Paul McCartney knew Hannah Peel’s talents before the world. He presents badges at every degree ceremony at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, which he co-founded, and where Peel studied music. In 2007, her graduating year, she was chosen to compose something to accompany each student who walks on stage.
Peel had been advised to make a trumpet fanfare, but he refused; instead, he wrote a minimalist miniature for vibraphone and marimba. “My director hated it,” he laughs along the Zoom lines. “But when I crossed the stage and shook Paul McCartney’s hand, he whispered in my ear, ‘I really like your music. Well done!'”
Fast forward 14 years and Peel has built an intricate and impressive career. His name is probably most recognizable as one of the hosts on Radio 3’s late night show. Night tracks, weeknight at night. The show caused controversy when it launched in September 2019, replacing three broadcasts of the station’s beloved experimental show, Late union. Though Night tracks contains more classical music, Peel retains the spirit of Late union, with exciting juxtapositions of artists. One night, you have Rachmaninov followed by Texan multimedia artist Akira Rabelais, the next, it will be Benjamin Britten along with Brazilian experimentalist Vic Bang.
Peel is also one of our most exciting crossover songwriters. His brilliant new album, Fir wave – finished in blocking – explores and develops sounds from a recording by BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. Your music box score for Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, garnered an Emmy nomination last summer, while its mysterious soundtrack for the television thriller The deceived won critical acclaim. She is the orchestral arranger for Paul Weller (she has been working on his next LP: “He’s Just Fabulous”), and collaborated on a micro-opera about locked dates. To close, with librettist Stella Feehily.
Recently, she has also been elected to the board of directors of Ivors Academy, Europe’s largest campaign association for professional musicians, and is particularly vocal about the place of women in music. “All the television and film work I’ve done has been run by women,” she says, speaking from her writing room at her home in Bangor, Northern Ireland (she bought a five-bedroom house here in 2018 for the price of one small a bed in London). “It seems that women who are coming to power are saying, ‘Well, I’m going to hire another songwriter,’ but we have to remind ourselves of the number of female songwriters [in film] it’s ridiculous. This year it has dropped from 6% to 4%. We need to know why. “
There is an expectation of certain behavior on the part of songwriters, Peel continues, especially in our post-Covid digital world, which does not suit women. “I have this very upbeat Zoom character and sometimes I just don’t feel like I get the jobs because I’m not serious enough.” She laughs. “Oh God, can you hear that?” His whippet, Bertie Moog, named after the inventor of the analog synthesizer, snores under his desk.
Peel was born in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, in 1985. The Troubles had a great effect on his family: his mother is from Enniskillen, he explains, where the Remembrance Sunday bomb exploded in 1987, killing 11 people. “We arrived in Enniskillen the next day and I remember seeing our car on the TV news, going around the roundabout.” On her sixth birthday she was airlifted from a Belfast street when another bomb exploded; members of his family’s police lost limbs. “I grew up with this sense of transition all the time and aware that things are never stable. All that history that stays with you. “
When he was eight, his family moved to Barnsley, South Yorkshire, with his father’s job in food manufacturing (that’s where Peel got his lilting Yorkshire accent). The area continued to suffer from the loss of coal mining, but free brass instruments were handed out in schools and Peel began to learn the cornet and trombone. “There was a real feeling that you had to involve your children in music from where they were from, otherwise there is no hope. Then came this beautiful moment in the late 1990s, where lottery money was helping young people to play, learn and tour. ” Much of that infrastructure is already gone, he says.
All of that informed Peel’s broad career in terms of helping her meet people, collaborate and develop her creativity, and Brexit will make it that much more difficult. Still, it is a particularly tricky subject in Northern Ireland, where musicians “have no idea” how they will be allowed to cross the Irish border. “I don’t think it will be solved until the confinement is over. Add to that that I would never have been doing what I’m doing now without touring Europe in bands. [she has worked as a session musician and as a member of the Magnetic North, a band with fellow composer Erland Cooper and the Verve’s Simon Tong]. I just think about the young people who started, someone like me, 10 years ago and it’s very disturbing. I would not have survived. “
Music has always been about making connections with people for Peel and on his solo albums, which began with his family. His debut in 2011, The Broken Wave, featured Irish folk songs from the world her mother grew up in (conversely, synthesizers also gained prominence in her work at the time, which she attributes to her live work with Ultravox’s John Foxx: “I had to play the violin and electronics and recreating sounds from their 80s records and I loved it, it was a huge learning curve ”).
In 2016 came Awake but always dreaming, Peel’s magnificent concept album that explores his late grandmother’s insanity and how music persists when the mind is on the wane. A year later came Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia, the story of an elderly stargazer’s lifelong dream of traveling into space, featuring the voice of Britain’s first choir boy recorded in Manchester Cathedral in 1927: Peel’s grandfather.
Neuroscience and the cosmos turned out to be fertile ground for Peel. “It’s always been very difficult for me to write lyrics because if I wrote a love song, it was just a love song. He didn’t have the passion for it. After starting the investigation, all these doors were opened. “She used the same approach when doing Fir wave, where it delves into the stuff of nature, though anyone hoping to happily bathe in a bath of sounds from the natural world will be amazed by its mix of harsh electronic textures, daring ambient tracks, and propelling techno.
The caption comes from an image Peel saw in National Geographic, showing the pattern of fir trees on the side of a mountain: “It looked like a sine wave. You could see the growth and death of the trees within it. I thought it was amazing. ”The work of Barbara Hepworth, which she had seen as a child at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, was another inspiration: Hepworth spoke of feeling the shape of a pebble and wanted to convey through her art that it was created by force Peel also conveys a sense of natural forces in his magnificent, bubbly record.
Fir waveThe roots also come from the 1972 library music record. Electronic, by Derbyshire and Hodgson and Australian composer Don Harper. Vintage library music label KPM (sampled by the likes of Gorillaz, Drake, and Madlib) had approached Peel about reworking the album a few years ago, but he had initially resisted. “I don’t want to be rude, but I didn’t want to do background music in Countryfile.But he found a way, testing the sounds in the original, cutting and reprogramming them to build his own digital instruments, continuing the spirit of experimentation on the album. He finally ended up locked up.
Peel is increasingly drawn to independent creators, she says, such as Hepworth, Derbyshire and Radiophonic Workshop co-founder Daphne Oram. “They were so independent because they had to be. There was nothing round to support them and they did great things. “
Peel herself has always released albums on her own label. His next job, scheduled for this summer, is for the British Paraorchestra, the UK’s first orchestra to feature disabled and non-disabled musicians (“they drive me crazy every time I work with them”). He probably wouldn’t have been allowed to do it if it had been on a label, he says. “Someone would have said, ‘Do you want to make an orchestral record next? Just write another record like that, the last one. For that we sign you! I tend to try to be as creative as I can. So far, I think it has worked in my favor. “
• Fir wave comes out on My Own Pleasure on March 26. Night tracks is on BBC Radio 3, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 11pm.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism