Among the festive-themed adverts on our TV screens right now is a touching Aardman-animated tale made for the Alzheimer’s Research UK charity.
The Santa Forgot story follows a little girl, Freya, who while preparing for Christmas realises much of the magic has gone, and through her father learns how memory problems have stopped Santa’s worldwide visits, with the words spoken by Stephen Fry and music from Hannah Peel.
As self-styled ‘composer, arranger and singer’ Hannah put it, “Imagining a world where you grow up as a child and there isn’t a Santa Claus is utterly devastating. You see what’s going on with his elves, Freya going to see Santa, saying it’s going to be okay. It makes you feel there is hope and positivity, and a chance that things will be better.”
That message rings true for Hannah after her work on a dementia research project and on her second solo LP, Awake but Always Dreaming, written partly as therapy after losing her grandmother to the disease.
Research suggests clear benefits of music in relation to cognitive ability, songs that were key in our young adult years likely to provoke strong responses in the later stages of dementia. And that’s also something Hannah has learned from personal experience through her grandmother, and something she’s explored deeply.
Tonight, there’s an official launch party for her latest album, not far from her East London base at St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch, curated by Kirsteen McNish of the Vine Collective. Described as ‘a meeting of minds through film, live music and poetry all based around the themes of her new album and memory’, the line-up also includes actor (and former Dr Who) Christopher Eccleston, poet/writer/filmmaker Lavinia Greenlaw, DJ We Are Wrangler, Lancashire electronica icon (and fellow East London resident) John Foxx, and director/choreographer Shelly Love.
Awake But Always Dreaming was released on the My Own Pleasure label in late September on double gatefold vinyl, digital and CD formats, and went on to garner great reviews. It features 10 new songs, and from lead single All That Matters to a closing cover of The Blue Nile mastermind Paul Buchanan’s Cars In The Garden (with Hannah joined by Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beasts), it’s certainly compelling. And this from an artist who featured on another critically-acclaimed album this year, The Magnetic North’s Prospect of Skelmersdale.
What’s more, this year has also seen Hannah spearheading a Memory Tapes audio project, inviting fellow artists to make playlists of their lives, with electronica pioneers (and a close friend) John Foxx and Gary Numan among those already having followed her lead. And as she puts it, “I think of it like a time capsule, so if ever I fall into dementia, there would be a mixtape of the songs that connect for my children and grandchildren.”
Is Hannah still in touch with former writewyattuk interviewee and her East London neighbour John Foxx, having previously featured in his band The Maths?
“Yeah, and he’s still got so much energy and power still, and still has that presence. He’s also doing a lot more sculpting and artwork – he’s massively into it and incredible at it.”
I feel I should go back a bit at this point, explaining how Hannah first came to public recognition with her ‘hand-punched music box’ EP Rebox, covering ‘80s bands Cocteau Twins, Soft Cell and New Order. Can she explain her on-going relationship with the music box?
“It’s a love-hate thing that started off as a bit of fun with Tainted Love. Every single note is hole-punched on paper and it’s become one of those things I adore doing but takes so long. By the end you feel you’ve wasted a whole day punching holes! But what comes out of that process is really beautiful.”
Is it her inner scientist – her geeky side – coming through?
“Definitely! I really love analogue synths, and I suppose the music box is the very basics of early computer technology. We rely on that so much, so making music without any cables – just paper and a pencil again – is really something. Even orchestrators don’t tend to use paper anymore – they do it all on a computer. So this feels like you’re touching the core again. That’s why I also use it at the end of this new record – it seems to sum up the childhood everyone goes back to.”
It was Hannah’s solo debut LP The Broken Wave that led to her first collaboration with ex-Verve guitarist Simon Tong (who’s also featured with Blur, The Good The Bad And The Queen, and Gorillaz) and Erland Cooper (Erland & The Carnival, alongside Simon) on 2012’s stunning Orkney: Symphony of The Magnetic North.
She’s also created a series of limited edition EPs, including her version – on Rebox 2 – of John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts and Wild Beasts’ Palace. And this year has certainly been a prolific one, for as well as the second Magnetic North album there’s also been Hannah’s other live project – the artist transmogrifying as synth-based, space-age alter-ego Mary Casio, combining analogue electronics and a 33-piece colliery brass band to great effect, debuting to a sell-out Manchester audience.
