Markéta Irglová Can Have Whatever She Dreams Of
by Jay S. Jacobs
Music has led Markéta Irglová down many roads. She was born under the communist regime in the old Czechoslovakia. Though not a musician himself, her father was very involved in the local arts scene and helped to set up performances by many international artists.
It was through one of these performances that Irglová met Irish folk-rocker Glen Hansard of the Frames. Though she was quite young (Irglová was only 13 the first time they met), the two quickly showed a musical rapport. Eventually Irglová moved to Ireland and joined Hansard’s band. Then she and Hansard formed another band, called The Swell Season, who released their first album in 2006.
However, Irglová’s career really exploded the next year, when she, Hansard and former Frames member John Carney started working on a tiny independent film called Once, about the relationship between an Irish street musician and an Eastern European woman who became his muse and musical partner. Though little was expected of this little film, it ended up being a surprising success, eventually winning Hansard and Irglová an Oscar for Best Original Song for the highlight tune “Falling Slowly.” Once also was transformed into a Broadway show, winning the 2012 Tony for Best Musical.
Irglová and Hansard continued to tour together and record as The Swell Season, and Irglová packed her bags again, moving to New York City. Eventually Irglová and Hansard’s personal relationship ended and The Swell Season was put on a semi-permanent hiatus.
Irglová quickly went to work on her solo debut, Anar, which was released in 2011. Then she uprooted her life yet again, moving to Iceland to record the follow-up album, Muna. That album has actually been done for well over a year, however when she had originally planned to release the album she was seven-months pregnant with her first child. Realizing that she could not properly promote the album and tour, she pushed the release date back until she could give the release the proper care.
Now, she has finally released Muna and the road calls again, as Irglová is following up the album with her first U.S. dates in a few years. Right as Irglová was starting up the tour, we had the chance to catch up with her about her history, her new album and the tour.
Your father was not a professional musician, but he was very involved in the music and art worlds in the old Czechoslovakia. Was that how you first become interested in music?
It began very early for me. Early in my childhood. Both of my parents loved playing music at home, so I would always hear it. My dad had the habit of playing music for me and my sister when we were going to sleep. They used these CDs that were going nice and calming, like Simon & Garfunkel or Leonard Cohen. At the time there would be Czech versions of these songs, which had been approved by the communist regime as safe. They would be cover versions, but they were still really beautiful. I loved listening to them.
I remember when I was four years old, I saw the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, the film version of it. That made a huge impression on me. I learned all those songs phonetically, even though I couldn’t speak any English. I got it on tape and I just kept singing the songs. My parents saw that I was very interested in music and they tried to nurture that in me, by getting me to take practice on instruments and I attended a choir. So it was almost second nature to me from very early on.
You were born in the Czech Republic and later moved to Ireland. How do you feel both places influenced your music?
I’m never sure how. I definitely feel in my music that there are undertones of Slavic music. It’s ingrained in me. The music of your country, it’s always part of you. One thing that you can never really get completely out of your system. It’s just that I can never really tell this the Czech influence and this is the Irish influence. It just grows into this part within me and gets all mixed up. Irish influence, actually, I get really clear, because I’m a huge fan of traditional Irish music. I have a lot of appreciation for that. When I was living there, I got to listen to a lot of it, both live and on CDs. The way of singing has rubbed off on me a lot. I think that projects itself into my melodies and my way of singing often.
For a while I was exposed to Persian music. When I was living in New York and I was playing with Iranian people. I still to this day play with an Iranian percussionist, Aida [Shahghasemi]. That rhythm and the tonality of that is really inspiring for me, too. So, I kind of take a little bit from all different sorts of directions. And then (laughs) play what comes out. It just accumulates in me and just gets all mixed up and comes out as something new.
Speaking of that Persian influence, “The Fortune Teller” from your new album Muna had a really Middle Eastern feel to it. What inspired that track?
