Ten Ways To Make Your Heart Beat Out A Melody: An Introduction to The Swell Season

I’ll just say it, and get it right out there; it’s best to be up front with these things. I’m in love with Glen Hansard.

Granted, I don’t actually know Glen Hansard. I guess it would be more accurate to say I’m in love with his brains. And his voice. But I don’t want to go on and on about his, you know… “features.” I wouldn’t want to objectify. Point is, he’s brilliant, and I’m a big enough person to admit to myself that he’s more talented than I will ever, ever be. I like it that way; it means I’ll always have him to look up to.

If you haven’t heard of Glen Hansard, here are the basics: He’s been a busker since he dropped out of school to pursue his music in his early teens. He’s the frontman of a band called The Frames. He had a supporting role (as the guitar player, natch) in the great film The Commitments. He starred in and composed/performed the music for a little independent film called Once, for which he and co-star/co-singer Marketa Irglova won an Oscar (for the music). (You can pick up this film on Amazon for $8, no kidding. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so immediately.) These days, he and Marketa Irglova (along with the occasional addition of the guys from The Frames) are performing as a band called The Swell Season, and their latest album, Strict Joy, just came out a few months ago.

I have trouble describing exactly the effect that Glen’s music has on me. I’ve often heard music that has moved me, but this is the first music that I feel has changed me. Something about the stories that Glen tells with his music and the voice he tells them with makes me want to be a better person, makes me want to know more and experience more and appreciate people more and generally just be more than I am. I’m not quite sure how to describe it to you, which is why I’d like for you to just experience it, which is why I’ve put together this post. Inside you’ll find free downloads (free and legal!), some of my favorite moments as brought to us by YouTube, and my commentary on why I’m so over the moon with it all. Think of it as a musical advent calendar, only you don’t have to wait at all between numbers. ;) If you’re not in the mood to listen to or read all of these, I do urge you to skip down to #1 on the list and check it out; I guarantee it’ll brighten up your day.

Ten Ways To Make Your Heart Beat Out A Melody
An Introduction to The Swell Season

10.
I thought I’d start you out with the real meat of this post: full concerts or song collections that you can download, upload to your MP3 player, or whatever else you’d like. They’re like Christmas and Thanksgiving combined. They’re deeply satisfying and emotionally filling. :D And even better, these are all official and legal downloads!

Live performance on KCRW. For reasons I can’t entirely explain, the host’s patter made me want to hit him right in the face, so when I uploaded to my MP3 player I left out the between-song patter. :D

Live at the Triple Door. Terrific performance, and pretty much free of patter entirely. Except for Glen’s patter, which is both interesting and charming. With that link you can listen to the streaming version or download the audio. I love you, NPR.

Live music from the film Once
Again courtesy of NPR, with option to stream or download. This is music from the film Once, obviously.

The Swell Season: Redemption Songs, on All Songs Considered
Oh, NPR. You bring me such awesome music. Here’s a stream and download of a short segment on All Songs Considered, with Glen and Marketa interviewed and singing “Falling Slowly,” “Low Rising,” “I Have Loved You Wrong,” and “Maybe I Was Born to Hold You In These Arms.”

The Frames: Seething Ballads and Upbeat Anthems
This interview and live performance is streaming only on NPR, but it’s a bit of a change of pace from all The Swell Season I’ve been bombarding you with. This is The Frames, another band that Glen founded, though the definitions are a little fluid; when I saw The Swell Season in Oakland, the band consisted of Glen, Marketa, and the members of The Frames; some days it’s just Glen and Marketa.

That’s all the actual download and full-show sessions I’ve come across; if anybody else knows of more, please comment! If for any reason the download links on NPR are unfriendly to you, those first two sets can also be found in archive.org’s live music archive.

Edit: I just stumbled across another site with a few downloadable tracks: Daytrotter has five tracks for download, including a gorgeous rendition of the Frames tune “Star, Star” mixed up with “O Holy Night” and Will Oldham’s “Christmastime in the Mountains”. Other session tracks available here are “In These Arms,” “Low Rising,” “Fantasy Man” and “Fallen from the Sky.”

Edit: Also discovered a free promotional download of “In These Arms” from the Strict Joy album; download it free on spinner.com.

