Although a musician nurtured within a more traditional background, synthpop was the root of her 2010 debut EP ‘Rebox’ which featured music box covers of classics such as ‘Electricity’, Tainted Love’ and ‘Blue Monday’.
Over the last few years, more electronic elements have blended into the work of HANNAH PEEL. 2014’s ‘Fabricstate’ EP was a marvellous hybrid of the synthetic and the organic while on her 2015 seasonal single ‘Find Peace’, Peel went the full electronic hog with a dreamy cacophony of analogue bleeps and percussive mantras.
While ‘Rebox 2’ in 2015 provided an enticing stopgap, HANNAH PEEL’s second full length album ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’ is now ready to be unleashed. Produced with long-term collaborator Erland Cooper from THE MAGNETIC NORTH, the record is a concept album of sorts about memory and the tragic effects of dementia, based on events in Peel’s own life.
An impressive body of work that will startle even her new followers who have come on board via her work with JOHN FOXX, ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’ sees Peel at her most experimental yet, especially in the long player’s strident second half. However, the album is launched with the accessible yet poignant pop statement of ‘All That Matters’.
In a busy 2016 which has seen HANNAH PEEL contribute to recordings by THE MAGNETIC NORTH, BEYOND THE WIZARDS SLEEVE and JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS as well as her own album and an instrumental project under the pseudonym of MARY CASIO, she kindly took time out to chat to The Electricity Club from her retreat in County Donegal.
I think from the experience firstly of collaborating with JOHN FOXX, then doing THE MAGNETIC NORTH, scoring for MARY CASIO and doing ‘Rebox 2’, I’ve really learnt a lot and found things I really like and adore in the way I want to make music.
You’ve also taken over the studio space where MemeTune used to be based with Erland Cooper. Did Benge leave any synths behind for you?
He left quite a few, it took him weeks to move out… a year later, he’s got his palace in Cornwall sorted and there’s only a Hammond organ left! It’s all sadly gone down there.
BEYOND THE WIZARDS SLEEVE was a fantastic thing, they really liked ‘All That Matters’ and Richard Norris ended up doing a remix. So in return, he asked me to come to this big house to record some vocals. I turned up and met his musical partner Erol Alkan; I was instructed to sing one thing and it went on… it was about eight hours later that I actually left! I ended up doing about seven tracks, but it all blurred into one!
Was the deep pitch shifted vocal on ‘Diagram Girl’ done in post-production?
No, it was recorded that way… they wanted me to sound like a man! *laughs*
How did you approach the concept of ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’, what’s its thematic core?
I’ve been writing this album for a very long time since the first one and it’s gone through hundreds of stages, but it never felt quite right. Unfortunately, my granny had dementia and I never quite formalised in my head what it could be, like scientifically where does this disease come from?
I’d read about how people had used music to communicate with those who had lost their memory or had dementia. So one Christmas, I mentioned that to my family and suggested we sing a couple of songs. From not knowing us at all or where she was, she sang every single song and smiled… she even said “Happy Christmas”.
She was very old when she passed away this year, so you can imagine after ten years of having that kind of feeling, all of a sudden being woken up by music… as soon as that happened, I realised that’s what the album was about and what I’ve been writing about these last few years, but I hadn’t really thought about it.
So it took a while to jig it around, the running order is quite specific in terms of how it goes into the rabbit hole of the brain and the darker side.
The instrumentals and tracks with no lyrics represent how people lose their speech and hallucinate, so with that second side which is more psychedelic and the repeating of lyrics, I made sure certain elements were brought out when we were mixing it.
But I didn’t want to make a record that was depressing. Obviously it’s a very tragic thing, but also the person is still exactly the same person. A lot of the time, you think you’ve lost them but actually, they’re just in a different world. So that’s why I wanted to approach it as if going into their world and their mind, and through that process, finding solitude and peace myself as well.
Did your interim releases like ‘Fabricstate’, ‘Find Peace’ and ‘Rebox 2’ have any bearing on how you made ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’?
