Rail lines, partition, melancholy - the perfect ingredients for a music project
Frustration with a train timetable led Hannah Peel into a unique project which premieres at the Earagail festival this weekend
HAnnah Peel: “The ability to be fast and quick is really important so it doesn’t become stagnant”
We fume and give out when public transport lets us down. But very few of us do as Hannah Peel did and turn our annoyance with trains and buses into a creative project.
The Craigavon, Co Antrim- born singer-songwriter and composer recalls that she had a “very frustrating Sunday” trying to get from Portadown to Belfast.
“I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get a train to get there on time,” she says. “I was so frustrated because it was the first time I had used public transport in a while and I was so mad. Why the hell can’t you get anywhere in Northern Ireland on public transport? Why are there no trains and you’ve still got these old lines?”
At that time, Peel had just agreed to take part in a project, commissioned by the Earagail Arts Festival’s Paul Brown, that involved Tommy McLaughlin, the producer and guitarist who has worked with Villagers and Soak and runs Donegal’s Attica Audio studio.
“When this project came up, Tommy got in touch and asked did I want to do it. He said it would be a bit crazy. There would be four people involved, all producers, all strong-minded and outspoken and who do our own thing in our own right. I jumped at it.”
Peel and McLaughlin were joined by Erland Cooper, frontman of Erland and the Carnival and Peel’s bandmate in The Magnetic North, and arranger and composer Michael Keeney.
At that stage they were an ensemble in search of a theme. But after her experience with Northern Ireland’s railways, Peel realised she might have something.
“I sat down with the guys and said this is something we could look into. It’s very resonant in terms of the rail lines being closed and the partition of Ireland and the melancholy and anger and frustration it leaves behind.
“That then stemmed off into ideas about spending time in Donegal looking at the hills and seeing bridges going across the landscape and traces of stations here and there.
“Tommy then remembered that his family had a picture in their pub of the Creeslough viaduct over the Owencarrow river. It had been there for years and he’d never thought about it. He got the picture and sent it to us all and we’d then had a story and what we wanted to be.”
A bonus for the quartet was how trains and railways lend themselves to music. “Basing songs around trains is so amazing,” Peel says, “because you’ve already got your rhythm and essence and movement.”
Field trips and research followed to find out more about the subject.
Walk the line
“I was in touch with the North West of Ireland Railway Society and we met Jim McBride one of the days. He told us the history of the railways and gave us DVDs and books just to get our knowledge up to steam. Barra Best did a great series called Walk the Line on the BBC, where he went along the old lines and went down into the undergrowth to find all sorts of things.
“We came across a lot of stories. The Creeslough disaster was obviously big, but the one thing which struck us was a place called the wailing bridge. It was known as the bridge where a lot of mothers would have said goodbye to their children as they emigrated.
“Most of those mothers would never see their children again because once they left, that was it. That was the one which ignited a lot of emotion and gave us a lot of resonance in terms of what we wanted to portray.”
The four collaborators worked quickly on the project that would become In the Shadows of Steam.
“We’re all so busy with other stuff,” she says, “so we were limited time-wise and we only had a week together in Tommy’s studio. We had prepared a lot before we met up and sent ideas around, but that week was important in getting things defined and making it feel like a project.”
Peel says speed is one of the attributes behind any successful collaboration.
“There has to be fun and openness and smiles. If someone is really guarded, it puts a damper on things for the first few days. You do find ways to bring them out of their shell, but it can take time.
“The ability to be fast and quick is really important so it doesn’t become stagnant. Otherwise, you’re there thinking after a few hours, ‘why am I doing this and not my own work?’ Michael and Tommy are instantly like that – they get it and they get it right away, so it was very easy for us to make music together. It’s the quickest music project most of us have worked on because we all had something really strong to contribute.”
Aside from this weekend’s performance at the Earagail Arts Festival, Peel thinks the project, like any train or rail-line, still has some distance to go.
“At the moment, we don’t know if we’ll keep the name or what we’ll do, but we definitely have an album there that we want to work on and maybe put out in the next year or so.”
- In the Shadows of Steam will be performed Saturday in McGrorys, Culdaff, Co Donegal. See eaf.ie