Exploring patterns and connections, riding the Fir Wave – back in touch with Hannah Peel

Inner Light: Hannah Peel is coming to terms with her Mercury Prize nomination. Photo: Peter Marley

Mercury Prize shortlist nominee Hannah Peel was taking a brief rest from scoring when I called her. And I don’t mean she was watching the cricket from the pavilion at Old Trafford, notebook in hand. Had the phone rung off the hook for this gifted composer, string arranger and singer-songwriter that week, in light of her first Mercury Prize shortlist nomination?

“I’ve been managing it pretty well … but obviously it was totally unexpected. I was already really flat out anyway, so I’ve had to set a rule of only talking in the morning or late at night, so I get the day to do stuff. But yeah, it’s all good. It’s amazing, I’m not complaining at all!”

Was the nomination for Fir Wave, her re-interpretation of the original music of 1972 KPM 1000 series: Electrosonic – the Music of Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop, really out of the blue, or – be honest – is it something you think about every year, wondering if this will be the time?

“I’ve always dreamed of having a record Mercury-nominated. Anybody who releases records that have an aspiring feel to it … I think every record I’ve ever worked on has probably been submitted. But you kind of get used to, ‘Ach, no, I’m not on a big label, I don’t have a lot of press money and I can’t push a lot of things’, which is ultimately what happens – it gets attention, gets listened to, and that’s what influences the judges as well.

“The fact that it’s a little self-release and they’ve listened and taken note is just amazing. I’m so thankful.”

Richly deserved, of course, not just for this LP but everything this Northern Ireland-born, South Yorkshire-raised, former Liverpool Institute of the Performing Arts (LIPA) student, now based in Donegal in the north west of the Irish Republic, has done up until now.

Hannah released her debut album a decade ago, following 2011’s The Broken Wave – her stock soon rising – with several more solo works and collaborations, including the two great LPs with The Magnetic North – also featuring Erland Cooper and Simon Tong – that led me to her work.

Then there were her live and studio outings with electronica pioneer John Foxx‘s band, with Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay’s LUMP project, plus OMD, Nitin Sawhney, and of course Paul Weller, arranging and conducting the latter’s strings and orchestral arrangements on his last four records, and notably heard and seen on his Live at the Royal Festival Hall album/DVD.

You can add several other rising stars featured on these pages in recent times to Hannah’s collaborative CV, plus her acclaimed theatre, dance and film scores, including the soundtrack music for BBC 2 documentary Lee Miller: Life on the Frontline, Game of Thrones documentary The Last Watch, and Channel 5 drama The Deceived.

That said, it must be odd, knowing so many other artists – not least those she works with – who haven’t got nominations this time or before. I’m sure it’s not about competition though. I suggest, Hannah’s realm not so much about competitiveness, unless it concerns her fellow artists and peers inspiring each other on to ever greater heights.

“Yeah, but I would say this year above most recent years, it’s the most alternative (Mercury Prize) list, and I think that’s the strength in that they’ve released a list of records that need album sales. When you’ve had Ed Sheeran or Florence and the Machine nominated, okay, they’ve deserved it because they were great records, but they didn’t need to boost album sales.

“They already had that attention. The fact they chose smaller produced records, and also that a third are instrumental and it’s very much female/male balanced and wide-ranging, it’s really impressive and puts hope back into the Mercurys. I think a lot of people had given up, thinking it was an award unable to find new music, which was the whole point … or it always felt that was the point of them.”

There are some amazing quotes on her website from critics regarding Fir Wave, all pretty much spot-on. And it’s an album I’ve been playing a lot lately, and one I reckon sits comfortably with so many great 2021 releases.

What’s more, I tell her, barely a week goes by when I’ll interview someone who’s just worked with her and has lovely things to say about her and her work. More know about the Weller link, but in recent times I’ve also talked about her with Dot Allison, Andy Crofts, Erland Cooper, William Doyle, and LUMP’s Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay. In fact, I seem to have a Hannah Peel question lined up every week.

“Ha! That’s so funny!”

If nothing else, I reckon I could be your unpaid press agent.

“Ah, thanks, Malc!”

The only problem is that I’m wondering now if I’ll ever get to hear a third long player by The Magnetic North, its artists being kept so busy.

“Yeah, we’ve all kind of gone on our own trajectory! But I kind of always imagined that the third record might be one that was done in years to come, in hindsight of what we’ve all been through. I mean, we definitely have a third record there. It’s just that it’s never been finished and completed and fully satisfied with everybody.”

I recall Erland (Cooper) and Simon (Tong) visited you in Ireland to sketch out ideas for that album a while ago (as was the case with previous Magnetic North LPs – the first taking creative inspiration from Erland’s Orkney roots, the second from Simon’s Skelmersdale years, this next one from Hannah’s Irish links).

“Yes, they came over to Donegal and to Northern Ireland and we met up with Bill Drummond, who played a bit on it. It was an amazing trip … but then … life took over!”

So what are these scores you’re working on right now?

“I’m working on a dance show, I’m working on a film, and I’m working on a TV show, all at the same time. Lots of scoring work, including my first feature film and a wonderful eight-part series for Sky.”

So many of your projects have made a wider impression of late. There are also presenting spots for BBC Radio 3 and occasional opportunities to stand in on BBC 6 Music. I was going to ask if you’re getting out and about again, post-lockdowns, but maybe you’ve just not got the time, instead locked into a room composing and what have you.

