Interviews

Hannah Peel: “This is what I want, an emergence in nature being born” – Interview



Over distanced tea, the Fir Wave creator, orchestral arranger and BBC Radio 3 Night Tracks presenter discusses folding in the work of Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop, and reflecting and emulating the natural world with digital technology

Hannah Peel

Hannah Peel (Photo: Peter Marley)

The year 2020 will be remembered for its awfulness in so many ways, but it is safe to say it was a good year for electronic music. With their ability to provide aural consolation in ambient form, electronics – especially when blended with nature – were a reliably rewarding source of calm.

Hannah Peel is very aware of this, having had the opportunity to write her own music in response to lockdown. We are on Zoom discussing her new album Fir Wave, one of several of her projects to cross the finishing line in the last year. The stimulus for this album was a much earlier opus, the 1972 record Electrosonic by Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Orchestra. The owners, library music label KPM, made the album available to Peel to use in any way she liked. As we sip tea either side of the virtual divide, a reassuring number of keyboard instruments sit behind her, an indication of her creative state of mind. Just out of view her beloved dog sits at her feet, maintaining an impassive silence as we talk.

Fir Wave, from first hand experience, works very well as the soundtrack to a walk around the park. In the process, it gives the listener a link its earthy connections – and with this observation we begin an appraisal of the album. “There is definitely that side to the music,” says Hannah, “not just on the historic side but through the connection to nature. You have that feeling of entwined roots reaching up from the Earth. Everything has a very organic feel, including each of the synthesizers – they may feel that they’re new, but they’re not! It was a really important part of my thinking, that those instruments could be part of an orchestra, rather than saying, ‘Here is an electronic record and it’s very digital and high end’. It was really important that it felt like it was coming from the Earth.”

The strength of the earthly connection goes against the idea that electronic music doesn’t have feelings or the ability to paint pictures. “I think electronic music is the closest to nature because of the essence of the sound world”, she says. “If you’ve ever heard the inside of an oak tree, for example, there are certain people who have captured the sound and it sounds like bubbling synthesisers, going up and down. It’s like the water from the roots of the air. You’ve got bubbles that go up and back down again, and you can only really do that with electronic music to emulate the actual realness. It’s a really exciting time, because we’re in an era where we can do that. If you went back to the greats of classical music, they were trying to do the same thing through the musical instruments that they had, whereas now we have this digital world that can emulate everything, and I think that’s a really exciting thing to have.”

We look back to Peel’s first encounter with the music of Delia Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop. “When I started to work with John Foxx, which was about 10 years ago, that was the first experience where I had heard of who Delia Derbyshire was and what she was doing. John is a complete genius but he’s also an amazing teacher and mentor, very giving with his time. He gave me all these nuggets of information which I soaked up like a sponge, and during that whole period when we did John Foxx And The Maths live, and a couple of records since then, it was a massive learning experience. We went to the Unsound Festival in Poland and saw DJ Koze play in a huge kind of tram shed, and we played afterwards. All of those things started piece together over time. Eventually I met the Radiophonic Workshop a few years ago, when they did the soundtrack to the film Possum.”

Peel spent a good deal of time on the road as part of John Foxx and the Maths, including a particularly well-received gig at XOYO, covered by your author at the time. “It was a brilliant night,” she recalls. “We really enjoyed it. I’d love John to do more stuff, and had it not been for Covid I think we would have got together to do more for the new record.” Her experiences working with Foxx, and with Tunng’s Mike Lindsay – who she worked with for debut album Broken Wave in 2011 – have helped build the music she makes now. “When I started playing with John Foxx, and with Benge, that world certainly opened its doors to me. I thought it was a beautiful world and genre to be part of, in terms of the other musicians and the kind of addictiveness to collecting synthesizers. I have been very lucky in my career to work with a lot of people who have been very giving with their time and energy, as I have learned to develop – people like John, or Andy McCluskey of OMD, or more recently Paul Weller. As people say, when you collaborate you learn so much more than when you are working on your own, even if it’s just the work ethic, to keep going, keep exciting and keep exploring. It’s not necessarily the technical side of things, but more of a mental influence.”

