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

David Roy chats to Neil Hannon about celebrating 30-plus years of The Divine Comedy with a new 'best of' and tour, plus taking listeners on a musical jaunt around Europe with his new weekly Radio Ulster documentary series...

Neil Hannon. Picture by Kevin Westenberg
Neil Hannon. Picture by Kevin Westenberg Neil Hannon. Picture by Kevin Westenberg

THIS year got off to a sad start for Divine Comedy leader Neil Hannon: his father, the Rt Rev Brian Hannon, passed away last month at the age of 85 following a long battle with Alzheimer's.

There was huge outpouring of public affection for the former long-serving Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher following his death on January 10 and, in a press statement, Hannon (51) acknowledged how such warm sentiments had helped "make this time a little less sad, a little more celebratory" for the Hannon family.

"It was lovely to have such a genuine reaction from everybody that remembered him," explains the musician, who has spoken many times about the support he received from his parents while pursing dreams of pop stardom.

"His legacy will probably last longer than mine."

To be fair, the Derry-born Co Fermanagh-raised singer/songwriter isn't doing too badly himself, having chalked up six Top 20 singles and five Top 20 albums since signing his first record deal in 1990 at the age of 20.

Impressively, The Divine Comedy's most recent album, 2019's Office Politics, was the highest placing of Hannon's career, reaching number five in the 'proper' album chart and topping the indie chart.

Newcomers would do well to start with the newly released Charmed Life: The Best of The Divine Comedy, a 24-track compilation of hit singles and Neil/fan favourites which also features a rather good new song, The Best Mistakes, a reflective/celebratory earworm which makes for an effective distillation of his sophisticated, wry pop sensibilities.

Charmed Life: The Best of The Divine Comedy
Charmed Life: The Best of The Divine Comedy Charmed Life: The Best of The Divine Comedy

"It's getting lots of play on the radio – that's not like my singles," he quips, speaking to The Irish News from the Co Kildare home he shares with partner Cathy Davey.

"Everybody seems to like it which is great. I had the idea for the chorus lying around for ages and I thought it would be quite apt for the situation, so then I finished the song with this 'best of' in mind."

Obviously, it's difficult to condense three decades of creativity down to just two CDs worth of material. A cursory glance at Charmed Life's track listing reveals a couple of 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 spot in the running order, something was always going to be left on the shelf.

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

"There are quite a few songs that have joined the Divine Comedy pantheon without having been singles, so they had to go on as well. And there were a few that I just wanted to put on for my own taste, really."

The Divine Comedy man has also been busy curating other people's tunes of late for his new six-part radio series, Europop: A Grand Tour. Beginning 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
Neil Hannon Neil Hannon

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

"My problem is that I can't do things by halves, which I suppose is a good thing, but the problem is you say 'yes' to too much and then you're suddenly trying to write a film, do a radio show, write your biography, blah blah blah," explains Neil, who was also hard at work finishing his soundtrack songs for the forthcoming Wonka movie starring Timothee Chalamet during this period.

"So I spent most of the autumn just listening to great European music. The shows are incredibly diverse, they go from my favourite pop music to film soundtracks, to classical music, to jazz and folk music. I mean, I'm not a great 'folkie', but I've heard a lot of stuff now that I actually 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 discovered that one of my favourite songs by Francoise Hardy was actually a cover of a song Morricone wrote for an Italian singer in the 60s."

On the subject of this Italian legend, Hannon reveals how glad he was to catch Morricone in concert back in 2019, just over a year before he passed away.

"I just got in in time," he says.

"I even dragged my daughter along. I think she liked it – but I don't really care. It was just like: this is good music, you must like it."

The Divine Comedy will shortly be back on the road themselves to celebrate the new 'best of', including a run of Irish dates in May and special 30th anniversary residencies in London and Paris (postponed from 2020) which will find them performing every Divine Comedy album in full.

This means learning 150-odd songs, some of which have never been played live before.

Neil Hannon. Picture by Kevin Westenberg
Neil Hannon. Picture by Kevin Westenberg Neil Hannon. Picture by Kevin Westenberg

"We'll be doing two albums a night – and they've caused me many sleepless nights," Hannon admits of these career-spanning gigs, for which proper preparations have yet to commence.

"They kept being postponed, but much like when the exam you were so worried about gets postponed, you still end up not really doing the work anyway. So there will be a lot of practising and a lot of re-arranging and I am definitely going to have the lyrics in front of me on an iPad – because there is no way I am going to remember everything. I have enough difficulty with a normal show."

After that, it seems the Divine Comedy leader will be happy to start concentrating on new work again rather than celebrating his illustrious past.

"There's been a real sort of buried subconscious feeling of like 'Oh God, I really want to go and make some new music'," he admits of his recent 'stocktaking'.

"But I've had to really push it down, because it's important to take this moment to look back on it all. And it's actually helpful to me to re-appraise everything.

"I see the bits where I kind of went down rabbit holes or just did things badly. But also, I checked our some of the early stuff that I hadn't listened to for ages and thought 'My God, I had a lot of b***s'. Like, 'I will have a male voice choir on this track – and no-one is going to stop me'.

"It's nice to remind yourself that you can do anything if you put your mind to it. And now I have a clean slate – so I have no idea what my next stuff will sound like."

We look forward to finding out.

:: Europop: A Grand Tour begins on Sunday at 4pm on BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Sounds. The Divine Comedy play The Olympia, Dublin on May 19 and 20, and Belfast's Waterfront Hall on May 21, tickets via ticketmaster.ie. Charmed Life: The Best of The DivineComedy is available now.