Hannah Peel, 2/3rds of Magnetic North and acclaimed singer songwriter, has released one of the years most lovely, intimate, emotional and beautiful records of the year in Awake but always dreaming, which came out late last month. Busy recording and performing in her own right and collaborating with an array of artists, she’s just announced a new event – Awake But Always Dreaming. Billed as a ‘meeting of minds on memory, film, music, literature and art, and takes place at Shoreditch Church on November 24th. It’s due to feature Hannah Peel, plus film screenings by Lavinia Greenlaw (The Sea is an Edge and An Ending) and Shelly Love (Scratch).
We caught up with Hannah shortly before the release of the album, to find out a little more.
We’re pretty close to the release of Awake but always dreaming now – excited?
Yes very much, it’s been quite a journey.
Tell us a bit about the album – I understand it’s a record about memory?
The whole album came into being when I experienced seeing my grandmother, who could no longer recognise family or her home anymore, ‘wake up’ when she heard music she recognised. It was an incredibly emotional but positive experience too. For Awake But Always Dreaming I wanted to take the listener gradually into the rabbit hole of the mind through the youthful, vibrant and beautiful formation of memories into the devastating loss, dreamscape and insidious damage to a mind affected with dementia. I didn’t want to write something that dwelt on the heartbreak of what was happening, but more explore and go into the depths musically of where she was… imagining the place she could have built inside her mind.
What was the writing process for the record – did it happen over a period of time, out on tour, or did you sit down with the express intention of writing a new record?
The subject of the album wasn’t something I started out consciously with and looking back now, the tragedy of the disease I observed taking over my grandmother was just too hard to emotionally cope with.
I was initially inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and set out with a mission to score each of the 55 short prose poems about different imaginary cities. The psychological side of living in a city, the escapism of the book and its surreal mapping systems really grabbed me but I had no idea why for a long time it had such significance. It got to the point of having around 60 songs and nothing working quite right, I was at a loss… until that special moment with my grandmother happened.
It’s been a busy time for you – with your Mary Casio project and recording with Beyond the Wizards Sleeve, as well as the Magnetic North record that came out in March – were they influences on the record, or just nice distractions? Can you tell us a bit about both maybe?
I truly love collaborating and there is an excitement and fresh perspective that comes with working together on music with people you grow with and like, so yes they have been very welcomed distractions to stop me over thinking my solo work! All projects have a different sound and ambition so they don’t sound similar but I suppose my ideals and ways of working do lend themselves across them all. Erland from The Magnetic North and I worked together on my album and although we are 2/3’s of that band, the sound and destination was very different and also just as fun.
Working with BTWS was really exciting knowing the bands background and their music. There was no pressure but to just sing for them over their beats and production, so what was supposed to be a few hours in the studio turned into a few days… I love the energy of their record.
Mary Casio started off as a bizarre character that only played her Casio keyboards and weird home-built synths in her back garden shed in Yorkshire… She was a stargazer and all her life had dreamt of leaving earth and travelling to the star constellation of Cassiopeia. I had written some instrumental music to her journey inspired by the Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt oblique strategy cards music, but I never in my life dreamed that I would be approached to score the music for a colliery brass band. The next show is in Leeds, Howard Assembly Rooms this Saturday, the day after my album is released.
Back to the album, there’s a cover of Paul Buchanan’s Cars in the Garden – Is that a long standing favourite (well, since 2012), or maybe a new discovery, or a suggestion?
I am a big Blue Nile fan and Paul Buchanan’s voice is truly majestic. The lyrical content of this song really resonated with me since its release and I felt the simplicity of my music box referring back to early childhood memories, which most people retain until the end, felt like the perfect ending…We all grow old and the grass, earth and nature will eventually cover us like the rusting of cars.
Paul has since heard the cover and I was so thrilled to hear that when he first started to record the song, he wanted a music box quality to the accompaniment!
And it features a duet with Hayden Thorpe – how did that come about?
During one of the last days in the studio, Hayden was passing my room to make a tea and not feeling like the album was finished, I asked if he would be up for singing on the song. It turned out he was another fan of Paul Buchanan and so said yes immediately. His ‘one take’ dulcet tones were perfect and I’m so thankful. It now echoes and feels like a poignant companion leaving behind the other who cares so deeply but it keeps us in the hearts and memory until the end.
And you recorded it in London and Ireland – was that just practical at the time or were you looking for something specific in those places?
My studio is in London and it’s where all my synths and machines are, so it was definitely the easiest place to create most of the record. However my homeland is Ireland and I had never thought I would find a place suitable to record until on one trip home, I called up a friend from touring Tommy McLaughlin (SOAK / Villagers), and asked if I could stop by to see his studio that I had always been told about.
It blew my mind away…It’s by far the most awe-inspiring studio I’ve ever been to. Incredible equipment, space, atmosphere, and nestled in amongst the mountains of Donegal, so when you record you have an astonishing view of the valleys to absorb. It seemed so fitting to finish all the vocals and piano there in memory of my grandmother and I feel it adds a sense of organic space and light to the album that London couldn’t bring.
We’ve fallen for All that matters here at backseat mafia, it is rather lovely. Is that a good representation of what we can expect from the album?
All That Matters is a song about love and holding someone close to you no matter what life throws at you. My friends are getting married next year and want to walk down the aisle to the song so I’m really happy!
I hope aside from my ideas behind the whole arc of the record, the songs can relate to everyone. All That Matters is at the start because it is fun and reminded me of the joyfulness of life… to me a reminder that the one thing dementia cannot take from us is love. Our mind may play tricks on us and memory will fail, but ultimately love and holding the person you love close, will cut through the fog even if briefly. As the album delves deeper, it slowly starts to change degrade like the brain, into darkness and confusion and hallucinations…
And what plans do you have for the rest of the year?
Alongside performing my new solo album post September, I will be recording the Mary Casio album live on analogue synths with the 33 piece colliery brass band before we play the Southbank in July 2017. Can’t wait.