THE FRAMES with JOSH RITTER at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), tonight (Thursday, October 20). $15. 416-870-8000.
When Glen Hansard, frontman and songwriter for Ireland's Frames, jovially insists that "connection, and not cash, is the currency" he yearns for, I can't help but think of "Only connect," the ideological essence of E.M. Forster's Howards End. But Hansard says he dropped out of school at 13 to try busking and missed out on the big names in the British canon.
"Busking is the lowest form of entertainment," Hansard begins, with the gravitas of a sermonizing preacher. "You're dealing with an audience that isn't yours at all. It's like going into a room of Muslims and trying to read them the Bible. No, wait. "
Realizing his analogy is dicey at best, he starts over.
"Busking's more like going fishing. You go out on the street and you have all day. The river keeps flowing by, and as it flows it throws up more interesting people - fish, if you like - who couldn't care less. It gives you balls of steel, and if you can make five minutes of someone's day stop, then you've done it. That's the real goal of music - to make time stand still when you're embraced in the arms of the beauty of the song."
Hansard - probably best known for playing the guitarist in Alan Parker's The Commitments - sees his busking years as a fantastic education, partly because he "stayed in different houses around Dublin all the time, having wonderful sexual encounters every night with women three times my age."
That mix of the sacred and profane, couched in the warmth of a fella baring his heart over pints in yer local, seems to be Hansard's stock in trade. He cites Leonard Cohen as one of his all-time heroes, not only because of the poet-bard's willingness to reveal his weaknesses, but also because Cohen chose to enter a monastery when performing lost its charm.
Hansard even says he might be tempted to follow in Cohen's footsteps (minus the being bankrupted by evil bureaucracy, one assumes) if the Frames ever packed it in for good, though it doesn't seem like that'll happen any time soon.
Things are on a sudden upswing for Hansard and his broody guitar rock crew right now. After forming 15 years ago in Dublin, the Frames have been jostled from label to label, weathering an early, bitter stint with Island that found them trying to shift their barbed, violin-laced epic sound to suit the then-trendy college radio format of the Pixies (Pixies producer Gil Norton was brought on board), a flirtation with Chicago indie Overcoat and a blue period of trying to go totally independent before signing to Epitaph offshoot Anti- (home to folks like Tom Waits and Nick Drake) for their latest effort, Burn The Maps.
"We don't have a real DIY indie philosophy," Hansard explains, "but it just wasn't working with the majors. With Anti-, we were a bit skeptical because we wondered if it was just a graveyard or retirement home for aging rock stars.
"Not that I don't truly love artists like Nick Drake and Tom Waits," he quickly adds, "but I hoped Anti- wasn't just taking pity on a band who'd already had a career. The worst feeling for any band when they get signed is being a butterfly that's getting collected."
Though not explicitly a Jesus band, the Frames have peppered their songs with biblical references since they started out - even their albums' sleeve art features cleverly concealed crosses.
Though Hansard admits he did send their discs to Christian radio stations when the Frames first tried to break into North America, he says his writing is about a general spiritual quest.
"Growing up in Catholic Ireland, it's hard to avoid Christian imagery. I loved the Bible because it was full of the most amazing poetry. I'm not a Christian, and definitely not a born-again, but I believe in something, and that changes all the time.
"I was a Hare Krishna for a year, and I almost ran off with a fookin' religious carnival when I was 22," he continues cheerily. "It took (violinist) Colm (Mac Con Iomaire) and our fookin' sound engineer to literally take my hand and bring me back. I'm really vulnerable, because if I meet someone and have a connection with them and they offer more than just sex or superficiality, I'll give myself over."