“We will overcome” sings Glen Hansard on one of his new tracks Wheels on Fire, referencing one of the most famous refrains of protest music. Some battles of the civil rights era were overcome, others rage on. Is this a time to rediscover the voice of protest music and should it be up to musicians to lead the charge against the world’s wrongs?
Hansard is one troubadour deep in the trenches. Leaving school aged 13 to busk on the streets of Dublin, he first came to wider public attention in film, starring in The Commitments in 1991 and achieved global fame in 2007 through the sleeper hit Once, which won an Oscar for his song Falling Slowly and was successfully adapted for stage.
In the age of streaming music for free, Hansard explains that it is hard for any artist to become established (“‘But you’re getting exposure!’ Fuck you man, I want to be paid for my work”) and then when you are a success you are no longer representative of the people you claim to speak for.
“One of the things that killed protest music in Ireland was to award musicians a tax break, so you became a tax-free citizen, which meant you were no longer of the people,” Hansard says. “You were suddenly in the ruling class. What a smart, shrewd thing to do. Take away their voice by giving them money.
The bottom line is poor people die in the winter
“I have to say I struggle with it too. I went and won an Oscar and had a musical on Broadway. I made some money. But my mother cleaned fucking houses her whole life, I’m not going to be ashamed of making some money, it’s a wonderful thing.”
What matters is what you do with that money morally. Recently, the financial activities of Hansard’s friend Bono were revealed in the Paradise Papers leak, documenting his investments in a Lithuanian shopping centre.
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
“It doesn’t make me love the person any less, it’s just like, ‘aw man, really?’” Hansard says. “I don’t understand. It would be very easy for me to say what a dick Bono was to let himself get involved in that, but I don’t know what went on. When things get to that level they get a little abstract and a bit nuanced. I would imagine it was probably quite far from his desk.”
The disappointment feels quite raw because throughout his life Hansard has worked tirelessly to do what he can to help others. At 17 he set up the First Step Project to help the homeless and every Christmas Eve on Grafton Street he leads a charity busk in Dublin, in the past joined by the likes of Damien Rice, Hozier and the aforementioned Bono.
The issues Hansard cares about are close to home. He talks about uncles who lived out “the classic image of the drunk guy under the bridge and he’s hit rock bottom”, and four years ago his aunt died homeless on a park bench in Birmingham on Christmas Day after a long battle with alcoholism.
“One of my fondest memories as a kid was that my dad would bring these men home from the pub,” Hansard recalls. “He’d wake us all up and say, ‘This is Seamus, Tony and John – they’re going to stay here for a few weeks, right?’ They’d end up staying at our place for a while until they got their heads together.
What really inspired the Apollo House action was it really felt that we had fallen below a threshold of decency in Ireland.
“On Christmas Day our house was full of all of these guys who had nowhere else to go and so you ended up watching Willy Wonka on the side of a chair while you had men talking about the English, the revolution. It was an amazing environment to grow up in. These guys weren’t family but they were always around. We referred to them as our drunkles.”
Hansard took his activism for the homeless to the next level in late 2016, getting involved in the occupation of Apollo House, a large derelict Dublin office building.
“In Ireland we have the highest mortality rate for winter deaths in the OECD,” Hansard says. “Just under 3,000 people die every year of preventable deaths due to cold weather: old people, very young people – poor people. The bottom line is poor people die in the winter.
“Over conversations in pubs with friends we wondered is there anything we could do that was practical. The idea of taking over an empty government-owned building and getting people out of the cold seemed like a crazy and obvious idea. A few meetings were had and before we knew it a door was crowbarred open and suddenly this huge amount of energy built up behind this very simple idea.”
The occupation sparked a national conversation about how society treats those at the bottom, and the debate is ongoing. After everyone was evicted in early 2017, the state employed a permanent four-man security team to ensure the building stayed empty, paying 35,000 euro per month to keep an empty building that way, while the demolition of a perfectly good building is planned, and the number of homeless in Dublin and across Ireland continues to rise.
“What really inspired the Apollo House action was it really felt that we had fallen below a threshold of decency in Ireland. There’s a rise in slum landlords, an overall acceptance that homelessness figures are going through the roof, and a sinister normalisation of it in our media and coming from our government.
“There will always be people who make poor choices. I think people should be allowed to fuck up in life. Everybody, not just the rich. You should be allowed to fuck up and come back the same way that a businessman can claim bankruptcy and clear all of their debts.”
People can overcome an array of obstacles, but only if we allow them the opportunity.
Between Two Shores by Glen Hansard is out January 19