published: 16 /
In ther latest in his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column, Ben Howarth looks at the career of Frames' frontman Glen Hansard, who, as well as acting in the film 'Once', also has just the Oscar for it for Best Original Song with 'Falling Slowly'
At the Oscars a few weekends ago, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova won the Oscar for Best Original Song with 'Falling Slowly'. I hate to say "I told you so", but…
The pair first worked together when they spent four days making the album, ‘The Swell Season’. Some of these songs had been written by Hansard before the sessions, (including 'Leave', worked on with Damien Rice when Hansard and his band the Frames supported Rice in America), while others were collaborative efforts.
In 2006, ‘The Swell Season’ was given a small scale release in Ireland, and Hansard went into the studio with the Frames, to make ‘The Cost’. Again, this album was initially only released in Ireland, where the Frames have a devoted following. Two songs from ‘The Swell Season’ were given the full band treatment, ‘Falling Slowly’ and ‘When Your Mind’s Made Up’.
In 2007, both albums were released worldwide by Anti. But, broadly speaking, neither was a particular success. I remain baffled as to why.
Glen Hansard left school at the age of 13 to busk on the streets of Dublin and draw up his plans for musical stardom. Yet, he first came to public attention on screen, as the guitarist in ‘The Commitments’. Nevertheless, he made no attempt to become a full-time actor, and was snapped up to a lucrative recording contract.
He would be the first to acknowledge that this wasn’t a huge success. The album, a disjointed attempt to sound like Nirvana, was not a commercial hit, and it didn’t deserve to be. The Frames waited three years before releasing another, ‘Fitzcarraldo’. Something of a cult classic in Ireland, many of its songs remain high points of the band’s setlist over a decade later, not least the epic title track. Here, Hansard got the balance between Irish folk, indie and classic rock.
Sadly, the band had decided to sign with Trevor Horn and his ZTT label. The production on the band’s second album, ‘Dance the Devil’, conspired to sabotage some of the band’s best songs. There are worse albums, but live recordings of these songs demonstrate that their natural energy was totally absent from the studio versions.
Sensing that it wasn’t working, the Frames bought their way out of the contract, and moved to a small Irish label. Their next album, ‘For the Birds’ was, in Ireland at least, a great success. This was a surprise, because for the first - and only - time, Hansard and his band had gone out of their way to make an album deliberately uncommercial. Recorded by Steve Albini in collaboration with Craig Ward of Deus, the songs here are all very quiet and slow. If you want to know what Damien Rice was listening to when he wrote 'O', look no further.
From here, things began to look up for the band. ‘Set List’, a recording of a show in Dublin, went to number one in the Irish charts. Two further albums, ‘Burn The Maps’ and ‘The Cost’, have been fantastic. I most like the Frames because their songs seem to have evolved naturally, and, even if they are fairly conventional folk-rock in style, they never sound like any other band.
And yet, when the band played an outstanding show at the King’s Cross Scala last year, the whole audience seemed to be Irish. Hopefully, the success of 'Once' will change all that.
‘Once’ is an excellent film, with a charming and simple plot - effectively directed, unafraid of sentiment and never trying to be anything it isn’t. I’m sure John Carney would have made a good film with trained actors, but the recruitment of Hansard was a masterstroke - what better person to play the character of a talented songwriter afraid to play his songs in public than a talented songwriter?
While promoting the film, Hansard carried on touring with the Frames. In July, I saw him play halfway up the bill at a Belgian festival, and in September, they were asked to support Bob Dylan in Australia.
The DVD of 'Once' is now available, and you’d be a fool to miss it. But, after winning the Oscar, and despite confirming that he had been offered further acting roles, Hansard insisted that he will go back to Dublin and to his work with the Frames.
Perhaps, this decision should be rewarded with far more attention for his music. If you’re reading this, for God’s sake, go out and buy a Frames album.