Neil Hannon: ‘It’s like whistling a happy tune as the ship goes down’

For three decades, Neil Hannon has been an astute observer of contemporary life, playfully skewering social and sexual mores in his songs for his band, The Divine Comedy. But so grim is the world these days that the singer has reached a tipping point. Hannon, it seems, is on the cusp of a radical transformation, from laconic purveyor of immaculately crafted pop songs into political street activist.

“I joined Extinction Rebellion a few days ago, so the next time you see me I’ll be chained to the gates of the Dáil,” Hannon says, between sips of coffee. “I just Googled them and their website said, ‘join Extinction Rebellion’. All right. Because I’m rebelling against my extinction. I think that’s perfectly reasonable, isn’t it?”

Reclining in a comfortable armchair, his sensible slacks and striped blazer topped off by a floppy fringe, Hannon seems an unlikely eco-warrior. For all his sincerity in joining the ecological protest movement, the 48-year-old singer isn’t about to ditch a career that has brought him through cult obscurity, unexpected pop stardom and commercial decline to his current status as a versatile, self-sustaining musician, about to release his ninth album as The Divine Comedy. 

The new album carries many of Hannon’s trademarks, from effortlessly catchy melodies to bitingly clever wordplay. It also has a distinctly bleak worldview

The new album, entitled Office Politics, carries many of Hannon’s trademarks, from effortlessly catchy melodies to bitingly clever wordplay. It also has a distinctly bleak worldview. Whether evoking political divisions on Dark Days Are Here Again, workplace humiliations on Absolutely Obsolete or digital displacement on You’ll Never Work In This Town Again, the songs are attuned to the gross inequities of our times, albeit delivered with the band’s customary brio. 

“The record is pretty much like me,” Hannon says. “I’m generally an optimistic sort, but underneath I’m ranting against the end of the world as we know it. It’s like whistling a happy tune as the ship goes down.” But he’s always been politically aware, he says, he’s just previously preferred dealing with the subject more obliquely.

“I’m a thoroughly leftie, Guardian-reading chap, but of the champagne socialist variety,” he says. “I don’t take it to extremes. I wouldn’t be quite on the Corbyn level, though I like some of what he does and then he makes me despair at other moments. But I’ve never seen that as a particularly good reason to make a record. But a lot of this album is to do with ordinary people being pissed on from a great height.”

Though the album runs a hugely enjoyable gamut of styles, overall the sound echoes smart 1980s synth-pop, chiming with Hannon’s vignettes about the uncertainty and inequality of everyday life in an era of technological disruption. He calls these tracks “crazy socioeconomic synth songs”, though it’s not a concept album per se.

“To be honest, you don’t make records by thinking what’s this album going to be about. It’s you at a certain age and time, with things happening outside that you’re taking notice of, so the songs tend to coalesce around some umbrella theme. On this one, more than most.”

I was a pathetic, socially retarded little twerp, with extremely bad hair. I couldn’t talk to anyone, let alone women

That said, anyone expecting climate change polemics or political manifestos will be disappointed. As usual, Hannon’s songs are personally scaled, filtered through his sense of the grotesque and absurd. It’s an approach which has yielded hits like Something For The Weekend and National Express, but has also seen him tagged as a master of ironic detachment.

“I’ve never quite understood that,” sighs Hannon. “I’ve always felt very connected to things and I’m trying to talk about them in the only way I know how. I think sometimes people mistake looking at something from a different angle for being aloof and abstracted. I’m just trying not to say the same thing as other people.”

From the beginning, Hannon felt different from those around him. The son of Church of Ireland bishop the Reverend Brian Hannon, he grew up in Tyrone and Fermanagh: “A child of the Troubles,” he says mock-theatrically. Despite attending Enniskillen’s prestigious Portora Royal School, Hannon never quite fit in.

“I was a pathetic, socially retarded little twerp, with extremely bad hair,” he says. “I couldn’t talk to anyone, let alone women. It was only through being in an indie band that I could make something happen for me that would enable me to survive.” 

He had no doubts that music was his path. “I always knew I’d make a lot of records,” he says. Sure enough, as a teen he released the debut Divine Comedy album, 1990’s Fanfare For The Comic Muse, recorded in five days. He spent the early 1990s in London, honing his signature sound of orchestrally-layered songs in the mould of the late Scott Walker, before making his commercial breakthrough with the 1996 album Casanova. As the Divine Comedy clocked up a series of UK hits, Hannon embraced celebrity with gusto.