“This year has been amazing, and the Skelmersdale record was incredible to do. Doing that gave me the confidence to do this – tapping into childhood again, talking about things. With Mary, I wanted to do something that wasn’t just songs and using my voice, so had this side-project. I have this collection of keyboards and early synths, including Casio’s you can record your voice into. And just for fun sometimes I’d play people a song as a character.
“Then I got approached asking me to score for a brass band. They were playing the second half of Tubular Bells as the second half, and wanted a new composition for the first. I also discovered around then about the star constellation Cassiopeia, so thought Mary should go into space, on a journey, like my grandma and great-aunt – who never left Yorkshire but had always been a stargazer.
“So in the final years of her life Mary gets in a spaceship and goes to Cassiopeia. I wrote it with that in mind, that journey and the planets, nebulas and different stars visited along the way. It ends with a visit to the planet of past souls and a recording of my grandfather performing at Manchester Cathedral, aged 13 in 1921, one of the first recordings of a choir boy.”
Incidentally, Joyce Peel died earlier this year, aged 98, seven years after her diagnosis, and in a recent interview Hannah said she was keen to remember her now as ‘the beautiful soprano who moved to County Armagh to marry an organist, loved music and her family and sang in the choir her husband conducted’. With all that in mind, the Mary Casio project seems rather fitting. Besides, as she put it, “Scoring for brass bands has been amazing. I grew up playing in brass bands in Yorkshire, so going back to that is really magical. And since that first show at the Halle St Peter’s in May, we’ve done another in Leeds.”
Not having met Mary Casio personally, I confess to Hannah, I’m getting a picture there of Kate Rusby joining forces with ELO, a concept that rather tickles her. Is this also her Barnsley link coming to the fore?
“Yeah, although I don’t usually write about Yorkshire. As with Simon (Tong) writing about Skelmersdale, you look at certain towns you’re put in by your parents and don’t like it …”
She wanted to be back in Ireland at that point, I guess.
“Without a doubt, and my family craved to be there, but we couldn’t sell the house so spent every holiday going back on the ferry instead.”
That love continues, and while Hannah tends to do much of her writing and composing from her London studio, the new album was partly created with Magnetic North bandmate Erland at Attica Audio in County Donegal. And the fact that key parts of Hannah’s childhood were spent in the landscape of the North West Irish coast seems to inspire a sense of openness – places to roam and investigate – on the new record, before a more complex, darker, percussive thrust comes into the fray, as adult city life intrudes and inspires.
“I was born in Armagh, but so many from that area would go to the North West coast across the border for their holidays, and Donegal is a place I’ve been every year of my life. But I didn’t know there was a studio there until around two years ago. I knew the owner, Tommy McLaughlin (guitarist with the band Villagers) and was told to visit his studio, so one summer went along with Erland.
“We thought it may have been in his bedroom or attic but then turned up and it was the most amazing place – overlooking the glen and mountains, and just stunning. When you’re sat playing piano you have 10ft tall windows looking out on incredible views. It really added something – the sound of the record really came together there. You can do a lot in London, but don’t get that same sense of dreaming and escapism.”
The new album is one of two halves, mood-wise (the official description suggests it’s ‘full of vibrant, direct colour in the early stages contrasted with esoteric, dreamscape, legato movements towards the end’ – the ‘bright, raw magic and joy of personal relationships’ sitting alongside the premise of a gradual loss to dementia). but the overall message – like the new TV ad – is about hope and celebrating life, albeit with a dream-like feel, with daily life expressed and decoded.
“I often use deep meditation to comb the recesses of my mind I can’t reach during the day, and sometime the lines between reality and sleep become a little blurred. It’s an inspired feeling, the conscious awake dream becomes movement using that dreaming energy, but without passing entirely out of that waking state of consciousness. It’s like being asleep with one eye and awake with the other. You see things differently and get a real sense of the world around you and what’s important, which actually presents itself as being pretty simple.
“It’s supposed to feel like a journey into the mind but also into adulthood. There’s a constant reminder that however large the adventure or realised the ambition, to not forget about the ones who will always care, the ones standing waiting to welcome you back, the ones who will forever look after you and say simply, they love you. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters, caring and being cared for. To love and not be loved is one of the saddest thing of all.”
There’s certainly been a great response to the LP, initial critical acclaim leading to a ripple effect of appreciation.
