of album that you can allow yourself to be lost in. Songs such as "Disappointed" and "What Happens When The Heart Just Stops" again return to the tattered fray of broken relationships for that is the staple material of the best songs. But the record is far from maudlin. The band has said in interviews that this is the sound that they have been seeking after for so long. Perhaps this newfound confidence has to do with the relative absence, and therefore meddling, of a major record company. The Frames put this work together themselves, recorded in various rooms with various different friends and colleagues. The best way I can describe it is by likening it to the acoustic songs The Beatles laid down at George Harrison's country house before they made The White Album. It has that sort of organic texture, and is touched by the same level of craftsmanship.
Mentioning the crucifixes on the sleeve of For the Birds brings us back to the question of faith again. Hansard, having just returned from a lengthy tangent taking in Samuel Beckett, Captain Beefheart and a cast of thousands, claimed that if anything, he is touched by a, "kindergarten level spirituality." I say that I could easily relate to that, as my own personal journey is interrupted frequently by failure and falling down. Perhaps that is why I find Hansard's music and lyrics so appealing, because he is not afraid to grapple with the bigger issues in life, or to admit defeat and disappointment when the big issues grow too large.
If Glen Hansard really is lost, then I hope he finds his way some time soon, though I also hope that means he does not stop making great records. I throw him only one curveball question, namely if he could ask God one question, what would it be?
"How am I doing?" he said, after a deep breath.
I hope he finds out somehow,
whatever the answer might be.