Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

Simply Divine

Enniskillen’s only pop star talks labradors, album covers, daughters and jigsaws with Jane Hardy

Neil Hannon
Neil Hannon
Divine Comedy frontman, Neil Hannon

We’re lining up for our regimented 20 minute interview slots with Mr Hannon, founder of The Divine Comedy, the musicians’ musician, now up for a Novello award for his excellent album The Duckworth Lewis Method.

I’ve inadvertently got into the Greek journalist’s airspace and when Neil Hannon answers the phone, he says he’s confused by the timetable. But politely and wittily... “Maybe they can’t get through,” he muses, “maybe they’ve run out of money”.

Talking later, the 39-year-old mega-successful singer-songwriter’s manner remains relaxed and genial. So has he prepared his winner’s speech or loser’s smile for the Novello ceremony on May 20.?

“Hmm, no speech. I think Thomas (Walsh, his collaborator) and I are much better off the cuff.” Then he adds self-deprecatingly, “We’re never going to win in a million years. Mr (Paolo) Nutini and Mr Detnon are far better placed.”

The laid-back manner could be because Neil Hannon is working on a jigsaw throughout the interview. It is a tough 1,000 piecer showing puppies and dogs and was bought for his daughter by former wife Orla Little.

Her name is Willow and she’s seven. “When I do interviews I also attempt jigsaws. It’s tough, but of course Willow is pretty good at them.”

The man with the incredible voice has been in the business for an equally incredible 20 years and his songs form a companion to all our lives, from Father Ted (he wrote the signature tune) to the death of Princess Diana.

Afterwards, Mr Hannon put his sharp lyricist’s Biro to work penning the song Generation Sex, containing narration by Katie Putrick, and a savage indictment of the predatory media that runs - “Through telephoto lenses/Chase Mercedes Benzes through the night/A mourning nation weeps/And wails/But keeps/The sales/Of evil tabloids healthy/The poor protect the wealthy in this world/Generation sex...”

Now Neil says, with characteristic modesty, “I don’t think the song caused an immense stir. It’s very easy to be controversial when nobody’s listening!”

He notes that he created a far bigger hoo-ha when he used the old English term “a**e” in his song National Express which Divine Comedy performed on Top of the Pops.

“They bleeped out the ‘a**e’”, Hannon says, sounding mildly disappointed.

More seriously, he admits that he was nonplussed by the events following Princess Diana’s sudden death.

Neil added: “I was writing about people’s reaction to it not how I felt and it was bizarre, not even your usual mourning but more a Middle Eastern beating of the breast.”

And, he feels, hypocritical. “There was a general feeling at the time in the UK that society was breaking down”.

Approaching the big 4-0 holds no fears for this celebrity. “Oh, I’m ready to embrace my quattrocentro or whatever. I have always slightly been an old man in a young person’s body and now my body is catching up.”

For the cover of his latest album, Bang Goes the Knighthood, Hannon is shown posing in a bath full of bubbles with a dog at the other end, looking like a cartoon toff.

The dog is one of his pets, named Leia after Princess Leia, presumably by his daughter.

“The picture was my idea. I wanted to illustrate the title with an image that wasn’t X-rated. This is about 15. I shaved for the photo and it’s awful. It took ten years off me, and I hate it.”

Neil Hannon has, as he says, always looked young. “As a teenager, I was never able to get into bars and somebody else always had to buy the drinks.”

Although he lived at home until he was 23, Neil then embraced the bohemian life in London, followed by Dublin, acquiring a wife, Orla Little, and daughter along the way.

Apparently, Willow is a definite fan of her father’s music. And, adds Hannon, sounding quite the proud father, “she’s a nice voice herself”.

The man who deserves to be called The Voice as much as any of the crooners of the 1950s started out in the Cathedral school choir with a high voice.

“I was a soprano until I was 14which is when my voice dropped, and in the mid-90s I started to discover the baritone sonorous thing”.

As Neil says, he was a great fan of Scott Walker – “You pick up the mannerisms of your favourite musicians, and I’d listen to some of my early work and think ‘It’s pure Scott...’” He adds: “There are worse things.”

Hannon even reckons that songs such as Come Home Billy Bird (2004) have a Frank Sinatra timbre — “the notes are drawn out and there are flabby passages but yes, it’s a bit Sinatra.” He adds that smoking helped create his distinctive vocals, but that he’s now given up the fags.

Neil Hannon may be grown up,but is still the son of the former Bishop of Clogher, the Rt Rev Brian Hannon.

His father has been quoted as saying that Neil’s lyrics dealing with sex are clever.

“Clever, but not to be encouraged...” says Neil.

“He’s very kind about my work, as long as it is contained. But I’m a different person and have to express myself. I think (he approves) if I’m musing on subjects in a not too dumb kind of way.”

Recently, the Bishop has gone on record about his early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Neil Hannon doesn’t want to talk about this, but deftly sidesteps the question and says “You’ll have to ask him how he is”.

A songwriter’s life has many pluses, including time. Neil Hannon’s perfect day ranges from “a particularly nice cup of tea”, then walk with a dog or dogs followed by the best bit, actually writing, and finishes with a pint at “a good pub” in Dublin, his adopted city.

He says he can’t see himself settling in Northern Ireland — “partly because I like Georgian architecture, also because I enjoy the lifestyle down here.

“But I’m not denigrating the North and playing to the home crowd is always good.”

Hannon composed music for the Dr Who soundtrack a couple of years back and enjoys the show. He approves of the Doctor’s newest incarnation, Matt Smith — “although they get more hyper every time and this one is definitely a three espresso Dr Who”.

Apparently, by a reciprocal arrangement, David Tennant is a big Divine Comedy fan.

Neil Hannon will be performing in the magnificent tent during the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival on May 6.

That is, polling day. Hannon is a political animal and has penned a song titled The Complete Banker, number three in his new album, as his reaction to the recession.

What are his voting instincts? “Sadly, I voted for Blair twice and feel I was duped. If I still lived in England, I’d definitely be voting for Mr Clegg who isn’t Mr Ordinary and doesn’t pretend to be.”

Neil Hannon is appearing in the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival marquee tomorrow at 8pm. Tickets: tel 9023 2043 or log on to www.cqaf.com

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