Music from atticland

 

All the grammar schools in Enniskillen are strategically positioned on hilltops. The most famous of these institutions is Portora Royal School, a place which can boast (but didn't always do so) that no less than Oscar Wilde was one of its star pupils. Samuel Beckett was another, as was Henry Francis Lyte, the man who wrote Abide With Me. Now someone with some of the qualities of all of the above has emerged to add his famous name to that roll of honour.

Neil Hannon, son of the Church of Ireland Bishop of Clogher, has turned out to be one of pop music's rarities - someone whose music is entirely eccentric, irresistibly entertaining and quite perfectly crafted. Fronting The Divine Comedy, Hannon masquerades successfully as the decadent sophisticate in an intriguing combination of send-up and serious purpose. And he is unquestionably a one-off. There certainly aren't any more like him at home.

"I've never really known whether that was just me, or the very noticeable fact that the rectory where you lived was always in a slightly different part of town to where all your mates from school lived. Yes, I was a loner, but I didn't really feel that bad about it which is why I didn't really look that depressed going back down the hill. I had my mates, but they were all my loner mates.

"It's only really in teenage that you start to worry about all this. I think form about 11 to 106 I thought that. I was slightly apart from everyone else and I was annoyed about it, but then there was a certain period about 16 or 17 when my whole perspective changed. I thought, yeah I have a bit of a funny accent but I can live with that. I decided it wasn't such a big deal and I decided to be as posh as humanly possible - and I started wearing my Grandad's frock coats. I've lived by that pretty much ever since.

The Divine Comedy was formed in 1989 and played REM covers in places such as The Vintage in Enniskillen's main street. They recorded an album called Fanfare for the Comic Muse. The others soon began to reset their minds on their schooling, Hannon continued to believe he had something to sing about. He bided his time and searched for some new reference point that might put some shape on what was still something quite vague and unfocused in his mind.

The answer turned out to be Scott Walker. While everyone around him perfected guitar riffs and solos, Hannon discovered the oddball glories of Montague Terrace in Blue and Deadlier Than the Male.

"I came to Scott Walker very late. I got The Best of the Walker Brothers and Scott Walker in 1991 and I realised this was what I'd been looking for. Then I went out and bought the other albums and it changed my perspective completely. I listened to too much Scott Walker. I overdosed on Scott Walker until I started to sing like him - but that and Michael Nyman kickstarted The Divine Comedy into something new.

"I had brainwashed myself, through the 1980s, that this was the only thing I could possibly do and I believed totally in myself, but I had to work out what exactly I was trying to do.

"It took me a good two years in my parents' attic in Fivemiletown to actually work it out. Yes, I had to get to London - but I had to get there knowing that the music I was doing was undiluted me, and it was very hard to get to that point. I was only really living in my own head and I don't think I was existing in the real world for quite a few years. I was in atticland and that's where the music came from."

The Divine Comedy's second album, Liberation, had no commercial success but certainly indicated where Neil Hannon might be headed musically. The third record, Promenade, was once again a critical rather than a commercial success but there were signs that Hannon was starting to gather momentum and a considerable following, much of it quite influential within the media.

When the fourth album, Casanova, was released Hannon suddenly found that he was getting airplay on mainstream pop radio and television and three singles made the charts - Something for the Weekend, Becoming More Like Alfie and The Frog Princess. His live performances were consistently both confident and tongue-in-cheek and, while thoroughly enjoying his new-found stardom, Hannon continued to perfect his role as a sort of jaunty, randy toff who just happened to sing like Scott Walker.

`You have to take yourself out of a situation where it's just your mates watching you because, in that situation, you just try to be cool. I've always thought it was a funny old business. In any other art form where you take it to the stage, people know you are playing a role. But in this business the character on stage is yourself and if you look crap on stage everybody thinks that you are crap. What they tend to forget is that you are just as much playing a role on stage as you are when you're in a play. The showmanship in what I do was to do with having the music right with myself.

"A lot of people are playing music they think they ought to play. But it was only when I started to make music that had no rules, apart from my own, that I thought that this is actually me that I'm singing about and everybody's actually listening to me! And so I realised that, if they were listening, I could do things on stage and not feel bad about it. The only way you can be a showman is if you think the people aren't going to laugh at you. That's probably half the reason why I left."

With the success of Casanova and the subsequent A Short Album About Love, it was increasingly evident Neil Hannon could go his own way.

Furthermore, Ireland's latest pop star seemed to have no particular Irish musical hinterland and seemed entirely free to act out his part under a thousand influences from elsewhere. Only on the new album, Fin de Siecle, is there any direct reference to things Irish. In a song called Sunrise, Hannon looks at the possibilities for peace in the North, the importance of names and the way in which northerners often feel that they are living in several different places at once - I was born in Londonderry, I was born in Derry City too. I grew up in Enniskillen, I grew up in Inis Ceithleann too.

"It's bizarre, because all the major artistic things that I drew from, I drew from sitting in the front room of my parents' house in Fivemiletown in Co Tyrone. Watching French movies late at night on BBC 2, listening to odd music, watching A Room With a View. That was a formative movie for me even though it's just silly, romantic tosh. I think all the musical reference points are from elsewhere but I think the attitude is totally Irish. I think it's totally contrary and I don't think I could make music which steals from so many other genres with such brazen thievery if I wasn't Irish. And Northern Irish to an extent as well. I think a lot of it is terribly escapist and that's a Northern Irish thing. If I hadn't been brought up in possibly the worst political situation on the planet, I wouldn't have needed to escape. I was living on several hundred different planes. I was a Protestant who was brought up well apart from the whole Orange business. I was also supposedly upper middle class although the money wasn't there at all - but I was apart from my classmates in that way.

"I've been away from Northern Ireland for about five years now and it has taken that long just to calm down and talk about it with any sense of perspective or objectivity. I thought I would write about it one day but I was waiting for the right tune to come along. This rising baroque chord sequence seemed to do it for me. It seemed to be saying the same thing as the lyrics and so I just put the two together."

Fin de Siecle is The Divine Comedy's sixth album. It is a darker record than the others - "less fluffy" as he puts it - and yet it is still unmistakably Neil Hannon. Confidence and, presumably, a certain amount of available finance has made it yet another big production full of the drama and bombast that perfectly highlights Hannon's huge voice. The single Generation Sex sees him at his playful best and showcases perhaps one of his greatest talents - getting away with it every time. Only the most humourless cynic could ever take a dislike to Neil Hannon - his is a most endearing class of genius and there is clearly much more still to come from this unique pop star son of the rectory.

"I really think there is nobody who actually knows what I'm trying to do. It's not a big problem or anything but people always seem surprised when I give them a demo. But the fact is that I've been doing it all my life and, whatever it is, it's just a new odd thing. I take the records as seriously as I take life itself. What I'm doing is art and there's no point in recoiling from that. The word art seems to have been hijacked, especially in Britain, so that it's now something that Guardian readers go to see on a Sunday afternoon. In fact art is anything that provokes an emotional reaction in the listener, the viewer or whatever. That's what music does and all music is art. As far as I'm concerned, art is my reason for existence - along with my girlfriend."