Music Interviews

The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon: “Songwriting, apart from anything else, is catharsis. I needed to cathart!” – Interview

The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon

The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon (Photo: Raphael Neal)

On the eve of the release of what will be The Divine Comedy’s 11th album Foreverland, Neil Hannon is holed up in the St Pancras Hotel for a small press junket, ahead of a live session. The last time an actual Divine Comedy album occurred (his last release was a second album from cricket-pop side project The Duckworth Lewis Method), Hannon’s pop career was on the up.

After the relative doldrums of a stint on a major label, which didn’t yield the commercial gold that all parties were clearly hoping for, he had been nominated for an Ivor Novello award for Duckworth’s debut, and hit the Top 20 with the first self-released Divine Comedy album, Bang Goes The Knighthood.

So where do The Divine Comedy (Hannon plus the typical revolving door of band members again) find themselves in 2016? Well, this time round what dominates the subject matter is the domestic bliss found within his now long-term relationship with Irish singer Cathy Davey, settled in what sounds like an idyllic farmhouse retreat in rural County Kildare. The last time we had an album so firmly centred on Hannon’s personal life (Absent Friends from 2004), he was in the midst of exploration of his new family life with his previous partner Orla Little and their young daughter. In that piece, constantly gnawing at the edges of that contentment were the pressures of maintaining a music career and touring. In Foreverland, however, these pressures seem largely absent, suggesting that Hannon has found enviable work/life balance, and is colouring his personal life with an idealism that we will later come to interrogate.

Just a few days prior to this interview, Hannon was on stage at the Royal Albert Hall opening the David Bowie prom as guest vocalist with a rendition of Station To Station. This rangy album track from 1976 is hardly the most structurally neat piece to get to grips with at the last minute (Hannon was approached only four days before the concert as a last-minute addition). Was the experience daunting? “I had remembered it being played on the radio after he died and thinking… ‘that’s a bit of a beast!’ But I like a challenge, you know, so I learned it and the arrangement was within the bounds of plausibility to sing against.

“There were some other arrangements within the evening where I thought ‘how do they know where they are?’,” he continues. Although he feels the show was a ‘valiant attempt’, he raises one criticism that there could have been “more traditional readings of certain songs to keep the audience onside… at least that’s what I would do”. Perhaps surprisingly, he is more of a casual admirer of Bowie than aficionado, confessing that he is more of a “singles collection kind of guy” and that the albums often leave him “a bit cold”.

“This is part of the reason that you have these extraneous images of The Pact, the Foreign Legion and Che Guevara. It’s basically about being able to talk about personal things with obfuscation.” – Neil Hannon

Station To Station saw Bowie announcing ‘the European canon is here’ to the still largely Americanized world of rock ‘n’ roll; The Divine Comedy themselves unfashionably revived the notion at the height of a period of insular Anglocentrism – the retrospectively rather smug-looking Britpop years. Europhilia runs through the core of Hannon’s work like the ribbon of marzipan in a Christmas Stollen. From French ’60s pop, chanson and films, through Kurt Weill, Weimar cabaret, Kraftwerk and a good deal of the pillars of the Western classical firmament, he has borrowed liberally from continental art-forms like few other British pop artists.

Given the current Brexit-centric political upheavals, we dredge up the memory of a now 15-year-old song U.S.E. (United States of Europe), which he deems “misconceived and therefore a B-Side”. The satirical song, which, coincidentally or not, bears more than a passing musical resemblance to Bowie’s TVC 15, offers up wincingly broad stereotypes of the French, Germans and Italians (sample lyric: “with their slicked back hair and their Gucci shades, and a brand new government every day”). It boasts a sneering vocal that might be interpreted as either poking fun at how the Brits stereotype their European cousins, or mocking those nationalities themselves. In what sense does Neil feel it was misconceived? “Well, it wasn’t overtly obvious that I was on the European side, it just sounded kind of racist!” Although as an afterthought he muses that perhaps it was “about the rise of Ukip? I’m not sure!”

It’s hardly a shock to discover that Hannon is an enthusiastic Remainer. However, questions hover over his own particular cultural cocktail (Northern Irish, strong leanings towards English culture, partly built his career in France, now lives in Ireland) and how this affects his view of the whole Brexit debacle. “Being Irish for a start it’s quite different… I’m Northern Irish, so therefore grew up with UK culture in extremis. I’m far more likely to quote Morecambe & Wise than I am anything from The South… I love the English. They’re my best buddies. They’re all in my band! There’s a large part of me that essentially is English.”

