When people tell you there is no truly new music being made and everything is derivative, laugh in their faces. And then play them something by Hannah Peel. Anything, really, you’re spoilt for choice, what with her collaborations, projects and concept albums. She was once the queen of alternative in Liverpool and is returning to the city this weekend to headline Threshold. By Alan O’Hare. 

“I joined my first bands there. I gigged, drank and breathed in every bit of the place – the light, the buildings and the wild temper of the locals. I even got kicked out of my first bands, too.” Hannah Peel is talking about Liverpool.

The acclaimed singer, musician and composer is back in town this weekend, to headline Threshold 2017, and is reminiscing on her time in the city during the first decade of this new Millennium. “I played my first radio shows in Liverpool and even played for bands on their first sessions,” says the Irish-born, Yorkshire-raised, London-based artist. “I remember going to Birmingham to play with some Liverpool friends on Janice Long’s BBC Radio 2 show. I was playing the violin and shook like a leaf throughout! I couldn’t play half the notes because my palms became so sweaty with nerves – I was so heartbroken by my body’s reaction to playing live on air that I swore I’d never do it again!” What changed your mind? “On the way home, I watched for the first time as everyone took cocaine to celebrate and it all seemed OK.”

Liverpool. Music. Drugs. So far, so rock ‘n’ roll, hey? Not exactly. Peel is different. Sure, during her time in the city she played strings, horns and sung for any number of troubadours and groups on the scene. But her heart was never at home with that: “It’s important to go on journeys in music,” she says. “For me, it’s good to set out to immerse myself in a sound palate, use only a certain amount of instruments and keep a map of what all the songs are trying to say together as a group.”

That’s the kind of thinking, writing, playing and producing that has kept her name on the tip of the tongues of the music industry. Peel is a very modern phenomenon – the serial collaborator – and all the better for it: unlike her peers, working with outside influences enhances rather than defines her work. Hers is a singular talent, though it’s the music Peel has made with likes of The Magnetic North, Wild Beasts and John Foxx that has brought the most attention.

It was her work as part of Kinetic Fallacy (remember them?), around 2006, that first focused her striking originality in my mind, however. Solo releases and one-off singles followed, with 2011’s debut album ‘The Broken Wave’ confirming her as a powerful new voice in the modern musical wilderness. She’s back in the city this weekend for Threshold, so what better time for a catch-up…

Your new album is full of depth. Is that an important thing for a record to offer in disposable times?
It’s important to me! I like to hold something and consequently have always loved vinyl… I don’t mind streaming, as the choice is incredible, but it’s like eating a fast-food burger: it serves a purpose and it’s quick.

You can lose the heart of where it came from in the first place. We don’t just feel one solid emotion for three minutes and sometimes the story is what matters. I spend a long time on albums getting the production and running order to work in a way that takes the listener on a journey.

It works! You recorded part of the new album in Ireland – what sounds did home throw at you?
Donegal is peaceful, quiet and slow even in the wildest of weathers. Passing planes, distant cars and, in deep summer, insects and swallows…

Do you think about Ireland and Donegal a lot?
I could be stood on my doorstep, about to lock the front door, and sometimes I smell it! It’s like a calling card. It’s the smell of sea salt, and turf from the land that is carried by the winds, that I hear.

You’ve said it’s hard NOT to write a miserable song – talk to me about why we’re happy being sad...
I just love minor chords. I love melancholic chords that offer a twist on reality, too. I struggled to play (or even like!) the happiest-sounding song on this record – but now the emotions are out there to be talked about more freely, it’s the one I enjoy playing live the most. There is always light and hope amongst the darkness.

Your latest work was is an exploration of dementia, but also a celebration of your gran’s life… 
An incredible amount is contained in the record – that’s why it took so long. It was important for me to try and imagine and understand where my grandmother’s mind had gone to somehow come to terms with the incredible devastation dementia causes for all in a family. It broke my heart to see her not remember my dad or remember my grandad who she had been married to for over fifty years. Yet, through it all there was a lot of smiles and happiness… and hope. The album and I needed to delve into the rabbit hole of the mind, through the confusion, the looping of memories, the disorientation and the loss. But also offer a comforting hand, too. That’s what music brought in the end. I wish I had had longer to connect with her.

‘Tenderly’, off the album, uses traffic recordings as texture – how and why did that come about?
I’ve spent four years living in London wondering what this record was all about and wondering what I was doing there, too. I would drive a lot, at night, to and from friends’ parties, houses and gigs. I didn’t ever drink, so I could have the comfort of my car to get me home and not face the tube or buses. It meant I spent a lot of time watching and listening – instead of being fully involved. I would visit my granny and do the same. Watch, listen and stay emotionally apart from it all. ‘Tenderly’ is about showing more than just a face. It’s about showing what matters the most… like screaming from the inside of the car, but this time starting to roll down the windows to be heard.

It sounds like the album was fermenting for a while… did the production change direction?
Often! It can be a real pain sometimes which way to go. I write on the piano, even if it’s an electronic track, with the chords clear and a melody you can work easily – but it also leaves so many questions to what direction it can take. I think that’s why I set out to immerse myself in a sound palate.

Rural influences. Urban influences. What are you chasing?
There is definitely something I constantly search for. I’m forever exploring and becoming completely engulfed in the place I live, yet craving the place my mind wants to be. Maybe it’s because I don’t think I’ve ever ‘belonged’ to one place – I call Ireland my home, yet I feel like an outsider with a Yorkshire accent! I love landscapes and space, but I also love the grit of noise, industry and chance. I’m chasing a balance between those worlds.

‘Awake But Always Dreaming’, by Hannah Peel, is out now

Threshold 2017
March 31st – April 2nd 2017
Baltic Triangle, Liverpool
Get tickets

Pic by Adam Patterson