Glen Hansard figured out a good way to not have to deal with the pressure of following up a hit album that featured an Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly": He recorded many of the songs on the recently released second Swell Season album Strict Joy before he realized he was even making a record.
"It takes the pressure off," Hansard explains. "If I was to sit around and think about it, I'd be like, 'God, I'd probably never do it.' I probably wouldn't make a second record because I'd be like, 'Gosh, how is this going to be viewed?' You know what I mean — you start thinking about the context in which you're going to be viewed and how critics are going to see it. Then you start getting afraid, and fear is no place to do anything from."
The story of the Swell Season and its sudden arrival in the limelight has been well documented. Hansard, the longtime songwriter and frontman of the Irish band The Frames, teamed up with classically trained pianist and singer Marketa Irglova on the project.
Shortly after making a self-titled debut album, Hansard participated in Once, a film being made by friend and former Frames bandmate John Carney. Originally, the plan was for Hansard to write the music for the film, while Irglova was going to star as the female half of a pair of struggling musicians who fall in love. When the actor initially tapped for the male lead couldn't do the film, Hansard stepped in to star alongside Irglova.
Some of the songs from the Swell Season's debut ended up being used in the movie, including "Falling Slowly," which became a left-field nominee for a 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Song. The duo performed it during the Academy Awards telecast and then watched as it won the Oscar.
"Falling Slowly" became a hit single, and the soundtrack to Once went gold, selling more than 500,000 copies. Shortly after, the Swell Season wrapped a tour that included a concert opening for Bob Dylan and Levon Helm. Helm invited Hansard to join in on one of Helm's famous Saturday night sessions in Woodstock, N.Y., (the Midnight Ramble).
"We went down there and recorded songs we had been playing live, so it was easy," Hansard says. "Then we wrote a couple of songs in the moment, in the studio. It just felt so natural. So in a lot of ways it was very similar to the first Swell Season record only so much in that we went in and we just basically started playing. Then we realized that we were in the middle of making a new record."
A month later, the group returned to the studio and finished another five songs to go with the five from the first session. Realizing he wanted to balance out what at this point was shaping up to be a fairly sad and heavy album, Hansard booked a third recording session.
"It still has some melancholy, but a song like 'Feeling the Pull' was important to put on there," Hansard says. "A song like 'Paper Cup' or 'The Verb,' they're important to put on there in terms of creating a little bit of joy."
It's little surprise that Strict Joy had its share of downbeat songs. Over the course of making Once and starting the Swell Season, life imitated art as the friendship between Hansard, 40, and Irglova, 22, blossomed into love. But before making the new album, their two-year romance fell apart. The fact that Hansard and Irglova stayed together to carry the Swell Season forward speaks volumes about how they worked through their breakup.
"Myself and Mar are very close," Hansard says. "Of course, we had our drama. We just didn't have it in public. I think we both realized that we love doing this and we don't want to stop it, and if there was any way for us both to continue doing it without it being weird, we both decided let's do it. Let's test it out. Let's see how we feel about it. We went back out on the road and it felt fine."
Strict Joy is likely to please fans who discovered the group through the Once soundtrack. Like the earlier material, it retains the group's melodic folk-centric sound. Things are fuller and more fleshed out. More importantly, songs like "Low Rising," "High Horses," and "The Verb" offer striking melodies, and the additional instrumentation gives the songs more color and melodic interest.
On the road with Hansard and Irglova are three members of The Frames — violinist Colm Mac Iomaire, bassist Joe Doyle, and guitarist Rob Bocknik. It's a move that resolved potential problems between Hansard and the two groups.
"We'll present the songs slightly different from night to night," Hansard says. "We can switch out arrangements by the day. What's good about working with a band you know is you get to shake it up, and they all sort of get it."