Thirty years is a long time for anything—a marriage, a job, a dinner party, jail time. But it’s really difficult to maintain a pop music career for 30 years, especially the last 30. To remain relevant after three decades of the music industry’s systematic dismantling requires being either lucky, tireless, or too good at what you do.
Neil Hannon, the Northern Irish musician who’s performed under the name The Divine Comedy since the late ‘80s, is all three. Since breaking into consciousness with the 1991 album Liberation, The Divine Comedy have quietly produced a body of work that’s unabashedly literate, ornately orchestrated, and just varied enough to find new audiences without alienating the existing one.
The Divine Comedy got swept up by the Britpop movement of the mid-’90s—or, rather, took advantage of the current. They had 13 Top 40 hit singles, starting with “Something for the Weekend” and “Becoming More Like Alfie” from the 1996 breakthrough album Casanova. Hannon steered through the beginning of the 20th century with landmark albums like Absent Friends in 2004 and the Choice Music Prize-winning Victory for the Comic Muse in 2006. After breaking free from the majors and forming the independent Divine Comedy label with his manager, Hannon unexpectedly returned to the Top 10 album charts with Foreverland in 2016 and Office Politics in 2019.
By the way, all that chart action happened in England. Not here in America. Like Status Quo, Stereophonics, and The Libertines, The Divine Comedy has not maintained any presence in the U.S., despite Hannon’s consistently great lyrics and extreme gift for melodies and arrangements. Outside of a few college stations and rabid fans, America remains untapped territory.
We could devise theories as to why this is true. Hannon’s songs reflect a deep connection to British popular culture and archetypes. Most of the Divine Comedy’s reverberant songs get that way from full orchestras instead of guitars, and Americans still love us some guitars. It’s hard for a band with one foot in the archives of Burt Bacharach and Scott Walker (both Americans, ironically) to cross over to a disjointed USA.
As for me, I am genetically predisposed to love everything The Divine Comedy releases. It’s just how I’m organized. I’ve followed them since 2001 and have played them constantly ever since. It’s gotten so deep that, while watching Kylie Minogue sing a lovely waltz tune in Leos Carax’s 2012 film Holy Motors, I knew 45 seconds into it that Hannon had written it. When the credits rolled and proved me right, I yelped out “I KNEW IT!” at 1 a.m. Somehow my family slept through it.
Upon learning of the release of The Divine Comedy’s new anthology Charmed Life on February 4, I figured it was time to put my Stan-hood to constructive use and see if we couldn’t chat it up for a bit.
I spoke with Neil Hannon on a Zoom meeting from his home in Ireland. Intent on stirring up American interest in The Divine Comedy, we spoke about all the stepping stones in his career, a few of his most notable songs, and how he’s evolved along with his music. And Scott Walker. Of course we talked about Scott Walker.
I’m aware there’s less visibility for The Divine Comedy in America, and I’d like to change that. This is our first marketing effort.
Well, you’re a noble sort (laughs). You don’t need to beat around the bush—I mean virtually zero in your wonderful country. We tried back in the day, but it never really took off. Now we just have a lot of very wonderful and… I was going to say virulent fans, but I’m sure that’s not the right word. Vociferous fans.
Before we start, I do want to express my condolences about your dad (former Church of Ireland bishop Brian Hannon) passing a few weeks ago. From what you wrote about him and what I’ve seen in news reports, he seemed like a very beloved and admired man.
Thank you very much. He’d had Alzheimer’s for a very long time, and it was almost a relief, you know, to sort of let him go. Back in the day he was very well-known and well-liked in Northern Ireland. I’m very proud to be his son. The third son. The black sheep (chuckles).
Did you grow up in a musical household?
Yeah, sort of. My dad was a very good pianist. He was very much the romantic—Rachmaninoff, Debussy, Chopin and all that. Which had quite an effect on me, whether I liked it or not, really. My classical tastes are slightly more 20th century than that.
