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Farewell Cassini: Hannah Peel Interview & Podcast
John Freeman , September 18th, 2017 08:23

Today is a time for a double dose of Hannah Peel. First of all John Freeman interviews the great woman about her cosmic excursion in synths & brass, Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia and then she pops into tQHQ to talk space rock and pop with John Doran on the Quietus Hour, episode 51

Portrait thanks to the mighty Al Overdrive

“We have a hundred billion neurons in our brains, as many as there are stars in a galaxy”
theoretical physicist and author, Carlo Rovelli

One evening in the summer of 2016, in the Hallé St Peter’s church in Manchester, multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter Hannah Peel donned a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles and became the mysterious Mary Casio.

Looming over a bank of vintage analog synths and backed by Tubular Brass – an all-star ensemble of the UK’s finest brass bands – Peel proceeded to take a rapt audience on Mary’s ‘Journey To Cassiopeia’. As celestial keyboard melodies waltzed with the melancholic boom of the band, the church air seemed to fill with a heady mix of sadness and hope. It was magnificent – the melding of electronica and brass was a life-affirming triumph.

After the show, Hannah was rightfully ecstatic. From initially viewing Mary Casio as a temporary side-project, talk turned to the possibility of further shows and the practicalities of recording the ‘Journey To Cassiopeia’. In mid-2016, Hannah was already juggling projects – as one third of The Magnetic North, who had released a second wonderful record Prospect Of Skelmersdale - and was only a few weeks from unveiling a new solo album, Awake But Always Dreaming.

However, Mary Casio had made a huge impression on that summer evening in Manchester.
So, rather wonderfully, a year later Hannah is talking to me about the release of Journey To Cassiopeia. The album comes warm on the heels of Awake But Always Dreaming and lies on the same artistic continuum. While Awake But Always Dreaming explored the concept of the mind via Peel’s grandmother’s dementia, her new album further builds on the complexity of our imagination. It is an instrumental record, and a concept album of sorts.

Hannah informs me that Mary Casio is an 86-year old inventor, who lives in Barnsley and dreams of space travel. As ever, Peel has researched thoroughly, talking to neuroscientists and cosmologists about the parallels between space and the human mind. She’s even uncovered a 90 year old recording of her chorister grandfather, which appears on the album’s sweeping final track. This poignant narrative is played out by Peel’s twinkling synths and the glorious, portentous brass band. Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia sounds like lift off to a new sonic solar system.

I'd like to start by exploring the two aspects of the instrumentation on the record - brass and analog synths. Firstly, can you tell me about your experience of playing brass instruments as a child and how did that shape you as a musician?

Hannah Peel: Well, I moved from Ireland to Yorkshire when I was eight years old and I started playing the cornet and then the trombone. I played in brass bands for most of my teenage life. We would do a lot of marches and competitions. I would spend several nights per week and at weekends on the trombone, wearing the dickie-bow and jacket, and being completely absorbed into that life. I loved the camaraderie, the sense of community and that feeling of being immersed in a band of 30 other musicians, all breathing together and performing as one. I loved the richness of the sound and the melancholy power. That has always stayed with me.

And, how did you love affair with analog synths come about?

HP: When I first moved to London, I was often based in Benge’s studio. His studio was ‘analog synth heaven’, with wall-to-wall modular synths. I would take residence in the spare room and gradually started to explore and began to play with Benge and John Foxx. I loved the manipulation and I loved that many of the synths were wonky and broken. Instruments had their own unique sound. That was in 2011: I soon realised how much I passionately loved the sound of analog synths. I learned lots from John Foxx.

So, how did the idea of blending analog synths with a brass band come about?

HP: Well, there were ideas running alongside each other. While we were finishing of the production for Awake But Always Dreaming, I would sit around, bored and annoy everyone. I then got out a Casio keyboard, put on my glasses and put on the ‘tango’ beat, or the ‘waltz’ beat and created some little tunes, inspired by The Space Lady, who is very eccentric and plays shows with a tiny keyboard and antlers on her head. I then recorded one of the tunes, just for a bit of fun. I realised that I liked instrumental music and that I wanted to do something that wasn’t song-based and that didn’t have the [personal] weight of Awake But Always Dreaming, but was about me freeing my mind and delving further into my imagination. So, I started playing a couple of the synths in the studio, purely improvised electronic tracks, and they became the first, second and fifth songs on the album.

During that time I went on tour with East India Youth. We had a day off and it was the Whit Friday Marches in Saddleworth, which is a huge day of brass bands playing in tiny villages in the hills. You can go to a village and spend the day drinking and watching the bands - some of which are very famous bands, like Grimethorpe Colliery. I begged William [Doyle] to go as I knew he would never have seen anything like it before. We spent the whole day there and I posted a picture on Instagram of us, which said, “Electronic music meets brass”. A couple of weeks later, someone got in touch saying they were doing a tour of Tubular Brass and that they’d like to commission me to do something with synthesizers and a brass band.

So, here is the killer question – who is Mary Casio?

