Foreverland: An Interview with Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy frontman discusses his latest record, cricket, composing operas, Gilbert & Sullivan, posthumous fame, musicals, his European tour, and "Catherine The Great".
The Divine Comedy
Divine Comedy

The modern-day, musical renaissance man Neil Hannon returns. Ten studio albums, two chamber operas, two delightfully quirky, cricket-themed records, an acclaimed West End musical, a composition for organ at the Royal Festival Hall, and a variety of collaborative efforts from Air to Ute Lemper, and Hannon’s artistic muse shows absolutely no signs of abandoning him anytime soon. One spin of his latest effort Foreverland, and it is abundantly clear that the Divine Comedy and its clever frontman are only getting better with age.

On Hannon’s 11th studio album, the razor-sharp wit is still delivered with a knowing wink and a dazzling hook, but the lyrical narrative is much more personal. From the grin-inducing melodrama of “A Desperate Man”, with its nun on the run imagery, to the charming Cathy Davey duet “Funny Peculiar”, or the cheeky oboe solo and braying donkey in “How Can You Leave Me Alone?”, Foreverland turns out to be one of the strongest collection of songs in Hannon’s entire catalogue. That in itself is no small feat.

Down-to-earth and hilariously candid, Hannon spoke with PopMatters about cricket, “Catherine the Great”, Gilbert and Sullivan, silly pop videos, composing operas, posthumous fame, musicals, and his upcoming European tour, in anticipation of his joyous new record.

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It’s been six years since your last record, but you’ve been quite busy in the interim. Tell us about this circuitous route and how it lead you to composing the songs of Foreverland?

Well, I guess after the last album Bang Goes the Knighthood, I spent about three years doing odd, extra projects. It’s very nice of people who think that I can write music, to ask me to do these things, but they are quite hard. So, it takes me a while writing organ pieces for the Royal Festival Hall. I also did another misguided cricket album with my friend Thomas for The Duckworth Lewis Method, which is our cricket-based rock outfit. I don’t think it was necessary for the world to have a second entire album on cricket, but it was fun, you know? We did a little tour this time, because we didn’t tour the first album, and it was great putting on the straw boaters and having odd whiskers and just really making a tit of ourselves.

Then about three years ago, suddenly I didn’t have anything in the schedule and I thought, perhaps another of my own albums would be nice. [laughs] I did set myself the express mission of not putting it out until I was completely convinced that all the songs were right, which is by no means what I’ve always done. I’m the type who is a perfectionist until he gets bored, and then just goes ah sod it, put it out.

You’ve always come across as optimistic in your lyrics even if they were tinged with a melancholic hue, but there’s a sense of joy throughout Foreverland. Tell me about this happiness. I mean, there’s even a song called “My Happy Place”.

Well, except “My Happy Place” is probably the most miserable song on the album, [laughs] just because it’s contrasting. When do you want to go to your happy place? It’s when everything is rubbish really, but I think most of my songs err on the side of optimism, simply because I am that kind of person, bizarrely. And yet, there’s plenty of melancholy as well, but I think I find consolation in the melancholic sometimes. [laughs]

Most of this record has to do with my relationship with my other half you know, which is about seven years old. It’s fantastic, but like all relationships it’s not easy, and so I’m talking about that, but it’s generally disguised in strange allusions to the foreign legion. I do like to work behind some kind of unfathomable lyrical conceit. [laughs] It makes it easier to be honest I think. When it’s very sort of heart on the sleeve and telling it like it is, that tends to turn me off a little bit when I hear other people doing that.

I love the lead single “Catherine The Great”. What prompted writing about this ruler who wasn’t really named Catherine and wasn’t even Russian?

Well, it’s interesting to have that strength of female character to take on that kind of a job, which was basically commanding the largest country on the planet, at a time of incredible flux. She was quite open-minded. Just as brutal and militaristic as her male counterparts at the time, but also wanting Russia to be a bit enlightened of the countries in western Europe. Mostly it has to do with the fact that my girlfriend’s name is Cathy and she’s great. [laughs]

How did actress Elina Löwensohn become a part of the video? Umlauts, such fun!

Well simply because when we were discussing the video with our friend Raphael Neal, who directed it in Paris, we thought there ought to be somebody portraying the person in the song. We mused about various French actresses and we thought they should be of a reasonable vintage, not just eye candy. He suggested Elina. I had seen the Hal Hartley [Simple Men] movie in my twenties, but I didn’t remember it very well. I certainly remembered her from that episode of Seinfeld. [laughs]

I think the first time I saw her was in Nadja, that arthouse vampire movie from the ’90s.

Oh right, yeah. I think she has the most amazing face, and also she’s a great actress. It was fantastic that she came along and did it, because it’s just a silly pop video at the end of the day and it’s always nice when you can get somebody who’s a bit classy to take part. Kind of brings the status of the thing up a notch.

