Hannah Peel, Fir Wave, Brian Eno and Delia Derbyshire

(Originally published in Issue 75 of Electronic Sound magazine, March 2021)

PERMANENT WAVES

Hannah Peel’s story is one of unlikely contrasts. Born in Northern Ireland and raised in South Yorkshire, she has stealthily established herself as one the leading lights of the electronic world. She has sent Barnsley octogenarians into space while striding up the red carpet as an Emmy Award nominee, and John Foxx, OMD and Paul Weller have all sought out her services. But new album Fir Wave is perhaps her most unexpected collaboration to date – with her Radiophonic “role model”, the late Delia Derbyshire

Words: Bob Fischer

“It just came to me,” says Hannah Peel, in a flurry of characteristic excitement. “I’d never made the comparison between the sounds Delia grew up with – the noises of the Blitz over Coventry during the war – and the experiences of sound that I had in Northern Ireland. The sounds of bombs and violence, but also of industry, and the ferries, and the shipping going back and forth. We lived next to a quarry as well, and every so often an air raid siren would go off. Probably to tell people to stay away from the bit that was exploding! It always felt like I was in some kind of weird sci-fi movie.

“So it was interesting looking back at her history, and realising she heard sirens and bombing, too.”

We are, of course, talking about Delia Derbyshire. The new Hannah Peel album Fir Wave is a retrospective collaboration, a re-imagining of the vintage library music collection Electrosonic. Produced in 1972 by Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson and Australian composer Don Harper, this was music only ever intended for film and TV licensing, clad in the utilitarian packaging of EMI’s shadowy imprint, KPM. Heard today, it’s an relentless bombardment of analogue tape experiments and evocative melodies, likely to overwhelm sensitive children of the 1970s with unsettling memories of Timeslip and The Tomorrow People.

Fir Wave, remarkably, transforms these sounds into something approaching a contemporary pop album.

Electrosonic is such a beautiful record in itself,” says Hannah. “Tracks like ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘Quest’ – they’re so resonant in their own right. They’re about landscape, but in a way that’s process-driven rather than being about the flowering of nature. They’re quite industrial, and I wanted to keep that angle. And the way I approached it was to re-sample the original sounds, and make my own instruments from those samples.”

She has succeeded: Fir Wave feels crisp and new. It’s an album for the clear-skied hinterland between winter and spring. It’s the music of frozen pavements and stark, bare-branched trees, and the vague shadow of belching factories on the horizon. How did it happen? Was she such a fan of Electrosonic that she approached KPM?

“No,” she explains. “They approached Steve, my manager, and asked if I’d be up for making a new library record. I said no, I didn’t want to… but then they said I could do what I wanted with Electrosonic, and make a contemporary version of it. So given that kind of license, and the significance of the artists on it… I had to! It’s a challenge you can’t turn down. But at the same time, it was really difficult. Because how do you take the work of someone you really admire, someone who is so diverse and complex, and turn that into something new? It’s like you’re treading on the toes of the past, while also wanting to take it into the future…”

We’re talking via Zoom on a freezing Tuesday afternoon. Her surroundings are textbook Hannah Peel: there is a teetering bank of synths to her left and a similar collection just out of shot on the other side of the room. A Fender Telecaster – which she modestly claims to be unable to play – is propped up against the back wall. Her extensive collection of National Geographic magazines, she reveals, is housed in the next room. She is a fizzing bundle of enthusiasm, fast-talking and funny, and it’s clear that the affinity she feels with this intriguingly enigmatic pioneer of early electronica goes way beyond the musical. What, I ask, is the ongoing fascination with all things Delia? 

 “She’s not one thing,” she explains. “She experimented with theatre, film and TV, had a massive interest in the visual arts… and she didn’t take any shit from anybody! Even when she left the Radiophonic Workshop, she still kept her own essence. That type of independence is a gorgeous thing to have in a role model, especially when you feel like a lot of things are against you. Most of my solo records are self-released, and have never had a label behind them, or a body of people pushing them. So I’ve always identified with that independent angle. Her character really resonates with me in that sense.”