That’s a really good question because they really did, mostly because I was obsessed for a long time with this Italo Calvino book ‘Invisible Cities’; it’s fifty-five short prose poems about these imaginary cities and worlds that all delve into emotion. ‘Fabricstate’ came directly from that book and for a long time, I was like “why am I obsessed with this book?” because I just couldn’t figure it out.
But that specific moment with my granny, I got what I’d been trying to do for the last few years. It was building a city inside your mind or going to another place and understanding it, and that world could be so upside-down as if you live in a net or a valley.
The track ‘Octavia’ on the album is a direct reference to one of the cities, like ‘Chloe’ from the ‘Fabricstate’ EP. It was like maps and the mind, where everything is connecting neurons and everything, it all folded into one whole body of work. So all the EPs and everything all came from the same place really, it was just how they actually come together on the album.
‘Chloe’ from ‘Fabricstate’ was the theme song to the dark Channel 4 drama ‘Dates’. Out of interest, what did you think of it?
Somebody heard the demo, really liked the lyrics and thought it would work well with the show. At the time, I didn’t have the EP ready so I was like “Why not? That would be nice!”
We had to adjust every single ending of the song for each different episode and it came very naturally. I’m glad that it’s got a purpose. I really liked the show, mainly because it was like watching a theatre show on TV with a couple in one place and that was it. It was a gorgeous concept and it was a shame it didn’t get commissioned any further.
It goes back to basic songwriting, in that if it works with one instrument which is my core solid grounding like a piano, it can work across all different kinds of forms. It worked beautifully on the piano, but I don’t think it gave the album enough hope, fun and youthfulness that it needed to open up a record. It needed that big sense of life affirming power, the arpeggiator synthline and the blend of the organic strings came together quite naturally.
Talking of this more positive tone despite the darkness, there’s songs with melancholic optimism like ‘Hope Lasts’?
It had the same kind of angle in terms of being supported and that no matter how bad things get, you keep a bright eye on things. I think a lot of what I deal with as an artist is self-doubt and self-deprecating myself to the point that I can’t do something *laughs*
What I saw echoed in a lot of other people, especially with something like this where it’s so tragic, is it doesn’t have to be, there is hope there. There are people trying to find a cure, there is support and music can do that. So there had to be this hopeful “I can see you – I can see the future – I can see its going to be ok – don’t worry” aspect, it’s quite simple really. That’s another song that really works on the piano and I’ve been saying to my manager Steve Malins that it would be really lovely to do a version of some of the songs from the record with just piano and strings.
The second half of the album will surprise some because it’s quite experimental. You mentioned ‘Octavia’ earlier but there are also the title track and ‘Foreverest’ which are both quite long…
Those are the tracks that came from writing things like the instrumentals on ‘Rebox 2’ and ideas that came from using the same instruments like the Roland SH101.
It felt that to go into that world, you needed to go into a trance state with something that is long and stepping into something else. ‘Foreverest’ was originally two tracks, they fitted so well together so they were joined with a Claptrap *laughs*
‘Foreverest’ was written from an outside perspective of looking at the world and how particularly in life, we race around and we try our best to succeed or get to the top and people are cut-throat. I goes back to ‘All That Matters’ at the end of the day, regardless of anything, is you have someone around you who cares for you and you love. It was a kind of reflection on how people try to get to the top of Mount Everest and die on the way up and don’t get lifted down!
There’s hundreds of people who go up there and die on the mountain and are left there! When I read that in ‘National Geographic’, I thought at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you don’t get to the top of your career or whatever, because you might lose your mind or memory… what does it matter?
You’ve covered ‘Cars In The Garden’ by Paul Buchanan from THE BLUE NILE, what made you choose this song for the album?
I’ve been playing this song live for a while and for me when I heard it, it triggered something that was very emotional. I’m a massive fan of THE BLUE NILE and a lot of the basis of the album’s production comes from ‘A Walk Across The Rooftops’ and ‘Hats’. It’s the blend of analogue synths, beautiful lush strings and Paul Buchanan’s voice in particular which just resonates.
