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In May 2007, Czech singer-instrumentalist Markéta Irglová was being interviewed, along with Glen Hansard, the other half of her band the Swell Season. Irglová remained almost completely silent during the interview, ceding answers to Hansard and tenderly bringing him coffee. When asked about her own life she responded shyly, "It's not a really interesting story, so there's no point of me really getting into it."
Several months later, in early 2008, Irglová graced the stage of the Kodak Theatre, alone, clutching an Oscar statuette. She addressed the night's worldwide audience with poise and confidence: "No matter how far-out your dreams are, it's possible. Fair play to those who dare to dream."
What happened between those two moments was a modern fairy tale. Then-19-year-old Irglová had previously taken a month off from school to film a low-budget indie musical, Once, with Hansard, whom she met as a preteen and spent her school years playing with as an occasional member of Hansard's modestly successful Irish band the Frames. The film, a near perfect and poignant love story directed by the Frames' bassist, John Carney, grossed over 100 times the amount it cost to make, won unanimous praise (including a heap of compliments from Steven Spielberg) and won Hansard and Irglová an Oscar for Best Original Song. Somehow, within the whirlwind of unexpected celebrity, Irglová came out of her shell.
"When we went on the promo tour, I was just about to graduate from high school, and I was on tour with Glen and John and I felt like, you know, they have so much more to say," says Irglová, calling from New York where she's looking to move from Ireland. "My instinct was to let them talk. `We did` a lot of traveling, and all the things we've experienced, it's been a huge growing process for me. `It was` a really, really important time."
Although they declined to talk about it at the time, the Once ascent birthed a real-life love affair between Hansard and Irglová, one that eerily paralleled that of their characters. The Oscar-winning song, "Falling Slowly" (which has become an American Idol standard), chronicled the budding feelings: "You have suffered enough/ And warred with yourself/ It's time that you won," sings Hansard, presumably to Irglová.
The problem the duo, known collectively as the Swell Season, faced after the hype subsided was proving themselves, musically and personally, beyond Once. They had released a full-length album prior to the film, but it was swiftly overshadowed and their newfound audience wanted more of Once's sweetly romantic, acoustic heartbreak. Complicating the narrative was the duo's post-Oscar breakup.
"We never sat down and said, ‘OK, let's write songs for the new album,'" says Irglová. "They come at different times and different places. So going into the studio ends up being, ‘We've got a number of songs so let's record them together.'"
The sophomore album they produced was last fall's Strict Joy, a stylistically diverse and hopeful album full of Otis Redding soul swagger, arena-ready Southern-rock driving music and, of course, Once-esque harmonized ballads. They even trade what seems to be musical apology letters to one another; Hansard on the elegiac "In These Arms" ("You were restless/ I was somewhere less secure"), Irglová on the self-explanatory "I Have Loved You Wrong."
"I've heard it called a breakup album, which is fair enough — on some level it talks about two people growing apart — but the songs are so much more than that," says Irglová. "To me, it's about a personal journey rather than an actual breakup with somebody."
As far as they've come experimenting with other genres, the Swell Season knows what people want to hear at the shows. More than just an award-winning song, "Falling Slowly" has taken hold of the public conscious in a way that resembles a present-day hymnal. It's the duo's mark on musical history, for better or worse.
"‘Falling Slowly' started as a song that was written in my parents' place in `the` Czech `Republic` during one of Glen's stays, and that was something we both enjoyed playing ‘cause we could both harmonize together," says Irglová. "I see it as a beautiful song, of course, that managed to touch people's hearts, and I'm happy it did.
"You do what comes to you. Sometimes you end up with songs that just fall into your lap. `Our songs aren't` meant to make you feel bad. They're meant to feel hopeful in some way, that there's a light at the end of the tunnel."[email protected]