In this special programme, we meet the Academy Award-winning musician Markéta Irglová and, for an unusual perspective on her success, her father, Marek Irgl. As well as the impact of her Oscar win in 2008, the subjects discussed include Markéta’s beginnings in music, how bandmate and ex Glen Hansard has influenced her career, the writing of “Falling Slowly”, her new solo project, and distance and family ties.
Quite possibly the most successful Czech female rock or pop musician ever on the international stage, Markéta Irglová, 23, has achieved a great deal for a girl from the small, pretty town of Valašské Meziříčí in south Moravia. Music played a big role in Markéta’s life growing up there, with her parents sending her and younger sister Zuzana for tuition when they were still quite young.
Markéta: “They saw that from a very small age I gravitated towards music. For example, when I was four I saw the musical Jesus Christ Superstar on television and just loved the songs so much that I learned them all phonetically, as I didn’t speak English at the time.
“My dad would introduce me and my sister to music. He would play CDs to us, because music has always been his great passion in life, really. I guess, like many children, I just loved music.”
It didn’t come as a great surprise to Marek Irgl when his children began showing an interest in songs and musical instruments.
Marek: “There was always music in our house, and from when they were very small we played records. So they knew good music and it was a very natural step to start music on their own. From the moment when we saw that they were talented, they just walked their own path. It was easy, in fact.”
When did you first notice that Markéta was musically talented?
“I think it was very early. Although when she was very small and she was singing, her voice really wasn’t very clear, it was broken. Her teacher at elementary school said she would never be a singer [laughs].
“But it was early when she started to play instruments. When she saw some friends of ours playing guitar, she would play the guitar, like a toy. I think it was quite early, eight or nine years old, when she started having lessons. Her teacher said she was talented so we immediately bought a piano. She sat at it, playing and playing. That was easy, too[laughs].”
Markéta’s discography includes two LPs as part of the Swell Season (2006’s eponymous debut and “Strict Joy” from 2009), the “Once” soundtrack (which overlaps with the first Swell Season record), and her solo debut “Anar”, which came out a couple of months ago. The Swell Season – which is currently on hiatus – chiefly comprises her and now-ex boyfriend Glen Hansard, the leader of one of Ireland’s biggest rock bands, The Frames. Markéta says it was his support that was key to her beginning to write songs.
Markéta: “I wrote my first song very shortly after I met Glen. Glen had come to the Czech Republic to play with his band and my father was helping to organise it, so they came over for a party at our house. He saw that there was a piano in the house and he asked, who plays it? I said, me and my sister. He said, well play us something.
“So I played him a song and he said, do you write your own material? I said, no. And I was really surprised by the question, because the thought had never occurred to me before. He said, you should, it’s fun and I’m sure you’d be good at it if you play an instrument and sing. He said, next time I see you, you can play it for me.
“I was kind of intrigued by that and I thought, why not? At the time I wrote one song and it was very, very simple. It was in English. But it was a beginning that inspired me to keep going.”
Glen in those days was a friend of your dad’s, a friend of your family’s. Later you became a musical partnership and a romantic partnership. Generally speaking, what influence has Glen had on you as a musician?
“A very big one, a very significant one. At first I was kind of learning from him in terms of song writing, not only song writing but lyric writing, writing poems or poems that were turned into songs. Also the idea of creating my own parts on stage to add to his songs, and improvising, which is something we were not really guided towards at music school, funnily enough.
“He influenced me hugely in that he offered me help in the beginning. He gave me insight into how you start, what works… I just learned by him being an example. I had the opportunity to be close to him, to see him work, to see him be on stage, to see how a song was created from beginning to end, and how it was then transposed onto a record and how it related then in a live performance.
“I learned everything from him. And once I had extracted those teachings from him I started developing something of my own afterwards. But at the beginning he was the biggest inspiration that there could have been.”
Also I guess he had a couple of decades of experience by the time you made your first album together, the Swell Season. You would have been, what, 17, maybe? That must have helped you a lot.
“Completely. But I think what helped me most actually was just the fact that he faith in me, and saw some kind of potential in my. He couldn’t have been more generous with his encouragement.”
