While the band couldn’t be accused of a complete change in musical direction, à la Radiohead, they have though included more experimental sounding tunes over their last two albums in particular. It’s interesting that Hansard mentions Pink Floyd, as there seems to be a tendency towards lengthier, more instrumental tracks appearing in the band. “There’s definitely a side to all of us, where we’d ask ourselves in the studio, ‘what would the Floyd do now?’. When songs come easy to you, not that they do necessarily, but when songs are something that you have, you know how to do that. Writing music or extending music is something that’s exciting, it’s inspiring. I suppose, a couple of years ago I got really into instrumental music, and that really influenced a song like Santa Maria.
Santa Maria, from For the Birds could very well be the flagship, excuse the pun, for where Hansard would like to go with his songwriting. Gentle, lyrical, experimental, dynamic and long, it’s as different from songs like Fake or Revelate as you can get. The genesis of the song is interesting: “Santa Maria was a strange one. There are different types of songs. Yesterday, for example, I was sitting in the bus, rambling lines in my head – something like ‘Coming home from the hospital after removing the stitches’, and I was thinking about The Third Policeman, or something, and that stopped me in my tracks, then the line, ‘Voices in the ditches’, and I thought ‘I can work with that’. It’s like an idea that takes hold. More often than not though, with me, it’s holding the guitar and something falls out of your mouth and you have the wherewithal to recognise that you like it, and work from there. With Santa Maria, I was trying to write a song about Egon Schiele, and about him and his girlfriend, while they were both dying from Spanish flu. I wanted to think about what that must have felt like, ’cause they were both young, and both passionate. There would have been a lot of madness. Also, knowing that he was a great painter, and wondering was he aware of his own legend at that point? Whether his art would live on? I was just trying to get into his head, ’cause I’d just finished a book about him. Then the Santa Maria chorus fell out of my mouth, and I knew it worked. We wrote it in Ventry Harbour in Dingle, and weeks later I found out that there had been a Spanish ship called the Santa Maria that got trapped in the bay and couldn’t dock, so maybe a hundred Kerry people in the early 1900s would have seen a Spanish ship rocked back and forth by the waves for two days, killing everybody on board. The house we were recording the album in sat at the mouth of the bay, and I didn’t really know what it meant, but I’ve always enjoyed religious language and imagery, it’s very beautiful and rolls off the tongue. Then later on I found out that, which was a coincidence. It’s like if your aerials are up and you’re lucky enough to catch something, it makes you happy, if that exists.”
There are songwriters who speak in awed tones about the inspiration for songs, as if the artistic muse were really a Goddess who may become offended by a lack of respect and leave. The lead singer of the Trames has a more earthy interpretation of where his songs come from: “Basically all songs are residue. They’re just bits of muck, for me. They’re not craft. If you imagine a snail that leaves a residue then goes off and dies, and for years there’s a silver path of residue across the wall of your garden shed. It looks gorgeous, but [pauses] I always imagine that people who make art just live a life. It doesn’t matter if they lead a good or a bad life, but they leave behind these increments in time, little bits and clues as to what emotional landscape or emotional mapping was going on at the time. Sometimes you’ll just drop a song out of you, literally like you’ll excrete the song. That’s how it works. You don’t sit and craft it. The songs that I have crafted, I generally don’t sing after a couple of months. I’ll go out and play them live but they don’t have a resonance. They’ve been built, not lived. Songs that you excrete are with you forever, for some reason. Whatever way you sweat it out of your pores, it means something to you.”Unsurprisingly, metaphors come easy to Hansard: “Sometimes you’ll write a song and you won’t have a clue what it’s about, you’ll just know that you like it. Songs are like saddles, you can put it on and it just sits right. You can ride that song, if you know what I mean, if you can imagine a song as a horse. It feels right. Then other songs just feel all wrong, and they’ll die. They have a short life and then die.”
All of which is not to say that Hansard doesn’t recognise and respect craft in songwriting, rather that, for him, it’s not the way to write songs. “I think the craft of songwriting is spectacular”, he enthuses. “Some people will sit down, with a cup of coffee, and say ‘today’s a work day’, and between the morning and mid-day they’ll construct a song. I think that’s fuckin’ brilliant! People who can do that are gifted. I can’t. I fall out of bed at four in the afternoon, I have me food, I go out. I avoid it. I avoid music as much as I possibly can. Until it grabs me. To be honest I’ve always avoided it, and it’s always happened anyway. As time’s gone by, I’ve applied myself to it a little bit more because now it’s my living. It’s what I do. It’s a strange relationship though because I don’t ever want to turn it into a thing that I have to do. I don’t ever want to have to produce records, every year in order to sustain myself.”
It goes back to need: “When we’re not touring, to be honest, I never pick up a guitar until I have to. Until boredom or depression bring me to the point where I pick it up [mimes gripping the guitar with a furrowed brow]. That’s when music comes naturally to me. I don’t go to myself ‘OK, now I’m depressed, I’ll write a song’. It’s not like that, that relationship doesn’t exist. I’ve never had a deadline thing where somebody’s saying to me ‘I need you to go home and write some songs for the next album’, though I know how to do it. All I have to do is go home and turn off the TV, turn off the radio, because the darkness is always only two steps away, or 24hours in a building on your own before you start seeing the demons, before the walls start crawling, you know? For me it’s always been accessible. Like I said, if you get home and the walls are buzzing with the sounds of children, and dinner’s being cooked, you’re not going to write a song, you’re going to sit there like a happy man, with a big belly smiling!”, he concludes, patting his abdomen maybe anticipating the pleasure of that evening meal in the local restaurant.