Clare Archibald from The Fountain spoke with composer and musician Hannah Peel ahead of her Celtic Connections gig at which she will perform her latest album, Mary Casio: A Journey to Cassiopeia, with the full twenty-nine person brass band of album collaborators Tubular Brass.
The album was recorded live in Barnsley where Hannah moved to at the age of eight from Northern Ireland. Mary Casio is Hannah’s third solo album, with the previous one Awake But Always Dreaming (released in 2016) leading to both critical plaudits and public engagement with her exploration of music memories as a positive connection for people affected by dementia.
Mary Casio: A Journey to Cassiopeia, released in the second half of 2017, has appeared in many end of year best album lists and the live renditions of the synth brass fusion with Tubular Brass have been met with a hugely positive response. Hannah Peel has been described as Delia Derbyshire meets Kate Bush, and as both a solo artist and in collaboration with The Magnetic North has established herself as a musician of ideas, exploration and experimentation especially in relation to ideas of place, identity and memory. Mary Casio, a largely instrumental odyssey in seven movements configured around the octogenarian sound artist Mary and her flight of mind to see the constellation of Cassiopeia, manages to successfully combine synths and brass to evoke yearning, melancholy and a space to dream with mind or body.
TF: I wanted to speak to you first about Mary Casio, both the album itself and I suppose her as a character, as I think of it in both ways – I don’t know if you do? So, you developed from what I read, the character of Mary Casio as a bit of levity for you when you were doing your last album, Awake but Always Dreaming, which I get because it must have been a fairly heavy process with it being about your experience of your gran having dementia.
Yes, you don’t quite realise it until you step away because you just deal with it don’t you and you kind of get on with it but I do find that the after effects of seeing family members going to see her and then leaving and their faces every time it used to just break my heart, and if she was aware of that and to know that everyone was leaving with tears in their eyes she would have been totally devastated. It is the after effects that I found the most difficult because when you’re there you deal with it, you try and make them smile, you talk about things you get water or food or something.
TF: It’s the practicalities really and then the emotional comeback later on as well. Would you say that you developed Mary then as a way to give yourself a space outwith that?
Yeah definitely. As you say It was very tough recording and mixing, preparing parts and also working out how to structure the record, and so Mary just came out of that as a kind of joke thing as oh I’ll get my glasses on and I’ll maybe make a little beat, you know something to lighten the mood and we’d dance round the studio with Erland (Erland Cooper) the producer and it became a bit of a thing. It was never really intended to be an album. It was literally that I started writing instrumental tunes and I thought it would be funny to embody a name or a character just because it gives you a bit of creative liability, you know pretend to be someone else and that will take you a bit further creatively, and that really did help. So all these little instrumental pieces that were very slow and ambient moving started to become a bit more and then the brass band got in touch.
TF: Yes, and I wanted to ask you as well because on Awake But Always Dreaming you actually dedicated it to your Granny and other people but also to Mary Casio, was that like an affirmation or statement of intent or were you being a bit playful still. Did you already know then that you were going to take Mary Casio forward in a different way?
No, I think maybe it’s like yourself when you’re writing you don’t quite know your intentions but there’s something there that you follow through and it just, I think a lot of Awake But Always Dreaming is about going deep into the rabbit hole of the mind and I suppose Mary Casio itself is a journey to outer space but it’s also that journey to inner space; even further it’s really going into the depth of the neurons and exploring that. I mean she, I suppose the album itself, we never know if she gets to Cassiopeia. In my mind it was always kind of like well is she just sat in her front room, or is this her last breath and this is her journey into the next world. I always considered it a record that was more about the mind than space but the two seem to work well together.
TF: It’s like the sub layers of work being fed by other work isn’t it and then sub layers of the mind and then of the body. I love all the layers to it and the different ways that you can think about how it connects together. What I really like about it as well is that she’s an eighty year old woman but she’s got dreams and movement and there’s this ambiguity as well that’s there. I think it’s a great album, I really love it. Also older women get so side-lined and they’re so invisible most of the time and you kind of listen and think go, go on Mary, and that’s so unusual that you get the chance to think that way I think about older women.
Oh yes, you know spending time in a care home 90%, 99% of the time even, it’s women in there and yes just seeing little old ladies, it makes me so sad because we lead such crazy lives and go through everything and then end it in a care home where actually a lot of people are forgotten. With dementia you often don’t interact and a lot of people deal with it by keeping you at arms- length because they think that person isn’t there anymore and I think that’s what music changed for me because I did exactly the same thing. Well I won’t go to visit today because she won’t know who I am, and if I’d known about music and singing and stuff I would have been there every single day. I think that’s what drove me to think I’m going to finish this record and I’m going to make a point of talking about it because it’s really important.
