a short site about The Divine Comedy

French version

Our Mutual Friend - Neil Hannon

On September 25th, The Divine Comedy will be on stage in the Sebastopol Theatre, Lille, in his bare self. Neil Hannon put the orchestra aside and took the piano out. The Irish man, almost forty, picked up his phone, one Wednesday noon, between two strokes of his dog.

You are coming for a solo concert… Is it too expensive to bring a band since you created your own label…
Well, hum! It’s a tricky one to answer. I always wanted to play solo shows. I have done a couple over the years, they have always been great fun. But for this album it seems like the perfect opportunity as it has all written on piano. There’s actually a lot less orchestral arrangement and extra instrumentation than usual. It just worked very well, one man and a piano. You know, there’s not a lot of money floating about in the music industry at the moment so it’s a good time to catch ones overhead.

How can you conciliate your symphonic approach of music and doing solo shows?
I never really had an issue with it because I loved having orchestras and bands. At the end of the day, the thing I love most is the songs, so… And songs should be just as good played by one person on a piano or a guitar as they are with a fifty piece orchestra.

Bang Goes The Knighthood happened to be composed on a piano. How does this way of composing modify your writing?
It definitely changed the approach a little bit because you’re trying to make everything work, just in total, you know. I wasn’t really arranging on a computer as I went along then sort of everything you need has to be on a piano rather than added as you go along.

Do you always write the melodies and arrangements before the lyrics or do you adapt depending on your mood and inspiration?
Hum… I’m sort of coming up with ideas for lyrics in notebooks all the time but they’re never completed. They’re always just scrapped. And then, when I’m into writing mode and making lots of bits of music as well, and a piece of music is far enough along, I try to connect it with some words from the notebook and then usually the two feed of each other get finished together.

‘The Complete Banker’ is a critic of the economic crisis: it is a surprising commitment…
No, I’ll just write about anything. Obviously, anything that interest me or anything that really causes me some reaction, you know… The way people have been messed about by the people who ran our lives, financiers and politicians, caused an extreme reaction on me. I was extremely angry that we don’t never learn, we just let these people play with us and play with our money and then it all goes tits up and they’re all right. They have got millions but everyone else is screwed (laughs). I have another emotional reaction to so many other mundane issues. I’d like to write about them as well but I never shyed away from writing about serious subjects.

It’s just that it sounded more topical than usual songs…
I guess so. But still it might be topical because of the financial suspicions at the moment. But the thrust of the song is eternal. We’ll always have this battle with people who want to steal our money (laughts).

Do you feel more comfortable with sarcastic, lighthearted or emotional songs?
I like to think that I’m reasonably comfortable with all of these things. I can be dry and sarcastic when I want to be. I also like to think that I can be reasonably heart-felt and emotive when that is called forth. Not one person can be summed up completely as being one thing or the other so you have to allow yourself to have a range of faculties and emotions. The mood that I feel I can flip into the easiest is the hideously sentimental romantic (laughs).

In the song ‘Can You Stand Up On One Leg’, you sate: “Can you write a silly song? It’s harder than you think”. How hard is it for you to write a funny song?
It’s very hard! (laughs) Because childish or funny songs have to sound really off-hand and very spontaneous but actually that is quite hard. It’s ironic, you have to work extra hard on the really conversational songs to make them sound as if you just came up with it.

We noticed that your choices of collaboration with French artists are among singers with hardly any voice: Jane Birkin, Vincent Delerm, Charlotte Gainsbourg…
(laughs then caughs) Not on purpose, no! It’s just accidental. Vincent would be the first to tell you he doesn’t have the best voice in the world but he does write some wonderful tunes and some great lyrics, so that’s why I worked with him. I’ve just been blessed with this enormous tenor voice (Neil takes a deeps and warm voice) My voice is not a good as, you know… all that. There are better singers in the world.

