Electronic musician and composer Hannah Peel and the poet Will Burns have come together to create Chalk Hill Blue. Combining spoken word and soundscapes, the album was inspired by the natural world around Burns’s home in Buckinghamshire, but could just as well relate to Peel’s home town of Barnsley.
The album was produced by their mutual friend – the Scottish musician Erland Cooper.
The pair will perform Chalk Hill Blue at the Barbican in London this Saturday, but Peel was also keen bring it to Barnsley and is appearing at The Civic arts centre on November 1. It is the town she moved to in childhood, from her birthplace in Northern Ireland.
“One of my memories from my early days, Ian McMillan won’t ever remember it, was him coming to our school and reading poetry, it was my first experience of ever hearing it. He’s got an amazing voice and you’re never going to forget that,” says Peel.
“I was approached a while ago by The Civic to do something for their 10-year anniversary and I said, ‘If you just wait, I think I’ve got something which will really resonate’ because although Chalk Hill Blue is actually about Will’s experience in one town, the town that resonated for me was Barnsley, and it resonates with all small towns, they have really struggled to survive, and the stories that are within those towns and the people.
“One of the things that Will’s words do bring out is the detail, in a very monotone voice, you feel like you can really attach a lot more emotions to it. There’s something resonant about the subject matter that I feel will suit Barnsley really well.”
In the past two years Peel has found herself much in demand. Via Erland Cooper, she was introduced to Paul Weller and wrote string arrangements for his album True Meanings and two subsequent concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, which were recorded for the live double-album Other Aspects.
She has recently been working with Weller again, on an album which is due to be released next year. “It’s been really lovely to get involved,” she says.
As well as writing music for York-based Pilot Theatre Company’s stage production of Brighton Rock, the 34-year-old also composed the soundtrack to a Game of Thrones documentary film, which was nominated for an Emmy Award. It was, she says, “a pinch-me moment” to find herself acclaimed alongside two other female composers.
“Even that is quite rare because the percentage of women in film and TV is six per cent for composition. I’m very honoured to even go and experience it.”
When considering collaborations, Peel says: “Time is precious and I can’t do everything but I think when there’s a story attached to it that is human and it really matters, in Brighton Rock it’s all about the psychology of Pinky, his moods and killing people and unravelling that story, digging deeper and finding what made him go there, and the same I suppose with Game of Thrones – the lives of those people have massively been affected by the TV show.
“Okay, it’s a TV show but their whole lives have been changed because of being involved in that. It was nice for me to dig deeper and find those tiny stories that needed to be told.
“I guess that’s even the case with the albums – Mary Casio [her space-obsessed alter-ego who featured on a 2017 album] is the same, and Awake But Always Dreaming, it’s about discovering and finding something that makes me excited in order to tell a story. I suppose maybe that’s my folk background, growing up in Ireland and moving to Barnsley, there was always folk music around and storytelling, whether it be from family and friends or the group of people that live in Barnsley. Maybe that’s where it comes from.”
Peel was introduced to Burns’s writing in 2016 at the launch of Awake But Always Dreaming, a record that drew on her family’s experiences with dementia.
“The launch of that was at Alzheimer’s Research UK and as part of that launch event people came and read some poetry that was related to living with dementia. One of those poems was Will’s and it’s called Out of Doors. I thought it was so beautiful. After that I said, ‘Look, come to the studio and we’ll record it. It doesn’t really matter if nothing happens to it, we’ll just do it and see what happens.’
“After about a year and a half of trying to even meet up we eventually got together and did it. That’s the first track we made together, it was really lovely.”
Out of Doors would turn out to be the opening track on the album Chalk Hill Blue.
A later track, just released on a single, arose from a commission for The Verb, Barnsley poet Ian McMillan’s show on BBC Radio 3.
“One of his radio shows was all about insects and the moth is one of Will’s favourite insects, he thinks it’s highly under-rated, so that’s where the track Moth Book came from.”
Peel says she did not have any musical reference points in mind for this project.
“I’ve seen poetry read quite a lot of times and I’ve always felt the air around when you’re reading poetry needed to last longer, and feel like you were encompassing it a lot longer. So the intention of creating these mini worlds for Will and his voice was the only reference point.”
Hannah Peel and Will Burns play at The Civic, Barnsley on Thursday November 1. www.barnsleycivic.co.uk