I am adored, I’m unspoken
I am lonely, I am contented
I am sane, I’m half demented’
So Duke Special describes himself in ‘Condition’, a song from his new album Oh Pioneer. He may be familiar to the masses because of hits like ‘Freewheel’ and ‘Last Night I Nearly Died’, but this song is just one of the more darkly humorous and evocative gems from his extensive back catalogue.
It’s been ten years since Duke (aka Peter Wilson) released his first solo EP, Lucky Me, and Oh Pioneer is his first straight solo album since 2008’s I Never Thought This Day Would Come. In the interim, he’s been busy with various projects: composing music for Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children (in which UCC’s own Mel Mercier was also involved), writing an album called Under The Dark Cloth, (inspired by the photography of Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen), and recording and touring the songs of successful Irish singer Ruby Murray, to name just a few.
After all that exploration of other artists’ lives and works, Duke felt this return to the traditional album-writing process was timely: ‘I needed to come back with a new record of my own songs which weren’t so specific, or about a particular thing. I thought, “okay, I’m kind of writing songs about myself, but this time I’m looking at other stories to use as vehicles for that.” [With] the project [albums], I was writing songs about other people, but my own experiences came through. I guess it’s like any writer, even though they’re putting words in a character’s mouth, those words have an origin somewhere within the writer, so it was almost like the reverse side of that.
This album is full of beautiful melodies and intriguing lyrics all deliciously coated in the unique kind of production and instrumentation with which Duke Special has become synonymous. In another track from the album, ‘My Lazy Saviour’, Duke talks about needing ‘new songs to sing’ and that he’s ‘no longer what he used to be.’ So is this record an attempt to break away from the hits that he’s become known for? ‘This is my twelfth release now. You never want to just regurgitate what you’ve done before; you’re always trying to find something new to say, or to say something in a different way, or dress it in different clothes.’ It’s a personal record, and Duke’s intentions for it were clear from the outset: ‘For every record I do, I sit down with the producer and we talk about the identity of the record, and what the parameters are because there are endless possibilities, particularly as a solo artist. We talk about the instrumentation, the feel of the record, the atmosphere of the record, [and] then we actually do the recording. [His producer] encouraged me not to get hung up on writing hits, just to try and write songs as beautiful or as potent as you can, and then you’ve done your job… I deliberately didn’t set out to write songs that would work on the radio, but I succeeded! […] It’s not really an album full of singles, but I feel like it’s an album that will reward a lot of listeners.’
Duke’s style has been described as akin to Vaudeville or music-hall. This wasn’t something that he set out to emulate, though. Having been in bands in the early stages of his musical career, he was interested in finding ways to could create something interesting and different as a solo artist. ‘When I was demoing my first EP, people were saying “that sounds like it’s from a musical, or almost like music hall”, and I started reading about that and listening to stuff from that time.’ However, he doesn’t consider himself defined by the genre: ‘it was an influence, for sure, early on, and it’s something I’m aware of, but it’s not something I feel I have to stick to, or I’m tied into.’ After all, elements of folk and soul can be heard in Duke’s music, along with a healthy dollop of pop.
Although he decided that going solo was the best option for him, the sense of identity that’s attached to a band fascinated Duke, hence the stage name. ‘I wanted the name that I operated under to project something about my intent, or for it to have a sense of mystery or intrigue about it, and Peter Wilson doesn’t really do that! So it became a vehicle for what I was trying to create.’ And where does the name come from? ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly divulge.’
During his upcoming tour, Duke will be playing in various small venues in Ireland, and finishing up in London’s 2000-seater Shepherd’s Bush Empire. The combination of intimate gigs and playing to huge crowds is most appealing to him. ‘With both scenarios, it’s about the connection with the audience; you just have to use different tools to achieve that.’ He’s doing the Irish tour solo, and is bringing some friends along for the London gig. ‘I think the bigger venue warrants pulling out the stops!’ he tells me. Duke Special, after all, has a lot of friends, and collaboration is a big part of his life as a musician. ‘It’s a really inspiring thing, especially as a solo artist… I find it really invigorating and inspiring to work with other artists and to see what comes out of that.’
Ten years is a long time in showbiz, and I was curious to know some of the highlights of Duke’s career to date. ‘Performing on Jools Holland would be one; it was like a dream to do that. The first time I headlined the Ulster Hall in Belfast. Seeing my records stacked on a shelf in HMV, my first full-length album, just seeing that alongside other releases and thinking “wow, I’m doing it!”’ Duke is very gracious and thankful for the success he has enjoyed, and is delighted to be able to continue doing what he loves. ‘There have been so many ups and downs…even now it’s a challenge to continue doing what I’m doing, but I love writing and I love performing more than anything else, so I’m really pleased to be able to still do it.’
Growing up in the North, Duke would listen to Van Morrison, the Undertones and Stiff Little Fingers. ‘These were iconic names, but just ahead of me were bands like Ash, The Divine Comedy, and Snow Patrol, and that kind of gave me hope. I thought “people from here can reach a bigger audience than just friends and family.” I played for a number of years with a guy from Belfast called Brian Houston, I kind of apprenticed with him, playing piano and keyboards in his band. And he was out doing it: creating an audience and playing live. It was a bit of an epiphany for me, that whole time.’
Duke even has some words of advice for any aspiring musicians: ‘I think the lesser known things, like composing for film or for television or theatre, are not really talked about that often, but are actually really hugely satisfying. There are so many roads that you can go down, but I think probably the most important thing I would say is that as an artist – a writer, a composer – you find your voice, you be original in what you’re doing. Like any kind of art, whether it’s writing music, writing literature, painting, sculpting, whatever it is, you learn what’s good and what’s not good, and then you replicate that, [then] do it your own way and tweak the rules. The most important thing is not being famous, it’s not making a fortune or anything like that, it’s realising that you’re an artist, and you have something to say.’