“Ha! Yeah, totally! I am grabbing time away though. I went to Oxford and worked with Philip Selway (Radiohead) on some of his new music the weekend before last. It was so lovely to be in a studio and with people, and he’s the nicest man I’ve ever met. He’s brilliant, I loved working with him – he treated us to an evening punting on an Oxford river, then we went for food. It felt like I was on holiday, which I don’t get that often!”

Last time we spoke, home was still East London. Have you properly relocated across the Irish Sea now?

“I moved to Northern Ireland around the end of the Mary Casio era. I bought a house here, and was half and half travelling, then the lockdown hit, so I’ve been here mostly.”

Seems like you were in the right place at the right time, as it turned out, pandemic-wise.

“Yeah, I’m so glad I did. Being by the sea and not in a flat in Hackney was definitely beneficial for my mind and mental health, for sure.”

Is there a social life over there between studio sessions?

“Definitely. My parents have a caravan in Donegal we’ve been going to for the last 30-odd years, and now it’s summer and you can travel into the south of Ireland, I’ve been able to go there. But I do see my little trips to London, working there, as little holidays too!”

Are there live dates coming, or was that never in the offing for this record?

Fir Wave was never meant to be played live, but I will be performing at the Mercurys. My God – even saying that makes me shudder! I’ll be putting something together for that, but that’s it for that record.

“I do have a record out with the Paraorchestra in Spring next year though, an incredible disabled/non-disabled integrated orchestra, phenomenal, based in Bristol, where we’re doing a show on October 1st. Tickets went on sale last Friday. It’s a pretty small, socially-distanced show, but it will be really beautiful.”

Back to Fir Wave, and although Hannah only turned 16 eight weeks after Delia Derbyshire died at the age of 64 in 2001, these two icons of electronica seem to be at one. When did my interviewee first chance upon Delia’s sonic world and the wonders of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop?

“Like a lot of people I didn’t know of her at all growing up, and never heard her name. It wasn’t until I started working with John Foxx, which would have been 2011, that I started to hear about people and noticed certain artists and composers, especially in the electronic world.

“That’s when I first heard about the Radiophonic Workshop. I think at the time they were setting up a new Radiophonic Workshop. I never saw that transpire, but it highlighted everything, as did the sharing of her archives – the finding of them and all that.”

Am I right in thinking most of that work remained unpublished and largely unfound until that point?

“Yeah, it’s that kind of Lee Miller vibe – until she died, when they found everything in the attic (the US photographer and photojournalist, born in 1907, did little to promote her work, her son discovering and preserving 60,000 or so photographs, negatives, journals, letters and documents after her death in1977). And I do wonder how many stories there are like that, that we’ve never heard of. I think that’s generally what people did – putting them away, thinking nobody’s ever going to notice this … and sadly those are the women.”

I guess it was a similar tale with fellow pioneering composer and electronic musician Daphne Oram (1925/2003), another largely unsung influence on your work.

“Totally. And the CD version of the album we’re bringing out on August 6th includes an interview with Delia (Derbyshire) from 2000, first done as a 7-inch for Electronic Sound this year, an interview that’d never been heard before I got the chance to edit and underscore, and put on the record. And that was really amazing – hearing her voice coming through the ghostly effects.”

At a time when – thanks to the sterling efforts of NHS staff and scientists responsible for successful vaccine programmes – we’re hopefully closer to turning a corner on this pandemic, we seem to be stumbling towards another issue coming back at us with a vengeance – climate change, where something needs to be done, and fast – there’s an important ecological theme to this record too, Hannah looking to make ‘connections and new patterns that mirror the Earth’s ecological cycles through music’.

As she put it, “I’m drawn to the patterns around us and the cycles in life that will keep on evolving and transforming forever. Fir Wave is defined by its continuous environmental changes and there are so many connections to those patterns echoed in electronic music – it’s always an organic discovery of old and new.

“This was originally a record written for KPM. It wasn’t intended to come out as an album – it was written as production music – but I was given permission to use this 1972 record, so took that, sampled it, put that into the music.

“I guess it was because of lockdown and everything that happened that it was allowed, and I had time to look at it and decide this could make a really good record, got it mixed again and reproduced a couple of the tracks.

“The original record was very much of its era. It would have been used as background in scientific labs, and that whole period really echoes that industrial period of the ‘70s. So when I was looking at the titles, thinking what I wanted to put into a record – something for right now – it was really important to use that ecological side, so it felt like a record for the present day.

“It might be retrospective in its sound palette, but its essence is very much about what we are aware of – our cycles in life, the delicacy of the carbon cycle, music and connecting those waveforms with the patterns in nature.”

Well, it’s been amazing watching your career so far, and I look forward to the next interview where someone else tells me they’ve just worked with you, and what an amazing experience that proved.

“Ha! Thank you. Yeah … and I’m definitely a music lover!”

Well, that was never in doubt. And with that I let Hannah finished her lunchbreak and get back to her next impending half-dozen deadlines.

To link to WriteWyattUK‘s November 2016 feature/interview with Hannah Peel, head here, and for our September 2017 catch-up with Hannah, head here. For a full list of Mercury Prize 2021 shortlist nominations, try here. And for more about Fir Wave, Hannah Peel’s back catalogue and forthcoming projects, head to her website.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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