Markéta Irglová: ‘Glen Hansard always treated me as an equal, but I didn’t see myself that way’

The Academy Award winning musician, best known as one half of The Swell Season alongside Glen Hansard, is on the cusp of releasing her third solo album, LILA

Markéta Irglová has had a hell of a decade. In the last 10 years or so, the Czech-born musician has moved to Iceland, got married, had three babies, attained dual citizenship, built a studio and established her solo career. Was there something else? Oh yes: she’s also written a musical, and last year, she even managed to squeeze in a bid to represent Iceland in the Eurovision Song Contest. If she wasn’t so damned nice, Irglová might be the type of perennial overachiever you couldn’t help but envy.

When we speak, the friendly, articulate 34-year-old — who of course, came to prominence as a then-unknown alongside Glen Hansard in John Carney’s world-beating Once in 2006 — is in her hometown of Valašské Meziříčí in Czech Republic, visiting family for the summer. In the background, the sounds of her three children laughing and shouting tussle with the rumble of distant farm machinery.

Irglová, best known as one half of The Swell Season alongside Hansard, is on the cusp of releasing her third solo album, LILA. The follow-up to 2014′s Muna follows an unplanned eight-year hiatus, after which “the children had got a little bit bigger and I found that I had more time to just sit at the piano and write.” Her time away from performing also allowed her to expand her musical repertoire in other ways, strengthening her voice by singing in a choir and writing music for film and theatre, as well as writing over 20 songs for that aforementioned musical (that has yet to go into production). Spending time in the studio with her husband, producer Sturla “Mio” Thorisson (aka the reason she originally moved to Iceland) also expanded her knowledge and allowed her to experiment with different technology.

Working on LILA with Thorisson in their own studio for the first time played a major role in how the album panned out. If the photos online are anything to go by, Masterkey — situated in the town of Seltjarnarnes, 5km outside of Reykjavik — must be one of the most idyllic settings for a recording space in Europe. Having their own space meant that the songs were allowed to percolate and unfurl in their own time.


“A lot of the time, we ended up working after the kids went to bed; we would go up to the studio — because we live in the same building — and just continue working,” she says. “And the mood in the evening and in the middle of the night is totally different from during the day. So we really took our time, and we could say ‘Okay, now it’s ready. Now this song feels whole, and finished.’ So it was a huge, huge plus.”

Family life also had an inadvertent impact on the album’s themes, too — although not in the way you might expect. Several of the songs were influenced by Irglova’s newfound love of TV; she mentions shows like Bridgerton. The Witcher, Normal People and Altered Carbon’as unlikely sources of inspiration, providing stories and characters to get lost in.

Other songs, like Know Yourself, feature the voices of her eight-year-old daughter Mia and her two sons (six and four, as well as her sister Zuzana. With husband Mio on production, ‘ILA is very much a family affair. The pair fell in love when Irglová travelled to Iceland to work on her 2011 debut Anar (the full story can be read on her website), and Thorisson has produced all of her solo work to date. She has become much better and more confident about communicating her desires in the studio, she says, and the pair share a solid working relationship with “no ego involved”.

Irglová has clearly thrown herself into her new life in Iceland wholeheartedly (she is now fluent in Icelandic, too), but says that it has proved somewhat difficult to fully integrate into the local music community, as it often is for foreign musicians. Last year, however, she wanted to mark her 10th year in the country in a meaningful way by entering Söngvakeppnin, the contest that selects the Icelandic Eurovision entry. The desire to impress her kids was also a motivating factor, she adds, laughing.

“I know my songs aren’t really Eurovision-style, so I know that it wouldn’t win,” she admits. “But I just wanted to do something locally in Iceland, that I could sort of design from beginning to end. The whole act was my own production, so it was really great to have the freedom to do that and be happy with the result. It was a very interesting experience, and because I’m not a competitive person, it’s actually really easy for me to take part in something like that and being okay with it not being all about winning. It was a lot of fun.”

Irglová's easy-going nature and willingness to follow her gut has led her to interesting places. Although she is continuing to strike out as a solo artist, she has no issue with perennially being regarded as “the girl from Once’” or “one half of The Swell Season”, proudly describing it as “literally the reason where I am today.”

Earlier this year, she and Hansard resurrected The Swell Season for a number of live dates to mark the 15th anniversary of Once, and she reveals that the prospect of their long-awaited third album (their last was 2009′s Strict Joy) was discussed.

“We love being on stage together,” she says. “Glen said a funny thing; he turned to me at one point and said ‘Y’know, I’d forgotten how nice it is to sing with you.’ I said ‘Well, I didn’t!’,” she laughs, mock-offended. “But I had subconsciously always been waiting for the time that he wanted to do some shows again — so when I got the phone call about the idea of a tour, I was super-excited about it. And it was beautiful, it was like no time had passed.

“One thing that did change,” she says, was her confidence in her own ability. “When we’re on a stage together now, for the first time I perceived us as equals,” she nods. “Glen had always treated me as an equal on stage; he always trusted me a lot and gave me a lot of credit for our collaboration, and he always spoke about me in a way that I didn’t see myself. But throughout the years, when I had to become a little bit more independent, musically, I did grow an inner strength and trust in myself. So now, when we join each other on stage, I feel like that, too: ‘Okay, now we’re equals and we’re both bringing something to the table which makes this more than each of us are on our own.’”

Irglová still speaks with a sweet sense of wonderment about the whole “winning an Oscar” thing for their song Falling Slowly; in fact, that feeling of openness and possibility that she experienced at the Kodak Theatre that night in February 2008 — four days shy of her 20th birthday — ties in with the themes that she explores on LILA.

“My heart felt so open,” she says, as a tractor loudly rumbles past and she rejoins her family in her parents’ garden. “In that moment, I just felt connected to every single being in the world; it was just the most magnificent thing. It’s like something I’d only read about in books, or heard people talk about when they’re high on drugs. But there I was, totally sober, and I felt this: and it changed everything for me. Because it made me realise that there is a state that is accessible to us; it’s just about breaking down the barriers, in a way. So these songs are about that: expressing that we all go through the same things, and that love is at the core of most things. Or the lack of love. But it’s always about love. It’s all any of us want, ever.”

LILA is released on Masterkey Recordings on August 19th.

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy is a freelance journalist and broadcaster. She writes about music and the arts for The Irish Times