The man behind The Divine Comedy is coming to York to play a concert as plain old Neil Hannon. Nick Ahad spoke to the songwriter.
how does it feel to write songs for as eclectic a range of outlets as the TV show Father Ted, a concept album about cricket, the movie of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a German theatre production and a series of hit pop albums?
“It’s just my job. We all have our crosses to bear,” says Neil Hannon.
Not, you might think, an answer that sets up an interview well. That doesn’t take into account, however, the fact that in his soft brogue, Neil Hannon is having a good old chuckle at himself when he says this. He doesn’t really think he has a cross to bear – he appears, in fact, to find it remarkable that he is able to make a living out of doing exactly what he loves – and ply his trade across such a wide range of media and styles.
He is in the middle of writing the music for “something really quite odd”.
“It’s a German theatre production and I’m writing this really depressing music,” says Hannon. “It’s one of those situations where people ask me to write music for something and if it sounds like something I’m interested in, then I’ll do it.”
It is now 20 years since The Divine Comedy recorded Fanfare for the Comic Muse. The album announced the arrival of a unique voice in pop, with Hannon’s witty lyrics and catchy tunes earning him comparison with singer-songwriters in the tradition of Noel Coward. He is surely alone in the contemporary music world as a songwriter who can draw inspiration from the coach company National Express.
In 2009 he joined up with Thomas Walsh to record The Duckworth Lewis Method, a concept album all about cricket which featured songs like Meeting Mr Miandad, Rain Stops Play and Jiggery Pokery, a song which celebrated Shane Warne’s Ball of the Century. The album was nominated for an Ivor Novello award, missing out to Paolo Nutini in the Best Album category.
It takes the briefest mention of the album to get Hannon on what is clearly a favourite subject – cricket.
“I was watching Mock the Week and they were saying that cricket’s boring. I just can’t believe it when someone says that, I just don’t understand. I reckon we could write another 16 albums about cricket,” says Hannon.
To the converted this won’t come as news, but even if you do grasp the intricacies of the game, it is something of a surprise to discover that Hannon could get that much inspiration from the game.
It is not only that cricket is a particularly rich source of inspiration, but that the singer-songwriter can draw inspiration from anywhere.
“I have always thought that you can write a song about anything. I could write something about, oh I don’t know – this five pence piece on the table in front of me. There is nothing too mundane as a subject, I really do think it’s all in the writing,” says Hannon.
With the release of another The Divine Comedy album last year, Bang Goes the Knighthood, Hannon proved that it really is all in the writing, with songs about bankers and the dubious sexual practices of aristocrats making the playlist. Following the release of the album he took to the road for a solo tour for the first time.
“Was I nervous? No. I was terrified. A lot of my favourite artists have gone on the road solo and it seems to work really well for singer- songwriters, but there really is nowhere to hide,” says Hannon. “At least if you’re with a band and something goes wrong you can glare at someone else on stage – even if you’re the one that’s made the mistake. You can’t do that when you’re on your own up there.”
Hannon discovered, however, that his witty lyrics and wordplay had earned him enormous goodwill and even though in between songs he “just talks rubbish” the audience lapped up the performances, mistakes and all.
He hopes to experience a similar amount of goodwill in a special concert this weekend at York Minster.
Organised by newly-founded York company Tribeca Events, Hannon will play the Minster bringing his eccentric, brilliant wordplay to the ancient building.
“I remember visiting as a child and I imagine I was bored and wanting an ice cream. Now, to play there is a real honour.”
Neil Hannon’s road to York Minster
Hannon named his band The Divine Comedy after spotting a copy of Dante’s book.
In 1990 the band released Fanfare for the Muse, a second EP and then split up.
Hannon returned to his parents’ home in Ireland, writing the album Liberation. Released in 1993, it was a critical success and a commercial flop.
In 1996 Something for the Weekend was released and propelled Hannon into the limelight. In 1998 National Express went in to the Top 10.
Neil Hannon plays York Minster on May 7. For tickets call 0844 939 0015.