As one half of The Swell Season, Marketa Irglova had a roller-coaster ride to the summit of the music industry, culminating in an Oscar win with 'Falling Slowly'. Now a solo artist, she talks about love, life, death – and her experiences as a mother in Iceland
Sipping tea in a hotel bar in central Dublin, Marketa Irglova is recalling the time she and her then boyfriend Glen Hansard appeared in an episode of The Simpsons.
“It was lots of fun,” the 26-year-old Czech singer-songwriter laughs. “We went into the studio with the director and the producer. A tiny little room and they put us in front of a microphone. I never knew whether they draw the cartoon first and then do the voiceover or the other way around. I got to find out that they do the voices first... then draw it.
“So in the booth, with the microphone, you just have the script and you read the lines; they might ask you to read it in different ways or with different intonations. But those two guys that were working there were just having such a laugh with it. I read my lines maybe five times in a row and I was done. So we were both finished within an hour and then we just got to meet everybody and get a tour of the studio. Seeing ourselves drawn as cartoon characters on The Simpsons was just awesome.”
The couple were asked to appear on the show following their 2008 ‘Best Song’ Academy Award for ‘Falling Slowly’ from the soundtrack of director John Carney’s indie hit Once, in which they both also starred.
“It was an incredible, magical thing that happened,” she says of their Oscar win. “It was one of those things that it would have never occurred to me that it was a possibility. Then it happened and I felt like, ‘Hmm, this is great’. Apart from the fact that it was a big key for us that opened all of these doors to all kinds of different places, the first thing that occurred to me was that we had to use it really responsibly.
“We had to be clear about what direction we took and be true with that – be ourselves and follow on a path that feels right for us. The minute you’re in the spotlight and you get invited to go down all sorts of different paths, it can be very tempting to go down one or the other just for the fun of it – then you get a bit distracted and lost on the way.”
As intimately portrayed in the 2011 documentary The Swell Season (named after the band they had formed together), international success took its toll on their romantic relationship. Marketa has mixed feelings about the film.
“To be honest, I felt that the film-makers went for the obvious angle, which was a little disappointing because there was so much going on which they got to witness and document. It felt a little lazy for them to just focus on this. My impression from watching it was that only me and Glen mattered. That’s not how I saw it.
“For me, we’re a unit with the band – the guys from The Frames. We created a unit that was very strong together. Everybody contributed so much, including the crew. There was so many interesting stories going on. I just wish they’d included other people.
“Also, they focused on the difficult times, when we were struggling with something and having stress, and completely bypassed the times when we were having fun and laughing and all the light moments. All the positivity. Because a story is really made in an editing room – you use things and leave out others and present a version of the story, which isn’t the whole story.
“My feeling was that it was a documentary about Glen that I got to play a significant part in. It left out all the others and that was kind of sad for me. It is called The Swell Season. It isn’t about The Swell Season.”
Mercifully the film didn’t capture the very worst night of the band’s gruelling two-year world tour. On August 19th, 2010, a 32-year-old man named Michael Edward Pickels committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the stage in the middle of a Swell Season concert in Saratoga, California.
“It didn’t change the music or our relationships with each other. It left kind of a weird feeling around us for the rest of the tour,” she reflects. “That was a weird feeling leading up to that event. I had really weird dreams the night before and I felt not right the whole day. I put it down to being tired, you know? Just exhausted from travelling – you go through all kinds of moods when you’re out there in the world, so I didn’t think twice of it.
“But then when it happened, it explained it – it felt like a kind of heaviness around us. It stuck like a bad smell for a few days after and we were all recommended to see a psychologist to talk about it. Even if we felt there was nothing to say, that we might find out by talking to somebody that we actually got something off our chest.”
She took the advice and talked to a mental health professional about it. “So one by one we talked, myself included. Some people got more out of it than others. It didn’t change my opinion – it didn’t make me not want to do what I do any more, or make me scared of travelling.”
When you say you felt that something was going to happen, are you sensitive to vibes generally?
“Yeah, I am, but it’s very difficult for me to interpret this. I didn’t know something like that was going to happen, I just felt like something was off. I think sometimes you feel like that and you manage to avoid it. I definitely tune-in to those things when there’s a weird vibe around – but that doesn’t mean I’m great at interpreting what exactly is going on.”
She and Hansard split-up before the end of the tour, which obviously wasn’t easy. Are they in touch?
“Not really, no,” she says, shaking her head. “Not out of any animosity between us. It feels more like we’re in a different place in our lives. We’re both going our own direction and sending each other good vibes and love. We wouldn’t be in touch.”
Marketa moved on quickly. In 2011, she married American studio engineer, Tim Iseler, who co-produced her debut solo album Anar. The marriage lasted just over a year. She now lives in Reykjavik, Iceland, with her Icelandic partner Sturla Mio Thorisson and 10-month-old daughter, Árveig.
