Songs from the ex-files

The Swell Season's true life romance might be over but they are still happy to make beautiful music together, says Killian Fox

When Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, whose second album as the Swell Season, Strict Joy, came out last week, try to explain the events of the last two years, the word "magic" keeps cropping up. "Magic had to be involved," they say or: "There was so much magic around the film, it seemed just possible we'd get an Oscar nomination."

In 2007, Once, a small Irish movie about a Dublin busker and a Czech Big Issue-seller who make music and fall in love, became a big deal. Made for £100,000 with a cast of non-professionals, it went on to gross £13m worldwide and nab an Oscar for best original song, winning praise from Steven Spielberg along the way.

Hansard was lead singer of the Frames, a Dublin folk-rock band; Irglová was a talented pianist Hansard had met during a solo tour in the Czech Republic. They clicked as friends and musical collaborators and Irglová, then only 13, started accompanying Hansard on stage. Three years later, they recorded an album together and the following year, on the set of the movie, something else clicked.

That the delicate love story at the heart of Once had also taken root in real life only added to the film's appeal, particularly in the States. A media whirlwind followed and, as the Oscars race kicked in, the two stars found themselves in other-worldly situations.

"We were invited to Barbra Streisand's house," Hansard recalls. "We sang a couple of songs and it turned out that everyone else at the dinner was an Academy voter. Everyone went home with a copy of our film."

Same story chez Ringo Starr. "Jeff Lynne was there and the Eagles – all these old-school giant rock stars. At one point, me and Ringo were playing spaghetti sticks on a pan. I said, 'Oh my God I'm jamming with a Beatle.' He said, 'Yes you are.' I was blown away."

Hansard, the extrovert of the couple and a born raconteur, was loving every minute of it. Irglová had mixed feelings. "I was put into a situation that I'd never been in before. I didn't really know how to deal with it."

After their Oscars triumph, the doors of Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall swung open. They toured with Bob Dylan and, last March, they spoofed their Once roles on The Simpsons. Their mistake, Hansard admits, was to throw themselves at opportunities without taking a break.

"It had a big impact on me and Mar's situation because we were both fried. She wanted time off. The thing is," he explains, "Mar never asked for any of this. She never asked to be a musician or an actor – I pulled her into all that. Her attitude was: that was fun but I think I'm done now. Whereas I was like, you cannot miss this. I would have killed for these opportunities in the Frames."

You don't have to read between the lines in Strict Joy to guess what happened next. The surprise is not that their affair ended – it's that they continue to be collaborators and friends.

"Music is one thing we're still very good at," says Hansard. "When she's at her instrument and I'm at mine, we get on so well." Irglová maintains that it's much more than a break-up record.

"For me it's not a sad story," she insists. "It's just a continuation of whatever was going on before." The romance may have faded but, as in Once, the music plays quietly on.

The Swell Season play three UK dates in January


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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