Hannah Peel has surely and steadily established herself as one of the leading lights of the electronic world, with the likes of John Foxx, OMD and Paul Weller seeking out her services. With her new album, ‘Fir Wave’, she enjoys the unique privilege of retrospectively collaborating with her idol, the late Delia Derbyshire

“It just came to me,” says Hannah Peel in a flurry of characteristic excitement. “I’d never made the comparison between the noises of The Blitz over Coventry during the war, which Delia grew up with, and my own experience in Northern Ireland, with the sounds of bombs and violence.

“I also remember the sounds of industry and the ferries and the shipping going back and forth. We lived next to a quarry and an air-raid siren would go off every so often. Probably to tell everyone 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 to look back at Delia’s history and realise she heard sirens and bombing too.”

We are, of course, speaking of Delia Derbyshire. The new Hannah Peel album, ‘Fir Wave’, is a retrospective collaboration with Delia, a re-imagining of the vintage library music collection ‘Electrosonic’. Produced in 1972 by Delia Derbyshire and her Radiophonic Workshop colleague Brian Hodgson in conjunction with Australian composer Don Harper (Delia and Brian credited using the pseudonyms Li De La Russe and Nikki St George respectively), this was music only ever intended for film and television licensing, cloaked in the utilitarian packaging of EMI’s shadowy KPM imprint. Heard today, it’s a relentless bombardment of analogue tape experiments and evocative melodies, likely to overwhelm sensitive children of the 1970s with unsettling memories of TV shows like ‘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,” declares Hannah. “Tracks such as ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘Quest’ are so resonant in their own right. They’re about landscape, but in a process-driven way rather than the flowering of nature. They’re quite industrial, and I wanted to keep that feature, so the way I approached it was to re-sample the original sounds and make my own instruments from those samples.”

As a result, ‘Fir Wave’ feels crisp and new. It’s an album for the clear-skied hinterland between winter and spring – the music of frozen pavements and stark, bare-branched trees, with the vague outline of belching factories on the horizon.

How did the project come about? Was Hannah such a fan of ‘Electrosonic’ that she pitched the idea to KPM?

“They approached me,” she says. “They asked if I’d be up for making a new library record. I said no, but then they told me I could do what I wanted with ‘Electrosonic’. They said I could make a contemporary version of it. Given that kind of licence and the significance of the artists involved, it was a challenge I couldn’t turn down. But at the same time, it was very difficult. 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 on webcam on a chilly Tuesday afternoon. Her surroundings are textbook Hannah Peel. There’s a teetering bank of synths to her left and a similar assemblage 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. An extensive collection of National Geographic magazines, she reveals, is housed in the next room.

Hannah is a fizzing bundle of enthusiasm, chatty and funny, and it’s clear that the affinity she feels with Delia Derbyshire goes way beyond the musical. I ask her to tell me more about her ongoing fascination with this intriguingly enigmatic pioneer of early electronica.

“It’s not one thing,” she explains. “She experimented with TV, film and theatre, she 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 great to have in a role model, especially when you feel like everything is against you.

“Most of my solo records are self-released,” she continues. “I’ve never had a label behind them or a body of people pushing them. I’ve always identified with that independent stance, so Delia’s character really resonates with me. I don’t see many electronic artists in that way, but she’s one of them. I feel very lucky to have a career making records and working in TV and film. I can communicate with people and have pieces written about me. In her era, that wouldn’t have happened. OK, we recognised her later, but the fact she pushed through all that is still amazing.”

I’m intrigued by the parallels between their respective childhoods – the mental scars left by both wartime Coventry and The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Hannah spent her earliest years in Craigavon, a modernist, never-completed 1960s new town 28 miles from Belfast. As we talk about her experiences of County Armagh in the late 1980s, she mentions her memories of an IRA bomb blast on her sixth birthday.

photo: peter marley

“When you’re so young, I guess 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 men standing with guns at the side of the street. You didn’t think about it because you didn’t know any different, but when I look back, or I hear about what my family and friends went through, or I think about those who are no longer here…”

She pauses.

“My dad would tell me stories from where he worked. People going missing overnight. Murders in the car park. It’s not until you get a little bit older that you start to think, ‘God, did I really live through that?’.”

And her sixth birthday?

“We were in Belfast and there was this Post Office van,” she says. “The police and the army suddenly appeared 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 the van had exploded. I remember it so vividly. I looked back and it felt like a scene from a film. It was apparently one of those weekends when the IRA were trying to show everyone how many explosives they had. No one got hurt, it was more to say, ‘This is what could happen’.

“We moved to Yorkshire when I was eight or nine, so I guess we were removed from it after that. But we were always the Irish family in the village. People knew who we were. A guy turned up one night at the local pub and said, ‘I’m looking for an Irish feller’, and he found our house. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, they’re on that street there’.”

