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The Swell Season’s “Falling Slowly”

| April 21, 2011 | 0 Comments

It is December 2005. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are at the Sono Records recording studio, a few miles outside Prague, to lay down a couple of songs for Czech filmmaker Jan Hřebejk’s movie Beauty in Trouble. Friends since 2001, they’ve been collaborating on a series of intimate, emotionally jagged ballads based around Irishman Hansard’s acoustic guitar, Czech Republic native Irglová’s piano and the entwined voices of both. They’ve decided, as long as they’re here, to see if they can quickly get a full album’s worth on tape.

Dublin native Glen Hansard began his recording career in 1991 as leader of Irish rock band the Frames, and knows that recording involves a lot of dull downtime—so he’s brought a book. It’s The Swell Season, Czech author Josef Škvorecký’s novel about the romantic misadventures of a young man in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Whenever Hansard is occupied, Irglová begins reading it, as well. When the time comes to title an instrumental she has written, she chooses “The Swell Season.” And when the recordings are released as an album in April 2006, it also is dubbed The Swell Season.

Several of the songs on the album had actually been written for a movie being scripted and directed by John Carney, Hansard’s friend and former bass player for the Frames. Filmed in Dublin over 17 days on a $150,000 budget, Once starred Hansard and Irglová as musicians whose destinies briefly but powerfully intersect. Irglová had never acted before; Hansard’s only previous experience, a supporting role as guitarist Outspan Foster in 1991’s much-loved The Commitments, had left him with a sour taste. But the characters in Once were largely based on the two leads themselves, making it a natural fit. And in any event, the music Hansard and Irglová had written coursed through the film and carried much of its emotional weight.

Once snuck quietly into U.S. theaters in May 2007, a full year after its Irish premiere. By the time its box-office run ended seven months later, it had grossed more than $9 million in America (it brought in more than $17 million worldwide), its music had earned two Grammy nominations and its leads had become stars. In February 2008, it made them Oscar winners, as well: “Falling Slowly,” the movie’s cornerstone composition, won the Academy Award for Best Song.

For “Falling Slowly” Hansard formulated a simple stairstep guitar progression and an opening line: “I don’t know you, but I want you.” With Carney’s go-ahead on the idea, he turned to Irglová to help him complete the song. Within a few hours at Irglová’s house, they composed a swelling, swaying hymn to the ways in which people can help one another to overcome emotional scars. “It was quite long ago, so I don’t really remember who wrote what,” Irglová confesses. “I know we sat at the piano, and by the end of the evening we had a song finished.”

—By Chris Neal

Excerpted From Performing Songwriter Issue 110

Category: Behind The Song

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