Society of Sound: Hannah Peel

Hannah Peel first came to recognition in 2010 with her mesmerizing, hand-punched, music box EP 'Rebox' (featuring covers of 80’s bands Cocteau Twins, Soft Cell, New Order). Having released her critically lauded solo debut album 'The Broken Wave' a year later, Hannah then formed The Magnetic North, a highly acclaimed collaborative project with Simon Tong (The Verve, The Good The Bad and The Queen, Gorillaz) and Erland Cooper (Erland & The Carnival).

The band’s ‘Orkney: Symphony Of The Magnetic North’ album was a big success in France where the Le Monde newspaper named it as their Number 2 Record Of The Year. Her solo career has continued with the increasingly electronic three track Nailhouse in 2013 and the stunning analogue beauty of Fabricstate EP a year later.

In addition to her increasingly high profile career as a solo artist and producer, the Northern Irish born singer has also composed for TV, film, theatre and dance, winning a 2013 RTS award for the theme to the Channel 4 show Dates, as well as two British arrow awards for her Marie Curie Daffodil advertisement. Hannah Peel’s music has featured on hit TV shows (American Horror Story, Bones, Reign, Ringer and the 2012 movie, Anna Karenina) and advertisements for Dior, Charlotte Tilbury and ITV.

In May Hannah toured with East India Youth after scoring and playing strings on his recent Culture Of Volume album. On July 25 she will appear that the B&W Society of Sound stage at WOMAD Charlton Park and is currently putting the finishing touches to her new solo album Awake But Always Dreaming.

Fabricstate/REBOX 2
Society of Sound showcases Hannah Peel with a special edition release bringing together 2014’s Fabricstate and a preview of the brand new unheard Rebox 2.

Rebox 2 features four new music box covers and three new instrumental pieces. Peel’s first Rebox came out as an EP in 2010, when she covered the likes of Cocteau Twins, New Order and Soft Cell.

Opening track ‘Queen’ sets the tone, switching between the scarring homophobic insults – ‘cracked, peeling, riddled with disease’ – and a mocking, defiant response, ‘no family is safe when I sashay’, whilst setting the original lyric and melody on a hand punched music box. This is augmented by sparse percussion and echoing psychedelic textures, as if the track is a fragment from a long lost This Mortal Coil recording. As Hannah Peel says, “these songs are about finding a path through life and knowing who we are.”

John Grant’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ is also about self-awareness and acceptance as the singer looks back at his younger self. Peel’s version retains the epic grandeur of the original with layers of multi-tracked voices and harp-like music box, while the synths revel in the sense of experimentation that inspired Grant to write the song in the first place – “he was recalling his own adolescent enthusiasm for electronic pioneers such as Cabaret Voltaire and Yello,” says Peel.

A striking image also opens ‘Palace’ – “in detail you are even more beautiful than from afar.” The Wild Beasts’ song from 2014 is once again about a moment of realization. As Peel puts it, “the lyrics are about finding a home and being comfortable with that place in life. Any place is a palace.” In an interview with Noisey the band’s Hayden Thorpe revealed “that sense of clarity is very rare for me. I only get it when I’ve had a heavy night and I’m still kind of intoxicated the next morning, but there’s a sense of feeling good. It’s about the crest of the wave rather than the crash.” Peel focuses in on this clarity, stripping back the arrangement to just her voice and the music box – a recording so still and clear it’s as if she is singing and playing in the room. The song is a simple and beautiful piece of contemporary composition worthy of the band’s Ivor Novello nomination.

The final cover on the album is ‘Heaven, How Long’, originally written by East India Youth and arguably the centerpiece of their Total Strife Forever debut album from 2014. It’s a soaring, emotional pay-off to Peel’s new release, closing with the revealing, eternally longing line – ‘In spite of all the love inside me/There is a question I’ve been asking/Heaven, how long?’

All four songs are linked by new music written for the project by Peel and co-producer Erland Cooper. The looped, playful ‘Let The Laughter In’ – “about not letting the negativity seep in”; ‘Reverie’ is piano-led daydreaming followed by the synthetic pulse of ‘Premonition’ which “looks to the future” before segueing into ‘Heaven, How Long’.

Hannah Peel by Garry Maclennan

Hannah Peel describes the tracks on the Society of Sound release:

Queen – By using sparse percussion and echoing the psychedelic textures, I tried to magnify the lyrics that Perfume Genius uses to handle the scarring homophobic insults but more personally for me, insults aimed at people that are different.

Let the Laughter In – A rolling sonic kaleidoscope of hiccup peaks, of which I have had daily for years… It ended up in the track accidently and stayed.

Pale Green Ghosts – The original fuses the epic grandeur of Rachmaninoff’sclassical composition with analogue electronics. Trying to retain this splendour would be impossible on the music box especially as it lacks so many notes! So I used my multi-layered vocals and punched out a harp-like music box piece, keeping the sense of experimentation that inspired Grant to write the song in the first place – “he was recalling his own adolescent enthusiasm for electronic pioneers such as Cabaret Voltaire and Yello.”

Reverie – A piano daydream of reflections and echoes: a moment to delve into the past.

Palace – The lyrics to me are about finding a home and being comfortable with that place in life. Realizing any place can be a palace and home is definitely where the heart is. It felt like the track wanted to be stripped back to the barebones of just voice and music box. No reverb or production effects were needed… as though I was playing in the room with you.