“I wish I could have met her. There aren’t many electronic artists that I see in that way, but she’s one of them. I feel really lucky that I can have a career – doing stuff for film and TV, and making records. And I can communicate with people and have things written about me. And I just think… in her era, that wouldn’t have happened. And OK, we recognised her late, but the fact that she pushed through all that… it’s still amazing.”

I’m intrigued by the parallels between their respective childhoods: the mental scars left by both wartime Coventry and Troubles-era Northern Ireland. Hannah spent her early childhood in Craigavon, a modernist, never-completed 1960s new-town, 20 miles from Belfast. I’ve never heard her talking in detail about her experiences of County Armagh in the late 1980s, but – as we chat – she fleetingly mentions her memories of an IRA bomb blast on her sixth birthday. I broach the subject nervously. She doesn’t flinch.

“I guess when you’re so young, you just accept it as normal,” she says. “The checkpoints were almost a fun thing at my age: ‘Oooh, there’s an army person!’ But there was fear, too. There were people standing with big guns at the side of the street. You don’t think about it because you don’t know any different, but when I look back, or when I hear stories of what my family and friends went through, and people that are no longer here…” she pauses.

“My dad would tell me stories about where he worked, and people going missing overnight. Murders in the car park. It’s not until you’re older that you start to think ‘God… did I really live through that?’”

And her sixth birthday?  

“That was in Belfast. There was a Post Office van, and suddenly the army and police turned up out of nowhere and told everybody to run. My dad grabbed me and lifted me up, and by the time we got to the end of the street it had exploded. I remember it so vividly. When I looked back, it feels like a scene from a film. When I looked it up on the internet, apparently it was one of those weekends when the IRA were trying to show how many explosives they had. No-one got hurt, it was more to say ‘This is what could happen…’”

“So I guess, moving to Yorkshire when I was eight or nine years old, we were removed from it. But we were always the Irish family in the village. People knew who we were. A guy turned up one night, and he just went to the local pub and said ‘I’m looking for an Irish feller…’ and he found our house. ‘Oh yeah, they’re on that street there…'”

Among music fans of my advanced years, the gateway to the work of Delia Derbyshire is almost universal. It’s Doctor Who. The pulsing, swirling throb of her title theme arrangement became iconic, a musical touchstone from an era when experimental electronica was presented to children as an integral part of their teatime entertainment. Given that Hannah was barely of school age when the programme was taken off air in 1989, I was curious to discover her inroad to the exciting world of the Radiophonic Workshop.

The story is remarkable, and testament to the influence of an extraordinarily progressive teacher. A teacher with more than a working knowledge of one of music’s most original thinkers, and – indeed – his infamous card-based system for inspiring creativity.

Say hello to Mr Downs, everybody. And, indeed, to Mr Eno.

“When I went to sixth form, I really wanted to do theatre studies,” begins Hannah. “It was Shelley High School in Huddersfield, and they had an amazing theatre department. Jodie Whittaker, who’s now Doctor Who, had just left – but she would come back to see us all, and say hello! And during that time we did a lot of plays, including one at the Contemporary Music Festival. And that was Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. As a theatre show! My teacher Mr Downs had the Oblique Strategies cards, and we made a show out of them. We performed it at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield. And, afterwards, Brian Eno sent us all signed CDs to say ‘Thankyou for presenting my work as a piece of theatre!’

“Until then, I had no idea about that whole world. I’d never been introduced to ambient or electronic music. I’d just done my grades on the piano. Normal school stuff. Playing in brass bands… hang on, is that normal? I don’t know…”

She laughs again.

