Glen Hansard: ‘I have regrets about Apollo House’
The Frames frontman is in danger of becoming an elder statesman
Glen Hansard has been away. Has he been for a week on the beach or a few days at a spa? He has not. The craggy, bearded singer has just returned from Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday bash in Los Angeles. Root around online and you’ll find footage of him singing Coyote to the great woman herself.
“It’s kind of like being in a family,” he says. “Graham Nash and I were sitting listening to Big Yellow Taxi and he leaned over and says: ‘This song is written about me’. Kris Kristofferson and Brandi Carlile are singing A Case of You and James Taylor is saying: ‘This one’s about me.’ Ha ha!”
This is where Hansard finds himself. Now 48 years old, an Oscar for best original song on the mantelpiece, he’s in danger of becoming an elder statesman. It seems minutes ago that he was playing Outspan in The Commitments. We blink and such men become oaks of their generation.
Glen found himself hauling at the rough oars for more than six hours a day. That’s quite something for a fellow raised in north Dublin
At any rate, he doesn’t seem out of place with the older greybeards rowing their way from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela in Dónal Ó Céilleachair’s delightful The Camino Voyage. The walk to that pilgrimage site in northern Spain has long been a rite of passage. Fewer travellers make the journey by sea. Fewer still do so in a rudimentary craft such as the traditional west coast naomhóg. Yet that is what four men – the poet Danny Sheehy, the artist Liam Holden, the musician Brendan Begley and the stonemason Breandán Moriarty – sought to do in staggered stages over three years beginning in 2014. When it came time for the last leg, Moriarty was detained by professional engagements – and Hansard got the call.
“I happened to be standing next to Brendan Begley when he was getting the news. Brendan turned to me and said: ‘Do you want to go on a boat?’” Hansard tells me.
“Go on a boat” doesn’t really cover it. A few months later, Glen found himself hauling at the rough oars for more than six hours a day. That’s quite something for a fellow raised in north Dublin. Most of the others had some experience of the sea.
“I asked Danny how much I needed to practice,” Hansard remembers. “He said: ‘You don’t need to do anything. You just need to have will. We’ve seen you do gigs and you have will. If you can play a gig for three hours then you can row for six.’”
For the first week or two, Glen suffered from raging seasickness. The other members of the crew talked him through it, and he remembers that “all the Werner Herzog romance was knocked out of me within 24 hours of being in their company”.
The result is a stirring entertainment. We see them improvising songs as they make their way along the rugged coastline. They stop in friendly villages, exchange songs, cook rugged stews and offer their hosts a suspicious transparent liquid. (I’m sure it’s mountain water from the streams of Dingle.)
“Danny said to me: ‘You’re just about old enough to do it,’” Glen remembers. “What he meant was when you’re older you don’t have as much strength, but you’ve got more stamina. A young man wants just to get there. An old man wants to actually do the thing. Brendan told the joke about the old bull and the young bull. A young bull said: ‘Let’s run down that hill and ride one of those cows.’ The old bull says: ‘Let’s walk down and ride them all.’”
But what is it all for? The continuing appeal of the Camino is a mystery to many who haven’t experienced it. The journey makes obvious sense to Christians who wish to honour the shrine of Saint James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. But it retains appeal for people of other faiths and no faith at all.
“You’re right,” Hansard says. “We are drawn to the monastic life without necessarily following the teachings of the church. Getting the opportunities to sleep in churches, living a very simple life, is very attractive. Walking with only what you can carry. It’s what draws people to become a Buddhist monk.”
Does he see himself as a person of faith?
“Absolutely. I definitely have a belief. I have a relationship with some spiritual thing. I like churches, but I don’t like the Church. I like the peace and quiet that’s in them.”
Nobody would dare suggest that Hansard is not a man of passion. That’s what defines his act. It also defines his public persona. We are now approaching the second anniversary of the Apollo House occupation. Just before Christmas of 2016, he and around 100 other citizens took control of an empty office building in central Dublin to highlight the homelessness crisis. They drew attention. They started conversations. What are his reflections from this remove?
“Well, there are regrets, of course, about Apollo,” he says. “But I was happy to be involved with it. I was happy I was naive enough to think I could make a difference. That’s when change happens – when people don’t second-guess themselves. They just get involved for better or worse. It was an important experience.”
