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The Northern Irish artist and electronic composer’s third album is a seven-movement odyssey composed for analogue synthesizers and full, traditional 29-piece colliery brass band. ‘Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia’, explores one person's journey to outer space, by recounting the story of an unknown, elderly, pioneering, electronic musical stargazer and her lifelong dream to leave her terraced home in the mining town of Barnsley, South Yorkshire, to see Cassiopeia for herself.

With artwork by Grammy award winning designer Jonathan Barnbrook (David Bowie collaborator on albums ‘Blackstar’ and ‘The Next Day’) and the complete brass band and rhythm section recorded live on location in The Barnsley Civic Theatre with Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio team, this exclusive album combines Peel’s detailed, analogue synth layered production and her expressive flair for performance with ‘Tubular Brass’, featuring the top UK championship brass band players. It’s a wholly unique, collaborative sound and seemingly, a first of its kind both live and on record.

"We have a hundred billion neurons in our brains, as many as there are stars in a galaxy" Theoretical physicist and author, Carlo Rovelli

Delving into the rabbit hole of the mind, creating parallels between the human brain and space, Peel combines the unearthly sound textures and celestial ostinatos of the analogue synthesizers with the tremendously deep and rich power of traditional ‘British’ brass band to map Mary’s intergalactic passage into another world.

Hannah: “I wanted these huge slabs of planetary sounds to echo the excitement and wonder of our human need to explore and develop. Outer space is where only a select few can reach; yet it is somewhere we dream of going, or perhaps collectively, simply wanting to know what is out there. The unparalleled vastness in our galaxy is as equally melancholy and desolate, as Mary’s lonely voyage away from all she knows”.

During her teenage years in Yorkshire, Peel played trombone in brass bands: marching at weekends and wearing Dicky Bows at competitions and so naturally the ‘brass’ sound has become very much a part of her creative DNA. Her relentlessly explorative production and love of music made by analogue machines has evolved over the last few years and is now a key element in her solo work.

On this album, she explores two very different worlds – the power of the brass band players combined with the sub-bass impact and air resonating force of the synths but she also creates a very human and intimate, at times fragile sounding record through her collection of ‘breathing’ vintage electronics, found sounds, the nuances of the individual brass instruments and the subtle ambience of her voice combining with the real and raw breathing, shuffling and ‘spit’ of the players themselves.

Hannah: “When we moved from Ireland to Yorkshire, I was dropped into a world of brass music surrounded by the low end resonances of the brass band - a sound that I never knew could exist before. That powerful and rich immersive feeling was so visceral and still gets me excited today. It felt important to write and record a piece that was true to childhood feelings amalgamated with the electronic appetite I enjoy today. I often find that brass recordings miss this mighty force and I was very lucky to have an incredible team that also supported this vision and could enable it to come to life. Along with my long-term collaborator and producer Erland Cooper, we worked with the Real World Studios team and their lead Engineer Oli Jacobs who brought all their equipment to The Civic, Barnsley: a now newly refurbished venue, which still contains the old Victorian features I remember as a child when seeing my first musicals and bands on stage.”

Erland “After Peel's last solo record took around four years in development on the writing, sound palate or experimentation side, this record came together very quickly in her writing stage so it was important to capture the same buoyant energy and freshness on the production and mixing stages. Fundamentally this dictated a fresh commitment on the sound and mixes and encouraged what I would call an old school, no recall, mix approach. Committing to the sound palate and performances early on was vital. This happened twice in the recording stages, initially with the synth production dictated by a singular choice of instruments and working within their limitations, helped along by Brian Eno’s oblique strategies and again in the production and recording of the best performances from the brass and rhythm players. Extensive notes were taken on the day of band recording and generally each song was played around three times, no more with very few if at all punch in sections. Not least because brass players rely on their lips working well for around 3-5 hours before rest. As it was impractical to provide monitoring to all 29 players, with the exception of the drums section, they relied heavily on the conductor Sandy Smith to keep time, pace and feel. The most natural recording and performances were captured through the SSL remote desk, Real World's two exceptional engineers and into Pro Tools running off a laptop and then collated by Hannah and I spontaneously with an instinctive gut feel that was obvious to all"

With her research spanning from conversations between the public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, Marek Kukula, and extensive reading of books on theoretical physics, as well as memoirs on dreams, Peel confirms that no matter where we travel to and what we discover, ‘we are all creatures of the land’ (A Land, Jacquetta Hawkes, 1951). And that “…in all that immensity of black holes, supernovas, galaxies, nebulae, the most astonishing and the most complex natural object we have discovered in the entire universe is right here on earth, it’s in our heads, it’s the human brain” (Marek Kukula, May 2017).

Who is Mary Casio?

