a short site about The Divine Comedy

Simply Divine

One of the greatest songwriting talents to come out of Northern Ireland, Neil Hannon, aka Mr Divine Comedy, is proof that there can be sincerity and passion in pop music, write GO’s Sinead Doyle.

It’s hard to imagine when you scan down today’s music charts that even a fraction of the acts dominating the top slots will be around in 20 years.

It’s over two-decades since Neil Hannon launched his assault on the music world with The Divine Comedy’s first album, Fanfare For The Comic Muse in 1989. Then albums, countless anthemic singles and TV soundtracks later, he’s earned his place in Brit Pop history and continues to delight audiences across the world.

Never one to steer is course by the status quo, Hannon attributes his longevity to his ability to adapt and evolve.

Comfortable with sitting outside the mainstream and free from the constraints of pleasing the masses, staying on the trend or fitting into a neat little marketable box, he’s carved out his own niche.

“The reason why I’m still here making albums after 20 years is that I never put any boundaries on what I allowed myself to write about,” he pauses. ‘And I think, if you allow yourself to write about anything, and not just the stuff which is supposed to be cool, then you get a lot more material really.”

Packing with emotion, his trademark dry wit and a healthy dose of satire, Hannon’s most recent offering under The Divine Comedy moniker – 2010’s Bang Goes The Knighthood - is a return to his finest form.

Recorded during the same period he was collaborating with Thomas Walsh of Pugwash on a quirky cricket concept album for their side project, The Duckworth Lewis Method, Hannon says that Bang Goes The Knighthood made him remember ‘how much fun it could all be.’

From the catchy pop hooks of ‘The Indie Disco’, which harks back to the sweaty dance floors of his formative years, to a collection of characteristic love songs, what he terms ‘the old humour’ of earlier Divine Comedy records is back.

But having been in the business for over 20 years, surely his approach to writing has changed?’

“Yeah. Yeah, it has,’ he says. ‘I mean, it’s for other people to say whether it’s got better or worse but it’s simply evolved. It’s impossible to stay the same because as you grow older you look at things in different ways.”

Now 40, and with the cocky swagger of his twenties a distant memory, he’s grown comfortable in his songwriting skin. Forever an erudite and eloquent lyricist, he’s honed his skill yes, but scaled back on the bravado too.

“There were things in my early writing that a lot of people would have liked but kind of annoyed me. There was quite a big deal of bluffing,” he laughs knowingly, “in terms of, ‘look at me and look at what I’ve read – see how clever am I.’

“I hadn’t necessarily read everything that I talked about,” he laughs when pushed on the point. “I like to wear my influences a little more subtlety on my sleeve [now]… and try to make the material itself worthy.”

The standout song on the album is surely ‘The Complete Banker’. Beyond the highly infectious jangly melody, which after a few listens ingrains itself so deeply you start humming it involuntarily, lies a scathing send up of the top brass behind Ireland’s banking crisis.

His lyrical caricature of ‘The Complete Banker’ as ‘a conscience free, malignant cancer on society’ pulls no punched and the line that ‘money makes the world go round and round and round and down the drain,’ is a poignant reminder of our consumer driven society.

“With ‘The Complete banker’, I didn’t think to myself, ‘right, there’s something that needs to be written about,’ I simply got really, really angry,’ he laughs, ‘and that’s what came out.”

The anger is palpable. He wasn’t, however, attempting to write a protest record.

“My main weapon in my armory is vaguely cutting remarks; I’m not very good at the shirty stuff and I couldn’t make a punk record but I can kill them with my rapier wit,’ he laughs unconvincingly. “I’m not sure that it’s going to change anything but as long as it makes us feel a little better, then that’s the main thing.’

So it might not change the world, but is there enough social analysis in modern music?

“I hate to sound like one of those grumpy old men but no,” he laughs. “Most of song writing these days is either purely about relationships or it’s about very vague things, which you can’t really pin up because nobody seems to want to pin their colours to the mast. Whereas, my lyrics have never been vague; I’ve always tried to just get something to say and say it as clearly as possible.”

It’s a long time since Neil Hannon left Northern Ireland for the bright lights of London. For the last eight years, Dublin (where he ‘can wear a brown corduroy jacked and not look out of place’) had been home, and he has no plans on moving. But, he hastens to add, he is ‘extremely proud to be from Northern Ireland.’

This May Day weekend, he will be back on home turf once again for the Lark in the Park festival in Moira. Headlining on Sunday 1 May, he joins other notable names on the line-up, which will see performances from Razolight, Tinchy Stryder, Razorlight and Get. Cape. Wear. Cape. Fly over three days in Moira Demesne.

The Divine Comedy, once a sprawling seven piece backed by huge orchestra, is today Neil Hannon solo.

“I’m playing all of my shows this year just the same way I did last year, which is me, and a piano. And an acoustic guitar occasionally – just to show my versatility,” he laughs.

“Most people usually go, ‘Oh.’ But do come,” he beseeches, “because it’s fun… I actually thrive on the one-to-one intimate solo gig; I can mess with the songs; I can mess with the audience; and I can entertain.”

Developing in a way that his music stays relevant but is ‘apart from the vagaries of chart pop’ is Hannon’s raison d’être.

‘Perfection is unachievable because it’s a contradiction in terms; one person’s perfection is another person’s idiocy,” he says when asked if chasing perfection is futile. “But what you can go after is kind of getting the best out of yourself.

“A horrible world like ‘potential’ comes into play. More than anything else, I just hate to think that I hadn’t truly, what’s the world? Investigated. That I hadn’t investigated what I’m capable of. I don’t know why, it’s probably just naked ego,’ he laughs. “But it’s fun to try.”

The challenge for what he calls today’s ‘interpretive artists’ – those that generally don’t write their own material – is being able to develop out of the spotlight.

“If there’s a smidge of potential, people just get thrown at everything and get promoted to hell for two years and then they’re burnt out,’ he says. “I was lucky in that nobody gave a tinker’s curse about me for about six years, so I get to get better without people laughing at me.

“My only word of advice, if I have any, is to just do what you want and not what others think you ought to do. Nobody needs another,” he hesitates, well, whoever’s popular right now. Do your own thing. You will always have an audience if it’s interesting and different.”

Neil Hannon is certainly proof of that.

Sinead Doyle
GO 04/2011