Paul McCartney knew Hannah Peel’s talent before the world did. He hands out pin-badges at every degree ceremony at Liverpool’s Institute for Performing Arts, which he co-founded, and where Peel studied music. In 2007, her graduation year, she’d been chosen to compose something to accompany each student walking on stage.
Peel had been advised to do a fanfare of trumpets, but refused; she wrote a minimalist miniature for vibraphone and marimba instead. “My principal hated it,” she says, laughing down the Zoom line. “But when I crossed the stage and shook Paul McCartney’s hand, he whispered in my ear, ‘I really like your music. Well done!’”
Fast-forward 14 years and Peel has built an intricate and impressive career. Her name is probably most recognisable as one of the presenters of Radio 3’s late-evening show Night Tracks, on weeknights. The show caused controversy when it launched in September 2019, replacing three broadcasts of the station’s beloved experimental programme, Late Junction. Though Night Tracks contains more classical music, Peel preserves the spirit of Late Junction, with thrilling juxtapositions of artists. One night, you get Rachmaninov followed by Texan multimedia artist Akira Rabelais, the next, it’ll be Benjamin Britten alongside Brazilian experimentalist Vic Bang.
Peel is also one of our most exciting crossover composers. Her brilliant new album, Fir Wave – finished over lockdown – explores and develops sounds from a recording by BBC Radiophonic Workshop composers Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson. Her musicbox-heavy score for Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, got an Emmy nomination last summer, while her eerie soundtrack for TV thriller The Deceived won critical acclaim. She’s Paul Weller’s orchestral arranger (she’s been working on his forthcoming LP: “he’s just fab”), and collaborated on a micro-opera about dating in lockdown, Close, with librettist Stella Feehily.
She’s also recently been elected to the board of the Ivors Academy, the largest campaigning association for professional musicians in Europe, and is particularly vocal about the place for women in music. “All the TV and film jobs I’ve done have been directed by women,” she says, talking from her writing room at home in Bangor, Northern Ireland (she bought a five-bedroom house here in 2018 for the price of a tiny one-bed in London). “It feels like the women getting into power are going, ‘Right, I’m going to employ another female composer’, but we have to remind ourselves the number of female composers [in film] is something ridiculous. It’s gone down this year from 6% to 4%. We need to know why.”
There’s an expectation of certain behaviour from composers, Peel continues, especially in our post-Covid digital world, that doesn’t suit women. “I have this very jolly Zoom character and sometimes I just don’t feel I’m getting the jobs because I’m not serious enough.” She laughs. “Oh God, can you hear that?” Her whippet, Bertie Moog, named after the analogue synthesiser inventor, is snoring under her desk.
Peel was born in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, in 1985. The Troubles had a big effect on her family: her mum’s from Enniskillen, she explains, where the Remembrance Sunday bomb exploded in 1987, killing 11 people. “We arrived in Enniskillen the day after and I remember seeing our car on the TV news, going round the roundabout.” On her sixth birthday she was airlifted from a Belfast street when another bomb went off; people in the police in her family lost limbs. “I grew up with this sense of transition all the time and awareness that things are never stable. All that history that stays with you.”
When she was eight, her family moved to Barnsley, South Yorkshire, with her father’s work in food manufacturing (that is where Peel acquired her lilting Yorkshire accent). The area was still suffering from the loss of coal mining, but free brass instruments were being given out in schools, and Peel began learning the cornet and trombone. “There was a real sense that you had to get your kids involved in the music from the place they were from, otherwise there’s no kind of hope. Then there came this beautiful time later in the 1990s, where lottery money was helping young people play and learn and go on tours.” A lot of that infrastructure has now gone, she says.
All that informed Peel’s expansive career in terms of helping her meet people, collaborate and develop her creativity – and Brexit is going to make that so much harder. It’s a particularly fraught issue anyway in Northern Ireland, where musicians “have no idea” how they’ll even be allowed to cross the Irish border. “I don’t think it’ll be sorted out until lockdown ends. Add to that that I would never have been doing what I’m doing now without having toured Europe in bands [she has worked as a session musician and as a member of the Magnetic North, a band with fellow composer Erland Cooper and the Verve’s Simon Tong]. I just think about young people starting out, someone like me, 10 years ago and it’s so upsetting. I wouldn’t have survived.”
Music has always been about making connections with people for Peel and on her solo records, that began with her family. Her 2011 debut, The Broken Wave, included Irish folk songs from the world in which her mother grew up (conversely, synthesisers also gained prominence in her work at that point, which she credits to her live work with Ultravox’s John Foxx: “I had to play violin and electronics and recreate sounds from his 1980s records and I loved it – it was massive learning curve”).
In 2016 came Awake But Always Dreaming, Peel’s gorgeous concept album exploring her late grandmother’s dementia and how music persists when the mind is in decline. A year later came Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia, the story of an elderly stargazer’s lifelong dream to journey into space, which featured the voice of the first choirboy recorded in Britain, in Manchester Cathedral, in 1927: Peel’s grandfather.
Neuroscience and the cosmos proved fertile ground for Peel. “I’ve always found it very hard to write lyrics because if I wrote a love song, it was just a love song. I didn’t have the passion for it. After getting into research, all these doors opened.” She used the same approach in making Fir Wave, on which she delves into the matter of nature, though anyone expecting blithely to bathe in a wash of sounds from the natural world will be shocked by its mix of hard electronic textures, edgy ambient tracks and propulsive techno.
The title came from a picture Peel saw in National Geographic, which showed the pattern of fir trees on a mountainside: “It looked just like a sine wave. You could see the growth and the death of the trees within it. I thought that was amazing.” Barbara Hepworth’s work, which she’d seen as a child in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, was another inspiration: Hepworth would talk about feeling the shape of a pebble and wanting to convey through her art that it was made by the force of the sea. So does Peel convey a sense of natural forces on her gorgeous, fizzing record.
Fir Wave’s roots also come from the 1972 library music record Electrosonic, by Derbyshire and Hodgson and Australian composer Don Harper. Peel had been approached by the vintage library music label KPM (sampled by the likes of Gorillaz, Drake and Madlib) to rework the album a few years ago, but had initially been resistant. “I don’t want to be rude, but I didn’t want to make music to be played in the background on Countryfile.” But she found a way through, sampling the sounds on the original, chopping them up and reprogramming them to build her own digital instruments, continuing the record’s spirit of experimentation. She finally finished it in lockdown.
Peel feels increasingly drawn towards independent female creators she says, such as Hepworth, Derbyshire and the Radiophonic Workshop’s co-founder Daphne Oram. “They were so independent because they had to be. There wasn’t anything round to support them and they did great things.”
Peel herself has always released albums on her own label. Her next work, due this summer, is for the British Paraorchestra, the first UK orchestra to integrate disabled and non-disabled musicians (“they blow my mind more every time I work with them”). She probably wouldn’t have been allowed to do it if she’d been on a label, she says. “Someone would have gone, ‘You want to do an orchestral record next? Just write another record like that the last one. That’s what we signed you for!’ I tend to try and be the most creative I can. So far, I think that’s worked in my favour.”