Taking inspiration from analogue synth pioneers Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire, Hannah tells the story of Mary Casio - now 86 years old - and her lifelong stargazing dream to leave her South Yorkshire home in the mining town of Barnsley. Mary Casio makes her journey into space via home-constructed, hand-made machines that 'buzz and whirr' alongside her ever-growing collection of antiquated analogue synths that she started collecting, ever since her father gave her a Casio keyboard as a child. As her vehicle 'stirs into life', ‘oscillating with home-made technology’, she faces space alone, without ever leaving her garden shed. This is Mary Casio’s greatest journey - destination Cassiopeia! Did she ever make it to Cassiopeia? Is this all a daydream as she sits in a back garden shed tinkering with electronics and her telescope? Or maybe this is her final breath as her mind and body pass into another realm of life? Is this science or fantasy? And how much is there really a division between the two?

As Isaac Newton’s stated on his discoveries in 1692, “…be material or immaterial, I have left to the consideration of my readers”.

“I wanted to use Tubular Brass as a ‘celestial’ voice for the synthesizers and Mary’s intergalactic journey to Cassiopeia. The sounds combine deep, richly powerful and ethereal high and soft tones across uplifting arpeggiated patterns. In a strange way the seemingly unearthly sound textures from the analogue synths also seem to breathe, as if alive, feeling strangely ‘human’ too”

“Journey to Cassiopeia’ is about leaving Earth and discovering what is beyond our own lives . . . it’s very personal to me. Part of the inspiration for Mary is my great aunt, sitting by her front window, looking to the sky, awake but always dreaming, as I pulled up in the car to see her. Without being able to communicate verbally, I often wondered what she was thinking about. Mary’s arrival to the ‘Planet of the Passed Souls’ also features a very rare Columbia Records recording of one of the first choirboys to be heard on vinyl. This is actually a recording of my grandfather, Robert Duncan Peel! It’s a song from another time and seems otherworldly in a way too. This is the sound of ‘Angels Ever Bright and Fair’ recorded in Manchester Cathedral, in 1928. It’s a fitting and deeply personal climax for me.” Hannah

Production Notes - Erland Cooper
How Mary Casio was recorded and mixed

“Like the recording that was done in two stages, so was the mixing. After mixing all the synth, ambient layers, vocals, programmed parts and committing to some of Hannah’s wonderful experimental delays while taming, adding and widening up others, I pushed all this to stems and called early on to do a commitment to desk mix approach for the final work. In hindsight this was quite ambitions so I can now understand the nervous yet exited reaction but as it turns out it was exactly what the project needed to finish in one cohesive sitting. I work predominantly in the box now for mixing for ease of use for recalls but generally print and commit to parts finding the finished sound using outboard gear early on in the recording process.

As we only had four days booked at Real World to mix and commit to the full album we worked on two songs per day and put down a finished mix of one song each day. Generally, working on the second song into the evening and committing to it with fresh ears the following day. Real World has a great sense of wide open space which was helpful to very quickly gain that valuable distanced perspective you need, just before committing to a finished mix. The final day was used to do an idiot’s check and playback of the album with an audience. Due to extensive engineer notes a recall of any song after around an hour set up was feasible but thankfully, and as predicted, not required.

Working with the extremely talented Oliver Jacobs to mix in unison was a unique experience, one I’ve since repeated on another project and could not value more highly. It's a great way to work and relies heavily on trust - trust of experience, reliability, paired stamina but mostly ears! We would spread a mix out on the SSL desk to include the organic rhythm section and brass parts on the left and the intricate analogue layers, vocals and effects on the rights hand side. The mix would be built to a point and then approaching mix down, there would be four hands across the faders. The best way to describe this mix approach was that it was like sailing a small yacht, relying heavily on each other, each taking one side of the vessel, it’s ropes, while both effectively steering the rudder and sail to the same final destination.

As mixer and co-producer, I never lost sight of the finished direction but having the artist in the room at all times was vital on this record and made for an exhilarating and reliable commitment to the final mix. We could also do some small post-production recording, for example, additional Minimoog sub bass. I have a simple rule when mixing and appreciate I wear multiple hats these days but if each of the mixer, producer, management, label and artist are all genuinely happy then the end listener will be too. One or two of these variables is not enough, got to get close to if not the full house! Then you have smashed it.

On a final note, both Hannah and I felt that brass band recordings tend to feel over produced as they tend to get covered in reverb, which can dehumanise the music. The low end and power becomes lost. Bringing out the human elements of the recording, the shuffling, breathing, spit and air from the town hall where it was recorded and not washing them in additional reverb was important. There is nothing more emotionally connecting in music when you a reminded that another human is performing the parts. It is the joy and natural counterpoint that makes music become something other than just sound.”

Thanks to the team at Solid State Logic for lending us their SSL Live console for the location recording in Barnsley.

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