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Interview with The Divine Comedy: ‘I’m psychotically anti-shopping’

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Having completed his third full decade as a recording artist, The Divine Comedy – aka Neil Hannon – released an extensive 24-track compilation, Charmed Life: The Best of The Divine Comedy, in February.

The Divine Comedy. Picture: Kevin Westenberg
The Divine Comedy. Picture: Kevin Westenberg

A rewarding and heart-warming two-CD collection of hit singles and fan favourites, the album was compiled by Neil and remastered at Abbey Road Studios. Included are monumental tracks such as National Express, Something for the Weekend, Songs of Love, Our Mutual Friend, A Lady of a Certain Age, To the Rescue and Norman and Norma. It also features a brand new track, The Best Mistakes.

Expect to hear many songs from it when the Northern Ireland-born musician/raconteur appears at the Corn Exchange next week (he kicked off the tour a few weeks ago in Europe).

“I’ve been telling people at the start of the shows not to shout out for anything weird or difficult – just the hits,” he says, chatting to the Cambridge Independent from his home in County Kildare, not far from Dublin.

“It was quite hard to put together the set because similarly to the Best of, singles tend to be a certain kind of a song that grabs your attention. So it’s a struggle to kind of make it a more rounded overview of everything I’ve done over the years.

“But I guess there’s quite a few songs that haven’t been singles – sort of fan favourites and things that have kind of become standards in the set over the years, like Our Mutual Friend and Songs of Love, which just can’t not be played, really. They help out.”

Songs of Love was memorably used as the theme tune to classic Channel 4 sitcom Father Ted. Neil also penned My Lovely Horse for that unforgettable episode when priests Fathers Ted and Dougal enter the Eurovision Song Contest. Will that be dusted off and played when Neil comes to Cambridge?

“Nooo,” he laughs, “not unless the electricity goes down, or something like that. We played it once on the European leg simply because there was a very sweet child in the front row who had a poster saying ‘Please play My Lovely Horse’. It was like, ‘How can I not?’

“It’s amazing how every show we do, wherever we are, there always seems to be one voice at the back going, ‘My Lovely Horse!’ at some point, which I enjoy ignoring, for the most part.”

The Divine Comedy. Picture: Kevin Westenberg
The Divine Comedy. Picture: Kevin Westenberg

The scene in the programme where Ted gets increasingly frustrated as the hapless pair try to come up with a song is hilariously fraught, with Ted exploding into an expletive-laden outburst, but Neil assures me he has never experienced a writing session quite like that.

“Well I’ve had plenty of writing sessions with other people – not maybe as many as a lot of other songwriters because I tend to work alone,” he explains. “I have written with other people in the past, but it tends to be a lot more pleasurable than the one pictured in the Eurovision episode of Ted.

“In fact, from the outside looking in you’d probably think that absolutely nothing was happening. It’s generally just staring into space for hours on end.” Neil, 51, adds that the fact that Father Ted has gone on to become such a cult comedy favourite is “just the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, really”.

Neil’s current tour is his first proper undertaking of this nature in three years and he initially found it quite “full on” noting: “It took a week to really get into my stride, so sorry northern Spain! But it was really, really good and I’m looking forward to the UK and Ireland now.”

His main music-related project during lockdown was compiling Charmed Life. “Yes, but it wasn’t as long a project as the previous year,” he reveals, “which was all about putting the box set and the reissues together of all the individual albums.

The Divine Comedy - Charmed Life album cover. Picture: Kevin Westenberg
The Divine Comedy - Charmed Life album cover. Picture: Kevin Westenberg

“That was a bit of a nightmare because I was trying to write copious notes on each one and I had to trawl through endless demos for a bonus disc and things like that. So the Best of was a little easier, although I did put together virtually an extra album for the CD version – which has lots of new songs on it which I wanted to get out there.

“A few people have said, ‘Why didn’t you just make another album?’ But I wanted to get the whole 30th anniversary and all the nostalgia out of the way first.”

The new songs are included on the three-CD, limited edition Super Extra Bonus version of the album, while the standard two-CD version’s sole new track is The Best Mistakes. “It [the collection of new songs] is really rather good, if I say so myself !” laughs Neil.

“It was the first thing we recorded after being allowed out, basically, and it’s funny because it was only by the skin of our teeth that we managed to get in the studio without restrictions. And then before you know it, you’re all locked down again.”

In 1990, musical history was made when a 20-year-old Neil Hannon signed his first record deal and began releasing albums under the name The Divine Comedy. Twelve studio albums and hundreds of shows later, he can now surely take his place alongside the finest singer-songwriters of his generation.

His career really took off in the mid-to-late ’90s, thanks to cracking singles such as Something for the Weekend, Everybody Knows (Except You) and National Express. His sophisticated, almost Noël Coward-esque pop music with its imaginative and clever lyrics offered a pleasing alternative to the heavily guitar-based acts that dominated the charts at the time.

“My fondest memories [of that period] are of just the silliness of touring with that band at the time,” says Neil. “It was hard as well... there was quite a lot of sitting in bedsits trying to work things out and hoping that it was going to sort of happen for me.

“But then it did and I was completely over the moon because I was a ridiculously ambitious little idiot, and even though I have artistic pretensions, shall we say, and I absolutely adore the art of writing music, I also was brought up on pop and Top of the Pops and I really wanted to make my mark.

“When I finally got a call saying that Something for the Weekend had gone into the charts at, I think, 15, I thought, ‘Well, pretty much it’s all downhill from here!’ But I’d had a hit and nobody can ever take that away from me.”

On the assertion that he was something of a Coward-esque old head on young shoulders, Neil says: “I think I played up to that, and it’s when you actually are old – like what I am now – and you look back and you see just how young you were, and how innocent in many ways.

“But I suppose I liked a lot of music and a lot of books and things that would have been considered ridiculously old fashioned and I let it come out in the music; I didn’t try desperately to sound contemporary – I just made the records that I wanted to hear.”

Having always displayed rather dandyish tendencies, Neil is also known for his stylish dress sense. “I am of small stature and I just have great difficulty buying clothes off-the-peg,” he reveals, “and I’m also psychotically anti-shopping. I hate going to shops, I hate having to make decisions about things.

“And the few times I’ve had suits made for me, they’re the wrong size or the legs are ridiculously short or something – just because I want to get out of there as quickly as possible! My most successful recent suits, if I can advertise, were by The Kooples. I really like them and they’ve stood me well.”

Away from The Divine Comedy, Neil also formed a band with Thomas Walsh of Pugwash around 13 years ago called The Duckworth Lewis Method, which wrote songs exclusively about cricket. Will there be any more from them?

“I don’t know,” says Neil. “We had a good innings, if you’ll pardon the pun, and one album entirely based on cricket is probably one album too many – and we made two. So there’s probably enough cricket songs in the world now. Maybe on the 30th anniversary of that we’ll do something, if we’re all still alive...”

While we wait to see if that reunion may or may not happen, we can all go and enjoy The Divine Comedy at the Cambridge Corn Exchange on Thursday, May 5.

Visit cornex.co.uk for tickets. For more on the band, go to thedivinecomedy.com.

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