Lack of progress
He sounds wearied and disappointed at the lack of progress. The bounce goes out of his voice a little when he discusses Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy.
“I don’t want to be cynical. I want to believe Eoghan Murphy when he says that they are trying to fix this, but they just are not. I am sure they would argue that they are. It’s an ideological difference. Fine Gael aren’t going to do anything about it. That’s the bottom line. That’s just my opinion.”
Hansard maintains the hint of gloom when he discusses the changes in Dublin over the last few decades. “I feel that the world is drifting ever more to the right,” he says. Raised in Ballymun, he left school in his early teens when a wise teacher spotted his abilities and suggested he devote his time to the guitar. Years as a busker followed. So, Hansard has had a ground-level view of recession, boom, bust and the current tense recovery (for some).
“Look, you’ve got people at the top cheating and people at the bottom cheating,” he says. “Our government chooses to notice only those at the bottom cheating and rewards those at the top. It’s very out of balance. I really like Dublin. But I just wonder about it. Why is the rent so much more expensive? I just don’t get it. Why here?”
I have always found the Irish music press deeply suspect. It’s always about what England allows us to do
He got his kick up the tree when Alan Parker came to cast The Commitments in Dublin. Hansard had no plans to act. He went along to the audition with his pal David Wilmot – still a busy, busy actor – and was persuaded to try a few lines. The call-back came as a surprise. It’s easy to forget what a sensation that film was. The album sold by the bucket. A live act followed. The millennial Irish Renaissance had begun. Hansard may burble with excitement at the memory, but he did end up stepping away.
“I did because I had just made my first album,” he says. “I was excited about getting The Frames together. I think there was a push into turning The Commitments into a real band. That didn’t feel right to me. I was ready to go and follow my dream.”
The Frames occupy a singular place in the nation’s music history. Glen remembers little of the famous, exhausting search for “the new U2”. That seemed to pass them all by. The group ploughed their own furrow and attracted significant – if never huge – audiences in various unlikely parts of the world.
“I just never thought about the Irish music scene,” he says. “We were never involved in that. We went and toured America. We toured Europe. I have always found the Irish music press deeply suspect; it’s always about what England allows us to do.”
Is he unhappy that the band weren’t more successful? More than a few fans feel they didn’t get their due.
“No. I think it was just right,” he says. “Everything about our career was spot on. And then when the Once thing happened I was the most grateful person on Earth. There was that bit of recognition.”
It brought us some comfort that Danny passed away on the day of St Colmcille, as he was his favourite saint
The “Once thing” still spins the brain. John Carney, who played bass in an early incarnation of The Frames, planned his film as a way of passing a few empty weeks. As Hansard explains, it was “made in our back garden”. The finished picture wowed Sundance and, a year later, Hansard and Markéta Irglová, his co-star, found themselves performing Falling Slowly at the Academy Awards.
There’s a lot of life in there. It colours his reflections on The Camino Voyage, a film layered with unwanted poignancy. In 2017, Danny Sheehy, known also as Domhnall Mac Síthigh, died when the naomhóg capsized off the coast of Portugal. Liam Ó Maonlaí of The Hothouse Flowers was among those who survived the disaster.
“It brought us some comfort that Danny passed away on the day of St Colmcille, as he was his favourite saint,” Hansard says. The poet can be heard in the film. It stands as a worthy tribute. “What is success?” Glen says of its own career. “It’s when somebody listens to you.”
That will do nicely.
GLEN HANSARD ON FILM
The Commitments (1991)
Hansard sports top hair as Outspan Foster, guitarist in the eponymous soul band. Angelina Ball, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Bronagh Gallagher also got carreer boosts.
John Carney and Hansard had no greater ambitions than striking a few DVDs to sell at gigs. The perambulatory romance became a deserved Oscar-winning sensation.
The Swell Season (2011)
Lovely monochrome documentary following Hansard’s partnership with Markéta Irglová – both personal and professional – over a two-year tour.
Ballymun Lullaby (2011)
Hansard offers words of wisdom in Frank Berry’s wonderful documentary on music teacher Ron Cooney’s work in the old manor. “I think Ballymun gave me more fire in me belly,” Hansard says.
The Camino Voyage (2018)
Take a few Dramamine before getting on board with Glen and his crew as they row their way to the northern coast of Spain. A fitting tribute to the late Domhnall Mac Síthigh.