TF: And actually you’ve gone onto change things for a lot of other people as well with the memory playlists that came about because of it. It must be quite mind-blowing that you’ve done something that for you was incredibly personal but that has actually profoundly affected other people’s lives as well, which I think is amazing. I guess that’s the power of art isn’t it.
I know, I never thought that I would ever make something like that. You know when you write an album or do anything you’re just writing about an experience but it’s not until something really touches you that you can really powerfully go for it. One of the first things that happened with Awake But Always Dreaming was that there was an online article/interview about my grandmother, and one of the things that I wanted to achieve was that anyone who had a grandparent would view dementia differently and view it as disease rather than old age because a lot of people still think of it as old age, and a girl wrote to me on Facebook that it’d massively influenced her and she’d gone to her grandfather and she took a record with her and it had completely changed the way their relationship was. I just thought that was the most amazing thing ever.
TF: It’s really special actually isn’t it.
Yes and I just hope that more people are able to do it because I really regret not being able to do it.
TF: You did it when you could, you can only go with it once you have that knowledge. You’ve shared that now, I suppose I’m saying don’t feel bad about it because what you’ve done has been very giving I think. It must have been such a difficult process to go through and for you to acknowledge your feelings around that as well is hard.
Yeah, it’s one of the hardest things to talk about. I’ve talked about it now for two years and I still get upset about it. It’s a mixture of fear of what can happen and of that sadness that the person has changed and that they’re not the same person.
TF: I suppose it’s the not knowing as well isn’t it, not knowing what’s being understood on the other side. With Mary Casio, although it came about organically, because of that experience did you fix it deliberately in your head as a woman in her eighties with explicit intent or did that just fit naturally anyway?
Yeah it fitted naturally. I think there’s a few elements to it that made me very clear about why she was old. There’s a political edge to it. Particularly, the brass band sound is very traditional, it’s Northern, it feels very British, there’s nothing else that is as British sounding in my mind as a Northern brass band. It made me cringe a lot when I saw on the news all about Brexit and all this stuff and most of the time it was an old man shown in Barnsley, where the record was made, saying get them out, and I was thinking you’ve probably never even left Barnsley, you probably don’t even have someone from a different country living next door to you. So there was an element of that kind of small town and not leaving and then going to outer space and completely juxtaposing that contrast.
Also a lot of my role models and people who I look up to in music, people like Delia Derbyshire…
TF: Who you’ve been compared to quite a lot.
Yes and they’ve all passed away and it makes me quite sad that a lot of people that I idolise aren’t here anymore, and a lot of them actually their stories are really similar in that they weren’t discovered or celebrated until after their death or when they were old and had already given up or thought they were forgotten. All the tapes of Delia Derbyshire were found in her attic, hundreds of tapes of music, and I thought well I’m going to make a character that is now and doing something that will be recognised now.
TF: I think that’s one of the really powerful things about it. There is actually loads happening to try to reclaim that space of women generally, like with the Women’s Art thing (on Twitter) and even actions around lifting age restrictions on the Turner Prize and literary awards and things like that, and making it more possible for women , and older women specifically, to be recognised in their lifetime. There’s a Scottish writer I know that runs a project called the Grantidote, which is about women’s stories, not just about being grannies in that role but their actual lives as women and some of the stories are amazing. She also has a person who has drawn pictures of the women so there’s a lasting physical memorial, which is a really lovely memorial to them but also about saying women and their stories are important and we’ve got to keep them here whatever, I love that. There’s an American writer as well who runs a similar project called Our Grandmothers and I just think it’s really important that people are doing these things and it’s so necessary, and actually is a means of change for the women undertaking the projects as well. Do you think then that the whole process has changed how you think as an artist or who you engage with as an artist?
Yes, definitely. I don’t know how to put my finger on it yet. I don’t know how it’s changed me going forward but it has.
TF: It’s like you’re waiting to find out?
Yes, I see that it’s opened a door of just being confident about what I want to say and that feels quite special and something that I always wanted because I hate writing songs about a breakup or something so it feels great that I’ve found something I can really talk about as well as sing about and make music about. I don’t know, I think losing memory and seeing someone lose memory, it creates a gap and you want to… you can fill that gap with creativity, It feels right to do that, it allows you to explore a little bit more, that hole that’s missing; I find that really interesting and just hope that continues.