“But that was the point when I thought ‘Oooh… what’s this?”So how did the performance work? Was Mr Downs standing at the side of the stage, holding up the cards? “Honour Thy Error As A Hidden Intention”? “Gardening Not Architecture”?“The cards influenced the choices we made,” she explains. “It was a mix of contemporary dance and abstract theatre. So there’d be moments of complete and utter chaos, but all joined together! We used sticks, and wore boiler suits. It was dramatic acting with no words, just lots of sounds and movements of the body. All using the randomness of the Oblique Strategies.”

Bloody hell, Hannah. We did Guys and Dolls at my sixth form.

“We did all sorts, I learned how to do Balkan Head Singing! And when I went to university in Liverpool to study music, my final dissertation was about the effect of John Cage on modern composition. Then, after I left, I worked in studios and got my first synth. So it’s been a gradual thing, and it wasn’t until I met John Foxx that everything really hit home. All those elements from my past boomed together, and when we were surrounded by hundreds of synths in the studio, I suddenly thought – ‘OK… this is what everything was about!’”

The conversation drifts delighfully. We are both martyrs to the allure of the tangent. We discuss the bizarre aftermath of a 1990s Huddersfield science experiment (“Our teacher made us smell all kinds of different chemicals, and ever then since I’ve had hiccups every day”) and the charms of her beloved whippet, Bertie Moog. We touch upon Delia Derbyshire’s undocumented wilderness years in Cumbria, working for British Gas while married to a Haltwhistle labourer. Like many in the electronic arena, Hannah is quietly eccentric – almost embarrassed by the idiosyncrasies that make her such an engaging conversationalist.

I look for a mooring, and bring up the album’s title. Fir Waves are a natural phenomenon. They’re bands of trees in different stages of development on exposed mountainsides, carved into patterns by the prevailing winds. Yes, I’ve spent five minutes on Wikipedia.

“The patterns in nature are insane,” she smiles. “And there are connections between them and what we experience as sound. I moved back to Northern Ireland two years ago, and I live by a marina. And the number of things you can observe, being by the water, are just fascinating. The sunlight, the sounds, even the ripples in the water. You’re constantly seeing the play of patterns overlaying each other. When it’s windy, it whistles through everything. I suppose I wanted to get across that feeling of everything being one whole entity, rather than: ‘Here’s electronic music, and here’s nature.’ The inside of an oak tree bubbling as the water goes up and down inside it… you would think that’s a synth oscillating. It’s amazing.”

“So I was looking for patterns in our ecological system, and I found the Fir Waves. They’re made through the death and growth of trees, and they look like audio waves on a hillside. It felt like a really succinct connection between life and music, the death of one thing and birth of another.”

Unlikely connections. It’s a recurring theme in the Hannah Peel backstory. This is the woman, remember, who hand-crafted her own music boxes to play the hits of OMD and Soft Cell. The woman who combined analogue synths with the organic swell of a colliery brass band to tell the story of an 80-year-old Barnsley woman travelling to the constellation of Cassiopeia. Does she think, perchance, she’s got the kind of mind that makes connections between really disparate things? She does it a lot, I suggest.  

There is a long pause. I’m not sure if I’ve actually crossed a line. I daren’t look at the Zoom window, and – when I do – she seems to have vanished beneath the gaze of her webcam. Then, from nowhere, there is a gleeful explosion of raucous laughter.

“No-one’s ever asked me that!” she shrieks, popping back into shot. “Yeah, maybe! I guess so…” She laughs again, over and over. “But surely if anybody heard the inside of a tree bubbling, they’d say it sounded like a synthesizer…”

Trust me, Hannah – they wouldn’t. That’s not a uniform human experience.

“Maybe it goes back to childhood again. Travelling between Northern Ireland and Yorkshire. We went back and forth every single holiday. It was five times a year, on the ferry or the plane. And maybe that allowed me the time to really think about all these different, contrasting worlds.”

As she says this, her accent – usually firmly appended with a Barnsley postcode – betrays a mellifluous Irish brogue.  

