‘When we left Donegal, I spent my whole school year yearning to go back’

Hannah Peel’s Mercury-nominated Fir Wave, her Dancing at Lughnasa soundtrack, her Game of Thrones score – all are illuminated by a longing that folds into how she feels about Ireland

In 1993, when she was eight-years old, Hannah Peel moved from one conflict zone to another. “Going from Northern Ireland to Barnsley where everybody was in a recession of mining and very angry with the government still, was a real juxtaposition,” says the Mercury-nominated, Craigavon-born composer and electronic musician.

North Armagh and South Yorkshire were, in some ways, different planets. She was too young to appreciate the degree to which she had been uprooted, but the culture shock was nonetheless distinct. In Ireland, traditional music was all around her, particularly on family holidays to Donegal. In Barnsley, music meant joining the brass band at school.

But there were similarities too. Northern Ireland was in the darkest days of the Troubles. Barnsley was still reeling from the miners’ strike in 1983 and the pit closures that had ripped the heart from the community. Both were full of people who hated Margaret Thatcher. The difference was that in Yorkshire, she was never not aware of being Irish

“Being Irish in Barnsley, we were singled out,” says Peel, speaking ahead of a long-awaited performance at the Proms classical music festival at the Royal Albert Hall in London on August 19th. “You knew where the Irish family were in the town. People found us because of their passing word on. I remember somebody knocked on the door once, and my dad was, like, ‘How do you know where we lived?’ And they were like, ‘Oh, the man in the pub down the road told me.’ And my dad had never even been to the pub.”


What I love about Bangor is that my house can see the lough. You can see the ferries coming in and out and the planes coming in and out. It’s a lovely transitional place, which has subconsciously been echoed in the music

—  Hannah Peel

Peel made the return journey in 2017, swapping the noise and chaos of London for the coastal calm of Bangor, Co Down, with its views over Belfast Lough. That shift has impacted her life – she has a five-bedroom house now, as opposed to a cramped flat in London – and her music. It was here, gazing at the tranquil grey waters of the Irish Sea, that she conceived and composed her acclaimed 2021 album Fir Wave – a record inspired by the quiet beauty of Bangor just as much as by the landscapes of Glenties in northwest Donegal, where she has been a frequent visitor since childhood.

“Obviously, I’ve got this Yorkshire accent along the way. But I came home five and a half years ago. [Fir Wave] was one of the first thing I started writing when I moved back. What I love about Bangor is that my house can see the lough. You can see the ferries coming in and out and the planes coming in and out. It’s a lovely transitional place, which has subconsciously been echoed in the music.”

At the Proms, she’ll perform with Manchester Collective, for whom she has written a bespoke piece called Neon, described as “a fusion of electronic and acoustic elements”. She laughs when I say Irish people regard the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall as an orgy of Brexit-y energy: all those tiny fluttering Union Jacks and blue-rinsers belting out Jerusalem.

“They’re changing, very slowly changing,” she says. “The first time I saw [iconic synth musician] Suzanne Ciani was on a Prom. The late-night Proms put on great music: Gold Panda collaborating with Anoushka Shankar, games music. Those are the ones that people that are fans of modern contemporary music go to.”

She’s long admired Manchester Collective and jumped at the opportunity to collaborate. She sees parallels between their innovative take on contemporary classical music and the DIY philosophy you find in Dublin. “Manchester Collective are fantastic – they remind me of [veteran Dublin collective] Crash Ensemble, the way they commission and programme things, and how they’re not afraid to play in places not typically known as classical. I’m performing with them for this one-off because it’s such a big thing. If someone asks you to play the Proms, you’re kind of, ‘yeah, why not?”

The Prom is an appetite whetter for an autumn tour that sees her taking the Mercury-shortlisted Fir Wave on the road, including shows at the Court House in Bangor on Saturday, September 30th, and the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Sunday, October 1st. These dates, at which she will perform the album in its entirety, are long overdue, she feels. The record was released at the height of the pandemic, a mixed blessing in that lockdown gave people a space to appreciate the music yet prevented her from sharing it with a flesh-and-blood audience.