TF: Although you’re not talking about a break up, it is massively emotionally resonant and powerful and just as important even if it’s not traditional storytelling I much prefer it as a way of telling stories to be honest. I wanted to ask you as well because it all did seem to come about quite organically, you were with William Doyle on tour with East India Youth and you saw the brass band event and got asked to open with Tubular Brass at a Tubular Bells event. Is that why it’s quite a short album at thirty-six and a half minutes or so or did you deliberately choose the length or did you write it for that length?
Tubular Brass gave me free rein to write as much as I wanted but actually what happened was that I got so far into the record that when I got to the Planet of Passed Souls I couldn’t do any more. It felt like that kind of journey, and the journey I’d imagined in my head going through all the tracks of what she would see and where she was and what happened and that when she got to the Planet of Passed Souls that she actually landed for the first time and got out, and the atmosphere was actually very earth like with wind and the rain but instead of hearing the wind and the rain the atmosphere drowns out the memories through your ears into the space around you. So when I found the bit with my Grandad singing at the very end with the choirboys I couldn’t write any further…
TF: Which I loved actually, kind of a hauntology type thing, this actual voice from the past in Mary’s future present that may not exist, I really like that.
…That’s why it ended there. I did have something else but I didn’t want to put it in the journey and I didn’t want to put it at the end so I just left it.
TF: Which feels completely the right decision! It just seems that there was so much serendipity about everything that you did. I’m slightly obsessed with serendipity so perhaps look for it but it does seem like that, you know you found your granddad’s choir recording and it fitted as an ending, you were at the brass band event that day, you put something on Instagram and you got invited to do the event with Tubular Brass. I just like it when things organically come together like that. It really works as a short piece as for me it’s how I imagine going into space because it’s accelerated infinity like being launched into space but it’s really deep and intense, and I think the shortness really works with that. My friend Jo saw you play live and fell a bit in love with you and she wants to know if you have more plans for Mary, as do I. So following on from that because it’s this short but deep, intense ambiguous journey you can kind of take her all back through her life and maybe there’s potentially life ahead of her so what is your thinking with that next?
There is definitely a part of me that wants to explore her early life as an inventor/ sound artist and to see what I can unearth, maybe some old tape demos or something. It’s the serendipity thing, I’ve left it for a while just so that I can wait for that opportunity again to see something. It’s like you said, it was all “can we do this, can we do that,” and then when we recorded it, “can we put it out”. It was all really synched to put it into the world. I kind of want to go with that flow again and make sure that it feels like that again because I’ve enjoyed it more than any record because of that. I know that things don’t always happen like that but it would be nice to find the journey, the path and the sound of that in a special way. I’ll see what happens but it’s definitely on my mind to think about further explorations but I doubt it’ll be with a full twenty-nine piece brass band!
TF: Which is quite something really isn’t it, I can’t wait to see it in January.
Oh you’ll love it!
TF: I’m really looking forward to it.
I wanted to ask you about a review I read, it was actually a really positive review but they suggested that people might mock you for attempting a seven movement odyssey and I read it and I thought why would somebody mock you, you’re a trained musician, an accomplished musician and why would anyone not have aspirations and the right to structure their piece of work however they want. I wondered if it’s just me overthinking things or did you feel that, or do you think it’s because you’re a woman maybe, a female artist? It came into my mind again when I read a thing about the Odyssey being translated into English by a woman for the first time and I wondered if there’s subconscious thing that women and odysseys just don’t mix!
I did feel a little bit like that but sometimes with the press you just have to take it so light-heartedly and move on and not dwell on things. I do think it’s one of those things that if you’re a man with balls you can sit there with your hands on your hips going listen to this
TF: I’ve written an odyssey…
Yes, whereas if a woman does it, it does feel a bit cocksure. At the same time I’ve always gone I don’t care what anyone thinks, I’m just going to keep doing it.
TF: I think that comes across in your music as well because it’s essentially you. It’s also going back to that connection with your granny for example and of what works in that deep sense within yourself of what you respond to.
If someone’s going to knock something they’re going to knock it if it hasn’t got the intention behind it, and this is true in any art form. If you have the intention and the emotion behind what’s driven you to get there it comes across whether you’re male or female. I don’t see how anyone would knock it if they truly knew the story behind it all.
TF: Yes and I think it works brilliantly as it is. I suppose it’s that thing which I guess you’ve explored quite a lot, that music binds people and places and memories and experience but it’s also the idea that it transports people and you’ve spoken about music being a different language. In relation to Mary Casio, she’s a character, but in a way it’s an act of translation would you agree with that?
