How Hannah Peel grew up to be one of Britain’s most exciting composers

Hannah Peel is one of the country's leading composers of electronic music. submit
Hannah Peel is one of the country's leading composers of electronic music. submit
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She grew up playing in a brass band in Barnsley, but Hannah Peel tells Sarah Freeman how she became plugged into a very different kind of music.

For anyone whose music education ended with London’s Burning on the recorder, Hannah Peel is irritatingly talented. She plays just about every instrument you can name, has an encylopaediac knowledge of synths, sings like an angel (albeit one who has swallowed a back catalogue of electronica) and might just have reinvented brass band music for the 21st century. 
Oh and she is just 32.

When we meet she is on a break from rehearsals for a new production of Brighton Rock by York-based Pilot Theatre for which she has composed the music. “Graham Greene’s book is set in the 1930s, but this production is a contemporary retelling,” says Peel, who also recently acted as support to Alison Moyet. “As a musician that gives you a lot of freedom. I don’t think it’s conscious, but some of the music we are using definitely harks back to an earlier age and those lyrical melodies.

“Theatre is where I started, but I have been so busy with my own touring that I haven’t done any for a while, so I jumped at the chance to do this. Up until December I was touring with Alison, but I spent most of Christmas writing bits and pieces that I thought would work for Pinkie and Rose.

“By the time we got to the first rehearsal I had about 30 different ideas for music that I knew could be used somewhere and it has really just been just about piecing them together like a jigsaw.

“When you read the novel there are so many references to music that it makes my job as composer much easier. If you have seen a series like Twin Peaks where the music is an intrinsic part of setting the atmosphere, that’s what I want the audience to feel when they come out of Brighton Rock. I want it to add to the darkness, to that feeling of violence and menace which really pervades the pages of the book.”

Born in Northern Ireland, Peel moved to Barnsley at a young age and it was there that she was first introduced to the music of brass bands, which has been something of a running theme throughout her work.

“One of the first things we did when we got there was join the local music service, then known as PADS. There was a big move to get children interested in brass instruments and it meant you could learn the trombone or the cornet for free. I loved it. And I still love that music because it tells a story of an entire community and you can hear that in every note that is played.”

Music was everywhere in Peel’s childhood and, while she has never consciously followed any great career plan, nor has it ever entered her head to do anything else. By the time she was in her mid-20s Peel’s family had moved back to Northern Ireland and she had headed to London. It was while recording her first album there that she met another musician who has proved a major influence on her career to date.

“John Foxx was next door,” she says of the original lead singer of Ultravox, who left the band in the 1980s and is one of the leading proponents of electronic music. “He kept on walking past and smiling. That was my first introduction to him and to synths and I have never looked back.

“Honestly, it was a revelation. With one bit of equipment you can create an entire sound like no other. I loved it really from the moment I heard it. I wish I had been into it as a kid because those old analogue synths from 20 years ago now cost a fortune.

“It’s why I drive such an old car. Every time I have a bit of money, I see a synth up for sale.”

If her choice of instrument is unusual, so is the subject matter of much of her music, which eschews the usual topics. “I have never been one of those people who can sit down and write about falling in love or breaking up. For me there has to be more of a narrative to it. Whether I am in the studio or on stage, I want to be telling a story.”

It’s a trait best exemplified by Peel’s 2016 album Awake But Always Dreaming, a wistful and poignant recording inspired by watching her grandmother being overtaken by dementia. “She didn’t know who I was and she gradually became more and more distant from the world,” she says. “I read how for some people music can be a link to their past, so we started singing to her. I’m not sure what we thought would happen, but suddenly she started singing the lyrics.

“It made me realise that the grandma I had known wasn’t lost. Somewhere underneath the dementia that had broken so many connections to the world she had once known, she was there.”

Peel, whose music has been used as part of a fundraising appeal for Alzheimer’s Research UK is due to perform Awake But Always Dreaming during the Every Third Minute festival at the West Yorkshire Playhouse next month. The programme aims to put dementia centre stage and features productions co-written by those living with the condition as well as work inspired by it.

In fact, Peel’s relatives appear to be a rich source of inspiration. It was an elderly aunt who provided the springboard for the follow-up. Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia combined synths and brass band music to tell the story of 86-year-old Mary Casio and her lifelong stargazing dream.

“It was for all those people who have been overlooked and underestimated throughout their lives. I had a seed of an idea, but it was when I read a book called The Seven Lessons In Physics by Carlo Rovelli in which he describes the 100 billion neurons in the brain as being a bit likes stars in the galaxy that everything fell into place.

“I wanted people to listen to that album and realise that no matter how old you are everyone has dreams and ambitions to fulfil.”

Peel knew that she wanted to include a brass band on the album, but admits the musicians she recruited weren’t so sure. “When they I told them what I wanted to do, they were a bit dubious. There was a fear that I was going to make them look silly. Brass band music has such a rich heritage and everyone involved in it wants to protect that legacy.

“I am sure there are some traditionalists who would balk at Mary Casio, but I have always been a believer that with music you can’t stand still and with something like brass you have to find a way of connecting with today’s audience. The first time we performed Mary Casio suddenly everyone realised what I was trying to do.”

Written down, Peel’s work can sound leftfield, but anyone who needs convincing should listen to her pared-down version of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. It features music from one of those old-fashioned wind-up music boxes and is an exercise in beautiful simplicity. “I think I have always been really lucky in that my family have always encouraged me to do what I love. If I am not passionate about something I don’t do it.”

Brighton Rock, York Theatre Royal, to March 3. 01904 623568, yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Awake But Always Dreaming, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, March 10. 0113 217 7700, wyp.org.uk.