Arts & Entertainment

Despite a romantic split, it's still a Swell Season

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When Irish singer Glen Hansard and Czech pianist Markéta Irglová fell in love on the big screen in the 2007 hit "Once," audiences swooned over the passionate and fragile acoustic music the couple made together in the film, which mirrored, reflected and fictionalized their lives.

"To this day, people get confused as to where the lines are," Irglová said.

The soundtrack to "Once" sold 750,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and one of its tunes, "Falling Slowly," went on to win an Academy Award for original song.

In the intervening years, however, Hansard and Irglová's romance concluded, though their creative partnership lived on under the moniker of the Swell Season. The band, now on tour, is due to perform back-to-back shows at the Wiltern tonight and Thursday night.

On the pair's recently released album, "Strict Joy," fans can hear their relationship disintegrating. But Hansard contends that the collection is not necessarily a breakup record. Or at least not entirely.

"I think it would be a lie to say it's not, but at the same time, I think it would be a lie to say that's what it is," he told The Times recently. "The songs are about relationships, and I think it would be really crass of me and Mar to sit here and say we wrote every song about each other. . . . I wouldn't say it's a breakup record. I'd say a breakup is definitely in it, because that's the truth of the life that we've been living."

Emotionally rich with an understated sonic daring, "Strict Joy" expands the Swell Season sound beyond the sparse beauty of the songs of "Once." Selections such as "Low Rising" and "The Rain" once again contrast Hansard's zealous vocals and Irglová's delicate backing harmonies but add in fuller arrangements with light orchestral flourishes.

"How I felt about the original Swell Season record is that it was beautiful, but it was quite black and white," Hansard said. "We wanted a bit of color and contrast in this record."

The album was released on Silver Lake-based independent Anti-, an offshoot of Epitaph Records. The label has distributed multiple efforts from Hansard's Irish rock band the Frames, which gave it a leg up in its efforts to sign Swell Season after the Oscar win.

Hansard and Irglová shied away from many post-Oscar offers. "When the phone rang off the hook, which was great, 90% of what we were being offered is stuff we would never have done anyway, regardless of whether we had made 'Once' or not," Hansard said. "Then there [were] the few things that were just pure gold, like being on 'The Simpsons.' "

In an episode that aired in March, the cartoon family visited Ireland, and the musicians reprised and parodied their roles from "Once."

To be clear, there was never much doubt about the Swell Season duo giving up after breaking up. "Strict Joy" might explore the harder times of their relationship, but it ultimately stands as a testament to the strength of their artistic union.

Said Hansard, "So what's the best thing that can happen to two musicians who are in a film with their mate? It's that they get to continue being two musicians who travel around and play gigs. What 'Once' has afforded us, and what the Oscar has afforded us, is to be able to continue. That's all."

todd.martens@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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