I have two elder brothers, and they obviously would pick up on music before I did. It was always like hand-me-down bands (laughs). I remember one Christmas my big brother Des said, “I’m going to ask Santa for Ghost in the Machine, the Police album.” And (my next older brother) Brendan went, “So am I.” Then Des said, “Well, I’m not gonna get it now, obviously, if you’re gonna get it. So I’m going to get The Complete Madness.” Then I went, “I’m gonna get Ghost in the Machine!” Brendan went “I’m gonna get The Complete Madness!” And Des ended up with Queen’s Greatest Hits (laughs). A really good investment, that first Queen best-of.
That’s an anecdote to relate the influence of my elder brothers upon my music taste. The biggest one was ELO. Des was a massive Electric Light Orchestra fan. So I was sort of force-fed those albums in the late ‘70s, before I almost knew what pop music was. So that’s where all the strings and the layers come from (laughs).
Out of the Blue is one of my favorite albums of all time.
It’s just astonishing, yeah.
I’m also a piano player and a singer. I’ve fantasized about doing a one-man show of ELO songs. It’d be the ultimate stripped-down ELO.
You’re telling me! It’s not easy. I’m not sure I would take that challenge (laughs).
How did you get started in the music scene in London?
The Divine Comedy was basically born out of a school band with various other names, and various other friends playing badly. I mean, I played badly as well at the time. But I had a few ideas about songs and things. Occasionally I ventured into the battle-of-the-band competitions in the local pubs. In between the R.E.M. and Pixies covers, I’d throw in a couple of mine. That gave me a little confidence.
I started to think that it didn’t really sound right. It was my last year of school, and I got a sort of rhythm section from another local school. Kevin and John. They were good players, and sort of made me get my act together.
We made a few demos. Accidentally, one of them found its way to Keith Cullen at Setanta Records in London. His raison d’être was to sign Irish acts, but to bring them straight to London rather than wallowing in the Dublin scene, which was a bit tainted after every major label came to Dublin trying to find the new U2. So he signed us off the back of one of those demos. I was like, “Oh. Is it that easy?” (laughs) Little did I know it would be about four years before I even made a dent in the world.
By that stage, Kevin and John had decided to go to university, ‘cause they couldn’t hack life in a squat in London. It wasn’t pretty back then. I didn’t blame them at all, but I didn’t take it hard. I just went back to my parents’ attic and wrote tons and tons of songs. They were very long-suffering, my parents (laughs). They really were.
Eventually, Keith said, “Well, are you going to do anything or should I forget about you?” I said, “Oh, I’ve got the album here! It’s the new Sgt. Pepper! When can I record it?” I was not short of confidence (laughs).
So I went back to London, and he stuck me in a cheap studio with the first engineer that came along. It turned out really well. Darren (Allison), the engineer, turned around and said, “So, who’s going to play the drums?” And I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, I play the drums.” So, I said, “You’re playing the drums” (laughs).
That’s how the album (Liberation) even happened. I played everything else on it, apart from the few bits of strings. The remarkable thing was a few people bought it. It was astonishing. It just worked from there. I got more up my own arse on Promenade. The French liked that one especially. So we got a foothold on that front.
You see? You just need to ask me one question and I’ll take it from there (laughs). Anything in particular you want to cover?
I have noticed you seem to play a lot of shows in France.
Yeah, I’ve been very lucky. It’s like I have this dual existence. In the UK and Ireland we’re a “pop band.” And then in continental Europe, we’re this kind of cool, obscure, very arty act. I kind of like doing both. It’s nice going from one to the other. Obviously, there are people in Britain and Ireland who understand the whole artistic side, and vice versa. But the whole chart pop thing didn’t really happen in Europe as such, because they don’t really have that culture. Whereas in the UK in the ‘90s, it was perfect for me—Blur, Pulp, Suede, all the rest of it. I kind of fitted in to that.
At the same time, to me there’s always been a clear distinction between what we call “Britpop” in America—Oasis, Blur, Pulp—and what you do. Not exactly a classical element, but…
I think I made sure that I managed to get away from that kind of pigeonhole quite quickly in the 2000s. I made some missteps along that kind of metamorphosis, but I quite like the end. And I’m quite happy to do my thing, in my little niche, ever since. I kind of have ideas above my station in terms of symphonic pop. Sometimes it comes off, sometimes it doesn’t.
