LIPA graduate HANNAH PEEL initially worked as a composer, arranger and musical director for theatre, as well as a session musician. She launched her solo career in 2010 with Rebox, an EP of music box covers of songs from the 1980s by Soft Cell, New Order, OMD and Cocteau Twins, and has gone on a varied and fascinating journey since then. The Irish-born multi-instrumentalist is a member of The Magnetic North along with Gawain Erland Cooper and Simon Tong, a trio known for their exploration of different members’ childhoods through their two quasi-concept albums (Orkney: Symphony Of The Magnetic North and Prospect Of Skelmersdale).
The second Hannah Peel solo album, Awake But Always Dreaming, produced by Cooper, was released in 2016, and features Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe. The follow-up to her 2011 release, The Broken Wave, Awake But Always Dreaming is inspired by her grandmother’s dementia.
I understand the roots of Awake But Always Dreaming came from the latter stages of your grandmother’s illness, when you discovered the link between music and memory?
She went into a nursing home and I particularly remember walking in one day as my aunt was leaving and my aunt was crying and the automatic feeling was to go ‘oh no, what’s it going to be like today, has she forgotten us completely?’. She was living back in the 1940s working in a factory and couldn’t understand who we were or where she was. I used to imagine in her mind she was wandering around these cities and brutalist buildings, all cobbled streets with shops, and in every shop was a memory. It would have, maybe, my grandad’s piano or a songbook that she really loved and she would go in and come back to us in those moments.
We were never told about the power of what music could do. She was an amazing singer, and sang for years, but she never wanted to sing and we thought ‘oh, that’s gone like everything else’. I said to my family one Christmas Day when we went to visit, ‘why don’t we sing some Christmas carols?’. She just woke up, and started to sing. She hadn’t sung for four or five years; her vocal chords wouldn’t have been used in that way and it was a really magical moment.
You’ve said Italo Calvino’s book of prose poetry, Invisible Cities, played a big part of your process in writing the album. I’m reading it at the moment; it plonks you into these alien worlds of exotic faded glamour, but in so few words.
It’s very mad, isn’t it? That book was a huge inspiration. I was completely absorbed in this book. I had pictures pasted to my walls of communist buildings, designs and photography and my dream was to compose a song for every single city, and at the end of the day it just didn’t work. And I spent years doing it. It wasn’t until I realised, in that moment, ‘oh my god, I’ve just been dreaming about where she’s [Peel’s grandmother] been going, for four years’. So, I came out of it and started to write about the personal experience.
Your music box compositions and recordings have found their way on to numerous adverts, artist remixes and in film, and you’ve used the music box on Awake But Always Dreaming to great effect. Do you make music boxes as well?
I buy the mechanics of it online but the making of it is hole punching every note and then I join them all together with Sellotape, which is really high-tech! But the box is mine, and the way the pick-up is inside the box, it picks up all the creaks and the cranks and you get the pull of the paper. It makes a really beautiful sound you can’t get with a digital, sampled version. It’s really special. [At gigs] the audience can see when the song is about to end as well. You can pre-empt the ending. It’s nice how it falls to the floor with a clunk.
I hear there’s a new Magnetic North record slated for release in 2018.
We’re working on something. We’ve already taken the guys to Ireland. Compared to both of them [Erland Cooper and Simon Tong] I’m very transient, I’ve got different parts to me. I lived in Liverpool as long as I lived in Ireland and as long as I lived in Barnsley, so there’s an equalness to where I would want to base it, so we’re gradually finding that and gradually trying to piece it together and make something coherent. But I don’t think it will be as solid as Skelmersdale or as solid as Orkney. It will be a bit different from that. I’ve also just written a piece for a 33-piece colliery brass band. I’ve just recorded it and it will be out in September. It’s brass band and synths.
Is this the mythical Mary Casio, of Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia? How is Mary?
She’s doing well! Mary’s my middle name but I had this idea… I’ve got loads of Casio keyboards and I would often just put a drumbeat on the Casio and just play along to the samba and rumba beats and swing beats, and started saying, ‘this is Mary Casio’. She’s like a space lady, a bit like a mad inventor. She’s old and she’s never left Barnsley, and in her back garden she has a shed she has all her inventions in. She’s a bit like a Delia Derbyshire or Daphne Oram type character. Spends her life working in the local post office and at night, when nobody knows, she goes into the garden and she makes all these crazy electronic instruments, and has a dream of going to the actual star constellation of Cassiopeia.
You’re juggling so much: Hannah Peel the solo artist, one third of the Magnetic North, and, of course, Mary. How do you balance everything?
With her [Mary], it was definitely making theatre. It isn’t theatrical music, it’s very ambient and spiritual, but I went into that story as if you were reading a book and imagined that character as I was writing it. The Hannah Peel solo stuff is what I go through on a daily basis, and then the Magnetic North is also something completely different because it harks back to childhood and memories and nostalgia. It’s quite hard to separate it all: at the moment I’m finding it hard to write for Magnetic North. The boys are really pushing me to do stuff and I kind of don’t want to do it [laughs], because my brain isn’t separating them all very well. But once I’ve got Mary mastered, I think I’ll start to change my mind about that.
Hannah Peel plays Threshold Festival on 1st April. Awake But Always Dreaming is out now via My Own Pleasure.