9.
This recording of Glen and his guitar, from back during The Frames era, is one of those that I just love to sing to myself while I’m doing… whatever it is I’m doing, puttering around the house and whatnot. The melody’s beautiful, his voice is beautiful, and this is a fine example of what I think Glen’s music really embodies: a great many of his songs are about love and the loss of same, about fucking it up and being fucked over and wanting to cry into your Cheerios, but somehow it feels bittersweet instead of just bitter. (All things considered, it makes sense that the latest album, Strict Joy, gets its title from a gorgeous poem of the same name by James Stephens, which has much the same message. A pen and a little pondering can turn heartache into something less sharp. My favorite bit goes, For, as he meditated misery / And cared it into song — Strict Care, Strict Joy! / Caring for grief he cared his grief away: / And those sad songs, tho’ woe be all the theme, / Do not make us grieve who read them now — / Because the poet makes grief beautiful.)

Anyway, here’s Glen Hansard singing Disappointed, and the lyrics are here in case you should want to read them along.

8.
You may think you don’t like Britney Spears, but you’re wrong. She sounds a lot better when it’s Glen Hansard doing the singing instead. :D This is a cover of Spears’ “Everytime,” as performed by himself.

Glen seems to enjoy covers, and he’ll put his own spin on everything from Bob Dylan to Daniel Johnston to Survivor and Tina Turner. And just to make Number 8 a little more Glen-tastic, and as a general added bonus, here’s another of my favorites, “Song for Someone”:

7.
Glen and Marketa won an Oscar for their song “Falling Slowly” in the motion picture Once, and personally, I think it’s the best moment in Oscar history. You can watch the relevant segment of the broadcast here, and here’s the text if you aren’t able to watch or the link goes down:

“Thanks! This is amazing. What are we doing here? This is mad. We made this film two years ago. We shot on two Handycams. It took us three weeks to make. We made it for a hundred grand. We never thought we would come into a room like this and be in front of you people. It’s been an amazing thing. Thanks for taking this film seriously, all of you. It means a lot to us. Thanks to the Academy, thanks to all the people who’ve helped us, they know who they are, we don’t need to say them. This is amazing. Make art. Make art. Thanks.”

Now, I must emphasize that not only is this a great win for an independent film and independent musicians, but also one of the best and classiest Oscar moments I have ever seen in my life. After Glen makes his speech, the orchestra starts off and completely cuts Marketa off before she can even begin to say what she wants to say. After the commercial break, host Jon Stewart asks Marketa to come back out and make her speech. And what a speech she makes:

“Hi everyone. I just want to thank you so much. This is such a big deal, not only for us, but for all other independent musicians and artists that spend most of their time struggling, and this, the fact that we’re standing here tonight, the fact that we’re able to hold this, it’s just to prove no matter how far out your dreams are, it’s possible. And, you know, fair play to those who dare to dream and don’t give up. And this song was written from a perspective of hope, and hope at the end of the day connects us all, no matter how different we are. And so thank you so much, who helped us along way. Thank you.”

Yeah, that sound you hear is me sniffling. Shut up. It’s beautiful. I can totally cry if I want to.

If you aren’t familiar with Once, it’s a truly independent film shot on a small budget over, as Glen says, the course of three weeks. It’s a quiet little story about a busker who meets a fellow musician, and the course of a whirlwind couple of days, they end up cutting an album together. It’s much better than I make it sound, as I don’t have much of a way to describe how awesome it is. It takes me to my happy place.

I was listening to the commentary track on this DVD yesterday, and the filmmaker was talking about what the meaning was, of him, for the title “Once.” He spoke about knowing a lot of guys in his native Ireland who would say things like, “Once I do such-and-such a thing, I’ll be sitting pretty,” or “I’ll be able to do that once this happens,” and essentially saying that a lot of the people he knew were very talented but not necessarily very motivated. Which is what Glen’s character (“the Guy,” as we never do learn his name) is like.

I’ve been trying to internalize the message; I think it’s quite an important one for creative people to understand that you’re not just going to get “discovered” and the world isn’t going to reward you just for being brilliant. Sort of that “The Lord helps those who help themselves” message, but it works better for atheists like me.

6.
“Leave” is to me the most ear-wormy song that Glen’s written. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’ll be going about my day and find myself humming it, singing it, enjoying a full mental orchestral accompaniment to it. This is just one of many live and recorded versions of this song on YouTube, and it’s probably not the best, but I chose it for its good sound quality. If you like it, search for some more!