In a sense, the song “Falling Slowly” changed everything for Markéta Irglová. It had actually first been recorded for the 2006 Czech movie “Beauty in Trouble”, with Glen and Markéta making use of the sessions for the song to put together their entire debut LP as the Swell Season (the title comes from a novel by Czech émigré writer and publisher Josef Škvorecký).
But the track really started making waves when it featured in the low-budget Irish film “Once” in which both starred, he as a local busker, she as a struggling Czech immigrant. One of its most memorable scenes saw their characters bonding as they started to compose “Falling Slowly” in a musical instrument shop in Dublin. Markéta says she didn’t have an immediate sense the song could be a hit – but did recognize how great it was.
Markéta: “I remember one time Glen was playing the guitar and he started the beginning of the song, the melody of it, just picking it out on guitar and humming the melody a little bit. The minute I heard it I was like, what’s that? I love it, is that your song? And he said, oh, it’s just an idea I’m working on, but I don’t really know what to do with it.
“I told him that of the new ideas he had played, he should make a song of out of it for sure. He said, let’s work on it together, and we sat at the piano and I played. Then the bridge was written, then we wrote the chorus.
“After we finished it, it was definitely one of my favourite songs by far. I knew that it was a very beautiful song, but I did not foresee the path that the song embarked upon [laughs].”
“Once” became a big word-of-mouth hit at the box office and “Falling Slowly” was nominated for the 2008 Academy Award for best original song. It was then that the fairytale reached a whole other dimension. Against all the odds, a process that had started with the couple sitting at home at the piano ended with them being presented with an Oscar by movie star John Travolta, watched by an enormous TV audience.
Accepting the statuette, Glen made a short speech before Markéta moved towards the microphone, only for the house band to strike up, cutting her off. She was then called back on stage by host John Stewart and made a powerful speech that touched many people around the world. Here is a transcription.
"Hi, everyone. I just want to thank you so much. This is such a big deal, not only for us, but for all other independent musicians and artists that spend most of their time struggling, and this, the fact that we're standing here tonight, the fact that we're able to hold this, it's just to prove no matter how far out your dreams are, it's possible. And, you know, fair play to those who dare to dream and don't give up. And this song was written from a perspective of hope, and hope at the end of the day connects us all, no matter how different we are. And so thank you so much, who helped us along the way. Thank you."
Markéta: “I honestly didn’t have anything prepared, because I didn’t think that I’d get the opportunity to speak. Glen and I had made an arrangement, considering that fact that we would have very little time on stage, that if we won he would say a few words and I would just, thank you very much.
“That was our arrangement and that’s exactly what happened. They then made the mistake of thinking that I had a speech prepared and that they had cut me off. Suddenly I was being given the opportunity to come back on stage. Like I said, even though I didn’t have anything prepared, I felt I had some very significant emotions that I somehow wanted to translate into words.
“That night I felt completely overjoyed. I felt so full of love, my heart was completely open, and through the love I felt for everybody around me I just felt really connected to everybody and everything and really present in the moment.
“I realised that just as much as that moment belonging to Glen and I, it wasn’t just ours, it belonged to everybody who helped us to get to that point and to all the people who were in a similar position.
“Afterwards many people came up to me and said that they were artists that were just about to give up, or too worried to even start, and that it inspired them to keep going, and to believe in themselves. I think it’s really important to be reminded that we shouldn’t be afraid to dream.”
In the audience that night at the Academy Awards ceremony at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre was one very proud dad.
Marek: “It was a great experience. I still don’t know how it was possible that my wife and I and Markéta’s sister and Glen’s mother and brother could go there, because usually it’s limited to two persons. But it happened and it was a great experience, in so many ways.”
What’s your memory of the actual moment when the names were read out?
“That’s a moment that probably nobody remembers, so no memories! It was like a blackout. Your brain, or your heart, switches off for a while… It’s hard to describe.”
How did you celebrate it?