HP: She is quite hard to describe. I wanted to carry on the theme of the last record and explore where the mind can go. For example, how is it that we can feel like we are still 17, even if we are a lot older? It opened a door for me to explore, what it means to be old and still have dreams and passions. The story of Mary Casio is based on that - it is about imagining going somewhere without even leaving [my] chair. One of the things I find upsetting about people getting old, is that they become forgotten. If you take someone like Delia Derbyshire, she ended up in life in a place that doesn’t feel right as she pioneered so much. My tribute to people who end up like that is Mary. Mary Casio is, in my mind, like a ‘Delia Derbyshire-type’ pioneer but became forgotten as she got older. She never left Barnsley and became an inventor in a shed in her back garden. She would play her instruments but was also completely obsessed with star-gazing. I want her to have a place to dream. After I had begun to explore the idea of Mary Casio, I began to think about the mood and the tone. And, while there aren’t actually any Casio keyboards on the records, I found out that there is a star constellation called Cassiopeia, so it all began to come together. When I was thinking about the point of the record, it became about space.

And is true that Mary is partly inspired by a great aunt of yours?

HP: Some of it comes from her. She is immobile and housebound. Often, when I turn up to see her, I see her at the window and even though her eyesight is failing, she is always looking upwards. I always wonder what she is daydreaming about. She was an eccentric character and the basis of Mary comes from her.

How did you find the process of writing the music and creating the character of Mary Casio?

HP: Every part of it felt natural and a joy. It was really cathartic. I felt really free and that I had no boundaries. It left me feeling there was lots more to discover and that I should explore more about the mind, just like we continually explore space. It allowed me to open up a huge creative door. There was no pressure to write lyrics. I felt I could express so much through the music. After making the record, there was a journey. I read a lot about space and met with a lot of people, including the Head of the Royal Observatory – who happens to be from Barnsley. I spoke to neuroscientists. I wanted to find the connection. I kept coming back to the Carlo Rovelli quote, about having as many neurons in our brain as there are stars in a galaxy. That was the epiphany.

I believe you are not the only Peel on the record. The final track, ‘The Planet Of Passed Souls’, contains a recording of your grandfather as a choirboy in 1927.

HP: It does! I knew Mary had a journey, but the fact she never gets to Cassiopeia is quite a statement. And, as soon as I used the track of my grandad, that’s where it ended. As that was my late grandma’s husband, it felt as if Mary had gone and met her past. The piece was recorded in 1927 and it is the only recording I have of my grandfather. It was a beautiful moment. He was one of the first choirboys to be recorded. And when I perform Mary Casio, to be able to have my grandfather with me, who was a massive influence on my childhood – he was a conductor, a pianist and an organist – is wonderful.

How was the recording process for the album?

HP: The brass was recorded live in a place in Barnsley. The band came in and played each track twice and that was it. They were done within three hours. It was incredible. We even had a visit from the Mayor of Barnsley, who said a few words and thanked us for focusing on Barnsley. So, that felt really special. The electronic parts were done and produced in London. There was no automation during the mixing process, it was all done by hand. It was the most beautiful process ever.

How does it feel to perform live, alongside Tubular Brass on stage?

HP: You saw the very first performance of Mary Casio in Manchester. Tubular Brass are the most incredible musicians. It comprises the top players from all of the top championship bands, so the things I imagined and dreamed, they can play. If I want power – to blow your mind and make your chest reverb – they can give that. The mix of synths and brass has given me the chance to really explore a new level of what music can achieve. There is something that happens in the air that effects people when they hear it live. Whether it was at Blue Dot in an open field, or in a church at the Edinburgh Festival, 90 per cent of people who come up to me at the end say they were moved to tears. I think it is something to do with the weight of the soundwaves in the air, mixed with the deep melancholy of the music.

Turning to one of your other projects, The Magnetic North, after an album about Erland’s [Cooper] home of Orkney and another about Simon’s [Tong] hometown of Skelmersdale, is the next album going to be your turn? And, where will you pick – Donegal or Barnsley?

HP: Yes, it definitely is. We have been writing for the last year, but because I have so much going on, I seem to be the rate-limiting factor. What happens with The Magnetic North, is that the person that the album is about becomes very evasive and disconnected. It takes the other two to push and cajole to get it out. I thought I wouldn’t do that, but I have been the worst. I have avoided everything and poor Simon and Erland are just waiting patiently to get back into the writing and the research we have already done. I think the album will be about Donegal somehow. Donegal is an easy place to write about because it is so beautiful, but also it is my precious, secret place. As opposed to Orkney and Skelmersdale for the guys, it is a place I still go to and so it is harder to reflect back on Donegal as it is still there in my life. It is part of me and won’t ever go away. I am slowly discovering a way that doesn’t put all the focus on Donegal but blends everything that I am doing solo-wise.

Finally, is this the end of the journey for Mary Casio?

HP: No, definitely not. I can say that because I feel like, a bit like with Star Wars, that I have started at the end and there will be some prequels. I feel like I have opened a door for Mary and I would like to explore a little bit more. If she is a pioneer and an electronic wizard, I would like to see what she can produce.

Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia is out September 22