Yeah. At the time I remember I was reading a book called The Conference of the Birds [by poet Farid ud-Din Attar]. It’s Persian literature. I read the English translation of it. I thought that the storytelling has its own very strong style that I really enjoyed. I was taking that in and experimenting with it a little bit myself. That kind of imprinted itself on the song at the time that I was working on this. So, reading that book really influenced me, I think. That goes for the musical side of it, too.
You are now living in Iceland. How did that influence Muna?
Oh yeah, definitely. I have to say, I wrote all of the songs before going to Iceland. Well, I had 90% completed them before going to Iceland. At the same time, a song is just going to take so many different change points to bring me into the studio. It is so very heavily influenced by the people who take part in recording it with you and the place where you record it. The place and the energy of the place and the energy of the people who record it with you is always in there in the final version of the song.
I feel like whenever I hear the record, it brings back to me the mood of the place, of Iceland. It brings back to me the weather that was there when we were recording the record. It reminds me of the colors of the place. All the people. It’s definitely in there. I very much like the influence it has, both for me and the music I write and record. I can imagine me drawing on that in any of my future work.
“Point of Creation” opens with church bells and chanting and has a very prayerful feel. Do you consider your music spiritual?
Yes. Yes. Absolutely. In everything I do, I think I look for spirituality. For me, spirituality isn’t really a theory. It’s not something that can’t be grounded and anchored into practicality. Into our day to day existence. I try and look for that in everything. That includes songwriting. Especially during this record, I allowed myself to explore that. I wasn’t brought up Catholic, or as part of any other religion for that matter. I have discovered my own idea of God and what God is to me. When people ask me if I believe in God, I say “Yes, absolutely,” but I might not have the same idea of what God is to me and what it is to other people.
For a long time, I was very nervous of saying the word “God.” I would always replace it with “universal energy,” or anything but God, because a lot of people have a very strong negative reaction. They hear about him, they run a mile. Especially people who have had it enforced on them or have been obsessed by that during their childhood or early years. They have a very negative reaction to it. I was trying to not alienate anybody in my work. Or in the way I speak.
Then, I realized that it resonates very strongly for me. I think that it’s a shame that people miss out on [the experience]. I think there is something very special at the core of any religion. A pathway that guides us to ourselves, really. It’s just a shame that it often gets into the hands of people and gets distorted. The message gets lost and it gets used for no good purpose, basically. But that doesn’t put me off from finding some connection or relationship to it in my own life. I guess that’s what has gone into the song.
In the album, you close the first and last songs with the repeated line “You can have whatever you can dream of.” Do you feel that is a personal mantra?
Yes, yes. Absolutely. The meaning of that sentence for me is… I know that positive thinking has been talked about a lot in the last years. If you just think positively, you can have what you want. That’s partly true, I feel. I feel like you still have to put in a lot of effort. The saying “God helps those that help themselves” is very true. I think it’s very misleading for people to just say if you think positively, it’s going to happen. And it’s not happening because you’re not positive enough. That’s really discouraging, because then if somebody thinks positively and it doesn’t happen, it really puts them off.
People miss out on the fact that it is an exercise. It’s adjusting your way of thinking and way of living. What I mean by saying “You can have whatever you can dream of” is that you [have to] allow yourself to think big. To dream big. To look at life as full of possibilities. Not impose limitations on what you think can happen for you and can’t happen for you. You just are open to the idea that the unexpected can happen. If you can dream this, if you can envision it in your mind, that’s always the first step to manifesting anything in your life. If you can’t dream it up, you can’t really expect it to happen for you.
One of your new songs suggests that people “Remember Who You Are.” Apologies for such a vague question, but what is your first thought when someone asks who are you?
For me, who we are is… in my mind, we are all children of light. We are all just finding our way back to that original forest. In the light we are all one. We are all somehow connected. We have lost the connection to one another. We live in some sort of illusional separation, which makes us very unhappy. I think deep down we want to come back to oneness. I believe who we are is we are a spirit that has come together with matter and manifested as human beings. There is so much more to life than we allow ourselves to experience a lot of the time.
