Four years ago, at the age of nineteen, Markéta Irglová starred in the film Once, along with Glen Hansard, her band-mate in The Swell Season. The two had written all of the original music in the film, and their song, Falling Slowly¸ went on to win the Oscar for Best Original Song that year. This made Irglová both the first Czech woman and the youngest person ever to win an Academy Award in a musical category, and more curiously, the first person ever to be brought back on stage to finish her speech.
Both the film and the Oscar took Irglová’s career to a whole new level and brought a large amount of press attention to both herself and Hansard. It was around this time that they began consistently using ‘The Swell Season’ as the stage name for their musical collaborations. The two have since released two albums along with the Once soundtrack, and have toured extensively together.
Just over a year ago, they announced that they were to go their separate ways, with Hansard returning to his band The Frames, while Irglová announced plans to record a solo album. She moved to New York and into an apartment in an old building in NoHo, but as her piano could not physically be brought into her new home, she had to go in search of other options.
It was then she discovered Zora Space, an intimate art and performance room in Brooklyn, which allowed her the means to begin writing songs. It was there that she gathered much of the inspiration for her music. Irglová explains: “Having a workspace that I could go to was wonderful. It created the circumstances where the music could come and what inspired it, very much so, was the company I was keeping at the time, which was Zora, the owner of the space, and my friend Aida, who’s from Iran originally, and so she was introducing me to the whole culture of Iranian music.”
“Everything about that time in my life was so new to me, a lot of it made its way into the music. Also, I had a lot of free time so I was reading books and I was reading poetry and I was walking and I could soak up stuff from my surroundings and let it come to my own filter and influence my own creations.”
This was the first time since before the Swell Season was incepted that Irglová was really writings songs alone, which lent her much more creative scope in her writing than when collaborating with Hansard. She does, however, acknowledge the impact Hansard has had on her craft, explaining: “I think that whenever I’ve been working with Glen I’ve always viewed him as a teacher in a way and me being the student. I’ve been picking up so much from him in terms of songwriting and lyric writing and the whole structure of songs and performing them.”
“All the times I’ve been working with him I’ve always thought of him as completely more evolved in that way, so I would have looked up to him a lot and respected his opinion, so I guess what is nice is me knowing that or the feeling that I don’t necessarily need his approval at this stage.”
She continues: “It’s not that I felt limited by Glen but I certainly feel it’s been nice for me to explore song-writing on my own in a way. There is an element of breaking free involved when you’re out on your own and you have to do it yourself, there’s more responsibility and when you take it, you’ll benefit also.”
The 23-year-old Czech-born songstress is not remotely nervous about releasing her solo album into the world without back-up from Hansard and his fellow Frames members. Having spent years performing and working with them constantly means that the stage might be a little lonely when she goes on tour next month, but that doesn’t worry her. Irglová insists she is nothing but excited about getting started, but she reflects contentedly upon the differences between the previous and current situations.
“The dynamic between Glen and I has always been he’s writing most of the songs. Even on stage he was the leader and it was his vision, and we were all very happily part of the vision and following him in that, wherever he wanted it to go. This time it’s a very slow project that started with me wanting to record a few songs of mine as a little EP, really as a way of just passing the time, and a way that felt enjoyable and productive. It’s not that I’m nervous because I’m honestly excited. I’m filled with joy about everything, how it’s growing. I didn’t expect it to grow into this so this is really exciting for me.”
It is interesting to contrast the Swell Season albums with Anar, Irglová’s solo debut. Irglová’s music contains a sort of gentle, poignant tenderness that was perhaps drowned out a little by Hansard’s slightly domineering sound. She insists however, that she was never consciously trying to make an album that was some sort of antithesis to her previous work with Hansard.
“What I’ve really enjoyed when I was working with Glen is that we always seemed to compliment and complete each other very well. What I do is very much feminine. Glen can be very passionate in his expression; just judging by the state of his guitar you can see that there is aggression in [the way he plays]. With this record it was just me, so it’s definitely lacking that element of Glen’s robust input. I’m absolutely okay with this album being what it is because it’s my own creation so it’s always going to reflect me. I wanted to achieve a sound that was kind of transparent, that if an instrument was coming in, it made an entrance in a way that you knew that it was in and what exactly was playing, that your ears wouldn’t be straining to hear. That’s the only premeditated thing I had when I was going in to the recording.”
Perhaps the most striking surprise while talking to Irglová is how humble and unassuming she seems, particularly for an Oscar-winning songwriter. This much is evident when remarking on in her feelings about responding to messages from fans on Twitter; “Everybody who writes is putting so much affection and love [in their messages]. It feels wrong to be getting all these messages from people and the idea of those messages never getting answered. Why should it be like that? If someone gives you a compliment, you say thank you. If somebody says hello, you say hello back. That’s how you usually are. I always want to remain in a situation where I feel accessible to people, that they feel that I’m just another person. I want to give back love to the people who send it to me”
Her sense of humility also comes through when speaking about the forthcoming documentary about The Swell Season (of the same name); she is conflicted in her feelings about its release. “It’s called the Swell Season documentary but to me it’s misguiding a little bit because it’s not really about the band. It’s mainly about Glen and I. I guess to me The Swell Season was always everybody; it was the boys from the Frames and me and everything that we were going through together, so to me The Swell Season is so much bigger than just Glen and I and whatever relationship that we have or had.”
She also expresses her antipathy for today’s celebrities. “The celebrity aspect of [her career] came right after the Oscars; I think that confused me a lot. I don’t like the idea of celebrities; I don’t like the way celebrities behave. I like the idea of being appreciated for your work and acting with kindness and humility and not with this ‘Oh now because I was in a film or I’m a celebrity, I’m something more than everybody else,’ and so the idea of people waiting outside of the bus to take a picture was very strange to me.”
That period, around the time of the release of Once and the Oscars, was obviously manic, but it look her career to a whole level. It is something, which she admits herself, she is still constantly asked about. It would be easy to see why she may be sick of it by now, but as Otwo has almost come to expect as the interview progresses, she is nothing but grateful for that experience.
“I reflect on Once and everything that came forth from that movie in such a joyous and positive way. It was a beautiful time in my life. I’ve always had this attitude of whether it lasts or not it doesn’t matter. I already feel that even having just one day of this, I feel like the luckiest person in the world. I obviously can’t expect things to last forever and they don’t. They shift and they change and they morph into other things, one thing ends and another thing starts so it’s okay, it shouldn’t be a cause for mourning.’
From Once, to her collaborations with Hansard and The Swell Season, to releasing her debut solo album, perhaps she has a point. That stage in her life has come to an end, but there is no doubt that she’s not shying away into retirement just yet. It seems Irglová’s career is going from strength to strength, and she is nothing but excited. “I didn’t expect it to grow into this so this is really exciting for me. I’m more excited to spread the music out there and to play shows and stuff, rather than nervous.”
Anar, Markéta Irglová’s debut solo album, will be released on October 11th. Irglová plays the Pepper Canister Church in Dublin on November 3rd.