Hey! Long time no write! Using exclamation points! I have just had an exciting interview with Neil Hannon, the man behind The Divine Comedy! I have been a fan of his music for a long time. And he has just released his tenth album, “Bang Goes The Knighthood”. We discussed the new album, his songwriting process, and how he manages his busy life. Enjoy!
It’s my tenth and definitely as good as the other ones. A lot of my albums have explored facets, but in isolation, and this is a more rounded take on it. It has its sweeping orchestral moments, straight pop, a lot of silly and a lot of serious stuff, all sorts. Not to be too much of a plug, but I think if someone asked if they could have one album to sum up what I do, this would be it.
What do you look to accomplish with your songs?
In its purest form, it is to elicit an emotional reaction, sometimes just laughter, more often than not, trying to make people think. But I try to do it with wit and style, and occasionally I try to get a genuine point across, for example on the new album I have a song “The Complete Banker” about the financial situation in the world. It is the first song I wrote from anger, which I don’t use much, but even so, it still comes off as satire rather than just anger.
For the most part, I don’t like putting narrative plots in my songs, it is usually too wearing on the listener. But sometimes it is a good way of having a reason for a song. I have always preferred songs or lyrics with action, things happening rather than abstract emotion and feelings, which bore me a little. For example, “At the Indie Disco” which takes small observations of what might happen in said indie disco, which is used to try to create the world inside the listeners head. Not for any reason rather than that it is a nice image.
Do you write stories or prose that are not songs?
I’ve never really written straight prose, it takes long enough to write three verses and a chorus! I’m just not quick enough. I also like to work within tight structures. As much as people talk about my lyrics, which I am flattered by, I tend to focus on the actual tunes and music, which is a bigger part for me.
It has its place. Something I find hard is not over complicating songs, sometimes the greatest victory I have is not sticking strings on everything. You learn to do what the song requires, not what can be done. After more than 20 years in this business, I am capable of knowing what makes a good song, and over arranging does not make a great song. For example the first track (“Down in the Street Below”), because of the way the song works, it sort of calls out for a large arrangement. It reminds me of those big 60s ballads, such as Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, and the Walker Brothers. They have all influenced me on songs like that. However, those influences are attributed to me too often; I am very excited about a lot more types of music than just that. For example, synth-pop, I am sincerely influenced by Human League and OMD, just in the way the songs work, rather than instrumentation.
Your songs could be interpreted several different ways. What are some examples of odd interpretations you have heard from listeners?
Well, one major example was a hit I had in 1998, “National Express”, which I was just writing about a bus company in Britain, and certain experiences of being on the bus, and watching people. I thought it was an ordinary enough song, but certain parts of the music press thought it was a fascist, anti-working class anthem, and I was hurt by this very much. So yes, audiences can profoundly misconstrue songs. Sometimes, though, I set myself up for a fall, for trying to sound too clever, name dropping, listing books I’d read when I hadn’t. A lot of fans (for whom I am very grateful) sometimes have the thought that I am some sort of F. Scott Fitzgerald figure, which is very far from the truth. It is nearly impossible to tell people exactly what you mean in a song, without being boring or too obtuse.
With great difficulty, The Divine Comedy is the day job, and I like it very much, or I wouldn’t keep doing it. But I do like to do other things, to freshen the palate. I wrote my first musical, which will be taking to the stage in Bristol in December, that was a terrifying, massive undertaking, which is now completely out my hands, I wrote the songs, and that was about it. It was very rewarding, though, and if I had to write musicals from now on, I would do it, but first, people have to go see it! I also was 50% of a project, the Duckworth Lewis Method, which was an album all about cricket, and we didn’t really take that outside of Britain, since there was not as much pull for that topic elsewhere.
Thanks for talking to me Neil.
It was nice to speak to you too.
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