Hannah Peel: ‘I wish I could have had a conversation with Delia Derbyshire over a cup of tea’

Hannah Peel’s albums have often had deeply personal themes – from Awake But Always Dreaming, written in response to losing her grandmother to dementia, to Mary Casio: Journey to Casseopeia, that combined her fascination with electronic music, stargazing and the colliery bands she heard growing up in Barnsley.

Hannah Peel. Picture: Peter Marley

Her new record Fir Wave sprang from being given permission to reinterpret Electrosonic, a 1972 album of library music composed by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop for the label KPM. The end result, however, is far more than a simple remix of the work of one of Peel’s musical heroines, who is best known for her otherworldy electronic arrangement to Ron Grainer’s theme tune for Doctor Who.

Fir Wave advances Derbyshire’s pioneering experiments into the digitised 21st century.

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“I guess I’ve grown up in that era where there hasn’t been very many female role models, so when I found Delia and started to delve into her history a little more it became very apparent that she is one in that bent,” says Peel, 35. “She was so independent and she challenged things and worked hard and there was an unstoppable energy to her that I find really attractive.

“She composed music for film and visuals and installations, and it wasn’t just to do with the TV and the Radiophonic Workshop, she was so multi-faceted, it is really admirable.”

Peel, who was born in County Armagh and moved to South Yorkshire aged eight, sees parallels between the sounds of her early childhood and those of Derbyshire, who was born in the Midlands in 1937. “I grew up as a child in Northern Ireland before moving to Yorkshire and in that time I experienced bomb explosions and army checkpoints all the time. When you look at that kind of soundworld that does influence you, whether you realise it or not. In a lot of interviews with Delia she said about living in Coventry during the Second World War and hearing the air raid sirens go off.

“When I started looking into her more and more there were so many similarities. I just wish I could have had a conversation with her over a cup of tea at some point to find out what drove her. It is that side of experimentation and willing to do something different, I think that’s really gorgeous. She was just in that system where she wasn’t allowed to flourish and I think that’s a really sad thing.

“That something that I’m always advocating, helping young women in tech and making sure that we learn and have confidence to use our skills.”

For a fan of library music, that was used to soundtrack film and TV programmes, the KPM recordings were a treasure trove. “Because they weren’t made for an audience they have no egotistical language to them,” says Peel. “Especially this one, because of the sounds and the way that it’s been generated, you’re delving through history and I think that’s gorgeous, but also it put pressure on me to create something equally of my era as well.

“That original record in particular, the sounds are industrial. They’re futuristic but they follow industrial or scientific programmes, like Quest. There were these titles that feel like they’re of the future but when you look at them now they’re not. Fir Wave in a sense had that angle that we are very eco and environment aware at the moment and (my) titles are celebrating patterns in nature and the detail in nature and how that’s linked to electronic music. I guess it’s taking something from the past and moving it into the future.”

Because her brief was to make a new record out of an existing album, rather than create her own narrative, Peel says she was able to just have fun. “There is a deep emotional impact to it,” she adds. “It came at a time when we were in lockdown and it is something that you want to celebrate when we get out of lockdown. I wanted to make something like in the Roaring Twenties you had design and flourish of style and music, the same after the Second World War, the vintage cars and the colours that came out of it. I was thinking with music, what do I want to be listening to after we’ve gone through this, and it was that simple effect of enjoying nature and enjoying music and having something to dance and move to, that makes you feel like your energy is part of the electronic energy, which is part of the waveforms that we hear in nature. That was a fascinating way to approach the record.”

Last year, Peel arranged the strings for Paul Weller’s chart-topping album, On Sunset. Their musical collaboration, that began in 2018, continues on Weller’s new album Fat Pop, due out in May.

Peel says: “He’s a true living legend. He never looks backwards, he’s constantly thinking of the next thing and not afraid to try out a different style...Seeing that in action it inspires you to keep going.”

Her BBC Radio 3 show Night Tracks has also returned to the airwaves. “For most of last year it was the only thing that was in the diary, and it kept me sane,” she says. “It was like my job to find new music. The amount of music that was sent, people creating at home or a bit like I’ve done, records that they hadn’t had a use for and then they had to make up for not touring. It was a really amazing resource and listening time for me to be able to look at those things.

“I also had a couple of commissions that because of the way the world is, it’s so busy, they’d sat on my desk and I hadn’t got round to doing them. One of them is with an amazing orchestra called the Paraorchestra, they’re based in Bristol and they collaborate with disabled and non-disabled musicians, and they had asked me to write a piece and I finally got the time to write that for them and think about what that piece was as well and what I wanted it to say for them.”

Fir Wave is out on Friday March 26 via My Own Pleasure. www.hannahpeel.com

Night Tracks is on BBC Radio 3 on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 11pm.