Hannah Peel Touches a Nerve

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“I have neither desires nor fears,” the Khan declared, “and my dreams are composed either by my mind or by chance.” [Invisible Cities]

You are reading a review of Hannah Peel’s Awake But Always Dreaming. Or perhaps a map tracing the path between Irish folk music and experimental electronics. It opens with a reference to neurology.

Hannah Peel Like the brain, Hannah Peel’s latest release is divided into two halves. The first follows a poptastic pattern, filled with the folk-frosted, radio-friendly songs that make Peel one of the most compelling artists in Britain today. The other is an intensely personal set of adventurous material, raw to the touch and unnervingly beautiful. The neural pathway linking them is a track inspired by one of Italo Calvino’s postmodern stories.

“Invisible City” took shape under the spell of Calvino’s novel of similar name. A fantastical imagining of conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, the book breaks narrative rules and questions memory as an element of storytelling. It provides a key point in the trajectory of the album, as memory – and the loss of it – is the dominant theme of the second half.

It was at this point in her writing for the album that Peel started to respond artistically to the dementia that was claiming her grandmother. As her neural pathways began to be closed off, so did the established links between the two women; and the pain of the experience led Peel to change direction.

The cruelty of dementia is that it turns the familiar into the unknown and friends into strangers, and it does it again every day. As Polo says to Khan in Calvino’s novel of one city: “it knows only departures, not returns.”

Peel explains:

It started with Italo Calvino, just because it was a book that fascinated me with the mapping of the cities. Maybe part of the reason I was obsessed with these imaginary cities was that I was imagining where my grandmother was on the map in her mind. A lot of people, when they have dementia, often forget their way home. That tied in perfectly, and it became a bit of an epiphany into why I was obsessed with it.

4The suffering of those living with dementia is mirrored by the pain of those close to them. Both sides are reflected in Peel’s material, starting with “Octavia,” a track named for one of Calvino’s cities which happens to be strung over an abyss. In a way reminiscent of Test Dept’s combinations of industrial rhythms and folk songs in Shoulder to Shoulder, “Octavia” pulses and shudders under an angelic chorus. The crackle of electricity and the grinding of gears are straight from Russolo’s musical manifesto on the art of noises, but in Peel’s hands signal empathy rather than aggression; they might be the sounds of urban activity or inner chaos.

In the beginning, says a different album title, there was rhythm. According to neuroscientists, the response to the beat comes from a different part of the brain than melody or language. It belongs to the more primitive centres that are associated with instinct. The shift towards complex and pronounced rhythms in the second half of the album might have been an intuitive development. Peel reflects:

It just seemed to feel natural – the layering of things and not necessarily being completely straight in time was really important. Sound effects include things I’d recorded like doors and everyday sounds – there is a clock on there. It just felt like the natural way to go. It kind of blends in, so it doesn’t feel like you are listening to a heavy track. When you blend it with everything else, it becomes more trance-like – like a dream state.

This effect is most pronounced on “Foreverest,” which ultimately develops into a danceable groove treading similar ground to Goldfrapp. To get there, though, you have to pass through the title track, which is devastating.

“Awake But Always Dreaming” begins with manipulated voices, and it clearly represents the disorientation of the dementia sufferer. The crackling sounds now more directly evoke the firing (or misfiring) of synapses. Peel resists the temptation to take the literal route, applying sensitive piano passages instead of string stabs, and the effect is hallucinatory. The intensity of the listener’s response is provoked by the very deftness of Peel’s touch.

The sculpting of this material took place in London and Ireland with the help of Peel’s collaborator, Erland Cooper. Of Cooper, Peel says:

The relationship we have is so natural. If I say, I want to do this, I want to do that, he will find a way to interpret that and help me to record it and make it sound beautiful. I’m good at all that, and it’s great, but when you have someone to fire off ideas off to and talk to, it is so much better. He’s a great support to me and understands that I’m not necessarily going to write the classic hits.

There are potential hits on this album, however. “All That Matters,” the current single, opens proceedings with a cascading waterfall of sound that shows off Peel’s ability to craft the type of song that gets Radio 6 into a hormonal frenzy. It was a stand-out track at Peel’s recent show in London, and it’s a no-nonsense love song, but on the album it’s also the first step, Peel notes, “gradually leading you into the rabbit hole of the mind.”


Peel is soon to start a two year residency with the Wellcome Trust, which will allow her to interact with artists and researchers interested in dementia. She’s already been looking down the microscope of UCL’s Selina Wray, and the potential for musicians and scientists to influence each other opens intriguing possibilities – not unlike the conversations between Polo and Khan that were Peel’s initial inspiration for the album.

Which brings you to the end of a review of Hannah Peel’s Awake But Always Dreaming. You might have dreamt it, but you won’t forget it. Unless you already have.

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