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When the Swell Season took the stage at the 2008 Oscars, the band's appearance seemed about as incongruous as that of a songbird in a mineshaft. Hell, for all anyone knew, the Academy, in all its infinite wisdom, had booked the then relatively little-known duo simply to see if the pair would survive the descent . But survive they did. In fact, the two triumphed. And the occasion proved that in the end, good song can win the day — it just needs to be heard.
Two years later, Glen Hansard — who, with Markéta Irglová, makes up the Swell Season — remains somewhat agog over the showing. "The Oscars was amazing," Hansard says by phone from a Dublin restaurant. "It was totally surreal. In a way, you've been invited into a party that you may have always railed against. I mean, I guess the Oscars is the establishment to the max. But at the same time, we were supporting our film, and our film was this tiny little thing, and to be invited into that world was such a strange, mad honor. So I'm actually incredibly overjoyed."
The film Hansard is talking about is Once, the surprise Irish indie hit in which he plays a Dublin busker who joins (and kind of falls for) a Czech girl nearly 20 years his junior. The song in question is "Falling Slowly." And get this: It did win an Academy Award, for Best Original Song.
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"Falling Slowly," and the overall soundtrack from which it came, also earned the twosome a Grammy nomination. Once won an Independent Spirit Award as well. Still, that Oscar moment has stayed etched in folks' minds and had left Hansard feeling perhaps just a little un-indie.
"You can get all defensive about it up to a point," he continues, "and suddenly you're invited and you go, 'Of course I want to go!' Then you sorta realize so much of our bullshit indie-rock attitude about the world has to do with the fact that we really want something and we don't think we can have it."
You'll find none of that bad indie attitude with this onetime couple, who really didn't intend on being a band to begin with — or at least not calling themselves one anyway. Even their name, which was culled from a novel by Czech writer Josef Škvorecký, came about quite by chance. And, as Hansard explains, it has proven to be very useful.
"Markéta and I were going to do some recording and a great friend of mine said, 'Here's a great novel to read while you're in the studio,'" Hansard says. "Mar picked it up while I was doing my parts, and I picked it up while she was doing her parts, and basically we were both reading the book at the same time. And there was one instrumental piece Mar had that had no name, and I said, 'Let's call it the Swell Season.'"
The accidental band became the real deal with the surprise success of Once. "We just thought, We're playing these songs, so let's just call the band the Swell Season." Then, late last year, the Swell Season followed up Once with the album Strict Joy. It turns out that title, too, is a sort of happy accident.
"Strict Joy comes from Irish poet James Stephens. I'm a huge fan. People might know his Crock of Gold, which is a very famous book about leprechauns. In fact, a lot of the leprechaun myths known throughout Ireland came from James Stephens's writing," Hansard explains. "He wrote an amazing book of poetry called Strict Joy that I actually picked up in Portland at Powell's. I was flipping through the book, and the tone of writing just hit me so hard I remember thinking, This record has to be a tribute to this."
The LP is the duo's first for powerhouse indie label ANTI-, home of esteemed names such as Nick Cave, Neko Case, and Tom Waits. It is also home of the Frames, the band in which Hansard first made his name. Since the Swell Season's success, the Frames have been on a sort of hiatus, but Hansard promises they, too, will be coming to your town soon, in celebration of the group's 20-year anniversary.
And because the Frames will be back in action, Hansard says, he will probably play fewer of their songs in a Swell Season set. As for "Into the Mystic" and "And the Healing Has Begun," the two Van Morrison songs the Swell Season covered on the collector's edition of Once, the chances are good you'll hear those — or something similar.
"Usually, how our set lists work is you get some idea of what you're gonna do; then you sorta busk it from there," he explains. "There's another Van Morrison tune that I do on tour, actually even more than those two, and that's 'Astral Weeks.' It's probably been awhile since we did a gig without doing a Van Morrison track."
There's also a chance the band will perform something a little more unusual. "Sometimes we'll do a Daniel Johnston song — 'Devil Town,'" Hansard adds. "And sometimes, to have a laugh, if there's a band that we like from the city, we'll try to do one of their songs. When we were down in Australia, we did an AC/DC song. Basically, if you're somewhere like Nashville, you probably try to learn a Hank Williams tune, or Willie Nelson if you're in Austin. It can be kind of a disaster, or it can be kind of fun."