You’ve talked about being a really diligent reader and having a heavy literary influence. Songs like “Your Daddy’s Car”—to me that’s a short story. How important is it for you to integrate literary influences in your work? Is it something you naturally do?
I certainly am naturally a kind of a magpie, both in literary and musical terms. I suppose there was a glamor, or sort of an intellectualism, in the books I was reading that I didn’t see really reflected in the sort of music I listened to, apart from maybe Morrissey and the Smiths. There weren’t a lot of other acts where you thought that they were willing to look a bit… for want of a better word, poncy (laughs). Maybe effete would be a better word. And I have no trouble with looking effete. Because it was just about all I had going for me back then. I was sort of fey and shy, kind of like a romantic poet, except not as good.
So the book thing was good for me, and I really took it all the way, you know? All the way to doing basically a synopsis of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a song. Oh! I went even further than that and just took a bunch of poems by Wordsworth and plopped them onto some music (“Lucy”). And they’ve never come looking for royalties! (laughs)
They may be behind on their accounting.
(Laughs) Yeah, a few hundred years behind. As time went on though—I still would refer to books that I had read, but I tried my best to become an author of my own right. To write my own stories, as such. Because there’s only so long you can pilfer from books before people will go, “That’s cheating.” Over the years I’ve tried to hone my own sort of style, really. I think it’s a bit Alan Bennett, a bit E.M. Forster, and… uh, a bit crap (laughs).
There are certain other lyricists that have a great influence on me, like Nöel Coward, Burt Bacharach—well, no, he wasn’t a lyricist, I mean Hal David. Great lyricists like Ira Gershwin. Cole Porter—he did both (lyrics and music), brilliantly well.
I could go into more contemporary music. I guess Jarvis Cocker had a big influence on me as well. I was slightly jealous of how fantastically vivid his writing was. It didn’t rely on the usual tropes of pop songwriting, and it was very funny as well as being quite sad and dark. So I like that.
I’m glad you mentioned Nöel Coward, because my introduction into your music was “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party.” That was the very first Divine Comedy song I heard.
What an introduction! (Laughs)
Yeah, I was looking for Nöel Coward music for some reason, and I stumbled onto it. My first reaction was, “Finally, a techno band with a sense of humor.” (Laughter) I suppose at some point we’re going to have to talk about Scott Walker.
Yes, I suppose so.
I think I started listening to him around the same time I was introduced to your work, not knowing at the time how important he was to you.
He was absolutely, staggeringly important to what I did, in ways you probably wouldn’t notice in the music. That little sort of mini-, demo-y little album Fanfare for the Comic Muse was produced by John O’Neill from the Undertones. He said at one point, “You sound a bit like Scott Walker.” And I went, “What? Who?” Then I kept seeing his name coming up in the NME and various music press, thinking “Gosh, he gets a lot of name checks.”
I think it was just when I had moved to London for the first time. It was on the TV—“…and now, The Best of Scott Walker and the Walker Brothers.” I just heard this voice for a snippet of time on the TV—(singing) “The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore…” And I was hooked. I thought that was the most amazing sound I’ve ever heard come out of anybody’s mouth. I went the next day and bought the cassette, and I listened to it to death. Everything on it just rocked my world.
I was always sort of thinking, “There’s music out there that I haven’t heard that I know is brilliant, and I need to hear it.” And it wasn’t being—I didn’t think that contemporary music in the 80s was everything there was to know about music, you know? I’d loved a lot of other things. I love classical music and hymns, jazz—music. When I heard (Walker) it brought everything together.
Through those records I learned about Jacques Brel as well. That really opened my mind to what was possible. You hear a song like “Jackie,” and you think bloody hell—that’s just a weird cross between fantasy and kitchen-sink drama. It’s like a film condensed into three and a half minutes. So I tried to write songs like that, really. And obviously failed. But in failing, I went to other places that were equally valid (laughs).