“It’s been overwhelming – from personal stories and messages to people picking it up, writing about it and talking about it, even more so now. For me that’s really beautiful – it has a life of its own, rather than the usual music out for a month and then you don’t hear of it again.”
“Definitely for this record, although I find I could probably do a lot more of that but have this kind of resistance in my soul that just doesn’t allow it. It seems to edge more towards a darker side! The first version of All that Matters is just piano, very melancholy and emotional, so it’s nice to touch a lot more people by doing a different production.”
It’s a lovely track in that stripped down format too, I might add, and well worth seeking out, even if I’d venture that the opening track is not an obvious snapshot of the LP it trails.
“Well, I want to take you on a journey, and that’s important for those who have been touched by dementia but also the lesser number who haven’t. I didn’t want to alienate anyone. I also wanted to discover that journey myself to help me understand it.
“Before I came to the realisation of what it was about I had many different tracks inspired by (Italo) Calvino’s Invisible Cities book – all these songs about mysterious worlds and places to go, a mix of songs like Octavia, the second half of Foreverest and Awake But Always Dreaming. But how would I put that all in an album without completely jumping around? And then I had this moment with my Grandma and realised it was actually perfect – you had to go into the brain rather than throwing that in at the beginning.”
Many of us have had those personal links to dementia through watching the suffering of loved ones – be they family or friends. Was this Hannah trying to make sense of her own close-hand experiences of dealing with dementia?
“Yes. As you very well know there’s never a day where something doesn’t happen or where something isn’t upsetting, and it makes you analyse not just them but also yourself and coping mechanisms with that. It was definitely therapy for me after she passed away.
“Also, talking to a lot of scientists helped. Although I grew up in Northern Ireland, but went to school in Barnsley, and so did Selina Wray, one of the lead research scientists at University College London, who works in Alzheimer’s research therapy. We met via Facebook through mutual friends and she ended up inviting me along to her lab to see what she did and to understand her work. She makes neurons from stem cells to analyse what happens with different cures.”
As it turned out, seeing those cells moving around in petri dishes under a microscope also put Hannah in mind of fireworks, stars and astronomy, leading to something of a creative realisation of her album’s theme (and arguably Mary Casio’s big adventure too).
“The fact that Selina’s from Barnsley also opened a door for me in understanding the science of what’s going on, helping me deal with it a lot more. It’s fascinating what they’re doing. There’s also something else via the Wellcome Collection, a programme with Government backing for artists and scientists to collaborate. It’s breaking down conceptions over what dementia is and how to handle it in an artistic way and get more people involved. I’m really happy to be part of that.
“Statistics suggest that one in three of us will die with dementia, and a third of us are connected to someone with dementia through family and friends. Around 850,000 people in the UK alone have it now and two in three affected will be women. It’s quite remarkable really, and it’s getting worse.”
True, and there’s a line on Conversations that seems particularly poignant – ‘When I awake, don’t recall your name, my only friend’. I think a lot of us can identify with that through loved ones suffering with dementia.
“Yes, and thinking of Still Alice (the Lisa Genova book, later adapted into the film of the same title, starring Julianne Moore), one thing I got out of that was that she says ‘I love you’ rather a lot, as was the case with my grandmother. She’d ask my Dad ‘Are you my lover?’ We make jokes about it to make it light-hearted, but it always came back to love.”
It must have been a hard album to write, emotionally, but I’m guessing it was somewhat therapeutic.
“Definitely, although it’s not an easy one to perform live. Some of them, I just don’t know how I’m going to do them. But the more hallucinogenic instrumentals are fun to do, really get into and go for it. And I don’t feel satisfied in a performance if I haven’t gone into that place myself.”
It was Hannah’s father’s job that brought her from Craigavon, Armagh, to England, a year’s contract leading to a much longer stay, initial stalling over the sale of a house then Hannah and her brother’s immersion in their schooling and a new set of friends ultimately leading to the family staying put. Was there a link with the Troubles back home at the time too?
“Not directly, although there was an element of just being out of that, trying something new. My parents never really spoke about that, and only over the last few years have I heard stories that made me think, ‘Wow’ – things at Dad’s work where you wonder how people live with all that. In Northern Ireland, you’re schooled a very different way to the South and what you’re told is very different. But with everything around the centenary of the 1916 Rising you get a different perspective as to what was going on and why there was so much hatred, and can really sympathise – even something like it being a British man responsible for ripping up the railways, leaving so many towns stranded and unable to get around in that era.
