Swell Season's greeting 

Once duo celebrates a joyously downbeat second coming

Glen Hansard figured out a good way not to have to deal with the pressure of following up a hit album that featured an Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly." He pretty much made the new Swell Season CD, Strict Joy, before he realized what was happening.

"It takes the pressure off," says Hansard. "If I was to sit around and think about it, it'd be like, God, I'd probably never do it. I probably wouldn't make a second record because I'd be like, 'Gosh, how is this going to be viewed?'

"Then you start getting afraid, and fear is no place to do anything from."

The story of the Swell Season and its sudden arrival in the limelight has been well-documented: Hansard, longtime songwriter and frontman of the Irish band the Frames, teamed up with classically trained pianist and singer Markéta Irglová on a side project. They chose the Swell Season as the name of both their duo and their album, after which Hansard was asked to participate in a low-budget movie being made by a friend and former Frames bandmate, John Carney, called Once.

Hansard and Irglová starred as struggling musicians who fall in love, and some of the songs from the Swell Season's debut album were used in the movie. Among them was "Falling Slowly," which was a left-field winner of the 2008 Academy Award for Best Original Song. The soundtrack to Once went gold, selling more than 500,000 copies.

Fast forward a bit to the spring of 2008. The group had a week off near the end of a tour, so Hansard contacted producer Peter Katis and set up a recording session.

"We recorded songs we had been playing live, so it was easy," says Hansard. "We realized at the end of that week that we were in the middle of making a new record."

After two more sessions, enough songs were recorded to complete Strict Joy, an album that Hansard says is more melancholy than he'd ideally like, but finds balance in sunnier songs such as "Feeling the Pull" and "The Verb."

It's little surprise that Strict Joy had its share of downbeat songs. Over the course of making Once and starting the Swell Season, life imitated movie script as the friendship between Hansard, 39, and Irglová, 21, blossomed into love. But before making the new album, their two-year romance fell apart.

The fact that Hansard and Irglová stayed together to carry the Swell Season forward speaks volumes about how they worked through their breakup.

"Myself and Mar are very close," says Hansard. "Of course, we had our drama. We just didn't have it in public ... I think we both realized that we love doing this and we don't want to stop it."

On tour, some of the new songs may take on a different character. Along with Hansard and Irglová, the Swell Season now essentially includes the three other members of the Frames (violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire, bassist Joe Doyle and guitarist Rob Bocknik).

"We'll present the songs slightly different from night to night," Hansard said. "The good thing about being a band is we can sort of switch out arrangements by the day. 'Look, I'm going to do this song acoustically tonight.' Or, 'Let's do this acoustic song with a full band and see how that feels.'"



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