A haunting reverie on memory and loss…
Hannah Peel’s particular musical trajectory has traveled an interesting path over the years which has led the musician and composer to cover a diverse amount of roles, projects and collaborations.
For most people, she first popped up on the radar on the back of her music box compositions in which she adapted the charming melodies of the devices to cast some classic songs in a new light. The result of her endeavours was the 2010 EP Rebox, featuring music box covers of songs including ‘Tainted Love’, ‘Blue Monday’ and OMD’s ‘Electricity’.
Her debut album The Broken Wave emerged in 2011 and received a good response from critics and public alike. But Peel was also keen to continue broadening her musical horizons, which included collaborative work, such as being part of psychogeographic outfit The Magnetic North as well as performing with John Foxx And The Maths.
2016 marked a busy year for Peel, which included composing under her new alter ego Mary Casio with an experimental piece combining analogue electronics and a 28-piece colliery brass band. Plus, The Magnetic North released their critically acclaimed follow up album Prospect Of Skelmersdale.
Awake But Always Dreaming marks the latest Hannah Peel release, an album that draws on her own family experiences with dementia. It’s a release that drew positive reviews, but was also an album that had taken a long time to assemble as the musician took her time in exploring an emotive theme that ultimately formed a deeply personal body of work.
Initially inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Peel’s second album had begun to come together around the same time as her 2011 debut album. The Italian writer’s 1972 book featured a selection of prose poems that revolved around the theme of imaginary cities, a concept that Peel developed an obsession about and initially drafted an album outline that would feature music that connected to all of these fictional locations.
But it was on a visit to her grandmother that steered the Hannah Peel into a different direction. The tragic grip of dementia meant that her grandmother had no idea who her grandaughter was – an incident that became the basis for the song ‘Conversations’. Peel looked into the statistics behind dementia and was struck by the fact that 850,000 people have the illness in the UK (with two-thirds of that number being women). From this, the album took on a different concept that looked at the experience of someone having the illness and attempting to imagine how that person inhabited their world.
Despite this grim thematic sweep to the album, Awake But Always Dreaming has songs that have an uplifting feel to them, such as the electropop wonder that is ‘All That Matters’. Released as a single, the track employs a combination of synth hooks and strings measured against Peel’s haunting vocal.
‘Standing On The Roof Of The World’, meanwhile, features distorted synths, guitars and odd sounds to create a sense of detachment. Samples of traffic recordings pepper the composition that’s ‘Tenderly’, which was apparently inspired by Peel’s long journeys by car following performances and rehearsals. There’s a sense of lugubriousness to this track in which melancholic strings invite a mood of reflection.
Looking to her inspirations from the world of cinema scores, ‘Don’t Take It Out On Me’ had actually begun life as composition from a theatre production that Peel had been working on. The song’s clocklike rhythms echo the fragility of memory with an hypnotic quality reflected in the repetition of the song’s title.
Elsewhere, the dreamlike soundscape of ‘Invisible City’ offers a reverie on the strength of memory and how it builds our worlds around us. “I built this city around my body” suggests the delicate vocals, “these walls they hold me like you once did, like you once did.”
There’s a brooding quality to ‘Octavia’, which is one of the tracks that harken back to the original inspiration of imaginary cities. Wind instruments and synths collide on this evocative composition that has a sense of theatre and imminent danger. Calvino’s fictional Octavia was suspended over a deep ravine, the city’s denizens always aware that they could fall in at any moment. It also refers to the balance that memory has when confronted with decay and the idea that over time it may likewise drop into an abyss.
The disorientating sounds that make up ‘Awake But Always Dreaming’ deliver an uncertain atmosphere and a discordant dreamlike fugue. Meanwhile, the vocals take on a brittle nature that’s at odds with the music around it: “Will you catch me if I fall?”
The loss of memory is a central theme to the fragile tones of ‘Conversations’, a composition that’s built around a stark piano melody and an event starker vocal from Peel. Indistinct washes of conversation weave in and out of a track that has a particular sadness to it.
‘Foreverest’ has a skittering quality to it which suggests the rapid passage of time, while Peel’s isolated vocals float over this fractured landscape of sound. Finally, album closer ‘Cars In The Garden’ sees a return to Peel’s music box compositions. In this case, it’s a cover of a Paul Buchanan (The Blue Nile) song that also feature guest vocals from Hayden Thorpe. As with much of the material on the album, it’s a delicate tune whose music box melody lends a curious nursery rhyme quality to it.
Awake But Always Dreaming offers a very personal collection of songs for Hannah Peel that rightly drew a lot of critical acclaim. It’s an exploration of memory and time and the ever-present danger of how fragile these things are. Many of these compositions have a haunting quality to them that will remain with the listener – and invites reflection on their own sense of memory and self.
Awake But Always Dreaming is out now.
Hannah Peel has a series of UK live dates scheduled including:
24-March-17 NORWICH – NORWICH ARTS CENTRE
01-April-17 LIVERPOOL – THRESHOLD FESTIVAL
03-April-17 BIRMINGHAM – THE SUNFLOWER LOUNGE
04-April-17 CAMBRIDGE – THE PORTLAND ARMS
05-April-17 BRIGHTON – THE PRINCE ALBERT
30-April-17 SALFORD – ST.PHILIP’S CHURCH
05-May-2017 COVENTRY CATHEDRAL
A celebration for Delia Derbyshire’s 80th birthday
Please see the Electricity Club Event Calendar for details on these performances as well as other upcoming concerts.
Publications that have featured his contributions include Electronic Sound, Metro, Japan Update Weekly, J-Pop Go, Wavegirl and OMD Messages.