TF: It made me think of a painter friend who did a project with female stem cell scientists at St Andrews University. I went along with her to the exhibition, just me and her, before she took it down and there was one I really liked but didn’t know anything about as she uses a lot of collage type printing and hidden text etc. so it appeared really simple. She explained it to me and I don’t know if you’ve heard of Henrietta Lacks? It was of her.
I’ve just read a book about her!
TF: Really? It blew my mind, probably in the way yours was blown when you looked down the microscope at the cells, because she explained the Immortal Cell Line to me. I went home and looked it up and found out they didn’t get Henrietta’s permission and her family didn’t know and all this stuff.
I know, it’s incredible isn’t it.
TF: And then there was all the contamination in the labs etc. and it all really reminds me of Betty Corrigal from the Magnetic North album; that whole lack of permission and women’s lives just being co-opted, preserved and used in different ways without their knowledge.
The book is by Rebecca Skloot – she’s the only one to have met all the family and has written it from the family perspective. It’s really good and interesting, and amazing to think that the cell line all came from one woman. I’ve literally just finished it.
TF: That was a slight digression of coincidence! It really made me think of acts of translation and also the political stuff in relation to Mary Casio that nothing or no one exists in isolation and that we are all connected. Did you mean Mary Casio as an antidote, would you say as well as a political comment?
Yes, definitely without a doubt. Also for any listener just to be taken away is their own beautiful form of therapy and you can create that with music and it’s just amazing.
TF: Did you have to think quite closely about how much information you gave to listeners? I could have listened knowing nothing about Mary Casio being a character in your mind and I would still have felt a lot just from listening without context, do you have to think quite a bit about what you tell people?
No, I don’t. I suppose when I do it live I do a little talk at the beginning but only very briefly about mind and music and the connection to the stars and the brain and neurons. I only say that in a way to make people feel that it’s not some kind of hypothetical thing, that it’s a reality. I never really explain Mary Casio herself that much as I feel that you can take it how you want to take it and if someone wants to look into it and see the journey that’s amazing, and I’m really glad people are. It’s funny I’ve not focused much on Mary. When we launched the album we didn’t do any press shots with a Mary as I wanted it to feel timeless rather than here’s an old lady in a shed. One photographer came up to me and he was like we’re going to get you in a shed and make you look old, and I was like, no way. We went more for the last scene in Space Odyssey, there’s an amazing scene where he’s in the bed in a wonderful Grecian room with a bright white floor and the photographer we had happened to have a living room that was very similar so we used that instead, and it was perfect. I didn’t want to be literal as it becomes more comedy.
TF: Yes, because it’s about the spaces that you’ve left for people to float about in their own minds I suppose.
TF: You were saying about performing live, and you’ve just come off tour supporting Alison Moyet, how was that?
It was amazing! I felt really nervous at first and actually wanted to go home after the second day as I didn’t think I could do it.
TF: Oh no, why was that?
Partly because I’ve never supported anyone in that way before and partly because I wasn’t used to being around so many people because it was such a big crew but I got used to it and each night I relaxed more into and knew what to expect a bit more and then I loved it. Alison was really inspiring as well.
TF: She’s a quite iconic person, she must have had some good stories.
Yes, she did. One of the last things we did was we had a really good hour just having a drink before saying goodbye, and just hearing her talk about her career in music and being a female. She said if she could do it all again she probably wouldn’t have done the career she started with because it was like she was painting with crayons just trying things out, and then one thing stuck when she was young and it became the thing that she always had to try and live up to.
TF: And that she felt trapped by, that’s quite sad isn’t it.
She said that even though she wrote the lyrics and melodies she was always known as the singer in the background, and I think of that era a lot of people were. She said to me you’ve got it good at the moment you’re telling people what you do and you’re doing it well, and that’s what you need.
TF: Plus you feel confident that you’re doing things in the way that you want to do them which maybe she didn’t get the chance to do. Do you think she’ll mind me mentioning it when I come to write it up?
No, it’s on her blog after the Southampton gig, and actually she puts it much more beautifully than I did.
TF: You also just did another big gig in Hull that looked like a dream line up with Jane Weaver and Nadine Shah, how was that?
It was amazing. I knew Jane Weaver from before and one of the other acts Lone Taxidermist. It was just really amazing even if no one had said an all-female line up it would still have come across as a really damned good line up.
TF: Curated by a woman as well. That’s what I thought.
It was really strong and just as powerful as anything else.
TF: It wasn’t tokenism by any stretch of the imagination was it!
