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INTERVIEW: Hannah Peel on her new Mary Casio project, the importance of musical education, and falling down the rabbit hole

Laura  Barnes
INTERVIEW: Hannah Peel on her new Mary Casio project, the importance of musical education, and falling down the rabbit hole

A year ago, MI Pro spoke to composer, arranger and musician Hannah Peel about her second studio album, Awake But Always Dreaming, which focused on her experience with her grandmother, who had fallen into dementia.

The very personal record threw the listener into the mind of a dementia sufferer, following a path from the formation of memories to the frightening darkness of what it’s like to fall victim to the disease.

Almost exactly one year later, and I’m back at Hannah’s Shoreditch studio to chat about her follow-up record Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia.

It started off as an amusing mess about in the studio – designed to take her mind off the sometimes overwhelming work she was doing on Awake... – but Hannah soon realised that there was something more to this Mary Casio alter-ego. During and after the release of Awake..., she spent a lot of time learning about the mind, and it was during one visit to Alzheimer’s Research UK that she realised the connection between the brain and the space-inspired sounds of Mary Casio.
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“I saw all the cells growing in petri dishes and what I couldn’t get over was the fact that when you looked through the microscope, it looked like the universe. It was incredible seeing the stars and the way everything connects and I just kept that in my mind, how incredible it was. The pictures that I took through the microscope looked like the moon,” Hannah tells me with wide eyes.

“I didn’t really know where I was going but I knew that was amazing, and it really started to let me question and read more books and articles on how we are connected to the stars and how we were connected to every single cell and protein out there. We’re all made of the same stuff.

She became this character for me to be able to explore further and explore going and imagining someone else’s mind going in to space and what that meant.

“Because it was brain neurons it made me think further about this character, Mary Casio. At first it was just something fun that I played around with to actually take my mind away from Awake…, getting the Casio keyboard out, putting my glasses on and just playing with the tango and waltz beats and making these funny little tunes as just something to skip around the studio to.

“I never thought it would turn into something a lot deeper. She became this character for me to be able to explore further and explore going and imagining someone else’s mind going in to space and what that meant.”

Musically, how did these “funny little tunes”, when listened back to in their final form on the record, turn into an intriguing concept album full of swelling and emotive brass, impressive story-telling synthesizer dialog, and the feeling of travelling off into another world?

“I improvised a four-minute track, just arpeggiated chords following a sequence completely off the cuff and I thought “ah, that was really good”. I pressed stop, muted it, went to the next track down on Logic and did the same process, playing something different and never thought anything of it,” explains Hannah.

“Halfway through the piece, I was playing so hard that they keyboard fell off the stand and I had my hand on the bottom end of the keyboard and I lifted it back up and carried on, still recording. I did another one of those using ambient type chords and then sort of forgot about it.

“I took it away to Ireland, sat on holiday with my headphones and laptop. I un-muted the top two tracks and they fitted together magically. I couldn’t believe it. And that’s the first track on the record.”

She reveals that that’s the moment she realised these tunes were not just for her Casio keyboard – the instrument that she used to play about with those beats and draw inspiration for the project’s name.

“The ambient track I’d made ended up becoming the second track on the record. I didn’t plan on making a record, but when I got back from that holiday I decided that every time I went in the studio I would improvise another track on a different synth. I used a Minimoog and a Korg Mono/Poly."

I was like “damn”, because this broken synth was the one that I picked so I had to stick with it.

In another twist of fate, Hannah tells me how the Mono/Poly was actually half broken, but she’d picked up a Brian Eno strategy card (designed by the electronic pioneer to help musicians get over creative blocks) that said something along the lines of: “Use the instrument you wouldn’t normally use”.

“I was like “damn”, because this broken synth was the one that I picked so I had to stick with it,” laughs Hannah. “I could just about get these beautiful harmonics out of it, so I used that for a track and I could get a couple of bass notes and throbbing sounds, and that made the entirety of track 5 on the record. In the background I just had the Apollo mission from YouTube playing on a loop and it just fitted perfectly. It was all done within two or three hours of improvising.”

Seeing as that was working so well, she took that approach to the rest of the album. “No overthinking. No lyrics. I didn’t want to sing. I didn’t want to put pressure on myself to write something for radio or anything else. That’s how it all came into being.

“Eventually it became this journey. It was all synthesizers and found sounds. For example, track one had some bells I recording while walking down the street in L.A. I just recorded it because I thought it sounded really nice.”

So, what does an experienced composer with a penchant for using unfamiliar processes use for recording found sounds? A trusty iPhone, of course.

“iPhone voice memos all the way! You get this wonderful compression from it that you don’t get from anything else,” she enthuses.  

