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Singer Neil Hannon says his life is anything but a rock 'n' roll cliche

Hats off: Neil Hannon is working on his 10th album
Hats off: Neil Hannon is working on his 10th album
Rev Brian Hannon
Neil Hannon on stage at the Oxegen Festival
Happy days: Neil Hannon with his partner, fellow musician Cathy Davey
Old love: Neil and ex-wife Orla

By Una Brankin

The bishop's son from Enniskillen says he is an unlikely icon, but ahead of receiving a special award on Saturday, Neil Hannon says his life is anything but a rock 'n' roll cliche.

Neil Hannon is at the right age for a mid-life crisis but the accompanying preoccupation with mortality has been weighing on his mind for a long time: since he was six, he claims facetiously. He recently played a gig at the Royal Shakespeare Company dressed as Hamlet, with a plastic skull as an accessory, and jokes that death could be not far off.

Consistently droll, he quips and guffaws all the way through our 20-minute conversation, which takes place three days after his 45th birthday, last Saturday.

That baby-face - which had trouble being served a pint until his 20s - is beginning, at last, to show signs of maturity and the young fogey's spindly body is starting to catch up with him.

"I think it has finally happened," he declares dramatically. "There's a lot of grey in my beard, and I've got these folds at the side of my eyes, drooping down and encroaching on my eyelids. It's a sign I'm almost dead ..."

Lord Alan Sugar had the same problem; it was beginning to hinder his vision before he had a subtle eye-lift, a much better job than Robert Redford's and Burt Reynolds', it has to be said. Enniskillen's finest has no such intentions.

"I'm just too lazy - I can't be a***** doing anything about my personal appearance," he drawls. "I'm slightly akin to the mad professor cliche, obsessed with work and not bothering about personal hygiene, heh heh heh."

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Who knows, then, whether the cleric's son will scrub up to receive the Oh Yeah Legend Award on Saturday night for his highly successful musical creation, The Divine Comedy. A deserved winner, Neil follows in the footsteps of previous award holders Therapy? in 2014, Gary Moore (posthumous) 2012, Stiff Little Fingers 2011, The Undertones 2010, Henry McCullough 2009 and Terri Hooley 2008.

"It strikes me as very amusing every time the word is mentioned," he says of the grandiose award category. "It's impossible for one to say 'I'm a legend' without appearing madly egotistical. An ego is a useful thing but is not to be encouraged. I associate the term with Arthurian legend or mythological or medieval legend - which I could definitely never be."

The Belfast music centre award comes ahead of The Divine Comedy's 10th album, due for release in 2016. Over the years, The Divine Comedy has encompassed many musicians, but the driving force of the band and its main, and sometimes only member, has always been Neil.

Albums have included Liberation, Promenade, Casanova and Fin de Siecle, spawning hit songs since 1996 - such as National Express, Something for the Weekend, Becoming More like Alfie, Generation X and The Frog Princess.

This morning, he's speaking from the home in Kildare he shares with his partner, Irish singer/songwriter Cathy Davey and their three dogs, including a laid-back lurcher called Daisy, which they rescued from the Dogs In Distress charity. He shares custody of his 15-year-old daughter, Willow, with his former wife Orla, a Drogheda-born designer. The couple split up amicably in 2007 and remain good friends.

Neil has spoken in the past of missing Willow and Cathy when he's on tour. Family is important to him and being based in Dublin, rather than his former home in London, gives him easier access to his father, the Rev Brian Hannon, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease seven years ago. Last year, Neil devoted his organ composition, To Our Fathers In Distress, to his father and wrote a moving piece in The Guardian about his childhood, to coincide with his first performance of it at the South Bank theatre.

"I have two words for coping with dad's illness: it's hard. I was trying to remember what I could about my childhood, before he forgot it all. I had a blissfully dull childhood. Not to take away from my parents, but it was quite uneventful.