“I’m really enjoying it. However, it's tough work at the same time,” she says of motherhood, rubbing the green wedding ring tattoo on her finger. “It takes a lot out of you. Just lots of energy. I think the first couple of years are probably really prolonged, you don’t have time for other things.”
Not quite true. She’s in Ireland today – with new baby and partner in tow – on a short visit to promote her second solo album Muna (which Thorisson produced). ‘Muna’ means ‘to remember’ in Icelandic. She chose it as a title because “remembering that which had been forgotten is a running thread and a re-occurring theme throughout this record.”
Although she’s been living in Iceland for two years, none of the songs were actually written there. “I didn’t write it there at all. I wrote it in New York, when I was still living there. Then I went to Iceland to record it and I just stayed there. So the new material for the third record, I will have written in Iceland.”
There’s a world of difference between Iceland and New York. Still, she’s very happy in her new surroundings. “I don’t know if you have it, but when you go to a new place and you just have an emotional response... Sometimes you feel really excited, sometimes you go into yourself and sometimes you have an ‘I’m home’ feeling. I have that with Iceland; it’s like I came home.
“It can feel a little remote, you know?” she continues. “It feels like kind of a trek to get anywhere, because usually you have to get two planes. There’s not that many direct flights. But I think I’m kind of drawn to that, for some strange reason.”
Does she know fellow Reykjavik residents, John Grant or Asgeir?
“It’s such a small place that you’d see those people in a coffee shop getting waffles. I have tapped into one select circle of a music community there. There are bigger circles and inner circles. Asgeir I haven’t met before – I’ve seen him perform. However many degrees of separation there are between you and everybody in the world, I definitely feel like it’s even less in Iceland. Even though I haven’t met him, I probably know 20 people who are his friends.
“I haven’t socialised much in Iceland yet, because the first year I was really focusing on the record. Then I got pregnant. Now I just hang out with the baby!"
Muna’s 11 songs were recorded over the course of six months. She had a lot of help – 27 musicians and vocalists participated in the recordings, including Rob Bochnik from The Swell Season/The Frames, Iranian daf player and vocalist Aida Shahghasemi, Shazhad Ismaily, Una Sveinbjarnardóttir and Zuzana Irglova.
“I always knew I wanted the record to be more complex than the previous one, instrumentally. I wanted to have all these string arrangements and choral arrangements and I wanted more percussion. I didn’t necessarily have all the parts written out or know exactly how rich I wanted it to be. Because I had the time to work on it and research it, I just kept going until it felt whole. Every song, I was like, ‘OK, it feels there now, I don’t have to add any more’.”
If her 2011 debut Anar explored the dynamic of intimate personal relationships, the beautifully ethereal Muna is more a document of spiritual searching.
“This album is one part of a three-part collection from me,” she explains. “I didn’t have a specific plan when I was making Anar. When I was finished, I realised it was part one of a trilogy. That I would make two more records that would have a connection with each other – so this is kind of Part II.
“This one is summarising where I am with my spirituality as a whole. The first record was mostly about relationships and romantic feelings and immediate personal stuff. This is zooming out a little – it is more about my relationship with myself, my relationship with the world, my relationship with God. All those. So it’s taking a broader perspective.”
There’s a strong religious feel off the album. “It’s funny, because I’m not religious and I don’t actually believe in organised religion. I’m more interested in spirituality. I’m definitely a spiritual person – if somebody asks me, ‘Do you believe in God?’, my answer is ‘yes’. Then, I don’t have the same idea of God that you get to learn about from Christianity. I don’t believe there has to be a middleman between yourself and whatever version of divinity you choose to project.”
One of the songs, ‘Without A Map’, features an artful rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. “I don’t reject Catholicism,” she says. “I believe that in every religion there’s a seed of something beautiful. The original idea always comes from a very pure place, then becomes distorted when other people get their hands on it and try to use it to control people or serve their own agendas. It happens to all religions. That’s why I’m not part of any one in particular. I have an ever-evolving sense of spirituality for myself.”
Does she feel blessed in her own life?
“There are times I feel something bad almost happened to me. It didn’t because there was someone looking after me. The other day, I got into
a car accident and it could have gone really bad, and didn’t.
“We all live in our own versions of the world. So if you’re a person who believes in magic, you’ll experience it in your day-to-day life. Little things that happen that you’ll find magical. If you don’t believe in magic, they just won’t happen for you... and that’s OK, too.”
You just won’t notice them?
“Exactly,” she smiles. “And that’s fine. That’s why I don’t believe in convincing anybody about it being one way or another. It’s like, you have to find what works for you and what resonates with you. It’s everybody’s own journey.”
Muna is out now on Anti Records. Marketa Irglova plays the Unitarian Church, Dublin, on November 7.
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