Neil Hannon: The hardest thing for me is to simplify
Neil Hannon's pursuit of the perfect pop song continues unabated, his new album Foreverland a wonderfully idiosyncratic collection that underscores his contention that you can write 'about bloody anything'. Richard Purden talked to the former choirboy and Scott Walker devotee
DERRY-born, Enniskillen-reared Neil Hannon admits he wasn't partisan when it came to music, growing up the son of a Church of Ireland minister and later bishop.
"I think there's probably a lot of the Church of Ireland hymnal in terms of structure and melody. It creeps in – I can't help it because I was in the church choir for so long," he says.
Absorbing harmonies and melody was a judicious start for a budding pop star who soon scored a string of original hit singles in the 90s with the likes of Becoming More Like Alfie, The Frog Princess and National Express.
His ambition to write the perfect pop song and love for the genre shows no sign of waning on his 11th studio album Foreverland, a wonderfully idiosyncratic collection which tackles historical figures such as Catherine The Great.
"I feel people are over prescriptive these days in what you can write a pop song about and I do believe you can write it about bloody anything," explains Hannon.
Arguably the age of the classic pop single is over but the 45-year-old songwriter continues the tradition of making catchy lead-off singles.
"I do enjoy those songs; I like writing tight, three-and-a-half-minute pop songs. I can't say it's accidental because I'm actually trying to write a really good pop song and yet I am not doing it for that purpose, if you know what I mean? From about the mid-noughties the idea of the single has become very vague since CD singles went the way of all flesh."
Napoleon Complex is said to be a metaphor for short pop-stars including Hannon himself and Bono, the strings and percussion arrangement is Hannon at his singular best. "I just get bored easily", he laughs. "These crazy and intricate arrangements come about because I really like arranging and doing all of the things I can do. I'm not limited so I kind of just do them, the hardest thing for me is to simplify."
In the six years since The Divine Comedy's previous album, Bang Goes The Knighthood, Hannon produced his second long-player with cricket pop combo The Duckworth Lewis Method, was commissioned to write short chamber opera for the Royal Opera House and, in 2014, performed To Our Father's In Distress at the Royal Festival Hall. The piece was written as a response to his father, former Bishop of Clogher Brian Hannon, suffering from Alzheimer's.
"Every time you write something new you kind of learn a little bit more, you learn what not to do as much as what to do," says Hannon. "Having said that, I do try to keep the more arty stuff separate from albums; they have their arty moments but at the end of the day they are more pop records.
"That's why I use The Divine Comedy name to differentiate the two – that and also because it's a cool name. I do think they politely inform each other."
Hannon's performance of Station to Station was a considerable highlight at the recent BBC David Bowie prom. Undoubtedly it must have ranked as one of the most difficult songs to sing.
"I think I was offered it because everyone else had said: 'I'm not singing that'" Hannon says. "The time signature and the tune are mental, the structure is this weird sort of huge sonata form in three movements. But I like a challenge and I gave it my best shot. I put my best foot forward and I enjoyed myself; I didn't make any mistakes which was a miracle."
I put it to Hannon that he's written a few songs with unusual structures himself – Tonight We Fly, for instance, has an vital place in the Divine Comedy canon.
"I was pretty pleased with that one. Apart from anything else, it's really useful for any act when you realise which song is best at the end of the set," he tells me.
"I wondered 10 years ago if I really was going to play this song at the end of every show for the rest of my life and I thought; 'Why not?' It just works in that position and it leaves everyone on a high, if you'll pardon the pun.
"I like it when songs that haven't been singles take on that mantle in a live set."
Is it true he used to send Scott Walker copies of his albums?
"I did send him the first four or five because I was young and wanted him to notice me. I love Scott, I always will; he was easily the most important figure in my musical pantheon. He blew away every preconception about what I could do, I realised that I could have an orchestra and I didn't need it to be rock n' roll underneath. It could be a cabaret song, it can be anything. Thank God for Scott Walker."
Hannon and his partner, Dublin singer-songwriter Cathy Davey, are patrons of the animal rescue charity My Lovely Horse Rescue – as well as providing the theme tune for much-loved Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted, Hannon penned My Lovely Horse from the classic Song For Europe Episode.
"Sometimes I have to feed the pigs; other than that my name is on a piece of paper. [The charity] was set up by Cathy and her friend; I have very little do with it other than being very proud of my other half for doing it."
Now living something of a country life in Co Kildare with horses, pigs, chickens, dogs and Wayne the braying donkey, who makes a guest appearance on Foreverland, how does Hannon feel about the north's post-Troubles renaissance?
"It's fantastic that it's blossoming and I always slightly thought it would because we're an incredibly intelligent race of people and beautiful too. It was always likely to happen if we stopped killing each other. I go up when I have to for parents and work but my life is very busy, I've not got there for a while. It's one to put on my list."
Foreverland is out now; The Divine Comedy are touring from October 7. For more info see thedivinecomedy.com