Your husband and sister were both on the new album. Did the recording feel like a family affair?
Yes, it did. I always look for that. I’m very open to recording and working with musicians, bringing new people into projects. But I always need to have some sort of core of people that I am already connected to and I’m already close to. I can fall back on those people. An element of a comfort zone that feels safe. With that, for me it works that if I have the comfort zone, I feel more adventurous. Because I have the base, I can reach out to newer places which I wouldn’t probably feel as comfortable with if I didn’t have that.
You have also had a baby since your last album. How has becoming a mother influenced your music? Like, for example, the children’s chorus and laughter in “Seasons Change,” would you have done that before?
I actually wrote that song before I had my baby. But that said, I’ve always had a very strong connection to children. And the inner children in us. That part of ourselves doesn’t really go away. It just comes out in opportunities when you can afford to be carefree. Every now and then I try to connect with that child in me. Just remember to be playful, even though I’m an adult. I’m just going to have fun with life. I think that’s what was happening with that song.
Now, having my daughter, I think it’s going to influence my future work. It already is doing it, in a way. It’s just bringing this lovely, gentle, loving, soft energy into the song. A lot of times I find myself singing to her when I’m trying to put her to sleep. It’s bringing to those soft lullaby melodies and love songs. I think I might be heading in that direction for my next record.
Rob Bochnik from the Frames and Swell Season also played on Muna. What do you think he adds to your music?
Rob is, firstly, an incredible human being. I love him to death. He is a very nice energy person to be around. I love his sense of humor. He makes everybody feel really comfortable. It’s a joy to have him in any room, in any setting. Then, also, musically he adds something very special in my opinion, because he doesn’t look to stand out. He always looks to see how he is going to benefit the song and add something that the song needs. Whether that means he only plays a little bit or he plays over the whole thing, it doesn’t seem to matter to him. He just wants to contribute the thing that the music needs.
That’s very special. He’s a very beautiful player. His way of playing and his way of approaching it really fits my aesthetic. We have a very similar way of looking for melodies. I always find his melodies really pretty and fitting to my songs. Being on stage with him, I’ve played with him so many years that we have that connection that takes time to establish. There’s a telepathy on stage, where it only takes a very subtle glance to communicate whatever is going on. That’s really helpful to have with people on stage.
Both of the solo albums have very similar covers. Did you paint those, or who did them?
No. It’s a friend of mine. An Iranian painter based in New York, now. Her name is Nahid Hagigot. She’s somebody that I discovered when I moved to New York. I attended an exhibition at a gallery that she was showing her art in. It was really speaking to me, because her style sort of reminds me of Klimt. Gustav Klimt, the Austrian painter, is one of my very favorite painters, because he always combines these beautiful, vibrant colors with gold leaf. For me that’s a completely priceless combination. I love it. She uses the same kind of media. She was painting these beautiful objects in these most beautiful, vibrant colors. The background would always be gold leaf. Her art really spoke to me.
I bought a piece of hers at that exhibition that I discovered her in. It was the pomegranate. I contacted her [to find out] if I could use it. She agreed. Then I thought of this idea: that there would be two more records after the first one that I would make that would somehow be connected. All three of them. I wanted them to be connected through the visual side as well. I commissioned her to paint two more pieces for me that would each be for the next two records, after I had purchased the pomegranate painting. Whatever record I come out with next will have her art on the cover as well.
How do you feel your solo music differs from your earlier work with The Swell Season?
In the Swell Season I really enjoyed the dynamic I had with Glen, where he was the leader and I was just playing a supportive role. I found that a very comfortable position for myself. I just kind of color in. Just support and do the very simple things that add a little bit beauty to whatever is already going on. I really enjoyed that.
