Hannah Peel enters the tea shop, it's a rainy winter's day, all eyes and smile she cuts through the grey. We cosy up at a corner table with a warm cuppa to talk about her newest release, "Awake But Always Dreaming" and the meaning behind it... the album was inspired by her grandmother who had dementia and passed away last year; as an artist Hannah felt she needed to make sense of that. From the outside dementia is abstract and it happens gradually, it's so hard to fully understand what's going in the mind of someone suffering from it. So Hannah became a woman on a mission to understand it, scientifically and emotionally, this album sums up that journey.
Hannah explains that initially she had been writing an album for 3 or 4 years, inspired by the book "Invisible Cities" by Italo Calvino, all about brutalist structure, she emphasises a wonderful line, marking out where the swallows go, that they never have the same path, a metaphor for escapism. At the same time when this album was taking form her grandma was slipping into Alzheimer's and was getting further and further away, sitting with her eyes closed, she would only rouse when someone spoke to her, but she wouldn't know who anyone was, not Hannah, not even her own son. She would ask him, confused, "Are you my brother? Are you my lover? " She had slipped into a world where she could remember her address from when she was 6 years old, but she couldn't remember Hannah's granddad who she was married to for 60 years.
Hannah describes it like this, "Generally Grandma went into a world which was very calm on the outside, she seemed perfectly content, a complete contrast to how the rest of us were feeling, which was massively distressing and upsetting when she didn't know who you were. "
She found herself having the same conversation with her quite a lot, so Hannah took the words she said over and over again, and recorded them onto a tape and twisted them and layered them and made them warped so it would sound like it was coming from her grandmother's mind, like what she was hearing from the outside world around her. Hannah said, "I found it so upsetting to listen to, I started to write a piece about it and that's what led to the track 'Conversations.'"
So that was the starting point connecting the Invisible Cities world with where Hannah's Grandma had gone, and Hannah had a realisation that this was what she'd be working towards all along, but without knowing it.
Then one Christmas the family gathered round with Grandma to sing some carols, and she completely woke up from that state and started singing along, singing the lyrics and the melodies, and at the end she was like 'Happy Christmas!' and 'Love you!' it was like the music woke her up. Hannah had the profound epiphany of the deep connection to music and the brain. She started to delve into the science and physicality of the disease. She desperately needed to understand it on a more logical level.
Hannah explains, "I knew that understanding the physicality of the disease would make the grief for when I lost her possible. It gave it context; it gave me a grounding of science. Where as an artist I would go naturally to dreaming and melancholy and nostalgia, rather than embracing facts and what's actually happening." So she totally immersed herself in lectures and talks with leading scientists, analysing scans of the brain, researching case studies and interviews with people who are living with it and also their carers.
So she decided to come out with this message on her album vs. hiding it in the lyrics for people to figure out. She says, "No need to keep this message a secret, because it needs to be talked about, it's tragic, it's a vile disease. And people don't talk about it because it's so upsetting when it's happening to you or to someone you love."
The track-listing is very considered on this album, they go from youthfulness and the beauty of age and life and mistakes to the message that love is all that matters at the end of the day, and you've gotta be cared for, moments of the album delve into the depths of the brain, tapping into a hallucinogenic loss of words, the repeating of rhythms and distortions and layering with other sounds, it's shaped the whole record and takes you on a journey.
1 in 3 of us will have dementia and 2 out of 3 will be women and we don't know why that is, researchers are working earnestly to understand it. So what can we do to help ourselves in the meantime?
Make a Memory Tape! Childhood memories stay the longest because they are embedded into your brain; much like music is stored in the auditory cortex. So Memory Tapes is a concept much like making a musical time capsule, so that if you do slip into dementia people who love you would be able to connect with you by playing music, because music joins up the dots in the brain. When you hear a piece of familiar music it somehow, magically opens the brain up a little bit more. It allows you to reconnect with the world around you. Between the age of 17-25 is when you memorise the most music, so that's the music that should feature on your Memory Tape.
It should be a balance between what you want to be remembered as, and what you will actually remember. Sometimes what you will remember isn't so cool. Hannah recounts a memory about a song she'd rather forget, "I remember my dad playing "Lady In Red" by Chris De Burgh on a tape solidly in a black Cavalier car when we were kids and the car got nicked by what he called skinheads at the time and it was joyridden and crashed and the Chris De Burgh tape was never to be seen again."
Another thing you can do if someone close to you has dementia, is realise that even though they may have forgotten you in the outward world, inside they are still exactly the same, they still have emotions that they connect to, sounds, kindness, love and to spend time with them and play music to them as much as you can.
If I was to make a Memory Tape of the music that was played in the tea shop that day when I met up with Hannah Peel, it would look like this...
Stairway to Heaven - Led Zeppelin
Tears In Heaven - Eric Clapton
Pride and Joy - Stevie Ray Vaughan
All Along The Watchtower - Jimi Hendrix
Sweet Home Alabama - Lynyrd Skynyrd
Baba O'Riley - The Who
If you'd like to learn more about dementia, check out a documentary from the 90's "Malcolm And Barbara" that Hannah Peel recommended... it was a seminal film and changed the way the NHS acknowledges and treats dementia.
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