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INTERVIEW: Hannah Peel talks about her passion for analog and making an album about dementia

Laura  Barnes
INTERVIEW: Hannah Peel talks about her passion for analog and making an album about dementia

With her second solo album Awake But Always Dreaming set for release this month, MI Pro editor Laura Barnes sat down with multi-instrumentalist Hannah Peel to chat about making the record…

I like knowing a bit about an artist before I interview them, but not too much. The more you learn beforehand, the more you end up asking questions that you already know the answers to.

When you ask someone to tell you about their new album you usually hear the same sort of explanation. “It’s about love”, “it’s about heartbreak”, “It’s not about anything in particular”.

When I asked Hannah Peel about her new album, Awake But Always Dreaming, I wished I was a little more prepared for the answer.
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“It’s a record of two halves and it was inspired by an experience with my grandma who had fallen into dementia for a very long time, to the point where she didn’t recognise family and things until we started to sing to her,” reveals Peel as we chat in her Shoreditch studio and I wish I had approached the subject a little more delicately.

“All of a sudden she just ‘woke up’ and remembered things and sang along and said things like “I love you” and “Happy Christmas”, whereas on a daily basis she wouldn’t know the difference between who was coming to see her or where she was.”

Peel admits that she didn’t intend to make the album about her experience with Dementia. “Maybe it’s the Irish in me, but I’m a storyteller. I like stories and I like to be taken on a journey. Music is escapism at the end of the day. With Awake But Always Dreaming, I had to wait until it all pieced together and I really didn’t think I would write an album about dementia when I started. Never. But the more I delved into it and the more I discovered, the more of a world was created.”

She informs me that one in three of us will die with dementia and two out of three will be women. And we don’t even have a cure for it yet.

“It is insane,” she says. “If anything, if this album brings awareness to younger people and makes us learn a bit more about dementia, then I’ll be happy.”

Awake But Always Dreaming is a concept album. It starts with the youthful and upbeat All That Matters, which could easily be mistaken for a ‘pop song’. Peel explains that the first track represents the formation of memories. “It’s young and happy and there’s lots of hope.”

As the album continues, it gradually descends into the frightening darkness of what it’s like to fall victim to the disease. Along the way there are less and less vocals, representing the inability to communicate properly.

“It fitted that there were lots of instrumental tracks. It made sense that I could have an album that wasn’t just songs. It made sense going into tracks where there was no speech and where there are lots of hallucinations,” she says.

“With the album I’ve really tried to go into the mind and make that something you can hear.”

To create this, Peel used a lot of ‘found sounds’. A fair amount of the drum and percussion sounds on the record are made up of the slamming of doors, the hitting of gates, and there’s even the sound of cement mixer.

“There’s a lot of sounds to represent the whipping of the neurones and synapses as you get further into the record.”

As well as her hearty collection of found sounds, Peel used an Oberheim DX drum machine and a Korg Vulca Beats, which is ‘amazing for making lots of rhythms’.

Peel also wrote and performed strings on the album. “There’s a lot of stuff like violins going through delays. I really like to use an Ibanez AD-80 Analog Delay pedal. It’s really old but it creates the most amazing warped things that go through it. I use it live as well. That pedal really helped with a lot of the sound of the album. I also use a lot of Dave Smith stuff live, which are really true to the analog sound.”

Speaking about the ‘analog sound’, Peel has a side project in the form on a space-synth alter ego called Mary Casio. “It was just a name that I liked the sound of. Mary is my middle name and Casio came from the fact that I’ve got quite a lot of Casio keyboards,” she explains. “I started writing these really weird melodies and recording them, just for a laugh.”

While it started off as a bit of fun, Peel soon realised the potential Mary Casio had when a brass band got in touch and said they wanted to commission some music.

After creating an incredible back story for Mary, involving the 80-year-old bespectacled synth player taking her final journey to space to find her real home – the planet of Past Souls, Peel wrote a series of pieces starting off with a track called Goodbye Earth and documenting Mary’s journey past a dusty nebula and entering Cassiopeia (a real star constellation).

“This is all made up in my head, but it really helped with the writing,” says Peel. “The brass band became this alien, ethereal voice. So a lot of the brass that I scored is long and powerful. It sounds like a living breathing thing.

“I mixed that with the analog synths and it became its own thing. I premiered it in May and it was beautiful. We haven’t recorded it yet so hopefully it will be out early next year.”

Another side project for Peel comes in the form of remixes on a music box.

“It all started as a joke when I did a cover of Tainted Love."

Yet again, another project that started as a bit of laugh game good when the piece was used on the US show Dancing With The Stars.

“I make reels and reels of music by scoring it all out and hole punching it by hand. I can sit for hours and hours doing it.”

I’m treated to a demonstration of the music box, which sounds beautiful, while Peel explains what kinds of music it is best for.

“If you’ve got something with a strong beat, a strong melody and a rhythmic pattern, it works really well. If it’s a song initially written on a guitar it’s really hard to interpret or reimagine on a music box. When you’re recording it and playing it live you can hear all the crackles. It’s really beautiful.”

To date, Peel has released two Rebox albums featuring remixes of songs on a music box.

As well as personal musical projects, Peel is a prolific collaborator. Apart from collaborations with the likes of Beyond The Wizard’s Sleeve and John Foxx and the Maths, she formed the highly praised band The Magnetic North with Simon Tong (of The Verve and Gorillaz fame) and Erland Cooper (a long-term collaborator who produced and recorded Peel’s new album).

“Erland said he had this dream that we were on tour together and I was supporting his band. So they (Tong and Cooper) got me involved and I ended up singing a lot and doing all the brass and string arrangements,” she says.

“We did the record and it was beautiful. It turned into a monster and we ended up having 44 people on stage in Berlin and thought: “We can’t do this again!” But after a while we joined back together for another album.”

The band has just finished touring their second album Prospect of Skelmersdale.

We wrap up our time talking about synths at retail. “There’s a couple of places in London to try out synths but not a lot of rare things. Obviously shops can’t always have that stuff in.” She recommends Funky Junk and Andertons as THE places to go if you want to play about with lots of analog gear.

I leave her to start work on signing the stack of pre-ordered vinyl of her brilliant and emotional new album.

Although I am incredibly fortunate enough to have not had any direct experience with a loved one suffering from dementia, speaking to Peel made me think of the illness my own grandparent is currently dealing with.

I listen to the album from beginning to end on my way home and call my grandparents for a catch up. And I hope that everyone else who listens to the album does the same.

Awake But Always Dreaming is out on September 23rd on My Own Pleasure.

Peel will be touring in the UK with Kite Base and I Speak Machine from September 7th to 14th.

Find out more about Hannah Peel’s live dates at http://www.hannahpeel.com/live/

Check out the video for the album’s lead single All That Matters below.

Tags: Interviews , Hannah Peel , The Magnetic North

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