“It comes from knowing a bit about Catherine The Great and knowing a bit about my girlfriend Catherine, who is great!” – Neil Hannon on Catherine The Great

While not particularly pushed for a Brexit critique, he seems happy to give one, which is particularly pertinent after our much crowed-about Olympic medal count: “Well… how do I put this pleasantly? You know, the empire wasn’t that long ago and I think there is a large residue from that, which says ‘hang on, we’re better than everybody else. This is patently obvious and how dare anybody else suggest that they could impose ways of living upon us’. It’s really unfortunate because with every generation it’s dying slowly, but they just managed to creep in a referendum before it was completely evaporated. It’s really gutting because you wait another generation and this couldn’t have happened. The Mr Angrys of Purley mowing their lawns and grumbling, they’d have died out. Oh well.”

But had Brexit occurred a year ago instead, would it have ended up being a focus for anger on this record, as the culprits of the economic crisis were on The Complete Banker (attracting much attention on the last Divine Comedy album)? “I don’t know. It’s very hard to write about something that divides the entire population 50/50, more or less, because you’re always going to piss someone off. There must be Divine Comedy fans out there that voted for it. And it is their perfect right to do so… democracy! But they should never have been allowed to vote for it in the first place, that’s the problem. These decisions are not for referendums, they’re for experts. That dreaded term… experts!” He sees experts – people who know more than you do about a subject – as not to be as feared and mistrusted as they apparently are: “It’s like, I’m an ‘expert in songwriting’. Does everybody else want to throw me out because ‘oh, you think you’re better than everybody else at writing songs’… It’s ridiculous!”

The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon

The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon (Photo: Raphael Neal)

Beyond the Europhile, there is a particular motif throughout Hannon’s career of (mostly European) militarism. Occasionally this has been used as a metaphor for sex, as on Charge, one of the more extravagant numbers from 1996’s breakthrough album Casanova. The song, parading a shameless string of military double entendres, included such deliciously fruity couplets as: “Carefully cut the straps of the booby-traps and set the captives free. But don’t shoot ’til you see her big blue eyes.” On Foreverland, the military metaphor is pushed into overdrive, although the focus has now shifted firmly from sex to romance. There are odes to Napoleon and Catherine The Great, and beyond this, there is a wistful escape from a romance gone wrong in I Joined The Foreign Legion (To Forget), while The Pact paints a romantic partnership as an “entente cordiale” benefitting both parties.

Attempts to peek behind the Freudian curtain prove fruitless, however, as Hannon maintains that what might be perceived as a metaphor rooted deep in some episode of childhood titillation/trauma is actually a simple case of cultural consumption: “It comes from reading history books and watching BBC4! I’m a bit of a sponge and all the songs about literature back in the ’90s was because I was reading a lot of novels. I like to think that it’s perfectly reasonable because we’re all basically trying to write about our lives and ourselves and the world we’re in, but you have to let it come out in whatever way it chooses. It’s like dreams, where the contents of your day come out in this garbled fashion and quite often in songs, the cultural influences that you’ve had spew out again, while you’re trying to talk about something else. It’s literally what tickles my fancy.”

Napoleon Complex, the new album’s opening track, is one such example of fancy-tickling, first heard in a different version as a bonus on Bang Goes The Knighthood. “I heard someone talking about this Napoleon Complex, which is basically a spurious notion that small people want to rule the world, and I thought ‘that’s pretty ridiculous, but it’s a good idea for a song’. Especially one that I would sing, because I’m quite short and quite a control freak.”

Indeed, we are later informed at a showcase of the new songs in a basement studio off Soho’s Old Compton Street that in Hannon’s next music video he will be getting out the early 19th century dressing up box and impersonating the man himself (see below for the Raphael Neal-directed video for How Can You Leave Me On My Own). “So it’s a bit about me, a bit about Napoleon… a bit about Bono.” He looks a bit perturbed that he’s actually said this about Bono publically, but when assured that it’s far too late now to backtrack he emits a nervous laugh.

Are The Divine Comedy not missing a trick (and a potential new audience) though, by not recording a whole suite of character portraits and putting them out as a Horrible Histories companion album? He’s aware of the CBBC show (if not an actual fan), but his ears prick up momentarily at the prospect of cash registers ringing. However, the most obvious historical portrait Catherine The Great, picked as the album’s lead single, and complete with a Horrible Histories style video, is not quite the straightforward ode that it at first seems.  

