Sunday 23 October 2016

Divine inspiration in country life for Neil Hannon

Neil Hannon has replaced major stardom with a quiet rural idyll. On the eve of the release of his 11th album, our reporter meets the songwriting genius behind The Divine Comedy

Hilary A White

Published 29/08/2016 | 02:30

Songwriter Neil Hannon always wanted to be a pop star. Photo: David Conachy
Songwriter Neil Hannon always wanted to be a pop star. Photo: David Conachy

Happiness is a nice walk in the countryside with a springer spaniel, according to Neil Hannon. This was his answer in a mid-nineties interview when the self-styled Casanova-meets-Scott Walker and his band The Divine Comedy were this island's most respected pop export.

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"Wow," he deadpans, "I didn't say, 'Sex with somebody.' That's a relief!" This is followed by the first of many vigorous "hehhehheh" cackles that punctuate his exclamations today.

"No, it's true," the 45-year-old sighs, "it's true. Although the only thing I'd say now is that the breed of the dog is not so important to me. We have a lot of animals."

Hannon is referring to the rural idyll in Co Kildare he shares with Cathy Davey, the acclaimed singer-songwriter, animal rescuer and Hannon's partner since 2009. Hannon is reluctant to be drawn on life co-habiting with another lofty musical talent, especially during a creative phase ("I'm not going to tell you!" he laughs evasively), but country life is all he imagined it would be back in the 1990s. Well, kind of.

A typical day for Hannon is not quite like that of Davey, who runs the excellent My Lovely Horse animal-rescue charity and shelter (named, of course, after the famously kitsch Father Ted Eurosong entry, which Hannon penned). It's not all mucking out and changing hay, then?

"It is for the other one," he says of Davey. "No, I'm quite lazy. I generally wake up and instantly jump out of bed to get my iPad to get back in and read the paper for an hour, hoping against hope someone brings me a coffee! I like starting the day slowly."

Foreverland is the 11th Divine Comedy studio album and proves, were it ever in doubt, that the slight and foppish multi-instrumentalist and wry lyricist is an evergreen genius, too young to be quite a national treasure but too long in the tooth to be considered 'white-hot'.

For someone "quite lazy", he's been busy since his last album, 2010's Bang Goes The Knighthood, with collaborations (the most famous being The Duckworth Lewis Method, his Ivor Novello-nominated partnership with Pugwash's Thomas Walsh) and special projects (the BBC's recent Bowie Proms, a musical of Swallows And Amazons, writing an opera or two). The Bowie tribute was the least he could do for an artist he loved without quite loving his albums ("I'm a massive fan of his Best Of. Am I going to get killed for saying that?"). Much more important was a 2014 Royal Festival Hall commission to pen a piece for its refurbished organ.

The result was To Our Fathers In Distress, in which Hannon faced his father Brian's Alzheimer's. A lifelong clergyman and former Bishop of Clogher, Brian was diagnosed in 2008. The project's clerical venue took Hannon back to his days as the youngest of three boys, growing up in Derry and then Fermanagh.

"It was just for me," he frowns, "because I feel so helpless. There's nothing that can be done. It just put me in mind of church and one idea led to another. I thought, well if he can't remember any of it, maybe I should, and just wrote about one Sunday in the life of the Hannon family in the 1970s. The act of remembering was like a tribute. I have a terrible memory, but the more I tried, the more I did remember. And it ended up being quite good fun."

It is hard to imagine Hannon blowing hot or cold about anything, which can make him slightly hard to read at times. He is hilarious company who can find room for a dry quip on even weighty topics. He's "very thankful" for his "amazing" 14-year-old daughter Willow (by ex-wife and designer Orla Hannon) but his thoughts on actually being a parent is a twinkle-eyed "it's alright" and a cry of "bollocks" to those who try to push it as a lifestyle. "It changes you. Whether for better or worse is by the by - this is a different person, you're responsible for their existence!"

He is a "repressed Ulsterman" with a radar for the mawkish but who croons gushing, if veiled, odes to Davey on Foreverland (the single Catherine The Great, and the gorgeously touching To The Rescue). The chuckles and self-effacement suggest discomfort at talking about himself yet he describes songwriting as the "selfish" act of "going to spend six hours in a room, by myself, talking about myself, to myself". As a boy, he tells me, he was "happy-go-lucky". A few moments later, the same boy was "scared of everything" and unable to answer the phone. Hannon laughs about a "dull childhood", albeit one set against a troubled political backdrop where, in songs such as Sunrise, he "kept [his] head down and carried on".

"There were plenty of people who lived through the Troubles who were optimists," he argues. "And in a way we were proved right. It's not completely sorted but it's a lot better than it used to be. I do enjoy dwelling on melancholy aspects of existence in my music. It's a bit like enjoying slow, depressing foreign movies - facing reality and writing a dumb song about it is kind of the best way to go through it."

It certainly is, especially if "pop stardom" is the only thing on your mind. By the late 1990s, the triple-strike of Casanova, A Short Album About Love and Fin de Siècle saw Hannon rise through the laddism of Britpop with something more witty and orchestral. Duets with Robbie Williams and the Pet Shop Boys went hand-in-hand with sold-out shows and millions humming National Express.

"Does that feel like a different person? A little bit. Thank God it ended. I couldn't have continued much longer. It was crazy. I didn't live in a rock 'n' roll bubble. I had hits but I spent most of the money on orchestras and stuff like that. And when I finally got laid I wrote an entire album about it, I was so pleased! But I was incredibly ambitious from an early age. I was going to be a popstar, and I knew how ridiculous that was given my background and how small and weedy I was."

I remind him there's a song on Foreverland called Napoleon Complex. "Well that's pretty much it; short guys who want to rule the world. And in the last decade I was like, 'Hmm, I'm not flavour of the month any more. What do I do now?' And so I went, 'It's not difficult; you write music because you love it.' And it's a lot more satisfying at the end of the day because you're not chasing acclaim or anything like that."

Foreverland is released on September 2

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