The inability to perform live did not get in the way of Fir Wave becoming a phenomenon. Critics were ecstatic about the project, which takes its name from a photograph Peel stumbled upon, in National Geographic magazine, of conifers on a mountainside, undulating like a sine wave. “It’s remarkably easy to feel like you’re in a flying dream, high above broad and strange vistas,” went a review on British website the Arts Desk. “Gorgeous, fizzing,” agreed the Guardian.

“It takes its own life,” says Peel. “The vinyl sold out. Everyone was commenting on it. It had really great reviews. It’s been a lovely experience. The music industry is hard. For something to naturally progress and almost flow like the nature it embodies is nice.”

As testified by its commercial success and the gushing reviews, Fir Wave is a remarkable album, instantly accessible yet steeped in mystery. On the surface, it’s an excellent dance record, with beautifully syncopated beats and swooping melodies. But there are more profound ideas here, too: Fir Wave has the hushed menace of a lonely wilderness: at moments, the sensibility conjured is of the wind through the trees, the ominous gurgling of a brook. It is a love letter to nature in all its majesty and starkness.

Fir Wave doubles as a valentine to the great female electronic innovators of the 1960s and 1970s – boundary-pushers such as Delia Derbyshire from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and composer of the Doctor Who theme and the aforementioned Suzanne Ciani. In Derbyshire’s case, the influence goes beyond symbolic: Fir Wave utilises samples from Electrosonic, a 1972 record by Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson that contains sound effects for use in film, TV and radio.

The original is a suite of melodramatic bloops and bleeps that sound like a Dalek having a meltdown (it can be sampled on YouTube in all its discombobulated glory). With those fragments as a starting point, Fir Wave taps into the emotions we experienced through lockdown: the paranoia and claustrophobia but also the feeling of life having slowed. Of how, disconnected from the nine-to-five tumult, we had become attuned to the rhythms of the natural world.

Peel sees this as building on the work of Derbyshire, who was plugged in to the angst of the Cold War and of Sixties futurism. In her studio in Bangor, Peel was likewise drawing on the sensibilities of the time, in this case, the enigmatic hush of lockdown – as spelt out with eco-centric song names such as Emergence In Nature and Wind Shadow.

“What I found quite inspiring and tried to connect with was that, at that space and time, when they wrote those records. It was about the Soviets and lots of laboratory sounds. Very scientific and industrial. What we were living through in lockdown was a lot more to do with nature, recycling and the century we’re in. I did use that parallel when titling the tracks.”

Peel has acquired some heavyweight admirers. Studying at Liverpool’s Institute for Performing Arts, she was asked to write a theme for a graduation ceremony – for which she was congratulated by the Institute’s co-founder, Paul McCartney, who told her, “I like your music. Well done!” Later, the makers of Game of Thrones hired her to compose the soundtrack for a behind-the-scenes documentary, Game Of Thrones: The Last Watch. She was rewarded with an Emmy nomination.

Her fan club has since expanded to BBC Radio 3, for which she co-hosts the show Night Tracks; and to modfather Paul Weller, with whom she works as arrange and conductor.

It’s only in the last 10 years, I got those stories from my dad. We were never told that as children. You just go, ‘oh, an army checkpoint, it’s really exciting’. You don’t know the implications

—  Hannah Peel

“He just loves music. He constantly creates. He’s constantly interested. If I’ve got a gig, he comes to it. He’s not afraid to think about sound in different ways. If you know him for a certain type of music, he will make that music to satisfy his audience. However, he has an experimental side. He wants to try something else. I don’t do many string arrangements for people because I don’t have the time. I will always do them for Paul, because I enjoy the music.”

The Troubles felt very real to Peel growing up in Northern Ireland. She remembers hearing a bomb going off the day she turned six. Her mother is from Enniskillen, and the family drove through the town the day after the Remembrance Sunday bombing. Their car turned up in the background of a report on the BBC news that night.

“I saw one explosion on my birthday,” she says. “That was the major one: going into Belfast and experiencing that. There were family members that had very close experiences. Even distant relatives. Everybody living here was not untouched by it. My dad had stories of his boss going missing. You don’t know about those stories at that age. It’s only in the last 10 years, I got those stories from my dad. We were never told that as children. You just go, ‘oh, an army checkpoint, it’s really exciting’. You don’t know the implications.”