Let’s talk about Casanova. For me, that’s the first of your albums that had a central point—male id on a rampage. It actually reminded me of the original movie Alfie, and not just because of the song “Becoming More Like Alfie.” Casanova is a pretty good summary of that movie’s look at lust and its consequences.
I had just watched Alfie. I loved the movie; I loved Michael Caine’s performance. And I love the Burt Bacharach song.
It’s one of his best songs.
It’s one of my absolute favorites of his, yeah. Even with Cilla Black screeching over it, it’s great! (laughs) I always try to find other versions that I’d prefer, but I always come back to hers. There’s something about it that’s just very moving.
I had this idea because, with this moderate notoriety in France, I had started to get lucky with the ladies. It was like, “Oh my God, it’s finally happening! I’m a rock star!” (Laughs) It was a bit of a revelation because I’d never had much success in that department. I thought the word “Casanova” was so lovely, and I thought, “Hey, I’ll just write an entire album about my awful love life.” (Laughs) How it’s suddenly metamorphosing into this actual thing. Mix into that my jealousy of all of these other bands being famous all of a sudden, and that’s how you get the Bitner’s Brew of Casanova (laughs).
I just let all of my cooped-up hormones flood out onto the record. But also with a good dollop of self-hatred and guilt. A lot of guilt. Which is what “Becoming More Like Alfie” is about. I’m becoming this character who is simultaneously very cool and awful at the same time. There’s a lot of guilt thrown in for good measure.
Can we talk about “Charge”?
I’d love to! (Laughs)
I have my computer notes on some songs right in front of me. Next to “Charge,” I just wrote “Horatio Nelson on a waterbed.” It’s an incredible number. I was wondering if the piano riff in “Charge” was kind of a distorted adaptation of the piano riff from “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
It would be great if it was intentional, but it’s fine if it wasn’t. It has that same cadence.
Like a lot of my things, I start to see the similarities harmonically to other things… years after. (Laughs) Which is lucky, because if you actually saw the similarities at the time you’d probably go, “Oh, I can’t do that,” you know? That riff—(sings the “Charge” riff)—it’s sort of a fifth, and then raised fifth, then sixth. That happens in “National Express,” as well—(sings the horn intro to “National Express”) — it’s those same three notes.
But on that fantastic Captain & Tennille song—(hums the “Love Will Keep Us Together” riff)—yeah. It’s the same rhythm, certainly. I’m hoping that it’s slightly different notes (laughs).
Yours has a little chromatic descent, so I think you’re good.
I like the way… if you did that riff, then if you just jumped down a tone and kept the left hand in the same place, it had a really dissonant quality about it.
The song itself is terrifying. I wouldn’t recommend it for those of a weak disposition. It is so not acceptable anymore, that I was conflating sex and war (laughs). Which at the time, I found hilarious. But I was 25. Nobody had, at that time, really thought about such things. It’s awful. I definitely wasn’t condoning violence, or sexual violence. It’s basically me wanting to dress up and be like my Carry On film heroes. I don’t know if you know the Carry On films.
It’s classic, British, end-of-the-pier nonsense. Kenneth Williams, Sid James, dressing up as historical figures and going, “Ooo, er, missus!” (Laughs)
I would recommend them. They’re not at all baroque, but they are very funny to people of my… group. (Laughs)
A Short Album About Love came right after Casanova. It’s a bit more sentimental. Was it sort of a reconciliation of the wildness of Casanova?
Yeah. It was kind of like the post-coital cigarette (laughs). I had read my pop handbook well. I knew that you don’t want to leave it very long after a hit record, after your debut to the general public, really. To not come out with something else. So Casanova had come out in ’96, spring or summer. Then we had the last single in the autumn. At which stage I had written a bunch of songs, and we went in November or December to Shepherd’s Bush Empire and recorded that album virtually live with the orchestra.
