Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy looks back at the music that made him. Photo: Kevin Westenberg
The imminent release of Charmed Life – The Best of The Divine Comedy has the man behind the music, Neil Hannon, in a reflective mood. It’s the perfect time for him to look back on the influences that shaped his unique talent.
Born in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1970, Neil says the combination of his birthplace and his upbringing set him apart from his contemporaries, every step of the way.
“Even when Britpop was happening, and I was lumped in with that, nobody told me where the parties were,” he says. “I think they just said; ‘Don’t tell Hannon! He’s from Northern Ireland, he doesn’t deserve this.’
“Even in the north [Northern Ireland], when I was growing up, I was like this weird posh boy. So I’ve basically been an outsider everywhere, for one reason or another. Now I live in the south [of Ireland], so I’m just like that weird Nordie.”
He may not have been at the industry parties, but across three decades of charming orchestral pop, he’s happy to have found an audience. “I’ve had a hell of a lot of luck,” says Neil.
“When I started, I thought, ‘I’ll just write brilliant songs, be brilliant, and everybody will love me.’ And when you look back, you feel this sort of vertiginous feeling in the pit of your stomach like, ‘Oh my god, what might have been?’
“There’s so many things that could have gone wrong along the way. But that’s the only the only way you do anything really, is by not looking down and getting on with it.”
Charmed Life brings together some of The Divine Comedy’s finest, funniest and most romantic moments. From the bombast of National Express (the best ever pop song about getting the bus), to the killer comic payoff of Something for the Weekend, to the soaring and life-affirming Tonight we Fly, few can weave pathos and humour to quite such beautiful effect.
This is the music that made Neil Hannon… and gave us The Divine Comedy.
The Music That Made Me: Neil Hannon, The Divine Comedy
Trust in the magic of Disney
When I was little, literally my first memory is sitting in our drawing room – we had the family record player and only record that I was interested in was Walt Disney’s Jungle Book. The songs on it, to this day, amaze me.
I just remember being tiny and playing it over and over again, The Bare Necessities and Trust in Me and all of those songs.
I think there’s a lot of the Disney soundtrack vibe in my songs. People of my age, when we think of those magical feelings that give you butterflies in their stomach, we think of Disney. I wrote a song called Funny Peculiar on Foreverland, which is just so Sherman Brothers [the writing duo behind The Jungle Book‘s music], it’s ridiculous.
ELO in the dark
I have two elder brothers. They had new bands that they loved, and I would naturally listen to them. The first big thing was the Electric Light Orchestra. I remember quite vividly Des listening to the whole of Out of the Blue with the lights off, in the playroom. And I was there listening to it all with him.
I think that comes out in my music as well. I mean, I do still love ELO. And Jeff Lynne is one of the best songwriters I can think of. But it’s really the kind of the detail in those recordings, the incredible imagination, all the strings and the choirs and the disco, and the odd synth sounds. Only now do I sort of understand how they made them.
The Undertones on Top of the Pops
The first time I saw any music on mainstream telly that seemed to be from my neck of the woods was The Undertones. And to be specific, My Perfect Cousin, on Top of the Pops. I was about nine or 10.
That was a weird thing to suddenly see people on Top of the Pops that could have been at the shop down the road. I guess that might have pressed a little button in my head going: you could do that too, it looks like fun.
Bishop Brian Hannon (Neil’s dad) playing Rachmaninoff on Sunday
There are other things I would pinpoint. My dad playing the piano, usually, on a Sunday morning, before morning service. He’d probably have finished his sermon and he just needed something to do, instead of twiddling his thumbs before the service. You’d hear him in the drawing room, usually playing something like Khachaturian or Rachmaninoff. Something uber-romantic, you know.
We still have the same piano up in my mum’s house. Every time I play, it takes me right back. Not least because I wrote a lot of my early songs on it as well.
My dad always drew the similarity between me on the stage and him in the pulpit. They’re not a million miles away from each other. I certainly have to stop myself moralising in songs and preaching at audiences.
Neil Hannon’s father, Bishop Brian Hannon, died on January 10, 2022. In a tribute to his dad, Neil wrote: “I couldn’t have wished for a better father. Intelligent, patient, encouraging, interested, fun.”
Buying Scott Walker on cassette in Woolworths
Buying No Regrets: the Best of Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers in 1992, on cassette is an absolutely formative moment for me. I think I was living on my brother’s sofa in Ealing at the time, and I bought it in Woolworths.
I’d seen his name written in lots of music press. John O’Neill from The Undertones, who produced our first record said, “You sound a bit like Scott Walker.” Then I saw the advert for that album on the TV, and just this amazing sound came out of this man’s mouth. Like I’d never heard anybody make.
I bought the record, and I instantly was just intoxicated. I don’t think I’m a carbon copy of Scott, but I do notice vocal inflections that I learned from him and I can’t get rid of now. And obviously, the orchestrations often owe a lot to ’60s orchestral pop like his.
TBI: We had heard a rumour that you used to send him all your records in the post. Is that true?
Yeah, it’s true. Him and Michael Nyman were the recipients of many posted CDs. I don’t know why I did that. It was like I think I owed them a debt.
I read an article, the first thing Scott Walker did when he came back with [1995 album] Tilt, for Les Inrockuptibles, the French magazine. They said, do you know The Divine Comedy? And he said, “Oh, is that that little Irish guy who keeps sending me his records? Yeah, I think he likes my ’60s work more than what I do now.” And he was right.
U2 live in Croke Park
In the mid-80s I became an indie kid, and my gateway drug into indie-dom was U2. They don’t particularly sound like an indie band, maybe, but they were definitely my route into guitar music. I was listening to Nik Kershaw before that.
I got a cassette that somebody had done for me with Under a Blood Red Sky, that live album, and The Unforgettable Fire on the other side. And I played it to death. Then – oh my god – here’s a new album coming out, and they’re touring. A bunch of us from school scrimped to have enough money to buy these magical golden tickets to see U2 in Croke Park, on the Joshua Tree tour in 1987. It’s just a really pivotal moment for me to be in that space, with this band, who were literally, suddenly the biggest thing on the planet. And who send shivers down my spine just thinking about it.
My views on U2 have kind of ebbed and flowed over the years since. But you can never get away from the feeling you get from your first love in any sense. And they certainly were the first band that I was obsessed by.
The romance of A Room with a View
A very important musical moment for me was seeing A Room with a View, the Merchant Ivory film. It is my favourite film, even though it’s not the best film that’s ever been made. It was the combination of the beautiful, clever EM Forster story, perfect casting, perfect acting beautiful scenarios and this amazing music. Mostly Puccini sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. When she [Lucy Honeychurch, played by Helena Bonham Carter in her breakthrough role] has the kiss in the poppy field, it is the most romantic thing I’ve ever seen and heard. And, you know, it’ll never get better than that for me. Really, I’m just trying to reinvent that all the time.
Hearing Common People for the first time
A formative moment was when I was recording [The Divine Comedy’s fourth album] Casanova in a studio in Bath called Moles. They had a nightclub down below, and after a long day’s recording, me and Darren, the engineer, went downstairs for a drink. There was nobody in there, but the DJ put on the new Pulp single, Common People. By the end of it, I just had my head in my hands thinking, “How on earth is one meant live up to this?” It’s definitely in the top five songs of the ’90s for me, and I was immensely jealous.
Charmed Life – The Best Of The Divine Comedy is out February 4, 2022. The Divine Comedy is on tour from April 25, tickets available here.
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