Hannah Peel: Greyness of Craigavon still inspires my music
She may have long since departed these shores, but Hannah Peel, who plays Belfast's Open House Festival this month, tells Edwin Gilson her hometown still impacts her work
Occasionally, when London life is getting on top of her, Hannah Peel recalls memories of childhood holidays in Ulster. The multi-instrumentalist and singer has internalised her Northern Irish past, turning it into a calming mental space in which she can lose herself during fraught rush hours in the English capital.
"I've lived in London for four years now, and one of the things I enjoy most about the city is leaving it," laughs Craigavon-born Peel, who is engaging and interesting company throughout our interview. "I spent most of my summers in Donegal, and obviously that's so much of a contrast from London. I'm really drawn to the openness of Donegal; it's where I go in my head when I need a bit of space."
It's difficult to assert whether we can label Peel a Northern Irish singer/songwriter, given that her family (her Dad is from Armagh, her Mum from Fermanagh) moved from Craigavon to Yorkshire when she was seven. Then again, if we can describe the likes of Katie Melua as an 'Ulster songbird', despite the fact she spent just a few of her childhood years living over here, then we should certainly claim the hugely talented Peel – who plays at The Black Box as part of the Open House Festival on June 18 – as one of our own.
As a young girl, the 28-year-old wasn't overly aware of the lingering effects of the failed 'new city' vision for Craigavon, where almost half of the proposed work for the new settlement was left unfinished. "I didn't think of it as a kind of in-between land, mired in the middle of two places (Lurgan and Portadown), when I was a kid," she ponders. "It's only now that I can see that, not then." However, her hometown seems to have left a deep imprint on her.
"I suppose it's like anywhere; when you grow up in a certain place you don't realise it's any different. I think Craigavon had an impact on the album I'm working on now, though. A lot of it is built around the idea of Utopian living, and cities. In that sense, perhaps Craigavon and its architecture has always played on my subconscious. I like the concrete and the greyness; I wouldn't necessarily choose to live in such a place, but I love to study it from the outside. A lot of that comes from being in Craigavon at a young age."
Peel has been interested in modern, urban ideologies for a while. Her latest EP Fabricstate, which saw a move away from the singer's folk roots to a more expansive sound, focused on city alienation and materialism. After living in first Barnsley, then Liverpool, and now London, Peel is no stranger to urban claustrophobia and alienation. When she states that she's "always felt a little bit alone," you don't doubt the authenticity of her sentiment.
"I think the more people you're surrounded by, the lonelier you are," she says. "Especially when you get on the tube and you can't move as you're crammed in by people; it's a very isolating feeling. I feel a lot more content in open spaces, less alone, which is why I remember Donegal so fondly."
According to Peel, Fabricstate, released in February, poses the question: "What do you do when all of your constructs collapse around you?"
The singer comes over all existential on the EP, focusing on the very notion of survival in a disorientating modern world. "We rely on so many material things," she laments, "like our phones, our TVs, even our guitars. What I was trying to highlight was how this materialism affects our relationships. I mean, what do you do when your relationships fall apart and you're left with nothing at all? That's where the title Fabricstate comes from; society can seem like it's too material at times."
This feeling comes across in Peel's approach to her music, too. Like her favourite contemporary musician, John Grant, she tries to employ analogue equipment whenever possible. She is perhaps best known for her unique use of the music box; her debut EP featured a number of 1980s classics reworked on the intricate instrument, including New Order's Blue Monday and Soft Cell's Tainted Love. While Peel accuses such songs of possessing "clinical and cold computerised beats", she remains a "massive fan of electronic music".
"The music box can change a song completely," she says. "It makes it softer, more emotional, gives it life. When you strip it down, you realise that a lot of that synth-based 1980s music is melodically beautiful."
If Peel's desire for "more organic" musical output is understandable, her explanation of the inner workings of her music box is perhaps less so.
"It's all programmed by paper, so it's all hole-punched with just an ordinary household hole-punch, then the paper just feeds out the other end of the box to make sounds," she says, with evident pride in her instrument of choice.
Having started playing music upon moving to Yorkshire, Peel is now master of the piano, violin, trombone and the fiddle. She used to jam a lot with her dad, a folk singer, and relishes the "Irish folk tradition" that she grew up with. There are downsides to the music box in a live setup, though, she admits; namely, the potential for error, the "little mistakes which can be characterful or damaging".
"If something goes wrong with the paper in the box, like I lose it, then it's sometimes a full-scale disaster," she laughs. "Actually, at a gig in Brighton recently, my equipment did fail me and I had to adapt everything I was doing. It worked to my favour in a way, though, as the audience were with me. Everyone in the room was on my side, telling the sound guy that something was wrong, and it turned into a brilliant gig."
Aside from such isolated incidents, the music box works effectively as part of a larger system, containing many instruments. This dynamic is vital to Peel's performance, as she continues to go solo and refuse a backing band.
"I've only been in one band when there was a definite leader, and no sense of collaboration," says Peel, "and it's fair to say I didn't last very long. I played in so many groups when I was younger that I eventually realised I wanted to break out on my own, and discover my own voice. It was just about having the belief to say: 'Yeah, I can start singing on my own songs'."
Peel's independence means she doesn't have to rely on anybody. From reimagining classic songs at the start of her career, to creating a diverse, expansive sound latterly, she has shown a fiercely individualistic creative streak that continues to serve her well. And it helps to have that special place, physical or mental, that she can disappear to in stressful times.
On Wednesday week in Belfast, she'll return to that location which offers her more peace than most.
"I'm really looking forward to coming to Northern Ireland, and Belfast particularly," she smiles. "Obviously it's not as open as Donegal, but it's by the sea, which is brilliant because it completely relieves those feelings of claustrophobia I sometimes get. I like to involve and include the crowd in my gigs, and I'm sure Belfast will be receptive to that!"
- Hannah Peel plays the Green Room in The Black Box on Wednesday, June 18, as part of the Open House Festival. For details, visit www.openhouse festival.com
Putting music on the map ...
Other artists who've taken inspiration from geographic locations include:
- Lou Reed – The late Velvet Underground man and solo star released his dark album Berlin in 1973. Effectively a rock opera, the record's lyrics focused on the grim underbelly of the German city. Some recurring themes include drug use, depression, prostitution and suicide
- Stornoway – this indie-folk act actually hail from Oxford, but take their name from the Scottish town on the Isle of Lewis. In explaining their choice of moniker, singer Brian Briggs said: "We were looking for somewhere that sounded a bit distant and remote and coastal."
- Dolly Parton – the country star's 11th studio record, entitled My Tennessee Mountain Home, is based on the singer's memories of her childhood in rural Tennessee. Though the record is mostly positive, Parton also occasionally indicates she has no desire to experience the poverty of her youth again