“We have this digital world that can emulate everything. That’s really exciting…”

An experienced arranger, not least for Weller, she works with electronics as though scoring a full orchestra. “There was a great quote from an interview with Vangelis that I read recently, and he was saying he viewed the electronics as part of an orchestra, that they should be viewed just like the string section, treated as one. I totally agree with that. I feel with any kind of orchestration that you are trying to find the balance between the instruments, so why not have that between the electronics as well? I do score for them in a way that is melody-led and structure-led. They feel as one, and the only difference with classical and electronic is that there is still no way of scoring the electronic side in a printed way. I feel that could be a very exciting thing.”

Fir Wave is also ‘as one’ – a series of natural processes, its title referring to one of the most fascinating of all. “You probably guessed that all the track titles are about cycles in nature, or patterns in nature that are occurring naturally. Fir Wave came from something I discovered about certain mountains in the world – one in Japan and one in Canada – where you have got a mountainside full of trees. Where the wind hits them, it starts to kill off the front arm of the fir trees, allowing the ones at the back to grow. Over years and years, you get this steady pattern of dying off, and growth, and it creates a beautiful sound wave across the mountainside that shifts through a long period of time rather than being instant. I thought it was really beautiful.”

Talk turns to Hannah’s appearances on BBC Radio 3, as a regular presenter on the late show Night Tracks. Their portfolio is an open one. “It is, within a certain degree! Sometimes it’s a purely electronic track, or music with its roots in something organic. I’ve been playing a new album by Joe McKee recently, on a label called Salmon Universe. I really like them as a label because they actively find new things, like field recordings with bass music. Joe spent three and a half weeks on a cargo ship in the North Pacific Ocean, sampling the ship itself and playing it like a gamelan. On some of the tracks you can totally hear it’s the ship, and then others it is manipulated so you can hear a really stretched out, ambient track. I play stuff like that, with a connection to that late night feel. I’ve definitely been the one pushing that side of things, rather than it just being about late night classical.”

Peel is aware of a shifting emphasis under the current conditions. “What I found that is that because of the lack of orchestras and people, so many classical musicians are starting to produce and create as artists themselves. That’s a really exciting change in the classical world, with new waves of sounds that we allow for on Night Tracks, within a certain degree. I read a really interesting article posted online about how the single and songwriting and everything is doing really well, but the artist is not – because it’s all about the track. Night Tracks is like a mix, it’s not ‘right, we’re going to do an opera show, we’re going to be focused on orchestral or chamber music’, it’s treated like a mix. One of the things I love about it is how the producers seamlessly involve each track together, so there is no silence in the whole show and it feels solid. You don’t notice it but underneath our voices there are these harmonics, things fluttering away.”

Talking about her own experience of isolation, Peel is glad to have found artistic stimulus. “I had the fear in the beginning that I wouldn’t be able to do anything creative, but I’ve actually found it has allowed me to do so much more. Because I’m not having to travel – and that is a side I miss, as I love to work with musicians and collaborate – I’ve written so much music, and I’m really thankful for that. With the Fir Wave album, it kind of came at a time when I was thinking about what I was doing with Night Tracks, thinking how people were wanting to listen to a lot of slower, steady music. My brain was going to what has happened after the great wars, what has happened culturally, and each time there has been an explosion of colour, sound and life. That was how the Fir Wave album needed to take a bit of a turn from the original library record. If I wanted to have a record coming out after this is over, then this is what I want, an emergence in nature being born.”