Was it a mainly female crowd, or was it mixed? Did you feel you got more women there because it was all female? There’s a composer Ela Orleans who lives in Glasgow and she mentioned on Twitter recently that women buy her records but they don’t come to her gigs and she doesn’t know why not. Do you find you have a gender mix at your gigs?
We get more males definitely, I don’t know why. I would say at Hull it was pretty equal and all ages which was great. When I play a solo gig it’s definitely more males. Alison Moyet was interesting as lots of couples come to see her so there was a big mix of people there.
TF: How do you feel about, Maryanne Hobbs, I don’t really like the word championing, but she’s really been positive about your music and Mary Casio is in her top five albums of the year, how important is it to have other women on side?
This year I’ve appreciated her support so much and it’s made it better that it’s come from her. It’s quite ironic that they’re both Mary but if you’d asked me at the beginning of the year what I wanted for the album I would have said I really want Maryanne Hobbs to like this record. And she did, and she’s liked it more than any of us could have imagined. I think her taste is fabulous.
TF: Yeah I was going to say she’s seen as such an arbiter of good taste and so hugely respected for what she thinks is quality and quite rightly so.
Yeah and she really fights for stuff, I didn’t realise that. I did a talk in Nottingham with an artist called Wolfgang Buttress and he said she has to really fight and push for the things she wants played and you don’t realise that.
TF: That’s quite surprising, you just assume that people get to a certain position and can play what they want but I suppose it just shows there’s always bureaucracy.
Yes, it’s really nice.
TF: I wanted to ask as well about collaboration. You’ve obviously got your ongoing Mary Casio gigs with Tubular Brass, which although amazing I guess having a twenty-nine piece brass band on tour is a financial and logistical nightmare with a lot to organise?
Yes, definitely all the concerts from now on are one- offs, I can’t imagine it’ll be going back to Scotland or anywhere else after this!
TF: You seem to have a really strong work ethic with lots of things going on concurrently, either on the thinking backburner with the Magnetic North and your Donegal part of the album triptych or with other work like your scoring of a new production of Brighton Rock in is it York and Leeds?
It’s commissioned by Pilot Theatre and York Theatre Royal and the Lowry in Manchester. It will open in York and then tour. It’s my Christmas job!
TF: It’s better than a panto! Will you be performing the score live?
I’m starting writing it now and then it’ll all be performed live on the night and it’ll tour between March and June.
TF: So are you going on tour with it?
No, I’ve got two players who will do it after York, although I might step in if one of them can’t do one or two. I’ve not had a break for probably fourteen months so I just feel like I need a bit of time off after this is finished because you can’t just keep going and going. I think I just need a month of just what am I going to do now and experiment, and try new sounds and things. My instruments I know so well but I love buying and trying new synths and finding the magic in new stuff.
TF: But you’ve not had time to do it, I suppose that’s the thing when your career picks up a bit of momentum you get offered lots of things and get busy and have less time to be who you want to be.
If somebody said to me what would you say to yourself ten years ago I would just be like get in your studio and pretend it’s a lab and experiment with as much stuff as you possibly can because I feel like I don’t do that enough.
TF: I wanted to ask what it means to you to play Celtic Connections in terms of your Irish roots?
For me obviously I’ve got a Yorkshire accent, I’m Irish all my family are Irish, only me and my brother have Yorkshire ones, everyone else has Irish ones. I’ve always been this mix of everything so Celtic Connections is really exciting for me because I get to explore that I’m not a Yorkshire person, I am an Irish one so it’s quite nice to be able to bring a brass band to celebrate that kind of traditional Yorkshire sound with the Irish side as well, it’s lovely.
TF: You’re quite visual in how you seem to think about things and you’ve written for dance and theatre using music and I wondered if you had writing aspirations outside of music?
I’d actually love to put something together with all the memories and the science of everything that I’ve been exploring for the last few years. Not a guide but a musical memory memoir/something. I’ve been collecting a lot of journals and papers and been doing a lot of tests, like cognitive tests. I’ve interviewed a lot of people, more so I could talk about it properly then I’ve ended up becoming a bit obsessed with it.
TF: It’s really interesting though isn’t it.
Yes, and first musical memories are so important. I’ve got a lot of stuff that I’ve collected that I’ve not written up yet as I haven’t had the time but one day!
Photos courtesy of Stormy and Eric Hobson.
Hannah Peel will perform Mary Casio: A Journey to Cassiopeia in its entirety with Tubular Brass at Celtic Connections in Glasgow on Saturday 27th January.