An Interview with Hannah Peel

Hannah Peel

Can you give us a description of the studio in which you work?

Modular wallpaper synths. I call it analogue synth heaven. It’s deep under the streets of East London and run by electronic synth collector Benge. I am very lucky to have shared his studio space for a few years and it is here I’ve learnt not only how to use the equipment but to amalgamate it with my own music and the hand punched music box paper, which is like an early computer program in itself.

I’ve collected my own gear too with my favourite synth being a Juno 60, but if I’m being honest, the best part of the studio is a beautiful black upright Yamaha piano. It always has a wonderfully calming effect on me when I sit down to play and nearly every composition or song starts here.

Can you tell us about the ‘music box’ compositions?

It’s fascinating the amount of hours in manual labour it takes to essentially just punch holes into mathematical grid-like paper. I usually spend a few hours mapping out the notes and rhythms with a pencil and then get to work punching. Any mistakes can be covered with selloptape and the strips are joined together carefully with sellotape too. It’s a fine meditative process and really feels like another way to step back in time to make music.

I love combining the sounds of the music box with atmospheres and pulses but the most enjoyable thing is when creating synth arpeggios… it keeps away from children’s horror themes in film.

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As a single performer you produce wonderfully layered epic results – how does this work? What is the instrumentation?

I try at great lengths to not use a laptop so that everything is tangible and fun to play with but it’s starting to get increasingly harder now I’m on my own for longer sets!

I use a Roland 505, a Dave Smith Mopho x4 synth and a Nord piano, which is linked to a 70’s Ibanez delay pedal for creating huge warping sub atmospheres. Currently incorporating my violin into the set too which is exciting for really digging into the strings and creating unholy noises.

Part of this Society of Sound release is made up of covers. What inspired you to choose these particular songs and what was your approach to reinterpreting them?

Each song covered on REBOX 2 has played a part in my life over the last two years. They are not commercial chart popping hits that everyone has heard before but the songs and the artists really captured my imagination. It wasn’t until putting the album together that I realized there was a lifespan thread through them all.

Each track is approached completely differently as there are limitations on the range of notes for the music box, which is also equally part of its charm. It works beautifully on anything that sounds like a synth funny enough! Arpeggios are the most fun to punch out and for a song like Wild Beasts’ ‘Palace’, even if it meant changing the original key signature it worked really well and so that track lyrically and musically was kept sparse to keep both elements clear and unclouded with production. Often I have to find a much more inventive way to get around the limitations and even though it’s a lot more hours of punching and mapping out the notes, these songs are often the most rewarding when recording. In Perfume Genius’s track, ‘Queen’ I used the box as a percussive instrument, recording it through a vintage Roland Space Echo, or in John Grant’s ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ for example, where he features a Sergei Rachmaninoff Prelude, I had to punch the paper into psychedelic harp-like runs with multi-layered vocals to create a different take on the classical melody which on the record has a full orchestra!

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Your music obviously connects well with visuals – theatre, TV and film and you have worked in collaboration with dance projects. Do you feel your music is ‘filmic’ or ‘cinematic’?

I tend to connect better to a song when I think of it visually. I don’t intend it to be that way but my dreams often play a part in the mood or colour of a piece and so when I’m writing I work around that colour to develop it further. Often magazines like the National Geographic spark off a lot of inspiration too…there are always several copies and picture cut outs floating around in my studio and frequently an old film about architecture or a Dada movie will be playing in the corner too.

Back in 2008 I was awarded a grant to curate and produce Liverpool’s first AV festival for their Capital of Culture. It was a big job and being young, I learnt a lot very quickly but I had applied to do it because at the time I was consciously aware of the intrinsic link between visuals and music and was excited to be able to explore it more. I haven’t done anything like that again on such a huge scale but I suppose it is always in the back of my mind: the balance and relationship between the two. I really enjoy what artists like Flying Lotus and Squarepusher do when performing live with visuals. The technology to create an all-encompassing immersive world from the stage is just getting better and better and there’s nothing wrong with total escapism is there?

Read more about Hannah Peel

1 Comment

  • Steve Redshaw says:

    I saw and heard Hannah at WOMAD performing through the amazing sound system set up there by B&W. I was absolutely blown away by her music – she combines melody, lyricism and rhythm, using acoustic instruments and digital sounds, in a most wonderful and creative way. Her music has shape, energy, depth and sensitivity. It is some of the most beautiful and exciting music I have heard.

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