We had it out in time for Valentine’s Day in ’97. I basically didn’t have anything else in my life. No dependents, no dogs. Nothing else to do but sit in my bedsit in Brixton writing songs. Planning. So there wasn’t a great deal of thought that went into it. Just some more romantic songs that seemed to fit together. I didn’t have enough songs for a full album, so I thought, “Wouldn’t it look really clever if I took that Krzysztof Kieślowski film title (A Short Film About Love) and bent to my own needs?”
What was your viewpoint for Fin de Siècle?
Well-pronounced, by the way.
Thank you! I’ve been working on that all week!
Even now the journalists in the U.K. say “Finn duh seek-ly.” (Laughs)
I believe that means “end of the century.” It came out in ’99. It’s probably the album of yours I come back most to, except for Absent Friends.
When I listened to it again, for like the first time in five years, in the mid-2000s… it blew my mind (laughs). It’s crazy. I think it’s like the absolute height of my egotism, you know? Not in a bad way, I’m not really criticizing it for that. I literally thought I could do anything. And so we did. Right down to the massed choir, the Wagnerian influences in “Sweden.” And the three-minute trip-hop outro to “Eric the Gardener.” It just goes on like that. I literally don’t quite know how I did it. It was like a dream, you know? I wouldn’t set out to do something that complicated now, it’s too hard.
“National Express” was my second entry point into your music, and your highest-charting single in Britain. It’s a mysterious song to me in a lot of ways, what it’s about. I have a sentence here and I’m afraid to read it. Because I dislike the song I’m going to compare it to, but I love “National Express.”
Just give it a go.
“‘Hotel California’ for England.”
(Neil laughs hysterically) That’s the funniest review I’ve ever heard! (Laugh continues)
Much more tolerable that “Hotel California,” I must add. But it’s similar because to me it sounds like an impressionistic view of an entire place.
Well, don’t give it too much credit, you know? It’s not a terribly deep and meaningful song. But it was observational. I had a French girlfriend at the time, and I was taking her to basically show her off to my brother, Desmond. He lived in the West Country in England. And as you do when you don’t have a lot of money, you take the National Express coach service. It’s like Greyhound.
I suppose it was because I was seeing everything through her eyes. I wrote those lines down. I had this tune, this theme, this piece of music. I’ve always loved the skiffle-y, train-a-comin’ vibe. There was my favorite piano motif. And this big, brassy chorus, sort of end-of-the-pier. (Sings horn intro)
It really kind of shows my roots in ‘70s and ‘80s British mainstream entertainment programs. Saturday Special, all these things… “And now, from Blackpool, it’s Radio 1 Roadshow!” Or Little & Large, various kinds of outré comics. They would have this big, brassy, thing. Sort of halfway between American big band music and British music hall. That’s what I grew up on, and it infected my music (laughs).
So “National Express”… basically, when you think about it, it’s just an enormous farce or gag, sort of extrapolated to four minutes. People really love it for that, and I have nothing against it whatsoever. It probably bought this house (laughs).
Regeneration was a big change, stylistically. Admittedly, it’s one I haven’t spent a lot of time with. I just listened to it and thought it was beautiful. It also sounded like the end of a certain phase.
It was a very interesting detour, I’ll put it like that. We had extricated ourselves from our little, independent record company, who had basically been pinching my money (laughs). But we did a deal, so no harm no foul. I got the rights to the records in that deal, which probably turned out to be a lot more remunerative.
Then we went to Parlophone, which was owned by EMI. They had plenty of cash, and plenty of success with various bands. I thought I’ve got to do something different because Britpop was dead, you know? And I’m going to be going down with the ship if I don’t do something different.
They said, “Do you want a producer?” And I said, “Uhhhh… Nigel Godrich!” And it turned out that Nigel liked my music. He didn’t like the way it was recorded, but he liked the music. He said, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” which was really cool. I also wanted the band. The live band had been together for four or five years and had got really tight. We’re all good friends. I wanted them to have more influence over the music.
I don’t know. I’d just got married. I took my eye off the ball a little bit. Because I got married, we were refurbishing our house, our flat in London. And I couldn’t actually use all my equipment. So I had to write the music on acoustic guitar. That’s very pivotal to the songs and how it sounded. I was in a weird place and I didn’t pay a lot of attention. The songs are sort of angry, quite frustrated. It’s got a very neurotic vibe about it.