“And with Brexit, I honestly do not know what they’re going to do. I think there will be a massive rise in people wanting to leave. There’s no way people will survive going back to border patrols again.”
So where does Hannah reckon she’s best known now – Barnsley, Craigavon, Donegal, London, Orkney, Skelmersdale, or Liverpool (where she spent her university years and recently returned for a triumphant sell-out show at the Central Library)?
“I don’t think anybody knows me! I just like making music. But I think from living in Liverpool for so long and the Skelmersdale record this year, it could be around there! I think it’s wonderful we could sell out in Liverpool, a wonderful thing in a city you lived in so long. And to have a record out that touched so many people in that community … I studied there, worked there, and played in my first bands there, and have a massive love for that city and area.”
I let on that I’d never previously felt an urge to visit Skem other than for covering football matches at White Moss Park then Selby Place in the past, but now have a feeling it may lead to sightings of Hannah – decked out in red poncho and distinctive headwear, of course – with Erland and Simon. Have they returned to Skelmersdale since making the album?
“We’ve been back a few times. I really love it, and for me there’s a real connection with the town I was born, Craigavon. That was also a new town, but a failed political town. There were a lot of murders and things that went on, and they never finished it, and the housing estates where they hoped everyone would be integrated were completely divided. Walking around Skem, I felt, ‘Wow! This is just like Craigavon … but without the horrible history.”
Supporting The Magnetic North on a memorable night back in October at Liverpool’s Central Library was author Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who wrote some lovely things about the album and remains a champion of the band. How did they get to know each other?
“Years ago, he was doing something for Liverpool, making a film for the BBC, and I’ve followed him on Twitter. Knowing he lived just outside Liverpool and the photographers we work with (McCoy Wynne) were based in the town where he lived, I sent him the CD. I wasn’t really thinking he would write about it, just hoping he’d appreciate it. But he loved it and he’s been a massive supporter ever since.”
That recent Liverpool show was then followed by what was announced as a final Prospect of Skelmersdale date at the Polar Bear in in Hull, as that city builds up to its own spell as the UK City of Culture next year. And before you know it, it will be time for a third album from The Magnetic North. So will the next one be about Hannah’s Armagh or Barnsley roots?
“I’m still coming to a conclusion over where my home is! But I think we’ve come up with something that will encompass a lot of things. It might not be as grounded in one place. The journey has already started and we’ve done our research trips we do at the start, involving a list and a map of places to visit, the other two getting their perspective.
“I think it will come a lot quicker than the Skem album. It took a long time for Simon to realise what the last album would be about. He was very resistant about it being about the town and his life! He’s a guitarist and doesn’t say very much. It’s not in his nature to talk about himself. But I think it made him more open and enthusiastic. Simon’s been in a lot of bands and toured the world, so coming back down to earth and playing tiny venues with us must make him start to question what he’s doing!”
Among the many lovely appraisals of Hannah’s work so far, came The Observer’s description of her as ‘A great singer and a latter-day Delia Derbyshire’. That’s quite an accolade, isn’t it?
In fact, there are plenty of mentions of Delia, of Daphne Oram and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop – was that something she was aware of growing up, or did that all come later?
“Definitely a bit later. I was brought up with very traditional Irish music, song and dance. I suppose my passion for electronic music began when I started to work with John (Foxx). He was wanting someone to play violin and effects, and I’d been playing around with a few things, but I really cut my teeth with learning about synths and analogues five years ago when I started with working with him. It was then that I discovered how many wonderful people there are out there, and experimenters.”
She put her heart on your sleeve, so to speak, pretty early on with her ’80s covers, performed music box style. So this wasn’t down to what was playing in her house back then and beyond?
“There were certain things I knew about but I never would have thought more deeply about how it was created and the technicality behind it. But without doubt when I started to do the music box project and looked into the songs I heard and remembered, that opened up a whole new world, from when I was in my 20s.”
For more details of Hannah’s work and future plans, head to her website. You can also keep in touch with Ms Peel via the wonderful world of social media through her Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Soundcloud links.
And to keep up to date with the Alzheimer’s Research UK charity, head here.