When I was putting the album together, the very end felt like it needed a music box to bring you back to childhood, which is where everybody seems to go. My granny remembered where she was born when she was aged six and that was right up until she died, but she wouldn’t remember anything past that. The music box for me is obviously very innocent, real and fed with paper, and the song itself talks about folding into the landscape and being overcome by nature. So it felt like the perfect ending to round it off to go back to the beginning.
I tried various different duet vocals and we’ve got a really wonderful version with JOHN FOXX, but the one with Hayden Thorpe from WILD BEASTS made it onto to album because his vocal is so subtle and soft, it just needed that other perspective on it.
What would you say are your favourite songs on the new album?
One in particular is ‘Conversations’, I can’t sing it at the moment without crying, recording that was really difficult.
I don’t know if I’ll ever do that one live; if I do, it will be when I’ve got used to the album maybe later down the line.
‘Conversations’ reminds me of KATE BUSH…
Oh thank you, that’s really nice. I suppose it’s the vocal that goes up really high, speaking and stuff.
I do want all the songs there, but there’s a couple that I find very emotionally connecting, ones that really mark where emotions come from. ‘Foreverest’, ‘All That Matters’ and ‘Don’t Take It Out On Me’ are the main ones that grab me and get me going inside, they’re so direct.
Yes, they do. It’s really important that they have a separate voice so there is a different sound. MARY CASIO could have been a HANNAH PEEL album, but it’s so different in terms of there’s no vocals.
It’s very much an instrumental journey, so it helped me to compose it under a different name and gave me the confidence to just go for it. They do blend but I think the key is the style and the blend of soundscapes that hopefully makes it different on each one, but also keeps it together.
Some of your earlier fans don’t appear to have enjoyed your new direction. Who do you think your fanbase is these days?
I’ve moved on so much since ‘The Broken Wave’ so I don’t feel that anybody that was on that first album should have been on that journey with me. I do find that my fanbase is very, very varied and comes from all different angles; there’s THE MAGNETIC NORTH and JOHN FOXX obviously in particular.
The first record wasn’t me, I just did it because it was fun and someone said “I’ll produce and put this out for you”, I just said “Yeah, why not!” – most of it was written while I was recording just in the studio, because I’d never really written songs before.
It was an interesting thing when it came out. I actually ended up, not resenting the album because it means a lot, but it just didn’t feel like me. I’ve said to Steve Malins several times, “I want it off iTunes! I don’t want it there anymore” because it doesn’t represent who am I now and he just went “You can’t do that! You can’t just wipe it off and start again!” *laughs*
When I go to see family in Donegal and I go down the pub, people down there ask me to play ‘Song For The Sea’ from ‘A Broken Wave’ because it’s still a favourite of people around there because they know me from childhood. So that’s nice, it makes me feel better.
You’re about to embark on the five date ‘Troika’ tour with KITE BASE and I SPEAK MACHINE. What’s happening here?
I like KITE BASE, they supported me in London last year and we knew Tara Busch was coming over to support GARY NUMAN as I SPEAK MACHINE. We were all free at this time so someone said “Shall we do something?” and we just pencilled it in.
We’re all playing solo, we’re not doing anything joint, it’s just a joint billing tour. Every night, the headliner will be different so we’re just making sure everybody comes down for the first act… what that first act is, you won’t know until you get there! *laughs*
We’re all of a similar age and come from the same background, and although the music from each act is different, it does feel similar in a way. Also, it’s nice to have some kind of support because even just for myself to get on a support tour is really difficult if you’re not on a big label. It’s nice that we have this group mentality of “right, we’re going do something and we’re going to do it” and it’s going to be called THIS and the poster is going to have a Soviet style that we all really like!
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to HANNAH PEEL
Special thanks also to Josh Cooper at 9PR and Steve Malins at Random Management
HANNAH PEEL joins KITE BASE and I SPEAK MACHINE for the 2016 ‘Troika’ tour which includes:
Cardiff CLWB (7th September), London Shacklewell Arms (9th September), Bristol The Exchange (10th September), Coventry The Tin (13th September), Sheffield Picture House (14th September)
Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
25th August 2016