I think it’s a perfectly good record and a lot of people really like it. But I don’t feel personally feel a lot of kinship with it. So much of my other records are my head transferred to record, this weird fantasy land that I’ve come up with. Whereas that one wasn’t; it had to do with a lot of other people. I have nothing against it. But at the end of it all, I went, “No, I’m done with that.” So I sacked the band and went and made a Scott Walker album (laughs).
Absent Friends… Not to overstate things in a way that would make me not look like a professional journalist, but that album is very, very important to me. I came to it in 2005 when my daughter Lucie was just one year old. It seemed to say a lot of things about family. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to “Charmed Life.” It just made me realize how lucky I was. And the rest of the album has variations on that.
To be honest, that’s why I called the best-of Charmed Life. Because I think it’s one of my best songs. It means a lot to me as well, it’s about my daughter, and how lucky I’ve been. My God, I’ve been lucky. For people to put up with me for this long, and to keep wanting to hear me. It’s like—thank God. Because I wouldn’t have enjoyed having to go work at the post office. They’re about the only people who would take me. I have no other talents whatsoever (laughs).
I’m very fond of that album myself. I think because I went to my happy place on it. I thought, “I don’t know quite where I’m meant to be going, so I’ll just do what I know and what I love, which is Scott Walker,” you know? (Laughs) Sort of orchestral pop. It benefits from the fact that I was still on a major label. I could get Nigel to mix it, because he has the most amazing set of ears. I could afford to have a full orchestra in Abbey Road Studio 2. There’s some genuinely good songs on there. I think it benefits from maybe a little more mature songwriting. All in all, yay! (Laughs)
I think the first song I heard from that album was “The Happy Goth.”
Guess where that was written.
Oh… uh, Sweden?
Buffalo, New York? No kidding! Wow.
Yeah! I was on tour with Ben Folds. I had a day off. I was in this massive hotel in a tower. I was looking down and I could see this goth girl, with a guy. I just sort of of made up this story (laughs).
That song and “At the Indie Disco” are interesting to me. A lesser songwriter might have taken those titles and lampooned the characters, almost an invitation to make fun of them. But both of those songs end up showing a lot of empathy for the characters. People expect one thing, kind of a parody, but those songs end up being quite compassionate. You don’t make them look like fools, and I feel that’s very important.
That’s true. Mostly it’s because I’m sort of jealous of them anyway, you know? (Laughs) “Indie Disco” I wrote after a night out with Stuart Murdoch from Belle & Sebastian and his wife Marisa. It was in Glasgow. They took me to his favorite disco. And I’d literally never been to an indie disco in my life before that (laughs). I’d grown up in Northern Ireland—there were no such things. And I’m thinking, “This is a dance, and they’re playing all the music I like!” (Laughs) I had a good time. So that was a lovely experience, and I wrote about that as if I’d known indie discos all my life.
Why would you lampoon these people? I kind of feel like everybody’s just trying to get through the day, get through their lives. Even the ones that I’m not too fond of are generally—they’re who they are for a reason. Empathy is always the best solution. That’s what art is for, really.
On Victory for the Comic Muse, I think “A Lady of a Certain Age” is another one where there’s a lot of empathy and compassion for the subject.
I started writing that because I’d been asked to write a song for Jane Birkin. About a verse in I thought I can’t really give this to Jane Birkin because she might think I’m taking the piss, you know? (Laughs) “A lady of a certain age—oh, really?” So I just continued finishing it. I challenged myself to get from one end of the story to the other. There’s three very long verses. But I managed it, and I was very proud of it.
It’s up there with my best songs, but I wouldn’t say it’s my very best simply because the music is purposefully sort of French-sounding, Michel Legrand, kind of classic, old-school arpeggios. I did that for a reason, because that colored the emotion of the characters. But also, it means that it’s slightly less interesting to me, or less original than my other songs. But I like the song. (Laughs)
Bang Goes the Knighthood seems rooted in a sense of class and society, kind of a comparison between social norms. You’ve got rich kids in “Assume the Perpendicular,” indie kids in “At the Indie Disco,” you’ve got “Neapolitan Girl,” “The Complete Banker”… you’ve got all these different societal elements clashing together on that album.
