Divine Intervention: Clash Meets Neil Hannon

Divine Comedy songwriter on his love for music, trivia, and Mastermind...

Neil Hannon is one of life’s real gentlemen. Lauded as a wit, highly regarded as a songwriter, and with more gold discs that you can shake a stick at (not that he’d do such an unmannerly thing in the first place), he is, put simply, living the good life.

But even when you find success life still has to go on. And this central point dominates his new album, the first from The Divine Comedy in six years. ‘Foreverland’ takes a look at those fairy tales that end ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ and asks: well, what next?

Giving up his time for a quick phone call, Clash couldn’t help but turn this question around, and ask Neil Hannon what exactly he intends to do in the wake of gaining everything he could desire. “Probably what everybody else does – get on with it!” he says, before erupting into laughter. “My life is no more special than anybody else’s, and it’s not really any different in those terms. You try to get along, and it’s usually pretty good, and sometimes it’s a bit rubbish, and then it’s pretty good again, and everybody’s happy.”

A calm, measured tone, Neil punctuates our conversation with numerous aside, trivia – both pop and otherwise – and reflections on his own career. He’s older now, and recently completed a number of extra-curricular projects – but he still harks after The Divine Comedy’s distinct universe. “I mean, it is effectively what I do,” he explains. “It’s very much the time that I get to be me, at my most raw. Unadulterated! Nobody else is going to want that. When it comes to commissions, it’s always for a specific reason, or a story or an instrument, or something like that. So it’ll always be like a challenge to me, and it’ll always be fun. Except when it’s not! And you think: I’ve made a terrible mistake. Usually, it’s a good challenge – and I like a challenge. I’m quite competitive.”

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I like a challenge. I’m quite competitive.

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You have to wonder who else is in this race, who could compete against such a singular songwriter. “Oh, I don’t know,” he splutters. “I like to think it’s just with me, but then if somebody came along and said ‘you win the prize for winning!’ I would be happy, if I got a rosette.”

‘Foreverland’ could certainly get a rosette. A warm and witty return, it sailed effortlessly into the Top Ten (even if it couldn’t quite win over our reviewer). The Divine Comedy now once again find themselves doing battle with pop’s big names, even if the nature of pop itself has shifted away from the classic, imperial phase that once fired the Irish musician’s imagination.

“I really believe in pop music – I always have – it’s what inspired me when I was little, and it was the only thing that truly excited me when I was a kid,” he recalls. “And then… I don’t want to be all grumbly, but… old pop was better! I think it was more connected to mainstream culture, in a way, because there wouldn’t be a TV programme where they wouldn’t have a musical guest. Everybody talked about what Bowie had worn the next Friday morning, the day after Top Of The Pops.”

“I blame the internet. I really, really do. It just seems to have compartmentalised everything that you can just be in your own little universe and nobody else really knows about it. Which is a bit sad, really. Punk couldn’t happen now because nobody would care.”

One thing Neil Hannon cares about absolutely, though, is The Divine Comedy. The prolonged touring that followed the release of 2010’s ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ led to a short break – although he didn’t quite believe it would last as long as it did. “I didn’t know it would be six years,” he says. “I thought, I’ll have it out next year. But the one thing I did say to myself was, now, nobody’s holding their breath for this so just relax and be completely happy with whatever you come up with before you release it.”

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I don’t need to be disciplined because I actually enjoy it too much…

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Married to Irish musician Cathey Davey – hence lead single ‘Catherine The Great’ – the pair have a studio in their house, and often debate who gets to use it. “I don’t need to be disciplined because I actually enjoy it too much,” he says. “When I wake up in the morning and I’m actually allowed to go and write, then that’s the only thing I want to do, it’s the only thing I think about. The trouble is, getting round to getting the electrician in for the bust fuse or whatever. They’re the things that suffer. Not the music. We’ve got a little studio in the front room, where the library ought to be. There’s a little bit of fighting over it but usually we’re not making records at the same time.”

Quite famously literate, Neil Hannon’s songwriting frequently draws on the world beyond pop. ‘Catherine The Great’ may be a witty pun on his partner’s name, but it also references the Russian ruler; ‘The Pact’, meanwhile, is inspired by watching “my fair share of Newsnight, and things about international diplomacy”.