“Coming from Ireland, which has that folk tradition, and heading into Yorkshire, which has brass bands but also a massive contemporary electronic scene, there was that sense of two worlds joining. And I guess you make sense of the world by finding those connections. Part of this record is the link between another two worlds: nature and electronic music. People might see them disparate, but they’re connected. Every wave form is moving through the air – colour, light and sound.

“For the last year I’ve been obsessed with rocks, and rock formations. And the sculpture of Barbara Hepworth – I saw a beautiful little BBC documentary about her, where she picked up a pebble from the coast and carried it in her pocket. And she really felt the weight of it. You know, it’s made by nature, and you can feel its history. So, because I live by the sea now, I’m constantly picking up pebbles and thinking ‘Aw, this one’s really nice…’”

So do the projects become all consuming? An obsession? I’m worried she lies awake at 3am wondering how to turn pebbles into music.

“Well, I actually wrote to Chris Watson and said ‘Chris… do rocks sing?’ And he said ‘Yes, they do, I have recordings of rocks moving and singing…’

“Maybe it comes from my theatre background. I get immersed in a project, do something with it, then move on.”

I’m becoming a little concerned, I tell her. It’s easy to fall into the trap of turning every fleeting interest and pastime into work. But that’s exhausting, and unhealthy. We all need downtime. We all need to watch Netflix in our jogging bottoms. I tentatively ask if she finds it easy to snap out of the working mindset when the thought processes of the latest project are becoming overpowering. She shrugs philosophically.

“No,” she admits. “I actually said to my manager that I need to find a hobby that isn’t music. And it’s funny, the last few days I’ve discovered Shuffle Dancing. It’s kind of an Americana dance, but it’s been transformed into a massive thing for the younger generation. With fancy footwork – you go off on one, and there are loads of tricks. And in lockdown you don’t have to have a partner, you can do the moves on your own. You just need slippery shoes and a slidey floor.”

“Also, when I moved back to Ireland and got my own place, it awoke a love of interior design. It’s an amazing feeling, changing a room and making it work. It can transform you. I’ve really enjoyed awakening that side of me. So when I haven’t been obsessing over music, I’ve got my Home magazines downstairs to flick through…”

She stops herself.

“I’m telling you everything now, Bob!”

It’s fine, I tell her. It’s lovely. Human. She clearly likes making things on a modest scale, and it seems like an apposite moment to bring up the music boxes that launched her recording career back in 2010. At this, she beams widely.  

“I was in Liverpool, and I was writing music for a theatre show,” she explains. “And I wanted everything that was being performed musically to be turning in some capacity… old record players, for example. So when I discovered music boxes with their turning handles… amazing! I bought one from a magic shop online, and discovered you can punch your own holes in them. And after the show had finished, I thought it’d be really nice to do something like ‘Tainted Love’ on one. So I tried it, and it worked. It’s still my most streamed track, and I recorded it in my bedroom! They have a certain quality that’s quite charming… and a little bit creepy, maybe.

“I’d spent a year putting on Liverpool’s first AV Festival. I got a grant from the City of Culture. It was amazing to do, but for the whole year I didn’t make any music. I was just organising this big festival. So as soon as it finished, I did this little play… and it was just so simple, with the cutting of tapes and the punching of holes. The nuances of the music boxes were just so lovely. It felt like I was going back to a more grounded place, rather than being stuck in my head with anxiety and stress – things that I’d never experienced before on that level. It was a mental reset to stop me having a nervous breakdown.”

That, I suggest, is the downside of having a mind that makes unlikely connections. Sometimes you can’t stop doing it – and that way lies anxiety. Even OCD. It’s exhilarating if your brain finds the links between the disparate elements of a creative endeavour, less so if you’re suddenly buying the same sandwich every day to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war. Believe me, I’ve done both.

“Without a doubt,” she nods. “And lockdown hasn’t helped with that. You can become completely obsessed with things, and can’t let them go. Living by the sea has been a massive help, because when I feel like that I can just go for a walk. Sometimes you just don’t want to think about things over and over again, do you?”

