Neil Hannon: Son of a preacher man

Neil Hannon's year-long break from The Divine Comedy has spawned a new set of schmoozy pop songs - and a yen for stadium success, he tells Fiona Sturges
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The Independent Culture

"I'm not sure what my dad would make of this," murmurs the most famous bishop's son in pop, balancing precariously on a chair in the nave of St James's Church in Piccadilly. Neil Hannon - creator, singer and centrepiece of The Divine Comedy - is having his picture taken and, to make best use of the light streaming through the stained glass, the photographer has asked him to improvise a little. "I know I'm not exactly statuesque, but this is ridiculous," he remarks, valiantly forcing a smile.

Tonight, at the church, Hannon and his band will be showcasing songs from their new album, Victory for the Comic Muse. It's an interesting choice of venue, given Hannon's background and his own complex relationship with religion. "I know," he ponders later. "I can't quite believe they let us do it. We certainly had to pick the songs carefully. "Eye Of The Needle" [which finds Hannon searching for proof of God's existence] was a no-no, for a start."

Over the past five years, life has changed considerably for the little man with the big voice. He is now husband to Orla and father to four-year-old Willow and, after 10 years in London, has moved to Dublin, where he makes music from his attic studio. For the past 18 months, Hannon has been a "jobbing songsmith", taking on random film projects and writing songs for artists such as Jane Birkin and her daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg. "I said to my manager that I wasn't going to make another album for a while and all the usual things we would say no to, we would say yes to," he says. "Apart from anything else, it allowed me to be at home for a while and be a dad. But it was also like having a proper job for once." But all too soon Hannon found himself counting up all the extraneous songs, and at the end of last year, he set about recording his ninth LP. The result, Victory, is, in Hannon's words, "a crazy, mixed-up kid of an album".

"Lady of a Certain Age" looks at the fate that can befall older upper-class women with nothing but "a chequebook and a family tree", while "To Die a Virgin" follows a man's thwarted attempts to get his end away. There's even a song for his mother - "Well, it could be about anyone's mother, but in the end I thought it was about time mine had one of her own," he notes. In contrast to his previous albums, which Hannon regards as "largely conceptual", Victory for the Comic Muse "has no overarching theme whatsoever. The only thing that holds it together is the fact that it was recorded in a short space of time, by the same people in the same room. I like that; I think it gives it a time and a place."

Hannon has always operated an open-door policy when it comes to his co-workers. In 2002 he dissolved the band completely, went to America and toured on his own for three months. Afterwards, he even thought about becoming a solo artist, "but in the end I decided that Neil Hannon was too dull a name. It's OK for me, but not for the art. And I really like the name The Divine Comedy. It's always neatly summed up the peculiar extremes of what I do."

Born in Enniskillen, Hannon was a shy child who took to the stage in order to "justify my existence. No one can question you when you're a pop star, at least that's what I thought back then. I remember at the age of 14, after a year of writing songs, announcing to the family, 'I'm going to be a pop star', and them just nodding indulgently. But I was so absolutely certain; I had completely brainwashed myself that I could not fail. It was only in 1996 or '97 when I had succeeded that I realised I could have failed, and nearly had a nervous breakdown."

In the early days The Divine Comedy was an indie band notable only for Hannon's voice, an atmospheric blend of Jim Morrison and Scott Walker. Touring was hard - on many occasions there were more people on stage than in the audience - but Hannon remembers feeling "this strange missionary zeal to convert people. It must run in the family."

His father, who was Bishop of Clogher from 1986 to 2001, was always supportive. "(He) is utterly fascinated by the whole thing, and often draws comparisons between being a minister and a performer. We often say the same things at the dinner table about not being able to eat before going on and needing to mentally prepare. Maybe I'm a frustrated preacher, and he's a frustrated musician. He's certainly a great piano player."

After a year the band went their separate ways, though Hannon retained the name and set about making 1993's art-pop debut Liberation. By 1996, after releasing the much-feted Casanova, which included the singles "Something for the Weekend" and "Becoming More Like Alfie", he gathered a reputation as a dandyish lothario, an image exacerbated by his penchant for bespoke suits and cravats.

By now the shy bishop's son had become a bona fide star, duetting with Tom Jones, touring with REM and selling out the Albert Hall. He even provided the theme tune to Father Ted. Along with Jarvis Cocker, Hannon was one of the era's more interesting pop stars who was infatuated with the power of word play. Alas, the music press, by this time hooked on Britpop's beer-swilling effrontery, took against his lyrical intellectualism and labelled him pretentious. A particular source of ire was "Book Lover's List", which name-checked no less than 70 literary stars, from Aphra Behn to Salman Rushdie.

"Yeah, that was asking for a punching," chuckles Hannon, "especially considering I hadn't read half of the books in it. In the early days I did rather wear cleverness on my sleeve but at the time I thought it was OK. Morrissey did it, so why couldn't I? But as time has gone on I've tried to plough my own furrow and have more original thoughts. I suppose latterly I've tried to think more about what those writers were writing about rather than getting carried away with their style."

The follow-up to Casanova was 1998's Fin de Siècle, which yielded more quirky hits including "National Express", a paean to the delights of British coach travel ("There's a jolly hostess selling crisps and tea/ She'll provide you with drinks and theatrical winks for a sky-high fee"). But by 2001 Hannon had clearly lost patience with his foppish image and arch lyrical style. For the album Regeneration, he teamed up with the lugubrious producer Nigel Godrich and traded his dapper wardrobe for the more ordinary musician's uniform of jeans and T-shirt. Lyrically, too, it was a more humourless affair. The reviews were good but sales were poor.

"With the benefit of hindsight, I realise that I thought that was what I ought to do. I didn't want people to merely know me for the cravat. Now I don't care what they know me for. Hell, it's great that they know me at all. I think Regeneration was a fine work but it wasn't as personally satisfying to make as the other ones. I came out of it feeling, 'Was that really my album?' I didn't have so much fun."

It's likely that Hannon will always be fixed in people's minds as the well-dressed bon viveur with an eye for the ladies, but that's no longer a problem. Now he has reclaimed his old persona and is, he claims, "beginning to revel in this strange history. At least I'm not constantly trying to point people to the new stuff, the new me."

That's what the title of the new album is about, he says. Along with referencing The Divine Comedy's first EP, the largely ignored Fanfare For the Comic Muse, it articulates his sense of triumph at still being able to make music.

"Most people don't get this far," Hannon says. "I've known so many people come and go in the time that I've been doing it. They're probably all richer than I am, and doing proper jobs, but to still be doing it after so long is a gift."

Hannon has yet to fulfil his dreams completely, however. As well as fantasising about being the focus of a South Bank Show, he notes that he is yet to fill a stadium. "I've done it as a support act but never as the main event," he sighs. "It's more of a bizarre fetish than a dream. But if I did that, I think I could die happy."

The single 'Diva Lady' is out now. 'Victory for the Comic Muse' is out on Monday on Parlophone