Among music fans of a certain age, the gateway to the work of Delia Derbyshire is pretty much universal. It’s ‘Doctor Who’. The pulsing, swirling throb of her title theme arrangement became an iconic touchstone from the days 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’m curious to discover her route to the exciting world of the Radiophonic Workshop.

What follows is a testament to the strong influence of an extraordinarily progressive teacher. A teacher with more than a working knowledge of one of music’s most original thinkers and his infamous card-based system for inspiring creativity. Say hello to Mr Downs. And Mr Eno.

“When I went into the sixth form, I really wanted to take theatre studies,” begins Hannah. “It was Shelley High School in Huddersfield and they had a brilliant theatre department. Jodie Whittaker, who’s now Doctor Who, had just left, but she would come back to see us and say hello. During that time, we did a lot of plays, including one at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. It was based on Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’. Mr Downs had the ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards and we made a theatre show using them.

“We performed this show at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield. Afterwards, Brian Eno sent us signed CDs saying, ‘Thank you 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 electronic music or ambient music. I’d just done normal school stuff – my grades on the piano, playing in brass bands… hang on, is that normal?”

She laughs again.

“But it was at that point I thought, ‘Oooh, what’s this?’.”

photo: peter marley

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 were moments of complete and utter chaos, but they were kind of joined together. I remember we used sticks and we wore boiler suits. It was dramatic acting with no words, just lots of sounds and movements of the body 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 then when I went to study music at university in Liverpool, my final dissertation was about the impact of John Cage on modern composition. And then after I left there, I worked in studios and I got my first synth. So it’s been a gradual thing for me. It wasn’t until I met John Foxx that everything really hit home and those elements from my past bonded together. When we were surrounded by hundreds of synths in the studio, I suddenly thought, ‘OK, this is what it was all about’.”

Our conversation drifts delightfully. We are both martyrs to the allure of the tangent. We discuss the bizarre aftermath of a 1990s science experiment (“Our teacher made us smell all kinds of different chemicals… and ever since I’ve had hiccups every day”) and the charms of her beloved whippet, Bertie Moog. We touch on Delia Derbyshire’s undocumented wilderness years in Cumbria, working for British Gas while married to a Haltwhistle labourer.

Like many artists in the electronic arena, Hannah is quietly eccentric. She’s almost embarrassed by the idiosyncrasies that make her such an engaging conversationalist. I look for a mooring and bring up the title of her new album. Fir waves are a natural phenomenon. They’re bands of trees at different stages of development on exposed mountainsides, carved into shapes by the prevailing winds.

“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 now. The things you can observe being by the water are just fascinating. The sunlight, the reverberations, even surface ripples. 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 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 mind-blowing. It was when I was looking for patterns in our ecological system that I found the fir waves. They’re made through the growth and death 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 the birth of another.”

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

There is a long silence at this. I’m not sure if I’ve crossed a line. 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, but surely if anybody heard the inside of a tree bubbling, they’d say it sounded like a synthesiser…”

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

photo: peter marley

“Maybe it goes back to childhood again. We used to travel between Yorkshire and Northern Ireland every single holiday. It was five times a year, on the ferry or the plane. 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 a feeling of two realms joining. And I guess you make sense of the world by finding those connections. Part of this record is the link between two other spheres – electronic music and nature. They might seem disparate, but they’re connected. Every waveform is moving through the air – sound and light and colour.

“For the last year, I’ve been obsessed with rocks and rock formations and also with the sculptures 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, feeling the weight of it, you know? It’s something 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 does she get a bit obsessive about her projects? Does she lie awake at night wondering how to turn pebbles into music?

“I actually wrote to Chris Watson and said, ‘Chris, do rocks sing?’. 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.”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of turning every fleeting interest and pastime into work. We all need downtime. We all need to watch Netflix in our jogging bottoms. Does she find it easy to snap out of the work mindset? She shrugs philosophically.

“I told my manager I need to find a hobby that isn’t music,” she says. “I have discovered shuffle dancing in the last few days, though. It’s kind of an Americana dance, but it’s become a big thing for the younger generation. It’s fancy footwork – you go off on one and there are lots of tricks. It’s great for lockdown because you don’t need a partner, you can do the moves on your own. You just need slidey shoes and a slippery floor.

“I’ve also had a love of interior design since I moved back to Ireland and got my own place. Changing a room and making it work is a great feeling. It can transform you. I’ve enjoyed awakening that side of me. So when I’m not obsessing over music, I’ve got my interiors magazines to flick through…”

She stops herself.

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

It’s fine. It’s lovely. Human.

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