“I do have a Zoom microphone and I’ve used that quite a lot. But when you’re in the moment, you’ve just got to grab it, and part of using found sounds for me is that the first track represents leaving Earth and with those sounds you can hear a bit of Earth, a bit of traffic, a bit of music. It was just important to go from there.”

Without a doubt, I would not be doing what I’m doing without my music lessons at school.

Speaking about the atmosphere of the record, Hannah reveals how she envisions Mary Casio’s journey to be, or rather, how she hopes it will be interpreted in many other ways.

“Any sounds that I’ve used have just been because I’ve wanted to create an atmosphere and a sense of not being quite real. And part of that is because of the journey in Mary’s mind. Does she really go to the Cassiopeia constellation or is she sat in a chair and daydreaming? Is she passing into another realm? Did she get to the planet, or just got “somewhere”?

“All the wind and rain on that last track, The Planet of Passed Souls, was recorded from my caravan on that first holiday in Ireland. The wind and rain whacking against the sides sounds like Earth, but not quite.”

When listening to the track you can hear wind, rain, voices and what feels like memories seeping out of Mary’s mind. “I think of it as any person that would step on that “planet” would have this affect of their past coming through to them,” muses Hannah.

As well has her synthesizer patterns and meticulously placed collection of found sounds, Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia features outstanding brass arrangements. Keen to give the record a ‘living’ feel, the brass was recorded live at Real World Studios.

“We went to Yorkshire, Barnsley, and two engineers from Real World brought all of Peter Gabriel’s mics, a beautiful, big SSL desk and we set up in the theatre and recorded it live.

“I think we did two takes of each track. It was old school, putting it down on the record. Any breath, squeak of the shoe, turn of the page, was kept – no editing on that side of things. I wanted it to sound real.

“Went we came to mixing it we had the synths one side and the brass on the other side of the desk, and we played the desk live, like you would have done years ago. So when there were parts that were swelling, they’d swell on the desk, giving it a really “live” feel.”

Hannah has a special connection to brass bands. When she moved to Yorkshire as a child, she says she was handed a violin and given lessons at school, followed by a cornet, with lessons at her performing arts centre. “I then joined a brass band that was in the local centre of music. You could hire those instruments really cheaply, and all the kids did it after school, and at weekends we would do concerts.

“There was a real initiative in Yorkshire at the time to keep the brass band tradition going. National Lottery funded our brass brand from when I was the age of 8 to 14. My secondary school was also very good for music. We had bands and musicals all the time.”

With the recent issues surround school budgets and educational funding cuts – especially for the arts – I ask Hannah how important all of that early musical encouragement was to her career.

“Without a doubt, I would not be doing what I’m doing without my music lessons at school. Not only does learning an instrument help with your language, and reading what is essentially another language, but your movements, your social interaction with the people around you, how you collaborate and talk to people.”

She has also seen the impact a lack of funding has had on the very area she grew up in. “Since I was at school there, that’s all gone and that music centre has been closed.

“There’s no way my parents would have been able to fund paying for music lessons. But with that opportunity, I learnt piano, violin and trombone in the end. There is not way I could have done that. I feel lucky that I had that experience and if I have kids, I will make damn sure they have that experience too.

As we wrap up our time together, I ask Hannah what scientific field she might be eyeing up for her next project.

“I have no idea! I’m not interested in telling a story about things that I’ve gone through in a way that every single song seems to be about – a break up song or whatever, I’d rather put a story to it and part of my way of getting over grief or a relationship is to put it into music and into stories.

“I’ve always been interested in space and I’ve always liked looking at stars and I know certain constellations, but I wouldn’t know anything more than that. Really it’s been a discovery for me.

We should be able to dream at any age.

“I has a really wonderful conversation with the head of the observatory in Greenwich about how the brain is linked to outer space and the fact that out of all our discoveries and years of trying to find other life, our greatest discovery is our brain and we still don’t know how it works and we still don’t have cures for diseases and we still don’t understand how we can dream and think and memorise.

“One of the scary things about dementia is that when the brain is being eaten away from the outside in, all these things start to happen – hallucinations, movements, memory – all these things come from parts of the brain that you don’t think you’re tapped in to, but you are.

“It’s something we still don’t understand and I think that’s fascinating. I think that if I go any further, it will be more to delve into that world. More of the ‘down-the-rabbit-hole’ world.

“In my mind it’s a complete imaginary journey, and, why not? We should be able to dream at any age.”

Hannah Peel will be performing Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia with a full brass band at a number of dates around the UK for the rest of the year. Check out the full listings here.

She will also be supporting Alison Moyet throughout November with material from Awake But Always Dreaming.

Check out the video for Sunrise Through the Dusty Nebula below and look out for Mary Casio when the album drops on 22nd September.

Tags: Interviews , Hannah Peel , Mary Casio , muscial education

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