Best known for her co-starring role in the 2006 movie Once with singer Glen Hansard, along with their albums together as part of The Swell Season, Marketa Irglova recently released her second album, entitled Muna. Born and raised in the Czech Republic, she now lives in Iceland after a few years in New York. On October 16, she was in Chicago and spoke with The Chicago Ambassador before her show at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) In 2009 you split with The Swell Season and just two years later, put out your first solo album, Anar. Was the solo album something that was put together solely in that two year period or was it material that you developed over the years? or a combination?
IRGLOVA) I went into the studio not long after the last one with The Swell Season, so I had some songs.
CA) Three years later, you’ve released Muna. In your opinion, what are the differences between the two albums?
IRGLOVA) The second one [Muna] is richer, sonically speaking. The first one, I was more financially restricted, although I like the sensitivity of it, what it ended up being. I felt that this one, it took more time, I kind of kept going at it until it felt right. I kept layering and layering until it felt complete. I think it ended being influenced by the fact that I had more research that I put into it.
CA) You’ve said Muna is part two of a three part collection, Anar being part one. Anar seems to be more about intimate personal relationships, while Muna is more about spiritual searching — correct? I realize Muna just came out and you are on tour, but do you have an idea of when the third part of the collection will be done? Any ideas on what can we expect on it?
IRGLOVA) Yeah, I know what it’s going to look like visually and I’m getting more of an understanding of what it’s going to sound like. The theme will be somewhere between heaven and earth.
CA) Have you written any songs for it?
IRGLOVA) I have some that will end up on it.
CA) Have you performed them?
IRGLOVA) I’ve performed one or two and the rest are unfinished. To be honest, I’m getting so little time. The last year I’ve been taken care of the little one (her one-year-old daughter) and now I’m touring, but now that Muna is released, it freed up space for more creativity. It always happens like that. I’m very excited about getting to the creative, writing focus.
CA) Are you writing a lot of it on the road?
IRGLOVA) Not at all. I cannot – I have a system for writing songs which is usually either home or somewhere where I have a piano and the instruments that I’m inspired by and then I sit down and the melodies come during that time and then for the lyric writing, I like to take a walk every morning or afternoon and think about lyrics. And when I have a few lyrics, I go back to the piano and try out the lyrics with the melody and go back and forth. Sometimes I get new ideas randomly but usually I have an intense writing period of a couple of months
CA) The word Muna is Icelandic?
IRGLOVA) Yes, it is Icelandic and it means ‘to remember’ and Anar is Persian and it means pomegranate. It’s kinda of reappearing on the record, this idea of remembering. I knew I wanted a name for the record that was one word, four letters because I want the three records to be consistent, so I was looking for that one word and I thought maybe it should be icelandic and I asked Sturla (her partner Sturla Mi Þórisson during the recording, I said, how do you say remember in Icelandic and he told me. I was like, ‘perfect’!
CA) Now you need another four-letter word for the next album —
IRGLOVA) I don’t have it yet, but I’m very excited. It’s like finding a name for your baby, you finally go ‘that’s the name!’ I believe that children tell you themselves what they want to be called and for me, it’s the same for music. It sort of feels like it’s a being of its own.
CA) In 2011, you moved to New York where you wrote both your albums — then you went to Iceland to record parts of Muna and fell in love with the country and moved there eventually. Let’s backtrack a second. You first were there with the Swell Season and liked it and then a friend suggested a studio in Iceland — did you think it was crazy at first — especially considering you were in New York at the time, which isn’t lacking for recording studios?
IRGLOVA) Even though I wrote Muna while in New York I wrote it within the safe environment of my home at the time, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. And I have to say that my creativity is kind of oppressed by the fast energy of the city. I much prefer the idea of going to a studio or house in the country, where there’s no distraction. Because even though you’re in a studio that’s soundproof and you really don’t hear anything, there’s an energy of the place. If the whole city is rushing to get somewhere or do something, you will tap into that. I’d tap into it anyway.
CA) You recently (Oct. 2) sang a few selections on stage with the Broadway cast of Once — What was that like? It was a planned post-show performance, correct? What was that like?
IRGLOVA) It was great. I really like what they’ve done with the play. I’ve seen it a couple times before and it’s an incredible thing what they’ve done. As for singing, I’ve never sang on a Broadway stage before so it was very cool. I had a microphone taped to my forehead.
CA) The stage show has been going for quite awhile now and I know the movie was made for such a small amount ($150,000), you might be making more from the show than you did from the movie, is that accurate?
IRGLOVA) Yes, absolutely. I think I made like 2,000 Euros from the movie and I spent it on a motorbike for Glen (Hansard) — he really liked an old Triumph that we rented, and the guy who rented it had another one and sold it to me. Glen got me the part, he recommended me to the director (Jim Carney) and he gave me this incredible experience so I wanted to make a gesture to thank him for it. I don’t know what happened to the bike, if he still has it, but he took me on a few rides.
CA) So much has been written about your relationship with Glen, we really didn’t want to focus on it. But, I’ll ask, do you two keep in touch?
IRGLOVA) Not really. We’ve kind of gone on separate paths. We ended on a good note, but I think we’re just in different places in our lives. We have a strong connection underneath it all, but I don’t feel like that I need to keep in touch every now and then. I feel like it’s always going to be there and even if I don’t see him for ten years, when I do see him it’s going to feel like I saw him yesterday. He’s one of those people in my life and I’m always watching from a distance. We know a lot of the same people and a couple of my musicians are from his band and every now and then we say we should get together but it never happens because I’m in Iceland and he, I don’t even know where he’s living. He’s all over the place, between New York and Ireland and traveling all the time.
