Neil Hannon on Divine Comedy best of, tour and new documentary series Radio Ulster


Neil Hannon. Photo by Kevin Westenberg

THIS year started sadly for Divine Comedy frontman Neil Hannon: his father, the Rt Rev Brian Hannon, died last month at the age of 85 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

There was a huge outpouring of public affection for the longtime former Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher following his death on January 10 and, in a press release, Hannon (51) acknowledged how those warm feelings had helped “make this time a little less sad, a little more festive” for the Hannon family.

“It was nice to get such a genuine reaction from everyone who remembered him,” says the musician, who has spoken repeatedly about the support he received from his parents while pursuing his dreams. of pop celebrity.

“His legacy will probably outlast mine.”

To be fair, Derry-born singer-songwriter Co Fermanagh isn’t faring too badly, having scored six Top 20 singles and five Top 20 albums since signing his first contract. recording in 1990 at the age of 20.

Impressively, The Divine Comedy’s most recent album, 2019’s Office Politics, was the highest charting of Hannon’s career, reaching number five on the “clean” albums chart and topping the independent chart.

Newcomers would do well to start with the all-new A Charmed Life: The Best of The Divine Comedy, a 24-track compilation of hit singles and Neil/fan favorites that also includes a pretty good new song, The Best Mistakes. , a celebratory reflection/earworm that allows for an effective distillation of its sophisticated and tongue-in-cheek pop sensibilities.

A Charmed Life: The Best of Divine Comedy

“It’s on the radio a lot – it’s not like my singles,” he jokes, speaking to The Irish News from the Co Kildare home he shares with partner Cathy Davey.

“Everyone seems to like it, which is great. I had the idea for the chorus that had been hanging around for ages and thought it would be just right for the situation, so I ended the song with this ‘best of’ in mind.”

Obviously, it’s hard to condense three decades of creativity into just two CDs of material. A quick look at the A Charmed Life track listing reveals some notable absences, such as hit singles The Frog Princess and The Pop Singer’s Fear of The Pollen Count.

But then, with 27 singles to choose from and plenty of beloved album tracks also demanding a place in the running order, there would always be something left on the shelf.

“Giving people a more three-dimensional perspective of the band was more important than having all the little radio songs, you know?” explains Hanno.

“There are quite a few songs that entered the Divine Comedy pantheon without having been singles, so they had to go on too. And there were a few that I just wanted to put to my liking, really.”

The Divine Comedy man has also been busy curating other people’s songs lately for his new six-part radio series, Europop: A Grand Tour. Starting on Radio Ulster tomorrow afternoon, it finds Hannon embarking on an eclectic musical trawl across “the Continent” – one hour per week per country/region.

neil hannon

It seems that when Radio Ulster presented him with the idea, he found it hard to say no – and then quickly realized the amount of work that was going to be involved.

“My problem is that I can’t do things by halves, which is a good thing I guess, but the problem is that you say ‘yes’ to too many things and suddenly try to write a film, do a radio show, write your biography, blah blah blah,” says Neil, who was also hard at work finishing his songs for the soundtrack of the upcoming Wonka movie starring Timothee Chalamet during this time.

“So I spent most of the fall listening to great European music. The shows are incredibly varied, ranging from my favorite pop music to movie soundtracks, classical music, jazz and folk music. I mean, I’m not a super folkie, but I’ve heard a lot of stuff now that I really like.

“I knew a lot about most of it, so it was really about joining the dots with the help of Spotify and Google, really. Just as an example, the great Italian soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone also wrote quite a few songs in the 1950s and 1960s. I found out that one of my favorite songs by Françoise Hardy was actually a cover of a song that Morricone had written for an Italian singer in the 60s.”

About this Italian legend, Hannon reveals how happy he was to have seen Morricone in concert in 2019, just over a year before his death.

“I just made it in time,” he said.

“I even dragged my daughter with me. I think she liked it, but I don’t care. It was like: this is good music, you gotta like it.”

The Divine Comedy will soon be back on the road to celebrate new ‘best of’, including a series of Irish dates in May and special 30th anniversary residencies in London and Paris (postponed from 2020) which will see them play each Divine Comedy album as a whole.

This means learning some 150 songs, some of which have never been performed live before.

Neil Hannon. Photo by Kevin Westenberg

“We’ll do two albums a night – and they’ve given me many sleepless nights,” Hannon admits of these career-spanning gigs, for which proper preparations have yet to begin.

“They kept getting postponed, but just like when the exam you were so worried about gets postponed, you always end up not really getting the job done anyway. So there will be a lot of practice and a lot of rearranging and I’m definitely going to have the lyrics in front of me on an iPad – because there’s no way I’m going to remember everything I’m having enough trouble with a normal show.

After that, it looks like the Divine Comedy frontman will be happy to go back to focusing on new work rather than celebrating his illustrious past.

“There’s been kind of a buried subconscious feeling like, ‘Oh my God, I really want to go make some new music,'” he admits of his recent ‘record’.

“But I had to really push it down, because it’s important to take this moment to look back at all of this. And it’s actually helpful for me to reassess everything.

“I see the parts where I went down rabbit holes or just got it wrong. But also, I checked out some of the first stuff I hadn’t listened to in ages and I thought to myself ‘God, I’ve had a lot of like, “I’ll have a male choir on this track – and nobody’s gonna stop me”.

“It’s good to remember that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. And now I’ve wiped the slate clean – so I have no idea what my next stuff will look like.”

We can’t wait to find out.

:: Europop: A big tour starts Sunday at 4pm on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Sounds. The Divine Comedy will play Dublin’s Olympia on May 19-20 and Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on May 21, tickets via A charmed life: the best of the divine The comedy is available now.


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