This article appeared in the magazine Metropolitan
It’s usually deemed the height of bad manners for journalists to leave their mobile phones on during interviews, but when my Blackberry starts ringing as I’m sitting down to talk to the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, it’s something of an ice-breaker. He recognises the ring tone straight away as Ann Dudley’s theme from the early-1990s TV serialisation of Jeeves and Wooster featuring Stephen Fry as PG Wodehouses’s ingenious valet. It’s Hannon’s kind of thing – there’s something Wodehousian, indeed, about the wordplay and whimsy in some of his own vignettes about oddballs and eccentrics – and it gives me the opportunity to quote to him from a recent review in the News of the World in which he was described as “the Stephen Fry of pop.”
“That’s uncalled for,” he softly demurs. “Really, he’s one of the few people that, if he died, I’d be really upset. I mean, from the celebrity order. It would be a bloody state funeral, I would have thought.” Hannon says he was delighted when he learned that Fry had “said a nice thing” on Twitter about the Duckworth Lewis Method – an album of songs entirely about cricket, which he made last year with his friend Thomas Walsh from the band Pugwash. He also met Fry once but was lost for words. “We’re talking about a man with a monster intellect,” he says.
Bashful and modest is not entirely what I expected of Hannon. The Divine Comedy released their tenth album, Bang Goes the Knighthood, earlier this summer. But the plural possessive has always been misleading: Hannon, give or take a co-composer here or a backing band there, is the Divine Comedy. And in truth he’s one of our most erudite songwriters, the purveyor of a strain of off-beat, literate pop that’s equal parts Burt Bacharach, Noel Coward, the Electric Light Orchestra and Chopin.
It’s all too clever by half for some tastes, but ever since the 1996 release of Casanova – the album which landed “chamber pop” in the charts and coincided with his adopting the dress sense of a Regency dandy – I’ve been rather in awe of him. There can be few pop artists, after all, who think it a good idea to quote from Horace or EM Forster, or to adapt the words of Dickens (“it is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done”), as Hannon did on a track called In and Out of Paris and London, to describe the joys of sex.
His father a Church of Ireland bishop, Hannon was raised in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, a middle class boy in a largely working class town who dreamt of pop stardom. “I was living through the golden age of British pop music, ’78-’82”, he says. After his first attempt to get the Divine Comedy up and running as an indie band foundered, he locked himself away and wrote Liberation, which, paired with its follow-up, Promenade, established him as an artist whose baroque pretensions won the praise of critics but failed to register much in terms of sales. That all changed with Casanova – all of a sudden he was selling out the Albert Hall, touring with REM and, unwittingly or otherwise, riding a post-Britpop wave. The album’s title, and the single Becoming More Like Alfie (another song about fornication), saw him cast in the role of suave womaniser by the scene’s media cheerleaders, and for a time he seemed happy to play up to a certain foppish persona.
“If you subscribe to the Adam Ant pop handbook, you can’t just do the music,” he confides. “I was down with that. I agree. I think it’s nice to have an overall kind of image; it makes everything more palatable. But I wasn’t very good at it. Basically the height of my image was to wear some nice suits and shades [lately on stage he’s been wearing a bowler hat and carrying a pipe] and kind of pretend I’d read a lot of books. In reality, I was not some kind of crazed dandy.”
More hits followed: wry, three-minute numbers like Generation Sex, a song about tabloid prurience and the death of Princess Diana, and National Express, the use of the word “arse” on which the BBC saw fit to censor on a Top of the Pops performance. By 2001, however, Hannon had tired of being arch and jaunty. He ditched the Savile Row wardrobe, lowered his eyebrow a notch and hired Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich to make his most introspective album to date, Regeneration. When it flopped commercially, he declared the Divine Comedy were finished, but has since delivered three more records under the name besides involving himself in collaborations with Ute Lemper and Air and writing songs for Jane Birkin and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
In the aftermath of Regeneration, he also moved from London to Dublin, where he still lives. He has a daughter, Willow, with his ex-wife Orla, and is happy in a new relationship with the singer Cathy Davey. Lyrically, he seems to have relaxed a bit, too: Bang Goes the Knighthood is his least “conceptual” album. There’s the odd moment of anxiety or self-examination, but on the whole there is a feeling of contentment running through it, allied to a resounding rejection of the bohemian life.
Has he become a Young Fogey? “Well, I’m not young anymore. I’ll be 40 later this year. But I’m certainly no thrillseeker. In fact, I actively avoid thrills. There’s a song on the album (Down on the Street Below), the basic thrust of which is about getting to a certain age and trying to work out what you’re really after. In the second verse I’m at one of those rarefied parties (‘the clientele straight out of this month’s Vanity Fair’), and it’s about how I sort of realised a few years ago that I’d rather be at home with a cup of tea watching the football. It’s just not me at all.”
Which is not to say that he has somehow beaten a retreat from the world. The response of most songwriters to the economic upheavals of the last couple of years has been silence. Hannon, on the other hand, sat down and wrote The Complete Banker, a chirpy, music-hall composition, the very chirpiness of which belies a rather biting set of lyrics – “I’m a conscience-free, malignant cancer on society”, declares Hannon’s assumed character, a generic City high-flyer laid low by the crash. “That song is in the grand old tradition of satire, working from the inside out and inhabiting a character you’re trying to vilify,” he says. “Political songs per se are not good, I don’t think, but I wrote that one because I felt angry.”
With uncertainty gripping the markets again this summer, Hannon will be performing at the Days Off Festival at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on July 8, followed by an outdoor gig at Somerset House in London nine days later. The former will be his first show in Paris since September 2008, when he played half a set of French cover versions – including Joe le Taxi, je changerai d’avis by Francoise Hardy, and Jacques Brel’s Amsterdam – live recordings of which were released on CD2 of the limited version of Bang.
It is a gesture that might seem a little arbitrary, but in fact Hannon has been infatuated with France for years. “Definitely France, yes, but also with Belgium,” he says. “Jacques Brel always really inspired me and the look of the new album [Hannon is pictured on the cover of Bang sitting in the bath, bowler on his head] was influenced in part by Magritte.
“After the first incarnation of The Divine Comedy fell apart I retreated to my parents’ house for a while. I watched a lot of French art house films on late night television, listened to Serge Gainsbourg and generally soaked up French culture. I think those influences really informed Liberation and Promenade and when I started playing in France the press picked up on that and supported me. No one was paying much attention in the UK at the time, so without France I probably wouldn’t have been able to keep making records.”
Success came later, he insists, as an added bonus. Now, having sampled a degree of pop stardom, it is almost as though the experience taught him to renounce such reckless folly, to “plough my own furrow” as he puts it in a song on the 2006 album Victory for the Comic Muse.
“People who go on X Factor and its ilk have this total belief that if they win their lives will be transformed,” he says. “And it’s just bollocks, because for the vast majority life could effectively be worse than before. It’s sad because they want to be famous, but they haven’t worked out why or what for. They don’t care. For me, fame was just an interesting by-product, and now that the pop star thing has all but disappeared I’m just slightly notorious. I much prefer it that way.”