“Basically, it comes from knowing a bit about Catherine The Great and knowing a bit about my girlfriend Catherine, who is great! It’s 50/50 between the two. I got a bit mixed up! It’s like, ‘which one are you?'” We also get confirmation that, just as in the song, Cathy Davey does indeed look “bloody good on a horse”, which leads us into a rather sweet equine anecdote that says perhaps all we need to know about the couple’s domestic routine: “One time I was working away in the studio, and the next thing a large grey horse starts to move into my eyeline across the window on the drive. And there’s Cathy – no saddle or tack or anything – just clutching onto the top, gradually walking across in front of me hugging the horse. She’s not going to win any dressage medals, but she loves horses!”

Clearly, he worships and adores his girlfriend and part of what we seem to be negotiating with this new album is the struggle to conceal the enormity of this. She, and their relationship, are the muse for the vast majority of the album, which paints her as a woman of strength; fountain of stability and motivation. Foreverland is undoubtedly the sound of a man loved-up to the nines. Far from the unstable, sugary rush of teenage love, this is romantic contentment mid-40s style. Three pigs form part of the couple’s menagerie in their rural Irish home (which they voice in the vein of Johnny Morris, with Alan Bennett-style Yorkshire accents). Indeed, one of the featured performers on the new album is a neighbouring donkey, used to underscore Neil’s reversion to a semi-bestial nature when Cathy is away from home in the brilliant, and frothingly self-deprecating How Can You Leave Me On My Own.

There are definitely oaky undertones of relationship smugness at points that puts Foreverland in danger of being cloying (though fortunately never schmaltzy). Where danger manages to be averted are the revelations that Hannon knows he is not self-sufficient enough to survive successfully by himself. The subtext to the songs How Can You Leave Me On My Own, To The Rescue and A Desperate Man is a clinginess that is, once it has been decoded, rather sweet.

“Songwriting, apart from anything else is catharsis. I needed to cathart!” – Neil Hannon

There’s surely a question, though, over whether some listeners might find all the talk of domestic bliss, other halves and ‘the one’ rather like the aural equivalent of those who post on Facebook about their perfect relationships and over-share their photos. “Well, this is part of the reason that you have these extraneous images of The Pact, the Foreign Legion and Che Guevara. It’s basically about being able to talk about personal things with obfuscation. Sometimes, it’s very obvious and it spills over, but that’s just natural human emotion, which sometimes you have to write about. It’s sad but true. I was always very, very conscious about how this might be over-sharing, but I think at the end of the day sometimes you’ve just got to let it all out. Songwriting, apart from anything else, is catharsis. I needed to cathart!” We giggle about his verb-isation of catharsis, but he promises that “that’s it! I’m not catharting again”, rather like a man on the worst hangover ever swearing off drinking.

Having (perhaps) got it out of his system though, Hannon maintains that “it’s up to the individual whether you think it’s too much or not. I didn’t think it was that obvious! I thought I’d covered my tracks pretty well. Oh well.” While this line might seem disingenuous, he seems genuinely taken aback by the line of questioning. It’s puzzling, yet strangely endearing, that a songwriter in such obvious throes of romantic harmony is not fully aware that, well, that is precisely what he has unequivocally expressed in the form of an album. As a listener, it’s hardly something you’re going to miss.

Finally, as we wrap up, he suggests, slightly curtly but with a just perceptible wink, that “you don’t have to listen to it” and the interview ends there, hopefully not on a sour note. Of course, you don’t have to, and perhaps his new album should certainly come with a parental warning sticker for the chronically single and embittered. The present finds him firmly in the midst of career and relationship maturity, with all the perilous cosiness that this can imply. Putting the potential smugness of the songs aside, it’s hard not to feel pleased for the chap – he’s earned it. Long may he cathart.

The Divine Comedy’s album Foreverland is out through DC Records on 2 September 2016. Tour dates and further information can be found here.

buy The Divine Comedy MP3s or CDs
Spotify The Divine Comedy on Spotify

More on The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy review, Barbican, London – Thirty Years Of The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy – Venus, Cupid, Folly & Time
The Divine Comedy – Office Politics
The Divine Comedy @ Palladium, London
The Divine Comedy @ Junction, Cambridge