Premonition – I’ve had a saying over the last few years that can get me through tougher times… ‘Onwards’. The rolling minor Kraut-rock pulse leading to a major chord at the end, felt like it was looking to the future and I didn’t ever want it to stop.

Heaven How Long – In spite of all the love inside me, there is a question I’ve been asking. Heaven, how long?’… Echoed by strings to a full soaring ending with the infinitely longing lyrics…

Silk Road – Silk Road was inspired by Marco Polo’s journey along the famous route to the east and his meeting with the Chinese Emperor, Kublai Khan. The rolling synth-like harp and the deep undercurrent of the synth bass, just like the silk road train tracks that were later built in modern times across the ancient path. ‘From dark to blazing bright’, moving us forward towards new journeys.

Desolation Row – This song was about what happens when the life you literally build with someone, falls apart and you’re left with nothing. So many people become reliant within their four walls and forget what it is to love and be loved, until something changes this. Life is short and the lyrics were a personal reminder to step outside everyday…not just work.

Chloe – It’s really hard to try and live a life without regrets, that’s not to say it isn’t possible. A song about following your heart and sticking with it no matter what your head says!

Fabricstate – We have so much stuff around us in life now, sometimes I think we amass more things around us to distract or even dampen down our emotions. Yet is the world we live in just fabricated and painted on for show like the ‘paper moon’ on a stage set? Does any of it really matter at the end of the day if you end up lonely and living in a flat pack room?

An Interview with Hannah Peel

Can you give us a description of the studio in which you work?
Modular wallpaper synths. I call it analogue synth heaven. It’s deep under the streets of East London and run by electronic synth collector Benge. I am very lucky to have shared his studio space for a few years and it is here I’ve learnt not only how to use the equipment but to amalgamate it with my own music and the hand punched music box paper, which is like an early computer program in itself.

I’ve collected my own gear too with my favourite synth being a Juno 60, but if I’m being honest, the best part of the studio is a beautiful black upright Yamaha piano. It always has a wonderfully calming effect on me when I sit down to play and nearly every composition or song starts here.

Can you tell us about the ‘music box’ compositions?
It’s fascinating the amount of hours in manual labour it takes to essentially just punch holes into mathematical grid-like paper. I usually spend a few hours mapping out the notes and rhythms with a pencil and then get to work punching. Any mistakes can be covered with selloptape and the strips are joined together carefully with sellotape too. It’s a fine meditative process and really feels like another way to step back in time to make music.

I love combining the sounds of the music box with atmospheres and pulses but the most enjoyable thing is when creating synth arpeggios… it keeps away from children’s horror themes in film.

As a single performer you produce wonderfully layered epic results – how does this work? What is the instrumentation?
I try at great lengths to not use a laptop so that everything is tangible and fun to play with but it’s starting to get increasingly harder now I’m on my own for longer sets!

I use a Roland 505, a Dave Smith Mopho x4 synth and a Nord piano, which is linked to a 70’s Ibanez delay pedal for creating huge warping sub atmospheres. Currently incorporating my violin into the set too which is exciting for really digging into the strings and creating unholy noises.

Part of this Society of Sound release is made up of covers. What inspired you to choose these particular songs and what was your approach to reinterpreting them?
Each song covered on REBOX 2has played a part in my life over the last two years. They are not commercial chart popping hits that everyone has heard before but the songs and the artists really captured my imagination. It wasn’t until putting the album together that I realized there was a lifespan thread through them all.

Each track is approached completely differently as there are limitations on the range of notes for the music box, which is also equally part of its charm. It works beautifully on anything that sounds like a synth funny enough! Arpeggios are the most fun to punch out and for a song like Wild Beasts’ ‘Palace’, even if it meant changing the original key signature it worked really well and so that track lyrically and musically was kept sparse to keep both elements clear and unclouded with production. Often I have to find a much more inventive way to get around the limitations and even though it’s a lot more hours of punching and mapping out the notes, these songs are often the most rewarding when recording. In Perfume Genius’s track, ‘Queen’I used the box as a percussive instrument, recording it through a vintage Roland Space Echo, or in John Grant’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts’for example, where he features a Sergei RachmaninoffPrelude, I had to punch the paper into psychedelic harp-like runs with multi-layered vocals to create a different take on the classical melody which on the record has a full orchestra!

Your music obviously connects well with visuals – theatre, TV and film and you have worked in collaboration with dance projects. Do you feel your music is ‘filmic’ or ‘cinematic’?
I tend to connect better to a song when I think of it visually. I don’t intend it to be that way but my dreams often play a part in the mood or colour of a piece and so when I’m writing I work around that colour to develop it further. Often magazines like the National Geographic spark off a lot of inspiration too…there are always several copies and picture cut outs floating around in my studio and frequently an old film about architecture or a Dada movie will be playing in the corner too.

Back in 2008 I was awarded a grant to curate and produce Liverpool’s first AV festival for their Capital of Culture. It was a big job and being young, I learnt a lot very quickly but I had applied to do it because at the time I was consciously aware of the intrinsic link between visuals and music and was excited to be able to explore it more. I haven’t done anything like that again on such a huge scale but I suppose it is always in the back of my mind: the balance and relationship between the two. I really enjoy what artists like Flying Lotus and Squarepusher do when performing live with visuals. The technology to create an all-encompassing immersive world from the stage is just getting better and better and there’s nothing wrong with total escapism is there?

By Online Editor

Published on Mon, 20 July 15

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