“A song only becomes what it is through witness,” says Glen Hansard, speaking from a makeshift stage in the back room of a small pub in the west of Dublin in November 2022.
At the time it had been three years since the release of his last record, 2019’s ‘This Wild Willing’, and what feels like a lifetime since the world suddenly stopped. Hansard kept busy in the intervening period: collaborating on the Flag Day soundtrack with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Cat Power, touring with Eddie Vedder as a member of The Earthlings, and reuniting with Markéta Irglová for a sold-out run of shows commemorating the 15th anniversary of the film Once. He also joined the cast of Cyrano for filming in Italy at the bequest of the Dessner twins (The National) who were scoring said film. Amid this intense schedule there has been little time for Hansard to focus on working on his own new music in front of an audience – a significant hindrance for a performer who sees himself as a live musician first and foremost.
Hence this back-room assembly, where over the course of five Tuesdays a crowd of fans, friends, and unsuspecting pubgoers gather to listen as Hansard – alongside Frames bandmates Joseph Doyle and Graham Hopkins, violinist Gareth Quinn, and pianist Megan O’Neill – play through dozens of songs and ideas. Hansard explains: “I couldn’t get my feet under what I had or what the record was until I played the songs on a stage with a band. It’s only when a song is witnessed that it finds its shape, its place, its identity. We set up in the corner and played to the locals some of whom were only half listening. A collection of farmers and workers, dart players, pool sharks. I played two hours of new songs each week, some songs finished, some heart half baked. Through this process I realized what I had and what I had to work on further. Which songs landed and which ones were only good in my imagination. It solidified my choices right away. It was as if the album appeared in that bar. And not before.”
The resulting album, ‘All That Was East Is West of Me Now’, is by turns noisy and meditative, sprawling and hypnotic. Easily Hansard’s most rock record since ‘Burn the Maps’-era of The Frames. The title, which Hansard says stems from the “sudden realization that there’s more behind than ahead,” suggests a survey from a great height, taking in terrain travelled and that which is still to be discovered. While the passage of time may be a central theme, the narrative of the album’s eight tracks focus more on the promise for the future than thoughts of regret or nostalgia.
The recording of ‘All That Was East Is West of Me Now’ came together in the weeks that followed the band’s residency and was produced by long time co-conspirator David Odlum (Tinariwen, Sam Smith) at his home studio on the outskirts of Dublin. The process of recording, as of songwriting, “must be an intuitive leap into what feels right…” says Hansard, “When it feels right, I usually run from it, mix it quickly before it collapses.” For the bulk of the record, Hansard was joined in the studio by fellow Frames Joe Doyle, Graham Hopkins, Ruth O’Mahony Brady, Rob Bochnik and honorary Frame Earl Harvin. Strings came courtesy from fellow live contributors Gareth Quinn Redmond, Kate Ellis, Paula Hughes, Katie O’Connor and Una O’Kane.
“All we can hope for as artists is that something in the tone or shape of a song speaks well enough to be heard and taken to heart. This record took many forms as I slowly whittled away at the songs, some parts grew new parts, some fell apart and away.”
The collective sum of the parts Hansard mentions here in many ways brings us full circle. Built off the primal energy of The Frames’ ‘Fitzcarraldo’ and meditative rock leanings of ‘For the Birds’ as well as the powerfully understated punch of 2015’s ‘Didn’t He Ramble’ and ‘This Will Willing’’s foray into electronics and strings, ‘All That Was East…’ feels completely unlike anything Hansard has ever done.
Album opener and lead single “Feast Of St. John” is a noisy, raucous bit of apotropaic magic from the westernmost edge of Ireland, inspired by the hillside bonfires lit to mark the feast of the same name. Its refrain, “monsters be gone,” a sort of charm, safeguarding listeners as the album slips into the propulsive. Evoking echoes of “On the Beach” Neil Young and Magnolia-era Jason Molina, the song features Warren Ellis (The Dirty Three/The Bad Seeds) on violin. Ellis and Hansard first met in the trenches years ago sharing bills and crossing paths with their respective bands. Upon hearing “Feast” Ellis told Hansard he was all in after hearing the line “I was all boogie boogie til you came along”.