“We celebrated it on the night of the Oscars, and when we came home we celebrated with our family and friends and Markéta’s friends. We had a party and it was a good time [laughs]. The Oscar is great, but the fact she’s able to continue making music and walk her own path life and artistic path is even greater.”
People who become famous often say that they don’t change, but the people around them do, that people react to them differently. Has that happened to you and your family, say in your hometown of Valašské Meziříčí?
“It depends on the people you meet. If you have good friends who wish luck to you or your family, they don’t change. If you have people who just pretend something, they can change. If someone wins a million in the lottery it changes the people around him. With the Oscar, some people could envy it and show it, some could envy it and not show it.
“But after the Oscar, which was very nice, so many people, people we didn’t know, stopped us on the street and wished us all the best. They said they were happy for us and for Markéta. That was so incredibly nice, and it balanced all the bad stuff that came with the Oscar. Normal, ordinary people, people we didn’t know, were happy. They said they’d cried in front of the TV when they saw it. It was moving.”
Modest and down-to-earth, Markéta is clearly a private person uninterested in the trappings of fame. It must have been difficult, then, to cope with the intense interest in her that resulted from the Oscar win, which happened a few weeks before she reached the age of 20.
Markéta: “It was for a little bit only, because through that we kind of became celebrities for a little bit. And celebrity is and always has been a very strange thing to me. I feel like celebrity is completely different to getting respect or some kind of recognition for what you do.
“Celebrity kind of takes the attention and focus away from the art and puts it completely on the person. I’m a real believer that whatever I create does not come from me but through me, I get to just be lucky enough to somehow channel that energy and put it in a creative way into a song, or a painting, or whatever it is that you choose to be creative in.
“I think the moment I would lose that knowledge and think that it’s all me, and that I’m wonderful [laughs], it would just change the music in a way. Celebrity is all about the person, it’s a cult of personality. It puts the person on a pedestal and there’s a feeling among some people that people who are celebrities live behind a certain wall, and beyond that wall it’s so much more exciting, and life is so much better.
“I feel that it’s a complete myth. People are people. I didn’t want to be put on a pedestal or idolized. I wanted to connect with people in a sincere way. For a little bit, the idea of celebrity was kind of changing that. It was very hard for me to get my head around it. It took a little while for me to digest it and process it. Now I have and I feel I know where I stand with it. But at the time it was difficult for a little bit.”
But I’m sure there are good sides to winning the Oscar. It will have helped your career greatly, I imagine.
“It did. I’m nothing but grateful for everything that happened. If it wasn’t for the Oscar, I probably wouldn’t be here, having this opportunity to share my music with people who already have some knowledge of who I am because of my history.
“It has given both Glen and I am amazing platform to present ourselves before the world. That opportunity that we were given that night of the Oscars was like a big golden key to many doors.
“Since that night it’s been our responsibility what we do with that opportunity that we’ve been given. I really feel like we’ve made the most of that opportunity. We’ve worked hard and we’ve kept going and we’ve tried to stay committed to the path that we’ve chosen for ourselves. It has allowed me to do this, which I am very, very grateful for.”
Markéta Irglová has recently been touring in support of her well-received debut solo LP “Anar”, which – like the second Swell Season album – has been released on Anti, the prestigious U.S. label that is also home to the likes of Tom Waits. While her previous international tours have been as part of the Swell Season, she says it hasn’t been difficult to take charge of her own four-piece group, to become the leader for the first time.
Markéta: “It’s actually been fun for me. Rather than finding it scary or overwhelming, I’ve just embraced. I still don’t perceive it as being a solo thing for me, I perceive it as me and my friends. The only reason my name is the one on the posters is that my name is what people know. It’s just less confusing than adding another name of a band to the equation, because there’s already the Frames, the Swell Season, Once – I don’t want to confuse people even further.
“It’s been fun in terms of having a vision and getting to manifest that vision through the music that I’ve created with my friends. It’s only been fun, it’s just something I’ve embraced as something to enjoy. I don’t really worry about who’s the leader and who’s…following the leader [laughs].”
Do you ever feel that you have to kind of prove yourself? Possibly Glen was seen as the kind of senior partner – he was older and already well known. Do you feel a certain sense of having to show people what you can do yourself?