You’re a great admirer of Jacques Brel, a real performer. What are you looking for in the audience? To rapture them like Brel in a cathartic experience or to have a good time giving them a full amount of pop music.
I want it all! I want people to feel like they have been through something like an emotional night but I also want to entertain them. It’s a bouncing act but if you get the balance right, it’s a really interesting evening for everyone. You just develop an instinct for it and you try not to go too far down either direction.

When you have achieved both critical acclaims and popular recognition, what makes you still want to do music and release it to people?
Because it’s my job! (laughs) I can’t do anything else, you know. I’m not a massive rich man so I have to. Also I would shrivel up and die if I was not able to express myself. It is a need.

Did you ever get some feedbacks from artists who are your main influences like Scott Walker, REM or Randy Newman?
I met Scott once and it was a very special moment for me. But I don’t think he’d be terribly interested in my music, it’s not really ‘Scott Walker’ territory. To be honest, I’m much more interested in his 60’s output than in any other part of his work. It was a nice thing to meet him and shake his hand, as he was an enormous influence on me.

He seems to be like a strange man…
Extremely! (laughs) He’s just extremely true to his vision. How he makes any money, I don’t know…

You like Kurt Weil and I deeply feel that your music would reach its apex in a musical. Do you still work on a musical as you often stated in interviews?
I’ve done one, it’s coming in November in Bristol. So please, top across the sea and have a look! It’s a kid story, it was a large collaboration with the National Theater in London. It’s directed by Tom Morris, who has been with the National for a long time, and Helen Edmunson wrote the dialogue and the script. I wrote all the words in the songs, that’s the best bit.

Your 40th birthday is approaching. Do you fear you’re becoming a Gentlemen of a Certain Age?
Thank you for reminding me (laughs). I’ve always been an old man inside. So I’m just sort of reaching parity. My soul and my body are going to finally be as one. I suppose I’m going to be middle age, aren’t I? But compared to when I was in my 20’s, I feel more energetic and useful, as I get older.

What does it feel like to go from struggling artist to a well-known influence?
You never really realize. You don’t wake up one day and say “I’m a successful artist who is an influence to others!” You just keep working all the time and try to do it better than before. With my records, I really feel they’re getting better. If I didn’t think they were getting better, I would stop because it’s really depressing when your see artists get worse.

I’m 28, I spent all my adult life listening to you music…
You poor bastard! (laughs)

… in my opinion, you have a long career but I guess it’s hard to get in from inside when it’s your own…
I think of how I have viewed other people I admire. You always have a very weird kind of one-dimensional view of what they do and how they do it. And it’s the same with me, people assume that I wear top hats and cravats and canes and go walking in the park. I’m more likely to be sitting on the sofa with a beer watching the football.

I’ve heard you’re a fan of Manchester United… Most of the Irish I know are Liverpool fans…
That is true. Actually, it’s kind of divided. In Northern Ireland where I grew up it was always either MU or Liverpool. There are loads of Irish Liverpool fans but there is a massive connection between Ireland and Manchester as well, so it’s not surprising there are a lot of Irish Man. United fans.

Eric Cantona was my teen idol so I’m very happy…
King Eric! He’s a god to me!

Is there a young British artist that we absolutely have to pay attention to?
I’ve never been good with keeping my ear to the ground, as we say. I really like The Villagers, they are a Dublin band, really good. Conor O’Brien is a very clever writer and a fairly amiable young man.

If you have to keep only one of your albums, which one?
(Long silence). That’s a dilemma. It would be a very weird history of what I do to have just one album. Everytime you write an album it sums up where you are in your life. So, to just have the current album would be to forget what life was before. Sorry, I can’t answer that one. I couldn’t imagine the world without Promenade.

Is it your dog on your album cover?
Oh! it’s Leïa. In fact, here’s Leïa, now you can talk to her. (Neil gives the phone to his dog). Can you hear the snuffling? She’s itching me right now.

Did you abandon all hopes to get the knighthood?
No, no, that’s never gonna happen. It’s not necessary. I wouldn’t probably accept it if they did want me to, I’m not a monarchist.

Maxime Olivier, Simon Buisine, Nigel de Ruyffelaere, tr: Meisje
Pepperback 09/2010