Is there a music video you shot throughout the past ten albums, that really resonated with you or you’re rather proud of?

Oh, I hate them all. I could never have been an actor. It’s bad enough having to listen to your own voice back millions of times, but to watch myself — I can’t stand the way I look or act or move or anything. So, I find videos extremely hard and I always like the ones where they say, “Oh no, you’re not going to be in it.” [laughs]

I’m reticent to ask a question like this, because I know these songs are your babies, but do you have a few favorites on the new album?

Uh. Hmm. I really have a soft spot for “Foreign Legion”. I think it’s because “I Joined the Foreign Legion (To Forget)” was written in my notebook. Well, sort of every notebook I’ve had for the past 15 years. I thought that would just be a great song to write, and so when I eventually got around the doing so and it turned out to be quite good, I was pretty pleased. [laughs] It’s quite evocative and has a nice vibe to it.

I also like “Desperate Man” because it’s just an orchestral wig out. It’s a very silly song. It’s not exactly rocket science, just a big riff, which different parts of the orchestra take up at different times. It kind of reminds me of movie soundtracks that I’ve listened to over the years.

Have you done any soundtrack work I’m unaware of?

No, the few movies that have tried to employ me have gone bust before they ever made it. [laughs] So, not yet, but I would like to. I fear I may become unstuck, because the thing about soundtracks is that there’s an awful lot of people, with an awful lot of money riding on the project. So, they want you to do exactly what they want you to.

It shackles your creativity.

A little bit, and that might annoy me. [laughs] But you never know until you try and you’re willing to take a chance.

Is there a particular song throughout entire catalogue that you really enjoy performing live, even after all these years?

I’m going through the set in my mind. There’s always something in each song that makes them hard to perform. I think I’ve got to say, “Tonight We Fly” from Promenade, simply because we’ve ended every show with it since it’s been composed. There’s a reason why it still works, because it’s well constructed and does exactly what it says on the tin. So, I would go for that primarily, because I’ll probably always play it. It’s a good song. I like it also because it doesn’t have the whole verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus thing. It’s really just kind of three chunks. It’s an ABA structure, which is unusual and pleasant.

I’m interested in your foray into the operatic world? I just listened to your recording of In May. It was really moving. Tell me about Sevastopol and In May, and how these chamber operas came about?

I think In May was slightly more successful than Sevastopol in a purely artistic sense, because none of them are in the least bit successful commercially. [laughs] That is the wonderful, publicly funded arms of the arts. In May — that’s actually from ten years ago — we started work on that with a playwright called Frank Buechler, and he came to me with this sort of diary of a dying man, and I thought wow, that’s pretty grim. Then I read it and it was not as grim as it initially sounded. It was kind of uplifting. I just heard the music, so I got on with it really. It’s only been performed about three times and one day it will do well in some kind of scenario. It’s quite a hard one to put on stage. Like how do you perform this?

Sevastopol was different. That was a series of what they called Opera Shots: half-hour operas written by people who probably shouldn’t write opera for the Royal Opera House. They gave me a go, and I probably chose the wrong subject matter entirely. Maybe I should have started with something a little easier and gone with something a bit lighter, with a more tight, compact ensemble. I was doing Tolstoy and trying to recreate mid-19th century Russia in half an hour flat. [laughs] It was fun to do and it was definitely an education for me, because I realized that if you’re not going to have a full symphony orchestra at your disposal, don’t try and write for one. The upshot will sound thin and reedy if you haven’t got enough musicians to really do it.

Do you think you’ve got a grand opera in you?

No, I’d say I have a Gilbert and Sullivan in me. [laughs] It’s my kind of daydream sometimes to think, “And then he made his first light comic opera and the audiences loved it so much, he was forced to just write those for the rest of his life.” I can think of nothing nicer than to write something silly. [laughs] But that’s because I’m kind of lazy.

No, no. I love G&S and have friends who sing in the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players. They’d rather do that than anything else on the stage.

I did a few in school and I just had so much fun.

Are you interested in writing another musical after Swallows and Amazons, or what it one and done?

No, I’m very interested in that. Because of how my — for want of a better word, “pop” career is at this stage — basically, I have my fans, I make records every now and then for them, and I like to play to them, but I’m never going to have a hit record again, you know? That was great fun in the ’90s, but now I’m very much a different kettle of fish. So, that’s fine except, you don’t really get that left field sensation anymore, that kind of, “Wow, didn’t see that coming!” Whereas, when I did Swallows and Amazons, I got that buzz again, because it was like, “Oh my god, he can write musicals!” [laughs] That’s probably why I want to do it again. Just for a nice big ego massage. I feel that satisfying that kind of naked ambition can be very good for the creativity.

How do you give birth to a song, and has your compositional style changed over the years?

