Entertainment & Arts

The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon: I can't resist an earworm

As The Divine Comedy return from a six-year break, Neil Hannon discusses parenthood, history books and his inability to resist earworms.

Image copyright Divine Comedy Records
Image caption Hannon has been recording as The Divine Comedy since 1990

"I've been blessed and cursed with the ability to write a catchy tune," says The Divine Comedy lynchpin Neil Hannon.

"I guess not everyone can do it, so I should feel happy about it. But sometimes the more contrary, artistic part of me is annoyed: 'Oh my God, you've written another catchy chorus! Why couldn't you just stick to expressing what you were trying to express, and not have this earworm?'"

The Irish star is discussing his approach to writing The Divine Comedy's 11th album Foreverland.

Despite Hannon's best efforts, it is stuffed with memorable tunes, delivered in the band's signature baroque pop style. And it comes at a point in his career when most musicians, including his hero Scott Walker, start making what he calls "unfathomable music".

"I'm so proud that somebody's out there making those sorts of records," he laughs. "But I wouldn't want to listen to them myself."

Hannon has been releasing records as The Divine Comedy since 1990, bringing a poetic wit and an orchestral flourish to the top 40 on albums like Casanova, A Short Album About Love and Fin de Siecle.

He also wrote the theme music for Father Ted, as well as the character's "Eurovision entry", My Lovely Horse. In recent years, he's taken on an opera for the Royal Opera House and an organ commission for the Royal Festival Hall before returning to his main job.

In a phone call from Ireland, the pithy and self-deprecating star discussed his career, his new album and playing the David Bowie Prom.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The Divine Comedy's hits include Something For The Weekend, National Express and Generation Sex

Good morning, Neil. How are you?

I'm very well, thank you.

Were you expecting our call?

I was. I know it doesn't sound like it but that's just my phone manner. I was terrified of the phone as a youth, I must say.

Really?

Well, I was terrified of talking to anyone, really. I found adults in general like great giants who knew how the world worked. But I never became similarly large of stature. I'll always be the shy boy.

The first time you realise that adults are fallible is a life-changing moment, isn't it?

Well, my daughter realised that the first time she beat me at Connect 4, when she was six or seven. It was like, "Hang on, dad, you're not very clever at all."

My son's six and he can actually out-run me. School sports day is just embarrassing.

Never give them the benefit of your humiliation. Just say you've got bad hips.

Anyway, we're not here to discuss our failures as parents…

Aren't we? Oh no.

Well, there's the small matter of the first Divine Comedy album in six years. Why did you wait so long?

It was partly by design. Although I have a lovely big set of fans out there, nobody expects me to stick out an album every two years. That would just be ridiculous. So I said to myself I would keep working on it until I was absolutely happy with the way everything sounded.

Image copyright Divine Comedy Records
Image caption Hannon says the album's historical references appear "for no apparent reason"

You've written songs about Napoleon and Catherine the Great. How come?

The reason is simply that, like most middle-aged men, I read quite a lot of history books. Apparently, that's a thing. I read an article about it: middle-aged, middle class men gravitate towards the history section in the book shop.

So what was it about Catherine the Great that caught your attention?

Largely that she had the same name as my girlfriend [Irish musician Cathy Davey], who is also great.

At the end of the song, you sing that you'd like to "bake her a cake". Are you vying for a place on Bake Off?

Ah, you see, I'm not a cake person. I have a lot of problems with cake. I'd bake her a cake, because she likes cake. I quite like carrot cake, I suppose. That's quite nice, even though it shouldn't be.

Other People sounds like a voice memo from your phone, souped up with a string section.

That's exactly what it is! I was in a hotel in London and I came up with those words, so I sang it into my phone and thought no more about it.

When I listened back to it, I really liked the quality of the vocal. It was reasonably in tune, and I thought, "Wouldn't it be funny to have that with a string orchestra coming in underneath?'

There's bit at the end where I just stop and go "blah, blah, blah", and that's simply because I had no more words written. Nowhere else to go!

Image caption The singer opened the David Bowie Prom with a rendition of Station to Station

Both the title track, Foreverland, and the song My Happy Place are about searching for contentment. Do you have a "happy place", real or fictitious, that you retreat to?

When I was a kid, I was very influenced by my grandfather, who had been an estate manager for various odd Irish aristocrats. He would watch these barmy gentry and relate all these stories to us, which was great fun. But it did give me this longing for a large Georgian house in the country. It all seemed so wonderful and romantic and eccentric. Then, a couple of years ago, I bought a large Georgian house in the country!

How does that feel?

It's a lot of hard work, but it feels great.

Do you have a groundsman?

We do, but I have to ration him. There's such a lot of garden, he could be here all day every day - and that would break me. I'm not having that many hits any more.

Speaking of which, I looked back at the Divine Comedy's chart history, and was surprised to find that National Express was your biggest hit… I always thought it was Something For The Weekend or Alfie.

Some people come up to me and say, "That was an amazing number one!" And I'm like, "It was number eight. It got nowhere near number one!"

That is the one slight bugbear of my professional career, is never having had a number one. But you mustn't be greedy.

Image copyright Divine Comedy Records
Image caption The star begins a European tour in October

At least you got to appear on Top of the Pops.

Oh, that was the number one ambition of the childhood Neil - to be on Top of the Pops like Adam Ant and Elvis Costello and Blondie.

I have a weird memory of it because we had choir practice on Thursday night. It would be over by seven, but then we had to get dad out of the church to drive us back home, so we would always miss at least the first 10 minutes. I'm always turning on Top of the Pops [repeats] these days and going, "no I don't remember this one". Then, 10 minutes in, it all comes flooding back.

Would you like to see it return?

When Top of the Pops departed this life it was a miserable day - and yet it had lost its relevance. They were running after the kids instead of the other way round.

The internet is to blame. For everything, really.

You recently sang at the David Bowie Prom, which got very mixed reviews. What did you think of it?

I don't think the reviews were too wide of the mark. It was an odd night and it was well-meant but perhaps, overall, it could have been a bit tighter and a bit more to the point. But that's the price you pay for experimenting.

You're not a stranger to the classical world, having composed an opera, an organ suite and a musical. Will you do more in that area?

I'm not sure how successful I am in these other genres. I think I have a good handle on harmony and melody, but the technique and the theory lets me down a little. It would be lovely to take 10 years off and actually learn all this stuff. But it's all so boring.

And what if you finish learning it all and get run over by a bus? What a waste of time.

Foreverland is released by Divine Comedy Recordings on 2 September.

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