5.
The Frames perform their song “Fitzcarraldo” live at Lollapalooza in 2006. (lyrics) I haven’t ever seen the film Fitzcarraldo, but I’m kind of intrigued, since it was apparently inspiring enough for Glen to write a song about it. This is one of my all-time favorites of Glen’s songs; he continues to write truly incredible music, and with every album he’s getting better and always going to new places musically, but no matter how much new material there is to ooh and aah over, I always get chills up my spine when he sings, “Even the good stars can fall from grace and falter / Lose their faith and slide / But I can’t get an ocean that’s deep enough for my day.”

4.
This is the official music video for the Frames’ “People Get Ready,” which is probably the closest The Frames have come to performing an anthem. It feels almost like a protest song, except that it’s sort of protesting the protest? :D It’s a song about hope and pulling through and helping each other and always striving. The video, shot in Dublin, is surprisingly poignant and a little sad.

3.
This one basically speaks for itself… Glen and Marketa play a concert at NPR’s Tiny Desk. I love this recording because it’s so unvarnished… I have a thing for live music because in my mind there’s something more true about it than studio recordings, like the difference between a candid snapshot and an airbrushed publicity photo. There’s something true about either of them, but the humanity of the live performance really appeals to me, not to mention that for The Swell Season, live shows tend to be incredibly interactive.

For audio only, you can listen here. I wish I knew how to download this audio and put it on my MP3 player, but this is beyond my skills. Curses!

2.

This is a story that Glen told to the audience at the Paramount in Oakland, CA, which was the live show I myself was at (though my seats were not as good at the person who made this recording ;)). He’s talking about meeting Lois from New York, and he meets her in an elevator in Chicago and compliments her coat. Things take a turn from there. I reckon by the time Glen was finished telling this story, there was nary a dry eye in the house.

After he finishes talking about Lois, he sings a song for her, and ends up unplugging his guitar and playing it out just like that to the room; if I had to pick one moment of the concert that was the most magical to be there for, to hear him playing live, it was this one. I guess it doesn’t seem like quite so much on film, but the way the whole theater hushed and his voice reached out loud enough to reach everyone in the room… it felt like connection, like that music was binding us all together, if only for a moment.

1.
Joy. Joy, joy, and more joy. (Occasionally even Strict Joy.) Glen Hansard lives for music, truly enjoys making music, and delights in the sounds that others make. That’s plain enough when you see The Swell Season perform; they’ll give you encore after encore, and if you’re really lucky, they’ll be having such a good time that after the venue has closed, they’ll continue playing for you out on the street. But the most beautiful thing about The Swell Season is that they aren’t playing just for their own gratification… and when Glen hears a sound that will add something to his song, he’ll use it. He uses his audience to help him sing his songs (and occasionally tells them that they’ll need to be the string section, as well), and sometimes he hears a sound coming from the crowd that he just can’t resist.

At a show in Houston, when Glen asked the audience to help sing the chorus, he heard a voice that stood out. So he asked the owner of that voice to join him on stage, and they created a new spin on the song.

If like me you listen to music on the youtubes without necessarily watching, I’ll ask you to make an exception this one: watch the delight on Glen’s face when Moji starts singing out. Watch Moji kiss Marketa at the end and how delighted she is to have done what she just did. I defy you to hang on to a foul mood after watching this.

The Internet is a gold mine of Swell Season material, and there’s plenty more of it out there if you look; I’ve got an ever-expanding youtube playlist if you’d like to find more, and I’m sure there’s more out there that I haven’t discovered yet. Once again the bands’ websites — where you can buy cool swag like t-shirts and the gorgeous posters from The Swell Season’s latest tour — are:

The Swell Season ~ The Frames

And that’s my list. It was a labor of love, and I hope you enjoyed it. Though Glen is nearest and dearest to my heart at the moment (you can tell, because of how I call him “Glen” like we’re BFFs), I’m always overjoyed to discover new music, so perhaps you’ll share a few of your favorite bands in the comments?

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2 thoughts on “Ten Ways To Make Your Heart Beat Out A Melody: An Introduction to The Swell Season

  1. Yes! Love him/them! I’m thinking of trying to see Glen at Amoeba on Monday. I’m sure it will be a mad house.

    I’ve seen The Swell Season play a few times but one of the most memorable parts of any show I’ve been to was when I saw them at The Greek Theatre and Glen did “Say It To Me Now”. He unplugged and sang out off mic and it was AMAZING. I’ll never forget it and always hope he’ll do it at every show I see him at.

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