“I wouldn’t be able to do it now, I’d be far too stressed,” he recalls. “But at the time it was a weird dream, I was just doing it, not looking down. ‘Right, I’m a pop star now, that’s nice’. I enjoyed it, primarily because people were looking at me and talking to me about my stuff, after I’d spent my formative years being roundly ignored by the world.”

The Divine Comedy: Neil Hannon in 2001
The Divine Comedy: Neil Hannon in 2001

With his tailored suits and self-deprecating eloquence, Hannon cut a foppish figure among the laddish Britpop stars of the era. He also avoided pigeonholing himself, as Irish or anything else.

“I’ve scrupulously tried to not tell people tell people who I am and what my political identity is, or even my identity in many ways,” he says. “In the 1990s, I was on the front of the big gay magazine then, Attitude, and I deliberately didn’t say what I was, because I didn’t think it was relevant. I wanted everybody to listen to my songs without bias.”

His career wobbled in the early 2000s, releasing the dark indie album Regeneration and subsequently sacking his entire band. The Divine Comedy’s subsequent albums haven’t made the same commercial impact, but they remain fresh and inventive, particularly those released on his own DC Records label. He has also worked on a plethora of side projects, from operas and musicals to two albums of cricket-related songs with Dublin songwriter Thomas Walsh as the Duckworth-Lewis Method.

“I don’t think I would be as excited about making the albums had I not gone and done other things, to frustrate myself enough to have to go back to the source,” he says. “I think the Divine Comedy exists in a different part of my brain, like raw Hannon, unadulterated, neat. I can do whatever the hell I want.”

I’m proud to be Irish, proud to be Northern Irish, proud to come from an Anglo-Irish background, proud to be even a child of British culture

Along the way, his life has changed. He moved back to Ireland, crystallising his identity while still retaining his characteristic ambivalence. Though he enjoys people in Britain claiming him as a “national treasure” (“not very many people, I hasten to add”) he feels at home here.

“I’m proud to be Irish, proud to be Northern Irish, proud to come from an Anglo-Irish background, proud to be even a child of British culture. Because I grew up on the BBC and Radio 1, and I wouldn’t make the same material if it weren’t for that. And yet I love living in the south, and wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

Unsurprisingly, he isn’t keen on the zero-sum nationalism of Brexit, calling it “moronic”. Much of his wariness about the digital era is the way it precludes nuance from communication.

“These grand binary debates, I always think it would be better if instead of ranting at each other on Twitter, people actually sat down and had a coffee together, though I know that sounds terribly hippy-dippy.” Once a young man out of step with his peers, Hannon is now uncomfortable in our wired world, an inchoate confusion hauntingly evoked on his song I’m A Stranger Here, from the new album.

“I basically feel at sea in modern society. I never thought I’d be that person, because when you’re young, the world is yours and you’re in complete control. And suddenly you think, this is how my grandparents must have felt when they looked at us growing up. Everything has bloody changed.”

Even so, Hannon isn’t totally pessimistic. He is cautiously hopeful about young people such as his 17-year-old daughter Willow, from his earlier marriage to designer Orla Little.

“I don’t underestimate the next generation at all, if anything they look more clued up than we did. I’m just sad that they’re not going to be able to waft around aimlessly like we did, because they literally have to sort us out in order for things not to go tits up. All the social media things I rail against, they seem able to take it in their stride. I still don’t think it’s particularly healthy – I really benefitted from sitting in my room staring at a wall for hours on end, thinking. I don’t think they get much chance to do that.”

Hannon and Cathy Davey live in a farmhouse in Co Kildare, where she runs an animal sanctuary while he writes and records in their front room

But even as he takes a stand against the woes of the world, Hannon’s focus ultimately remains more intimate and creative. For the past decade, he has been in a relationship with Cathy Davey, a fellow singer and songwriter. (“If only she bloody did it now and again.”) The couple live in a farmhouse in Co Kildare, where Davey runs an animal sanctuary while Hannon writes and records in their front room. “I’m desperately afraid of her opinion, because I love her music so much,” he says. “But sometimes I consciously don’t seek it because I know this has to be very me, very Divine Comedy.”

Hannon has indeed undergone a transformation. It’s less dramatic than becoming an environmental activist maybe, but for him, just as important: to survive, he has to make music.

“The motivation has morphed slowly. I always enjoyed making music, obviously. But to begin with, it was ‘hey, I might get laid if I do this’. And that worked. But then as time goes on, obviously you have wives and partners and, it’s very hard to phrase this properly, but that’s not an issue after a while. And I only ever cared about making money to fund what I was doing and obviously my dependents, because I’m not really a possessions-oriented person, except for being a guy in a big Georgian house in the country. To cut a long story short, more and more it came to do with the music. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

Office Politics is released on June 7th