Yeah. I’m not sure I actually meant to, but now that you’ve said that to me (laughs)… I was interested in taking what was happening at the time—the financial meltdown—and the fact that it had been caused by a very small number of very greedy people. I was taking my own childhood view of bankers, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and things like that. That clichéd banker in a bowler hat. Kind of running with that.
I’m glad you said that, because it makes me feel better about the album, the way it fits together. A huge social portrait (laughs).
I was thinking about about “Down in the Street Below.” There are two verses in that song. One takes place in a girlfriend’s flat, the other in a very high-society cocktail bar. Is that song sung to one person, or is it to two different people?
The first verse was about a girlfriend I had at the time, after my marriage had collapsed. I kind of started going out again. It was a weird time, as you’d expect. I was just integrating little snapshots into the life of everybody else, down in the street below. Everybody’s sort of doing the same things, living the same. But then again, who knows?
I think I wrote that I was in a club with a few of my “celebrity friends” in London, which was very rare for me. I was starting to think this was all a load of rubbish, you know? I was describing this kind of gentleman’s club, with weird glasses, talking about our experiences in L.A. How it seemed so remote from what was happening in the street below. Just those kinds of little observations.
Foreverland turned out to be a Top 10 album in the UK.
It’s funny, because the music industry goes in cycles. It just so happened that it coincided with the ability to get albums into the Top 10 if you sell enough in the first week. The music industry was in such a state of disarray (laughs). They hadn’t quite worked out the streaming-versus-physical sales thing to a T. So we benefited from that. That’s my loved-up album. It’s just Cathy (Davey, Neil’s partner) all the way through.
“To the Rescue” is a powerful song. I know that you and your partner are involved in animal rescue services. Is it true, as you said on your BBC special, that you live with 30 rescued pigs?
It was true then, but now there’s 65 (laughs). Cathy runs the rescue, it’s hers. She’s an amazing person. She was an indie pop star like myself in Ireland, before all of this. I thought when we hooked up that I was going to be in this glamorous rock and roll couple. Then she started rescuing horses. I thought, “Where has she gone all day?” She’s in Limerick, rescuing a horse or a pig.
That song started as miffed—my nose was put out of joint. But I was trying to be an adult about it. I was grappling with this kind of… “I want you for myself, but I also completely… I’m so proud, kind of in awe of what you’re doing.” I’m not able to do it. I just get too cut up by seeing all of this pain. I’m not brave enough to ditch my job (laughs). The least I could do was write a nice song about it.
Office Politics was a double-album with a very strong concept behind it.
The modern world, shall we say.
“Norman and Norma” is a miracle song. It sounds like you’re setting this couple up for a tragedy, but then the final verse… nobody could have seen that coming.
It was one of those songs where I fell out of bed humming the tune. Almost never happens to me. I had written in my notebook, “Norman and Norma.” I had no idea where that came from or why it was written in my notebook. I’d obviously just thought of the names and gone, “That’s funny.”
I had the tune—(hums melody)—“Norman and Norma—oh, good, that fits.” Like a lot of my songs, the rest is history. I just kind of extrapolate (laughs). The reason they do what they do at the end is because of the name—the Norman conquest in 1066. I like history, what can I tell you?
Last thing, on a personal note. My 10-year-old son still remembers the first time he heard “Philip and Steve’s Furniture Removal Company,” when he was 7. Which was great, because it gave me an opportunity to explain to him how important Philip Glass and Steve Reich were to neo-classical music. To a 7-year-old.
(Laughs) It’s one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done, to be honest. It’s completely meaningless. It doesn’t need to exist. But I love that it does.
And yet it’s informative.
If you want to know about contemporary classical music (laughs).
Thanks for taking the time to talk. It’s been a thrill because your music is very important to me.
Thank you for being in my corner all these years!
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