There is something of a steely determination about Hannah Peel. Even while nestling a mint tea in a busy London Starbucks, you wouldn’t want to pick an argument with the Irish-born, Yorkshire-raised composer and multi-instrumentalist. (For the record, TLOBF is always impressed by people who order mint tea in a coffee shop – an understated act of defiance and a ‘fuck you’ to the cocoa bean.) Having also spent a decade in the Liverpool art scene, and, more latterly, coming to prominence with her live performances using a beautiful antique music box, Peel has recently released her debut album, The Broken Wave. It is beautiful, haunting set of songs, informed by the places of her childhood and her deep connection with the sea. Produced by Mike Lindsay (of Tunng), Peel combines her bell-clear voice with strings, brass and an exquisite sadness. But, judging from her reaction to my first question, don’t call her a folk-singer.
A number of reviews have described The Broken Wave as ‘whimsical folk’. But, when I listen to the album, there seems to be a lot more substance to it.
Yes, well, I’m not happy about being known as a folky girl – someone described me as being ‘in a field of flowers with a basket of apples wanting all the boys to fancy me’.
I can imagine that was pretty annoying.
It was. I’d rather be known as someone with a bit more behind them and a bit gutsier. I realise people have to put a pin on you, but there is a difference between someone who sings about birds in the sky and what I do. I don’t want to be pinned as that person, so I’ll always fight for the opposite. It’s good to have some fight.
I understand your background includes writing music for theatre and film – so The Broken Wave sounds like quite a departure?
For me, I am an instrumentalist. That is primarily what I was before I started writing songs and I was a composer. That’s a very male-dominated world; we don’t seem to get that many women doing that. So, I don’t like the image of a folk-singer who comes on and stands there and sings songs that other people have written for them or produced for them. On the record, I’ve done nearly everything; I’ve played nearly all the instruments – Mike [Lindsay] played the bass and I got a drummer in, but that was it for the whole record.
You were born in Ireland but spent a huge chunk of your childhood in Yorkshire. These places are steeped in musical heritage. How much of this has seeped into the album?
Oh, lots. It has got the melancholy of both Ireland and Yorkshire. But the thing I’ve taken most from both places is the rawness. I like simple things; I like simple melodies and Ireland, for me, is a very simple way of living and in rural Yorkshire it is exactly the same.
A couple of the tracks seem to incorporate the colliery brass band vibe – were you ever involved in that type of music?
Yes, the brass band is a massive influence – I’ve played in brass bands ever since I’ve moved [to Barnsley]. I started on the cornet when I was eight years-old and then moved onto the trombone when I was a teenager and I would play in brass bands every weekend. I was also made to play violin – ‘you must play jigs’ – by my Irish family.
Aside from your cultural background, which other musicians have inspired you?
There are bands that I think are amazing and have influenced me like Massive Attack, but no-one would have ever guessed that at all, plus more obvious influences like Gillian Welch and Nick Drake. There are elements in all those people that I would draw upon. I would love to be that type of artist.
You have also become infamous for using a music box on stage. How did you get into using such an antique musical instrument?
I ran a festival in 2008 for visual and electronic music for Liverpool’s Capital of Culture. I spent a year of emailing, reading and talking about cables and projectors. When it finished, I was looking on the web for a music box and found one. When it came, it was the most amazing thing. It had no cables and no leads – nothing apart from a hole-puncher, a pencil and some sellotape. I first performed with it at a Duke Special gig in August 2009 and I was looking at how I could make people understand about the music box. So I decided to do a cover and ‘Tainted Love’ works really well. Then I did a few more cover versions and it expanded.
I believe you manually punch the paper yourself to create the music. That must be very labour intensive – how long does it take to punch the holes for a single a song?
Something like ‘Tainted Love’ took about ten hours to score out and then punch. I did Greg Lake’s ‘I Believe In Father Christmas’ and that took me about a week – it was so epic.
Jeepers – no wonder you wanted to play your own instruments! The album is produced by Mike Lindsay, what was it that made you want to work with him?
I went to work with Mike for one day, nearly a year ago, and we made the track ‘Today Is Not So Far Away’ in that one day – we came out buzzing. It just carried on from there and ended up being an album. He is really open and really fun to work with. He is a vibe man, and I am a lot more of a perfectionist and would dwell over things, whereas he is more ‘if it doesn’t work, chuck it out’ kinda thing. Everything was made with the full intentions of love and fun. We didn’t have any money and we were doing it for the love of it.
What would consider to be a successful outcome for The Broken Wave?
That’s a bit hard, because it depends what you class as success. For me, if I get to the stage where I can go on Jools Holland and I get a Mercury nomination and that sets me up for the next few albums, then I would say that is very successful. I have loads of ideas and I can’t do them, obviously, without having a bit of money.
What are these ideas? Can you give me an insight into what a second album might sound like?
I know what I want to do, but I don’t know if I’m supposed to say anything or not. It’s a lot bolder, it will be less whimsical – well, maybe not whimsical as I don’t think I wrote those types of songs – and it will be a lot harder and more raw. I definitely want to go down the route of using more synths and more of Mike in the orchestration.
Do you consider yourself a solo artist now? Where does your love of writing music for theatre fit into the masterplan?
I never really wrote songs until the last year – I was always a composer for theatre and always wanted to do film, and still do. I love that feeling when you write music for something visual. But, I find that I can’t really move on from what I’ve already done – I worked in Liverpool and did some stuff for the Playhouse – until I get more of a name for myself. At the moment, it is really important for me to get an album out and get established enough to set up some kind of deal so that I can keep on making records for a few more years, and so that I can get into doing stuff for theatre.
You seem to be buzzing with creativity. Is it frustrating not to be able to produce all of your ideas, or is it still exciting?
I’m really excited. My old piano teacher used to say I was ‘mile-an-hour-Hannah’ because I could never sit down and practice for long enough. I’m ready to make another album now.
The album The Broken Wave is out now on Static Caravan.