CA) You feature 27 musicians on Muna, how many of them are touring with you?
IRGLOVA) There are five of us on stage.
CA) Is your sister with you? [Irglova’s 23-year-old sister Zuzi is on backing vocals on Muna]
IRGLOVA) No, I would have liked it but she’s in college.
CA) Your parents were not musicians but you learned piano at 7 and then guitar. Your father was a journalist and patron to many artists, and music was a constant in your household. On your own website, it says your parents always kept their door open to travelers and all found a warm welcome in your home. What was it like growing up in that environment?
IRGLOVA) It was really nice. I remember feeling nervous when people would come to the house because I was always shy, but then once I got over that I remember always loving the atmosphere in that house. It was kind of magical.
CA) Back to Muna — you have themes from Christianity, Buddhism and Islam in it. Did you grow up with religion in your life?
IRGLOVA) No, I didn’t. And I don’t feel part of any one in particular. I feel like, I don’t like religion but I like spirituality. The thing I don’t like about religion is that it takes something that’s really beautiful and true and distorts it somehow. I feel like the end result is that it creates an illusion that we need some sort of a middle man between us and our version of God. I much prefer the idea that the very center of religion is spirituality and therefore I can dip into any one of them — Budism, Islam, Christianity and at the same time not feel like I have to subscribe to one or another.
CA) You’ve said Muna was inspired by Jesus Christ Superstar and a trilogy of books written by Neale Donald Walsh titled Conversations With God — can you describe how specifically? Lyrics?
IRGLOVA) ‘Conversations with God,’ those books I’d say the lyrics. Jesus Christ Superstar — the lyrics both musically and lyrically because I really like the format of the way the songs are written and the way that they are conversations. The songs communicate something and they are very alive, it’s not a structure that we’re used to — bridge, break, chorus. It takes what whatever form it wants to take, it’s like a giant conversation with a response from another side, another perspective. And I think I take on different voices and different characters in the record.
CA) What type of music do you listen to on your own time?
IRGLOVA) Not a lot, to be absolutely honest. I can appreciate a lot of it, but for me, I’m not that good with the Internet and I think that’s a big way of introducing new music. I usually get introduced to things by accident and then I have a period of playing it until I drive everyone in the house crazy and then I have to discover something new. I have a few favorites, but then I’m open to discover new things. In the last couple years of living in Iceland, I have discovered electronic music for example which I was never exposed to and it’s very alive. I’m not just one direction, I can appreciate different styles.
CA) Being in Iceland, have you been exposed to Bjork?
IRGLOVA) I haven’t met her but one time I saw her in a grocery store looking at jam and another time I saw her in a coffee shop.
CA) Did you say anything to her?
IRGLOVA) No, I didn’t.
CA) Do you have any music idols?
IRGLOVA) I’ve always loved Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin — I really love her. I’ll never sing like that, but I love her. Also my friend Aida Shahghasemi who sings with me on Muna and on stage- she has a different way of of singing, she is very inspired by the Middle Eastern technique and that is very inspiring to me. I would love to be able to sing like that. There are some Irish singers in Ireland that I love also.
CA) You were in a movie that was filmed in another country at 17, you won an Oscar at 19 — were on The Simpsons around that same time, and now you’ve released your second solo album and are touring and you’re still only 26. Do you feel older than that?
IRGLOVA) When I was young I was aways watching my age. I couldn’t wait to be 18 to feel like I had freedom. I felt like I would be independent at 18. Once I got older than that it’s become very vague. I’m always surprised at the age I am, I forget if I’m 25 or 26. Because my life is — I don’t have a 9 to 5 job and weekend or week days aren’t really relevant for me, time takes on a very different pace. I don’t perceive time passing, I don’t pay attention to it. On my birthday I don’t think I’m a year older. I just reflect on the year and all the things that I’m grateful for and think about all the things I’d like to have happen in the year ahead of me. That’s all I think about age at the moment. I’m sure there will come a time when I’m like ‘I’m getting old.’ I recently had a moment where I was like ‘wow, I’ll be 30 in four years’ and I remember my parents at 30. Time is so weird.
CA) When you did win the Oscar with Glen for Best Song (Irglova became the first Czech to ever win an Oscar and the youngest to win the music category for ‘Falling Slowly’ in 2008) your acceptance speech was cut off by the orchestra but an Oscar-first occurred when you were invited back on stage to finish your speech after the commercial break — What was that going through your head that night?
IRGLOVA) At the time, I was in an elevated state, mostly because when good things happen in your life, like when children are born — moments like that you ascend into a very different place and you feel this beautiful, loving emotion. That’s kind of what it was like. All the feelings are magnified. All I felt was positivity. I felt very grateful and loving towards everyone and everything around me and because there was so much goodness all around me, there was no room to feel nervous. I wasn’t scared that I was going to say the wrong thing or embarrass myself, there was none of that. I was just really clear that about wanting to make my feelings known to everybody about how connected I felt, that the moment belonged to everybody, not just me.
CA) Where do you see yourself in 10 years and beyond?
IRGLOVA) I think I’ll always somehow be connected to music. I don’t see myself always touring around the world. That chapter, that was my life. As great an experience as that was, I kinda want to stay in a place that feels good. My ideal situation, I see myself touring enough to introduce the new record to people and then taking a break and then working on the next record. I’m always looking for this thing that I’ve never actually found. Everything is part of the experience. The food that you’re fed while you’re making the record, the environment that you spend your free time in, the place where you write the lyrics, the place you recharge your batteries. I have all these ideas for what type of space that will be and I think we are going to combine them and create a studio. That’s where I see myself over the next few years.