"Looking back is an issue for me as my childhood was so dull, mainly because I was never in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's not to say it was a dull time in the province. I don't want to get all psychological about it; I always look forward instead of back. Writing about the past makes me feel quite queasy."

He claims he can never be as brilliant as fellow song-writer Morrissey because he's too optimistic - "it makes for a more pleasant life", and prefers to look forward rather than back to the "ghastly shyness and weediness" of his youth. That is, before he reinvented himself under the sophisticated moniker of The Divine Comedy, Dante's masterpiece and Samuel Beckett's lifelong inspiration.

A frequent composer for soundtracks, Neil famously wrote the theme tune for the Channel 4 comedy classic, Father Ted and the Craggy Island priests' hilarious Eurosong Contest entry My Lovely Horse - a title he reckons will be etched on his gravestone. His quirky style worked beautifully with the hilariously irreverent series, so it's surprising to hear of some of the mainstream influences on his music - including ELO and U2.

"I assumed, like many, that Bono was God in the Eighties," he admits. "I think the Unforgettable Fire from 1986 was their finest album; for everyone else, it's The Joshua Tree. And ELO were always up there in my book. They were incredibly unfashionable after the Seventies but they stuck to their guns. Jeff Lynne instigated the Travelling Wilburys. He's a great producer - he's a legend."

As he matured, the slight songwriter became more influenced by music from the early 20th century, including Stravinsky, Ravel, and his hero, Ralph Vaughn Williams.

"All my young life I spent trying to locate a certain type of music. I dreamed certain types of music but they didn't exist, so I had to make a hybrid myself," he recalls.

"All my music is cinematic. When pushed, I'd describe it as orchestral pop music but that's quite loose, and chamber music is a specific type of small ensemble. I'm much more symphonic, then sometimes very tiny.

"I do like opera but I have difficulty with the warbling."

He praises the good work done by Oh Yeah - "one of the most used expressions in rock and roll, which I am not" - and is looking forward to visiting Belfast at the weekend. "I do see Belfast changing - it's more happening and bustling and self-confident," he remarks, agreeing that to much growth wasn't good for Dublin. "There are a lot of pitfalls on the road to progress - the main problem (for a city) is trying to retain its original identity and the social knitting together of communities. As long as people are aware of that, working to make money should be all right.

"But people have a short memory. They were trying to make legislation on rent control here, but it has been watered down to nothing. It's funny, you've got Jeremy Corbyn for Labour - a good example of how people on the ground view things, as opposed to those from on high. I think the world is crying out for some kind of rebalancing of principles. But I'm getting very serious… heh heh."

With the rise of Sinn Fein in the Republic, I wondered who Mr Hannon intends to vote for in the 2016 election.

"Ha, I can't go there - I've always been a leftie but if you tell the public how you vote, you're putting yourself forward as a public figure," he says.

Like Bono?

"Ah. Bono's heart is in the right place."

Along with charity performances, when he gets a chance, for the Alzheimer's Society "a cause close to my heart", he's planning a tour for his 10th as yet untitled album - for the love of it more than the recompense. "The current music environment doesn't motivate you to do it for money; it's just what I do," he concludes. " It's my outlet and it has been a world of pain for the last three years.

"This album is the 10th and I feel every last song on it. They tell you you're a legend when you're starting to feel really exhausted and you're still making albums. That's it."

  • The Divine Comedy will play live at the Mandela Hall, Queen's Student Union on Saturday after Neil Hannon receives his Legend Award from the Oh Yeah organisation at 7pm. Tickets are £12 and are available online at

Firsts for Neil ...

  • Single: Vienna Ultravox - closely followed by Flash, Queen
  • Album: Top Of The Pops 1977 - which to my horror I discovered was all cover versions
  • Film: The Jungle Book
  • Novel: A Room With A View - changed my entire outlook on the world
  • Kiss: Jilly Mayes (fellow choir member) at 15. Can't say any more. Will leave that to the imagination…

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