Not if it’s in an unhealthy way, no.

Night Tracks, the Radio 3 show I present, has got me through the last year, too. It’s just been a regular thing, and I have to search out and listen to new music. And that stops you from staying within your own little world. The number of things I’ve learned about is unbelievable. It’s an amazing show, and we’ve actually played some of the KPM stuff on there. It’s a lovely way to create a sound world for radio. There are no silences throughout the whole show… the producers really work hard to combine the tracks with beautiful segues. They’re almost composing in themselves, making beds of sound for us to present over.

“And it’s funny… I’ve also been lucky in that I’ve worked with people that are a lot older than me. John Foxx and Paul Weller and OMD. Everyone’s been of a certain age, and I’ve often wondered ‘Why is that?’ But you learn so much. You pick up little things that take you out of your creative headspace. And all the people I work with never look back – they look forward, in everything they do.”

So there’s this young student, right? Ophelia. She’s at Cambridge. She falls in love with her lecturer but he suddenly vanishes, and when she tracks him down to his rambling family home in the Irish countryside, he’s grieving for his wife who has died in a fire. This is on Channel 5, in case you were worried. It’s called The Deceived, and it’s a taut, four-part thriller, first screened in August 2020. The soundtrack, provided by one Hannah Peel, combines ominous, nerve-jangling strings with a welter of manipulated clatters and clangs. 

“It was set in a creepy old manor house, and filmed in Northern Ireland,” she recalls. “So I got the chance to go on set, and my pitch to the producer was that I really wanted to create soundscapes from the house. I went with an engineer, and sampled sounds from the whole building. There were servant’s quarters with old Agas! Somebody had been very sporty too, and there was a whole wall of medals – when you ran your fingers across them, you got a tinkle of sound. And there was an old piano that was completely out of tune, but it had the most amazing, creepy quality.

“I brought sticks and beaters with me, and one of the main sounds I made was from hitting a huge collection of Irish crystal cut glass. I turned that into a digital instrument when I got home, put a couple of filters on it, and it sounded like an ethereal, spooky voice that fitted with the story perfectly. So that became the ‘Voice of the House’ in the background…”

She’s on a roll. She genuinely never seems happier than when she’s describing the process of music-making… or, more accurately, the initial stages of music-making. The first giddy rush of an exciting new project, with added joy apparent if that opening salvo of inspiration requires a distinctly unorthodox approach.

“Then there’s what I called the ‘Bathtub Shuffle’,” she laughs. “Which was me with brushes on the side of an old, cast iron bath filled with water. We had microphones under the water, and I was hitting the side of it. Whenever there’s tension approaching, you’ll hear that sound in the background going ‘Tchtchtchtch…’ And that’s the bathtub! Oh, and there was an amazing door that, when you opened it really slowly, made a deafening noise, like a drill. It was really horrid. That was called ‘The Creaky Pig’… we used it in moments when we needed a low-end kick to give you a bit of tension.”

We’re back to the Radiophonic Workshop again, aren’t we? You are the spiritual heiress of Brian Hodgson, running his housekey down an old piano string and slowing it down to get the sound of the TARDIS.

“I know, that’s the thing! We’re still doing it now! The only different is the application… they were cutting their tape into pieces, whereas I just load in the sounds, edit and press play. Maybe that’s the dream they were hoping for at that time?” “The whole soundtrack was supposed to be in that fashion, all made from sound beds and textures. But, when it came to the edit, they needed something a bit more Bernard Herrmann. They wanted it to feel like a Hitchcock film. So it became a score for strings, with the sounds taking a back step.”

She seems a little resigned to the vagaries of the film-making process, but – I suggest – both approaches retain an essential air of Peel-ness. A Platonic Ideal of Peel. It’s there in all of her extraordinarily diverse back catalogue, from the tinkling music boxes of Rebox to the folk stylings of Awake But Always Dreaming and the brass-backed Moogs of Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia. And, indeed, the glacial textures of Fir Waves. What is it, I ask? What is distilled essence of Peel?