“I’ve never been a very fast reader. That’s probably why I wrote so many songs about the books I read when I was young, because I was so pleased with myself. But then again, if I am particularly into a TV programme it tends to end up in the songs as well. It all seeps in. I like a bit of BBC4 and Sky Arts. I like documentaries about the electricity grid in the 1950s… really boring ones! I find the more esoteric stuff… things that people generally find boring I sometimes find quite fascinating. There you go. Maybe I’m just a nerd.”

There’s no such thing as useless knowledge, I offer.

“I agree! You don’t win Celebrity Mastermind through not watching interesting/boring documentaries. Did I tell you I won Celebrity Mastermind?! No, I like to keep that quiet.”

No doubt the trophy is there in the studio, Clash ponders, to keep you inspired. Cue uproarious laughter: “It is, actually, yes! Alongside the discs on the wall. Probably more prized.”

Able to work in complete comfort, Neil Hannon conjures entire universes from his front room. Orchestration isn’t an after-thought, rather those lush flourishes in The Divine Comedy’s work are intended to be absolutely central to the song itself. “I’ve always thought of arrangements as part of the writing, really,” he admits. “I’ve almost always just integrated the two. And sometimes it’s not helpful that I get stuck into doing brass parts in a verse before I’ve finished the middle eight.”

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My God, you can do anything with music!

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Working with arranger Andrew Skeet, Neil Hannon fires ‘Foreverland’ with some epic moments of spacious beauty. “If you take away the orchestral arrangements from ‘A Desperate Man’ there’s not really a song. It’s basically a big orchestral wig out. I had great fun with that, I must say.”

While it’s not without fault, ‘Foreverland’ is an endearingly broad record, with styles meshed together with gleeful abandon. “I’ve never held being original as the be-all and end-all,” he remarks at one point in our conversation. “It’s important not to be overtly in the thrall of your influences, but it’s also important to enjoy the music, and just do what you find most fun. And so my albums are always just a huge melting pot of all the types of music that I listen to, and I like. And they all get a bit muddled.”

“Sometimes they’re more obvious than others. Like, I think ‘The Pact’ if you replaced me with Edith Piaf it wouldn’t sound odd. And I really, really love that kind of music. But on the whole I like it all to get a bit muddled up, and have little bits poking out from different genres.”

Perhaps, though, there will come a point where he can take this musical pot pourri no further; an unacknowledged border where influences cannot stretch past. “My God, you can do anything with music!” he gasps. “I’ve never understood this idea of running out of ideas. I think people run out of ideas when they’ve really set themselves too narrow a spectrum. It’s important that if something occurs to you then let it happen. Don’t be too fascistic about it. That comes into lyric writing as well, I think people are very prescriptive about what they’re allowed to write about in pop songs, and should lighten up a bit! Loosen up.”

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I think people are very prescriptive about what they’re allowed to write about in pop songs…

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Loosen up is what audiences will surely be doing on The Divine Comedy’s forthcoming tour – a natural raconteur and an ideal master of ceremonies, Neil Hannon will be in his element. When the subject of a potential set list emerges, though, he goes silent for what must surely be the first and only time in our conversation.

“I don’t know!” he gasps. “It gets harder and harder every time I tour to do the set list. Well, for obvious reasons… eleven albums now, and obviously I’ll have to do five or six from the new album – and I want to – but then I played the last album ‘Bang Goes The Knighthood’ more or less solo so I’m quite interesting in playing a lot of that as well because I’m with a band, for the first time. And then there’s about five or six songs that I can’t really get away with not playing, and then… basically I’ll have a play for three hours like Brucie! That’s Springsteen not Forsyth. Bring a nice cushion for your bottom!”

So that’s where we leave Neil Hannon – searching for a decent cushion, watching a box set about 18th century Russian history, and arguing over who’s turn it is to use the studio. Sounds sublime.

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'Foreverland' is out now. Catch The Divine Comedy at the following shows:

7 Aberystwyth Arts Centre
8 Cardiff Tramshed SOLD OUT
9 Bristol St. Georges SOLD OUT
11 Leeds City Varieties Music Hall SOLD OUT
12 Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
14 Liverpool St. George's Hall SOLD OUT
15 Sheffield The Foundry
16 Scunthorpe Baths Hall
17 Newcastle Sage Gateshead
19 Leamington Spa Assembly Rooms
20 Cambridge Junction
21 Folkstone Quarterhouse
22 Norwich Open
24 Birmingham Town Hall
25 Bexhill De La Warr Pavilion

21 London Palladium SOLD OUT
22 London Palladium
23 London Palladium
25 Manchester Albert Hall SOLD OUT
26 Dublin Bord Gáis Energy Theatre

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