Glen Hansard. That is the name Berklee College of Music student Elijah Mann gave me when I asked who his major influences were. The name rang a bell, but I couldn’t put my finger on where I had heard of him before.
Glen Hansard is an Irish musician and actor, best known for his performance in the film Once, which ended up winning him an Academy Award for his original song Falling Slowly. This is what a simple Google search can tell you; Mann explained much more.
Hansard dropped out of school when he was 13 to busk the streets of Dublin, Ireland. When watching his live performances now, Mann claims that Hansard still grabs listeners’ attention using the same techniques buskers often use.
Mann wants to emulate that. He wants to find a quiet street and have his voice carom off of shop windows and the brick walls of the apartments above. He wants the strumming of his guitar to build up slowly, replicating the calm, confident and bold fervor of his voice. He wants to envelope those walking by. Busking on Newbury Street, he does just that.
Playing a solid mix of originals and covers, Mann treats every day busking as if he was performing on stage, presenting the most prepared and highest quality show he can put together. He has found that people are very receptive to it, as he connects strongly to the crowd he attracts, making eye contact with them as if they were watching him in a concert hall.
His covers consist of folk versions of rock artists such as Foo Fighters, Death Cab for Cutie and Paulo Nutini, as well as pop songs which he finds the shoppers of Newbury Street are especially interested in. His favorite to play is a mashup of Paramore’s Ain’t It Fun and Chocolate by The 1975, occasionally throwing in a bit of Jessie J’s Dominoe. While the crowd may enjoy his covers, he feels a much stronger connection to his original songs.
“I don’t know much about music, but that moved me.”
One day this past summer when Mann first began busking, a visual artist approached him asking if he would be willing to play a song so she could draw him. He decided to go with an original song to evoke a bit of emotion within himself and possibly the artist – the feelings that cover songs simply can’t produce. As the song came to conclusion, the artist quietly told him, “I don’t know much about music, but that moved me.” According to Mann, that is the best compliment he could have received.
Thematically, Mann’s songs cover darker topics, discussing mostly the troubles of his life. He is moving away from writing ballads toward rock, working to calm his music down, something he needs in his life. He wants to ease listeners while having a whacking emotional presence hidden in his back pocket to use at any moment. If his music is done in the right way, listeners will be able to relate to his troubles and feel them as their own rather than exclusively his, which is very important to Mann as a songwriter.
When Mann isn’t busking, he often is performing poetry at open mics and slams hosted by Berklee’s reVERB poetry student club. The group typically meets every second and fourth Tuesday of the month at the Loft on Boylston St.
“90 percent of what you write can be shit, and 10 percent is gold. But when the 90 percent is bigger, so is that 10 percent”
Mann believes that the more you write, the better you get. “90 percent of what you write can be shit, and 10 percent is gold,” he told me. “But when the 90 percent is bigger, so is that 10 percent.” Writing more than a song a week for class, Mann believes that this type of view makes the process very unforced, as you can extract the essence of what you are focusing on and create a meaningful song out of it.
Interestingly enough, Mann didn’t actually begin college at Berklee as a songwriter, something that came as a surprise to me due to his composure and confidence. In high school he attended the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and developed a strong interest in musical theatre. Starting university at Pace in New York City, Mann found that he slaved over monologues and music was his real passion. He transferred to Berklee, where he will finish this spring, receiving a certificate in songwriting. He plans to spend a year in Boston and then decide where to head next.
In the near future, Mann will continue to busk and plans on getting his permit to play in the Harvard Square subway station, one of the most well-known spots for street musicians in Cambridge. During that time, he hopes to work with the echo and the noises of the subway to fill space in his music while also understand how the sounds resonates differently than outside, similar to the process of New York City folk band Freelance Whales.
Talking to Mann and learning about these intentions made it clear that his experiences busking hold a true place not only in his heart but actually prove influential in his musical process. Dressed in fashionable boots, skinny jeans, a pea coat, a tie wrapped around his neck over a collared shirt and a beanie on his head, it is not only this outfit that sets Mann apart from other buskers. It is his ability to make his music resonate around Newbury Street like his idol Glen Hasard once did in the streets of Dublin.