She was inspired by her visit to KPM, owners of the Radiophonic Workshop material used in Fir Wave. “They showed me the original record, then sent me the files and said to do what you want with them. I decided not to remix it, or do covers, and thought if I took the originals like melodies I would sample parts of the instruments that you could hear that were clear, and didn’t have things underneath them. Luckily a lot of the sounds that were created were very singular, so it was quite easy to choose which ones I wanted and then I made my own instruments with that, so that I could then use the tones that I’ve got. I’ve got one called ‘Delian Air’. It’s this beautiful airy sound that you can hear on Carbon Cycle, and it’s floating in and out – and that came from just me being able to control it on my keyboard and play it. So I didn’t actually ever look back at the other record too much after I’d done that. It’s very precious material, especially if the people on there are role models and idols. There is a lot of pressure to make something that’s new and forward thinking, not living in the past.”

TJ Allen helped with the more beat-driven tracks. “With any project, if you’ve been living with it for a long time, like I’ve been living with this record for about two and a half years, you stop seeing the wood for the trees. There were certain tracks that I didn’t know where they were going, beats-wise, and I said to him about how I felt there is going to be a kind of creative uprising, after we get out of all this, and he came back with these incredible beats underneath everything. Then we re-jigged some of the structure and he re-mixed it to make it a more kind of bass driven record, whereas before it was a lot more ambient. I’m glad we did that, it made it feel whole.”

She also enjoyed the tinkering, post-production aspects of the creation. “I do like to put album orders together, the running order is always really important – even now when we tend to just listen to one track at a time. I still think the album has a beautiful flow to it, and that needs to be appreciated. I am more inclined to look at the story of something, and appreciate it as a body of work just like you would if you went to a gallery exhibition, rather than just a singular piece of artwork. That can be great, but sometimes when you’re making a new one, there are so many emotions and feelings that you can’t express them within one piece.”

“There is a lot of pressure to make something that’s new and forward thinking, not living in the past”

As to future plans, there are many. “I’m creating a piece for the Paraorchestra, an orchestra in Bristol, led by Charles Hazlewood. They are a really incredible bunch of musicians. I have written a piece of music for them, and we are in the moment trying to organise how to record. Hopefully that will happen very soon, and then we can do something, but I still think that’s a while away from being released and performed. It’s a massive project, an hour-long piece that I wrote last summer, during the first lockdown. I’m working on a Netflix documentary at the moment, and a couple of TV shows.”

We will also hear the fruits of her most recent work with Paul Weller, on his soon-to-be-released Fat Pop (Volume 1), where Peel worked on the strings. “I really love doing string arrangements,” she enthuses. “It’s the one thing that gives me the tingles at the time. When you go from writing it to hearing it, sometimes I think that if I don’t get that feeling, I haven’t done a good job.” Hannah is a violinist herself, though a lapsed one at time of writing. “I don’t practice, ever, and when you don’t pick it up for a while you sound absolutely awful! The first time I worked with Paul, on the True Meanings album, there’s a track called Aspects, and that’s all on my violin. That’s probably the last time I did proper playing, we created a quartet out of my playing. It’s so much work though, because you’re not only recording, you’re also producing and engineering yourself. It’s too much, with the self-criticism too.”

Peel’s string arrangements are not typical of the glossy sheen often applied to commercial pop models – an observation she is touched by. “That means a lot. I agree – a lot of commercial arrangements are quite boring. With people like Robert Kirby, who did the Nick Drake arrangements, and Scott Walker – those are the types of things I listen to and really love.” On this she shares common ground with good friend Erland Cooper, who – with The Verve’s Simon Tong – has recorded two well-received albums with Peel as The Magnetic North. “We always said that when you’re doing string arrangements, it doesn’t matter if you’re classically trained or not, but if you’re seeing every line, they will work well together.”

She gets a lot of questions on a possible Magnetic North reunion. “Maybe in the future!” she says, before remembering just how busy they are with their solo projects – projects that in Peel’s case are extremely varied, going back to the Broken Wave album in 2011. Common musical ground still exists, however. “I sent Fir Wave to Simon, who is a man of little words. He wrote back and said, ‘This is so Peel.’ So, there is a certain sound.”

Hannah Peel’s Fir Wave is out now though My Own Pleasure. Further information can be found at hannahpeel.com


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