When a man killed himself at one of his gigs, Irish folkster Glen Hansard formed an unlikely friendship with Eddie Vedder
Glen Hansard – charming musical frontman, co-star of the indie-hit musical Once, and solo folk troubadour – is trying his hand at a whole new trade. Carpentry may seem like a strange hobby to his fans, who picture him penning new lyrics or swilling pints with pals between gigs. But for Hansard it’s not only a natural progression, it’s also his means to build a reprieve.
“It’s about being at home and doin’ somethin’ with your hands,” the Irish singer-songwriter told Time Out ahead of his Australian tour and appearance at Bluesfest. “So much time on the road is spent in your head, and in your throat. You’re building your strength during the day so you can sing your songs. Whereas if you’re at home, and you can relax, trying to put together a kitchen table just gives you so much joy. It’s like a song – if you build it well, it’s going to last.”
He constructed his career in the same fashion. Most know him as the lovable busker from 2006’s Once, and subsequent work with his bandmates in the Swell Season, which included co-star and former flame Markéta Irglová. But those are just the trimmings. Hansard’s career began with Dublin rock troupe the Frames in the early ’90s and 2000s before Once – now a Tony-winning Broadway show – gave him his breakthrough. After he and Irglová’s Oscar win for best song, the media zeroed in on their onscreen, and offscreen, romance, even capturing it in a behind-the-scenes documentary fittingly dubbed The Swell Season.
But after all of the celebrating, celebrity and champagne, Hansard was left wanting something else.
“Everyone’s allowed to change at any moment, but what you’re putting your time into is who you are,” Hansard says of his recent turn to carpenty. “So I like the idea that – instead of goin’ out and getting fuckin’ plastered drunk every night when I’m off – I actually put my hands into somethin’ that’s a little more fruitful.”
More than the success of Once, it was a single concert that would impact Hansard’s career, and life, the most. In the summer of 2010, at a San Jose show with the Swell Season, a man leapt from the three storey castle-esque structure serving as the stage’s backdrop, landing only a few feet from where Hansard was performing. The man was a 32-year-old local named Michael Pickels, out on bail after “facing charges of assault with a firearm and domestic violence...” (according to San Francisco Weekly magazine). The Irish Central reported that Hansard was the “first to rush over and try and help the man; a doctor in the audience tried to save him also, but to no avail.”
“It was just a dreadful mess. I remember drinking a lot at the time, and feeling really confused,” Hansard says, adding that trauma wasn’t exclusive to he and his bandmates. “There were 4,000 people sitting there, watching it happen. I mean, ten-year-old kids in the front row, watching this guy die.”
The Swell Season donated enough funds to cover counseling bills for those stricken onlookers, before booking appointments of their own. But Hansard found better comfort somewhere else.
The day after Pickels’ suicide, a still-reeling Hansard received a call from Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who had endured a similar mid-gig tragedy in 2000 when nine fans were trampled by a manic crowd, pushing their way to the front row. Hansard says the phone call was a bittersweet way for one of his heroes to introduce himself. “But Eddie was tryin’ to help me through something that I didn’t understand how to deal with. I was so struck by the amount of heart he showed, he was so willing to hear me out.”
By 2012, Hansard and Vedder had become close. The elder rocker invited Hansard to open his solo American tour – right in time for the release of Hansard’s own solo debut, 2012’s Rhythm and Repose, an album of achingly intimate, all-but-hushed ballads. He cites their Austin tour-stop as a major highlight, not because of the gig so much as the downtime. “We spent three nights there, which was really exctin’ for someone like me or Eddie who travels all the time, to just be still for a bit.” He and Vedder even found time to record a few tunes together which they’ll polish and release later this year.
Described by many as a workaholic, Hansard is finally seeing the virtue of downtime in a packed itinerary. The blitz of success after his and Irglová’s Oscar win was joyous, but only at first. Before long, his more introverted partner had literally grown hoarse from the constant gigging and interviews. She told the TheBeijinger.com in 2012 that Hansard gobbled the attention up before it twisted his insides like an ulcer. "It was a time of great success, but Glen struggled a lot with 'authenticity', with whether or not it was OK to have this success. It made all the work we’d done seem worthless."
Before the sudden fame strained their relationship beyond repair, it pushed Irglová to impart some much needed wisdom. As Hansard recalls it: “She said something like, ‘Glen, you’ve been struggling in your band for recognition all these years. So it makes total sense, now that success has come your way, that you’re going to struggle with it too. Because struggle is your thing.’ So that was her word to me: ‘When are you gonna stop strugglin’?’” He pauses for a chuckle. “And she’s absolutely right.”
Glen Hansard plays Bluesfest 28-29 Mar.