When we stopped collaborating, I wanted to continue making music and desired to create opportunities for myself to explore my own songwriting and musicality without that to fall back on. I had to become a little more serious about it. A little more committed about it as a songwriter. When I collaborated with Glen, I didn’t really try and write songs. Every now and then I would sit at the instrument and an idea would come, so I would explore it. Then when I started working on my solo material, I would create opportunities to find myself with instrument and became much more decisive. This is what I’m going to be doing. I’m going to be open to this experience.
It evolves all the time. As a songwriter I evolve as much as I evolve as a person as I grow older. I’m always influenced by my surroundings: where I live, the people who I hang around with, the art I’m exposed to. All of that goes into what I create. It’s just different in that. I had to be prepared to hold the stage on my own, not be hiding behind anyone else. (laughs)
How did you first start singing with Glen?
First he just asked me to add a little piano to the songs he was writing at the time. Sing harmonies and help him find the final versions of the songs he had been working on. It was fun for both of us. I was classically trained, so for me it was fun getting to experience another side of musicality. For him, he was not classically trained, so he was enjoying that element I was bringing to his songs. It was only when we were part of the movie that our work together solidified into something official. Until that, it was just good fun. (chuckles)
You were just a teenager when the opportunity to star in Once. You were actually a very natural actress. Would you like to do any more acting, or are you completely focused on your music?
I’ve always been open to the idea of doing more acting, but I don’t want it enough to chase after it, or to wait for it. I would love to act in something that I felt was the right project for me, that I could bring something good to and I was the right person for that role. That might happen at some time and that might never happen. If I ever hear an idea that is proposed to me and it resonates and I have the feeling that I should be a part of this, then I will absolutely do it. But if that never happens, then I’m not going to go looking for auditions. That’s not really something that I’m looking for. I’m more comfortable in a position of playing music, anyway. But I won’t be closed off to the idea of getting back in front of the camera.
Were you surprised by how it resonated with people around the world? After all, it was a tiny film that came out of nowhere to became a rather big cult hit.
Oh, yes. I absolutely was. Beyond anything I could have ever expected. (chuckles) I didn’t imagine it would ever get the sort of exposure it did. Something happened that gave it a wonderful opportunity. I’ve been blown away ever since.
Have you been surprised by how influential Once has become, not just as a film but inspiring a hit musical? Have you seen the musical? What did you think of it?
I did. I did. I couldn’t see how they were going to make the movie work on the Broadway stage, but I was very pleasantly surprised at how well they actually managed to change the format. Staying true to the original idea, and yet changing it enough for it to work on stage as well. Yeah, I was very surprised.
I heard on your Live in San Francisco album released on NoiseTrade that when the audience requested you play “Falling Slowly” you were a tiny bit hesitant to play it solo. Do you do the song in concert now? Does it feel more comfortable doing it without Glen?
Yes. Since then we do it. The first time I found it hard to imagine singing it without Glen, because I had only ever sang it with him. It felt like if I sing it alone it will feel like there is a hole that nobody can fill. When people asked for it, I asked them: Do you want to hear it, even without Glen? They were like: Yeah, of course! So we sang it and my friend Aida sang the harmony with me. It works. That made me realize, yeah, we can totally play the song. It was fun doing it. So we’ve played it at every concert since.
Are you enjoying touring with your own band?
Yeah. Tonight is going to be our first concert, so I’m waiting to see how it goes.
Do you ever see The Swell Season getting back together, or are you completely devoted to your solo career now?
I’m not completely devoted to it. I mean, I’m really enjoying my solo material, but I’m not completely devoted 100% to anything. I’m always open. I might be doing something completely different from music in five years. I’m completely open to that possibility, too. As much as I’m open to the idea of the Swell Season making another record or playing more concerts.
It doesn’t seem likely at the moment, from where I stand. How things are. But I’m not categorically opposed to it. It seems unlikely now, but I’ve given up on thinking I have figured out what the future holds for me. (laughs) So, I’m going to just stick with: Who knows? Everything is possible. (laughs again) We’ll see what happens.
Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: October 24, 2014.
All Photos ©2014 Jim Rinaldi. All rights reserved.