No, it’s stayed pretty much the same I think. I guess it happens quicker now, because I know more and so you develop short cuts. That sounds bad — you’re not doing the time, the work. [laughs] No, it just means that you can do more complicated things really. I keep a notebook and I scribble down thoughts in it all the time. Well, when I have any. That would be a permanent state of affairs, but with the music it’s different, because in extended periods of promotion and touring, you just don’t have the time or the energy to write music, and you’re not in the right place.

When I do have that time — when it’s all over and the dust has settled — I go into the studio in my house and mess around and have fun. Germs of ideas will just happen, I’m pleased to say. It’s usually from trying to do something on the piano or the guitar, an arrangement of my fingers, or some move like the top against a chord sequence. That sounds obvious, but just something that makes you go, “Oh yeah, that’s odd.” [laughs]

Usually the rest of the piece — it’s not another series of “oh yeah” moments — takes that moment as a germ from which to write the rest of it. Quite early on, I’m trying to attach some kind of lyric to it. Either something pops into my head or more likely, I’m reading through notebooks and go, “That idea! Maybe that can kind of join in.” It’s not necessarily whole batches of lyrics, but maybe just a title or something, and that leads me on to what that song may be about.

You’re about to kick off another tour in the UK and Europe. Will this be a stripped down affair or will you be accompanied by a larger ensemble?

Well, it’s picked up from when I did the whole thing solo, but this time I have six including myself. It’s not in any way classically orientated. It’s more or less a rock band formation with drums, bass, guitars, and accordion of course! I’ll play a bit of all of these things when I need to, but largely I like to concentrate on getting the notes and the lyrics right. [laughs] I think it might be quite a sort of fun, poppy affair, rather than too cerebral. I feel like letting it all hang out a bit and then getting back to more intellectual matters at a later date.

Are you ever halfway through a song and you’re like, oh shit, what is the next lyric, and you just sit there and improvise until it comes to you?

Almost every single song. [laughs] I have a terrible, terrible problem. It’s not really even a case of remembering the words, it’s just kind of forgetting to concentrate. Imagining that it’s all in there and it’s just going to come out, and then suddenly for some unknown reason, it doesn’t, and you’re left well, usually apologetic. [laughs] Luckily my fans are so used to me forgetting the words by now, that they would almost be disappointed if I didn’t.

Collaborators have come and gone, but you’ve basically remained the constant creative force throughout each new incarnation of The Divine Comedy. I think the band name perfectly encapsulates your lyrical and musical aesthetic, but was there ever a time when you contemplated releasing albums under your own name?

Yes, at various moments I’ve said to people who work with me, “I think I’ll do this under Neil Hannon!” They go, “Why? Ya know, everybody knows The Divine Comedy is you, so who are you trying to kid?” [laughs] Basically the argument amongst the business types is that I have this brand that I have carefully worked up that people know, and what that sounds like, and so to suddenly go under another name is like shooting yourself in the foot for no particular reason.

I can’t argue with that logic. [laughs] I think I’ve basically divided it into The Divine Comedy for my pop stuff such as it is, and I put out my, for want of a better term, classical stuff under Neil Hannon — the musicals and things like that. The extraneous projects go under my own name, but then in the programs we mention The Divine Comedy anyway so like what’s in name? [laughs]

As the release date for Foreverland approaches and another era of The Divine Comedy begins, do you feel like these albums are a time capsule of your journey on this earth, and what do you hope future generations will take away from stumbling upon your vast catalog?

Well, I hope to be significantly more famous and successful when I am dead. [laughs]

Here, here!

I think it’s only right that in 70 years time, somebody discovers all for this, [laughs] and they’ll say well, he was moderately famous at certain times of his life.

But a genius. What a genius!

Obviously he’s vastly more famous now. I don’t know, I try not to think about it too much, but I do because it tickles me. I think about composers and artists that I’ve loved and how many of them were roundly ignored. [laughs] So basically, I’ve done a lot better in my lifetime than quite a lot of people that I admire. I have nothing to grumble about, that’s for sure. Just the mere fact that I’m still here making records at 45, I’m pretty pleased with that. I’ll probably keep doing it forever and ever, because I’m in the habit now. I can’t help it. I need an album every five or six years, just to get it all out. [laughs]

Random segue, but this will always be one of my favorite The Divine Comedy moment. When my friend and I first moved to Manhattan, we would always crank up “Our Mutual Friend” with the windows down as we drove around, and see who could hold the last note out the longest.

[laughs] I like it when people do my stuff. I always thought I’d be covered more, to be honest. Maybe my songs are a little too idiosyncratic to be widely covered. Who knows? So, I’m just wondering, who held the longest note?

Oh, he always won and I was always like, “Damn it, you and your lungs of iron steel!” There is something about the orchestral arrangement in that song and many others of yours, that when you’re cutting through the streets of New York and surrounded by big skyscrapers, it always feels so majestic.

That’s cool. Yeah, I can see that. [laughs]

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