If Fir Wave was influenced in an abstract sense by her relationship with Ireland, the connection is more explicitly personal on her soundtrack for Josie Rourke’s British National Theatre revival of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa, which stars Siobhán McSweeney, Ardal O’Hanlon and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor. Friel’s play is set in a fictionalised version of Glenties in Donegal, where Peel would holiday each summer with her family. It was one of her most heartfelt projects – related directly to precious childhood memories.

“The town that we grew up in is where Brian Friel’s story is set, although he uses a fictional version. We used to go to the Limelight nightclub in Glenties, dancing as kids. It’s that cyclical pattern. They went to that nightclub to dance in the 1930s. And then there are kids in the 1990s and 2000s going to that nightclub.”

It felt great, too, to be among so many Irish collaborators.

“It was a joy: working with that many Irish actors was the best feeling. Good humour the whole time, which is quite rare. You often get egos. There was none of that. It was a pleasure to soundtrack – to find that essence of the landscape and memory. And then explore how do you bring that into a show that could quickly go down a very fiddly traditional route? My take on it was using the cello, layering it, and combining folk with a more traditional classical style that could join it all together in the present day.”

As with many musicians, she has watched the deepening influence of artificial intelligence on the industry with concern. She is a fan of artists who use AI to explore new possibilities, one example being avant-garde composer Holly Herndon, who has utilised the technology to create a “deepfake” version of her own voice and thus explore issues of identity and individuality. However, for Peel, the danger is that corporations will find a way to exploit the technology to gain leverage over artists, much as streaming has done with its penny-pinching royalty rates.

“I respect artists like Holly Herndon – I’ve been following her using AI for the past six or seven years. The things she’s done are innovative and exciting. I feel AI has gone so capitalist, it’s taken that magic out of it that artists were starting to use.

“Now it’s more about the fear of what it could do. It’s that classic thing that it’s whatever we input into it is what’s come out. It’s still human-controlled. I haven’t used or explored it because I’m a fan of analogue. I would like to see us as an industry making sure that we are protected as artists and creatives. Until that happens, I won’t start using it. I’d rather spend my energy fighting, because we must be saved first. We have that same issue with what happened with streaming, where we could end up 10 years down the line, not fully grasping it. We’ve got to keep up fast and move with the times.”

I’m really excited about finishing the tour in Dublin. I’ve never done a solo show in Dublin. I’ve always been, ‘one day I’ll play there’

—  Hannah Peel

She sees parallels between what she does as a composer and artists at the avant-garde end of traditional music, such as Dubliners Lankum, whose fourth album, False Lankum, has been nominated for the Mercury. Though very different in its instrumentation and textures, the record comes from the same place as Fir Wave in that it is simultaneously steeped in the sense of wonder and a feeling of the ominous. Again, lockdown life writ large.

“I love Lankum. I think it’s very connected to the lockdown – an essence of human nature, of connecting to earth,” she says. “What I love about Lankum is the production around what they are doing. And people like [Northern Ireland-based experimental pipe-player] Brighde Chaimbeul – it is so beautiful and impactful. It’s very emotional, really powerful.”

When she was in Barnsley, she wanted nothing more than to be back in Ireland. That tug of home has framed her relationship with music and how she writes. Fir Wave, her Dancing at Lughnasa soundtrack, her Game of Thrones score – all are illuminated by a sort of feverish yearning which, she feels, folds into how she feels about Ireland. And for that reason, she is confident that her performances this autumn in Bangor and Dublin will be ones to remember. They are homecomings long delayed – and destined to be all the richer for that.

“That’s probably why I enjoyed Dancing at Lughnasa so much,” she says. “It was more about the memory of it, that longing to go back. We were taken away from it. Essentially all our summer holidays were in Donegal. When we left Donegal, I spent my whole school year yearning to go back. It was for me about putting on [traditional] music and singing those songs – to bring me back to a happy place full of freedom and naivety and joy. I’m really excited about finishing the tour in Dublin. I’ve never done a solo show in Dublin. I’ve always been, ‘one day I’ll play there’.”

Hannah Peel plays Fir Wave live at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, Sunday, October 1st. She appears at the Proms with Manchester Collective on Saturday, August 19th.