She pauses.

“Well, I sent Fir Waves to my old bandmate Simon Tong, and his reply was ‘This is a typical Peel record’!”

So what is that? They’re all different.

“I don’t know! But there must be a joining factor. I guess…every record might feel different, but they all come from a human feeling. Or a human story.”

I wonder if she feels her eclecticism has held her back. Labels and marketing people, in my experience, like artists that are easy to promote. Well-behaved pop stars that linger in their pigeon holes.

“I come across as bubbly sometimes, but the number of times I’ve been overlooked for jobs, or by labels…” she pauses, momentarily tailing off into silent contemplation. “Delia’s story really resonated with me, because you are out on your own. But that also creates a sense of independence, and forces you into a place where you have to be creative about certain things.”

She touches upon a freshly-unearthed 21st century Delia Derbyshire interview, the poignant memoir she has soundtracked for the exclusive 7” available with this issue of Electronic Sound.

“To hear her talking about going away, and then coming back… I don’t want to do that. I want to keep on creating constantly. Maybe that’s the worst side of me? The obsessiveness. But that’s what I choose to do. It’s something I love, and I think that’s the joy in it.”

I’d always assumed that she cherished her independence. Does she wish she had the support of a major label, then?
 
“Yeah, course I do,” she states, decisively. “It’s so easy with social media to give the impression that everything is great, and some of my friends text me and say ‘You’re doing so well, you’re on the radio’. And I say ‘Yeah, but I fucking work 24/7 to get there!’”

“But you make your life out of the situation you’re put in. Who was it said that famous phrase – ‘It’s not the hand that you’re dealt, it’s what you do with it?’”

I think that was Gandalf. 

“It probably was!” She laughs generously, but I’m being too flippant. The life of an independent music-maker is not an easy one, especially in Covid-ridden 2021. I ask who her future dream collaborator might be. “I’d love to work with Brian Eno,” she answers, without hesitation. “We had a conversation the other day, actually. I was interviewing him for a radio thing that will come out later this year. And I got an e-mail afterwards saying ‘I’m so sorry – I didn’t realise you were THAT Hannah Peel!’ So I sent that to my manager, saying ‘Oh my God – Brian Eno just e-mailed!’”

Did you not mention you were one of the sixth formers who turned his Oblique Strategies into a theatre production in Huddersfield?

“No, I haven’t told him! When we meet, I might bring my signed CD and say ‘Hi Brian…’”

She laughs again. We’ve chortled and guffawed the afternoon away. After the interview, she sends me a photo of this unique slice of Eno memorabilia. It’s a CD of his rare 1999 album I Dormieni, dedicated “To Hannah” with a flamboyant signature.

“There were 16 of us, and we all got one,” she smiles.  

And then I scuttle back to Wikipedia and identify the quote we were both skirting around: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand”. It’s attributed to American computer science professor Randy Pausch, who used it in his now infamous 2007 “Last Lecture”  – delivered a month after being told his pancreatic cancer diagnosis was terminal.

Despite her modest protestations, making the most of the cards she’s been dealt clearly comes naturally to Hannah Peel. The hand she has played has even taken her to the 2019 Emmy Awards, where a nomination for her soundtrack to HBO’s Game Of Thrones: The Last Watch documentary saw her striding purposefully up the red carpet. Alongside director Jeanie Finlay, and a bevy of Ru Paul’s six-foot drag queens. 

“If Jeanie hadn’t come with me, I would have slinked into a shadowy corner and never come out,” she admits, bashfully.

And another line of advice from Randy Pausch’s now-infamous oratory? “It’s not about how to achieve your dreams, it’s about how to lead your life. If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself, the dreams will come to you.” A retrospective collaboration – and another of those unlikely connections – with her Radiophonic role model suggests Hannah Peel’s karma is already working its unlikely magic.