“No, because honestly this chapter in my life is not about proving myself to anybody. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove, really. Having something to prove means that you are concerned about what people think about you, or what idea people have about you.
“For me that’s not why I do what I do. I’ve done it because I’ve enjoyed it so much and I’ve continued doing it within a solo career simply because the Swell Season was about to take a break and I felt like I didn’t want to stop making music, so I decided to kind of draw on my inner power to create the circumstances for myself, which has happened. I’m purely celebrating that fact – not trying to prove anything.”
Markéta’s parents have seen their eldest daughter achieve a lot deal of success at a young age. But her dad says what is really gratifying is the work she produces.
Marek: “Definitely it’s a nice feeling, not because of the success but because what she does we like. I’m so glad that she’s able to write songs, songs that my wife and I like – we’ve always liked the singer-songwriter style.
“We’re happy about the products, not for the fact of the fame and the success. I think if she was doing disco music we wouldn’t be happy, even in the case that she were very successful.”
Do you ever think that her success has in a way taken her away from you, and away from the Czech Republic?
“That’s the payment for success and the dark side of success. She is away, a long distance away, and it came so early. I think it’s sad for all parents when the kids leave the home, and for us it came quite early and quite far.
“But that’s life, we can’t do anything about it. Not many people are so lucky as to have kids who are successful in what they do and living in the house next door and they can see them and the grandkids, let’s say, every day. It would be ideal, but it doesn’t happen so often.”
After a period spent in rural Ireland, Markéta Irglová now lives in New York with her husband Tim Iseler, who co-produced “Anar” and plays bass in her band. Still only 23, she must at least occasionally think, wow, I’ve come a long way from Valašské Meziříčí.
Markéta: “Yes, I usually think about that on my birthday, actually. Sometimes we forget to kind of stop and take a step back and observe everything in our lives and the distance that we’ve come.
“I feel like the easiest time to do that is on a birthday when you’re celebrating another year of your life passing. I think part of that is reflecting on that year. I always think about where I was last year at this time, and all the things that have happened since.
“Every time I do that on my birthday, reviewing my life and my birthdays before, I always think to myself, wow, so much has happened in my life. It’s wonderful, because everything that’s happened has been an opportunity to learn something new.
“I feel like now I’ve made certain mistakes that I’ve learned from and don’t necessarily need to make again, and that’s a great advantage in life. Now I can kind of move on to different things. And that is definitely a plus.”
You now life in New York, you’re married to an American guy – can you see yourself staying in America?
“I honestly don’t know what is going to happen. I’ve kind of given up on trying to see too far ahead. When I moved to Ireland I kind of thought, that was it, I was just going to stay in Ireland forever, because I loved it so much. But then one day I just woke up and I was like, I need to go to New York.
“Since then I’ve always allowed room for that to happen. Maybe one day I’ll wake up and I’ll really feel it’s important that I move someplace else, or back to Ireland, or back to the Czech Republic. Maybe I’ll never really settle anywhere, maybe I’ll always have that sense of, I have to go someplace else now, and choose to follow that guidance.Who knows?
“But I feel like I’ll probably stay in New York for a little bit, before I think it’s necessary for me to move. Because I feel my time in New York is not finished yet, for sure.”
Do you ever miss home, and the Czech Republic?
“Very much so. Actually, the more time I’ve spent abroad, the more I’ve been given enough distance and perspective to fully appreciate my own country, and my people, and my language, and my culture.
“Now I look back on the Czech Republic and everything has kind of become romanticised by my vision. I think about everything… the smallest of things in the Czech Republic, even the kind of cookies you get there, and suddenly they’re the most romantic and wonderful thing.
“I definitely miss it very much, and the fact that my family still live here means I still have a very strong connection to the Czech Republic. That’s never going to be completely severed. I always feel like a part of me is in the Czech Republic.
“It’s probably my fate that I’m kind of separated, in between all these places where the people that I love and care about live. But, thank God, I have the opportunity to come back any time I please, so it makes it much less a painful experience.”