Maybe Neil Hannon has lived a charmed life.Right now he's in London doing promotional work, appearing on Later with Jools Holland and the Jonathon Ross radio show, to promote his latest work under the guise of the Divine Comedy, Victory for the Comic Muse .
He's back where he ventured more than a decade ago to pursue the fanciful career of a songwriter. Back then he was a hermit, sleeping by day and creating by night, consuming books and indulging a strange delectation for 'foreign films'. Back then he was struggling, chasing Ian Brody from the Lightning Seeds to produce his first album who'd promised to do so but was now distracted with other projects.
Hannon persisted and eventually got his album produced. Thirteen years ago the Divine Comedy released what Hannon now considers to be their first album, Liberation.
It was a big jump initially, a vindication of sorts. Famously his father is a Church of Ireland minister, once Bishop of Clogher. Less famously Hannon attended school at Royal Portora in Fermanagh, which boasted Oscar Wilde (Wilde is mentioned in the song Absent Friends) and Samuel Beckett among its alumni. Tradition pervades his background, a career path set out among his peers borne into the “middle class” ethos as he puts it; striving to seek out a viable profession.
“I remember being at school during free periods I would be busy programming a drum machine or something and a Geography teacher said to me, 'do you really think you can live as a musician'. It was obvious that I was intelligent to the teachers but I just wasn't bothered to work, I wasn't interested.”
Music pervaded his childhood in traditional forms as well. Choir practice became a nuisance for him and his two older brothers (Des and Brendan) as it clashed with Top of the Pops. Often they could dash away to watch the last fifteen minutes, Hannon catching a glimpse of the pop stars he would emulate in time. As his musical palate developed, the Old Grey Whistle Test (BBC music show) subsumed the role of TOTP.
Piano lessons commenced at the age of seven. Again progression was comprised by indifference.“I only ever got to grade two I think. The report card from my teacher started out with, 'Neil is very good, has good musical talent'. There was a steady decline over time! 'Neil has potential but must work harder'. 'Neil isn't working as hard as he can'. 'Please take Neil away from me'!”
His laughter signifies embellishment yet no doubt any teacher would have been exasperated because of course he had a talent that has since manifested itself in a vast body of work. Back then he was more interested in the ELO (Electric Light Orchestra) having got an album of theirs from one of his brothers. Christmas brought diversity.“There would be competition between my brothers. Maybe Des would want Ghost In The Machine (The Police) and Brendan would want Prince and then I would want both because of that. There was a sense of each of us trying to outdo the other. I ended up with the Police album.”
He liked Message In a Bottle, but not the rest. He was definite about what it was he liked.
“I suppose I was very narrow minded at the time”, he admits “but that has been eroded over time!”
School passed by without Hannon achieving much distinction though he got a place on an arts course in a college in Liverpool. He cut a deal with his parents. A year out to decide what he wanted and after that he'd head over to do the course. The trip to Liverpool never materialised.
Through all this living, Northern Ireland was surrounded by death. Obscene violence was a constant in the news headlines. Hannon's hometown, Enniskillen, was blasted by a Republican bomb in 1987 during a Remembrance Day service. It's not that he's reluctant to reflect on it but always felt that one death was as sad and tragic as the next.“I don't think we should focus on one particular tragedy. For every death, other people suffer; parents, family, relations. And everything about it was so pointless”, he says, struggling to voice his frustration and anger.
Instead music became the conduit for his creative talents and his voice was going to be heard, initially because he was the 'little man with the big voice', looking circumspect yet chic in his trademark bespoke suit and accompanying cravat cultivating an image that was distinct in the era of Britpop.
Liberation was followed by Promenade in 1994 but while critically lauded, commercially the Divine Comedy remained low key despite the success of the Britpop bands, as Oasis and Blur battled for popularity in a neatly constructed rivalry.Casanova was released in 1996 and the Divine Comedy started to make an impression on the public consciousness. Something for the Weekend became a big hit for them, while their association with Father Ted, Neil having penned the theme tune, helped further their popularity.
Those early Divine Comedy records did much to foster the band's image as high brow pop – references to classical literature abounded, Wordsworth and Chekhov among others – and the band's name referring to the epic poem written by Dante set the tone.
“I never really thought that I was setting myself up to be judged against those (the literature references). I suppose that was my world, reading those books, and I wasn't conscious of how others viewed me at the time. I lived like a hermit at home back then, I wasn't particularly social. I slept during the day and stayed up all night”.The make up of the Divine Comedy as a group has changed considerably over the years but Hannon has remained the driving force, the one constant.
Fin de Siecle was the next full length record from the band in 1998, the title referring to the artistic period at the end of the 19th Century around Europe predominately known for decadence, which seemed appropriate for Hannon. The song, National Express was the big hit from an album that otherwise failed to capture the public imagination.
A best of was released the following year before the release of Regeneration in 2001 with Nigel Godrich brought in to produce, having attained fame with Radiohead, but again there was little commercial success and the band split up resulting in the appropriately titled Absent Friends record in 2004 in which Hannon was the sole member of the band but still publishing under the Divine Comedy name. Come Home Billy Bird had reasonable success as a single as the title track from the album.
Since then Hannon has been working on all manner of side projects, writing songs for Jane Birkin and her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg“I was able to say yes to all the things I normally have to say no to so I ended up as a sort of lyrical trouble-shooter”.All those side projects left Hannon with an array of songs leftover which he has converted into his latest album as the Divine Comedy, Victory for the Comic Muse. This time Hannon has wreathed a circle around the life of his work in some ways by referencing the very first release of DC, which was entitled Fanfare for the Comic Muse – a reference to EM Forster's Room With A View in its own right – though Hannon isn't one to readily embrace the convenient notion of having imbued a simple timeline in his work.“I don't think it's an end of something. It's not that circular, I didn't really consciously think of that while I was making this record”, he says.
The new album seems simpler and more straightforward than previous ones, with songs “about me mum” as he puts it. He is equal parts serious and humorous yet always grounded in the world in which he resides. “And of course all my records are irrefutable works of genius!” he says before bursting into laughter as the conversation ends. Has Neil Hannon lived a charmed life? If he has he's absorbed a lot of charm along the way.
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