Doubling down on the conviction of the opener the record dives headfirst into the unnerving “Down on Our Knees.” Here, Hansard catalogues the sensory overload of the modern world conjuring the ghost of Cohen’s “The Future” as delivered thru the prism of a Grinderman song. It is Yeats’s second coming: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” but with Bowie-esque backing vocals and the ominous, repeated question: “Won’t we all go down on our knees, eventually?”
“There’s No Mountain”, perhaps the song which will seem most familiar to lovers of Hansard’s earlier solo work, points to a way forward, to the virtue of simply pressing on despite cataclysms global and personal challenging any stable orbit. The song calls to mind Dylan’s “Forever Young” where advice and practicality, “when you go without, then you’ll go within,” are in equal measure to the power of positivity with the inspiration sentiment “there’s no mountain great or small that you can’t climb.”
It is however the trio of songs that make up the mid-section of the album: “Sure as the Rain,” “Between Us There is Music,” and “Ghost”, that give a glimpse not only at the possibility, but at the deeply intimate process of finding a new center of gravity, one that precludes any thoughts of escape. Navigating the undertaking of willing commitment, these tracks address themes of self-doubt and the healing power of work; exorcising old ghosts and impulses in favor of a sure binding to a partner, a commitment to the possibility of a child. Lyrically and musically the inevitable shift life has placed on Hansard and that which he welcomes is on display. On “Between Us There is Music” he sings, ‘milling around like spinning tops’, ‘between us there is everything’ drawing a line back to the pub shows and that communion with his audience helping bring the record into focus. All three tracks also feature Via Mardot on Theremin, whom Hansard contacted after seeing a series of her performances online.
The album draws to a close with the one-two punch of “Bearing Witness” and “Short Life.” Finding himself on firmer ground once more, Hansard emerges from earlier tumult resolute, ready, equally sure of life’s brevity and the need to make the most of whatever amount is left. “Bearing Witness” feels like a call to arms, political in nature using the foundational aspects of a band – electric guitar, drums, bass – front and center and balancing anger and frustration – “I feel like the whole thing is fixed” with the idea that “it’s not what you’re given but what you do with it”.
“All That Was East…” ends with “Short Life” returning to the record’s central theme and the firm hope that “we might one day get some good ‘cross the line.” As the song builds in intensity a series of cascading melodies wash over the listener as Hansard invokes a mantra-like chant “running out of step, running out of road.”
Back to the beginning. Back to the title. ‘All That Was East Is West of Me Now’. Back to that survey of all that has been and all that’s still to come:
“I’m in the latter third of a good life!” Hansard says. “And my golden prize is a life in song. I haven’t gotten lost, I’ve stayed true to my first calling, and I’ve been blessed with life’s deepest riches. So, I might be facing west, or east. But I’m happy in the place I’m in.”
There is great possibility here. The journey is nearer to its completion than its commencement, but Hansard isn’t yet ready to come to a standstill; there are more mountains to climb, there is more terrain to explore. There is still so much more to experience. As he sings on “As the Rain,” he finds himself prepared to receive what’s next. To “leave the door open, for what’s coming through…”
Glen Hansard is the lead singer and a founding member of Irish rock band The Frames. He is one half of folk duo The Swell Season, along with Czech pianist and vocalist Markéta Irglová. Together, they share an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Falling Slowly,” from the film Once, in which they both starred. He has released five solo albums, including the GRAMMY-nominated Didn’t He Ramble (2015), as well as a number of EPs. A tour of Europe in support of his new album is planned for the Autumn. Visit Glen’s career timeline here.
Photo by Stephan Vanfleteren.