Duke Special has never been one to live within the bounds of convention - from his dreads to his leftfield take on pop music to his eclectic side projects. "I just try to do what I do well," he tells TONY CLAYTON-LEA
AND WHO, EXACTLY, is this ragamuffin that sits before me, pushing ropes of hair away from his face and sipping from a pint of Guinness at four in the afternoon? Why, it’s none other than Peter Wilson, aka Duke Special, the kohl-eyed 40-something songwriter and performer from Belfast via Lisburn who has, it seems, made a virtue out of being just that little bit left-of-centre while simultaneously charming the underwear off anyone who cares to listen.
It’s 10 years since Wilson went solo under his adopted moniker; previous to that, he’d been transporting his talents around various Belfast-based bands that didn’t really go anywhere. (“Were they known? Not even slightly!”) And so Wilson made a decision in the early noughties not to take the so-called legitimate route of waiting for a record label to come along and sign him up. This was, he recalls, an important shift in his thinking.
“I realised that no matter how many people I was playing in front of, I could still be an artist. So I made a decision to make a name for myself in a live setting – I played more than 150 shows a year for about five years.”
Three years into that strategy, Wilson clamped his first two EPs (Lucky Me and My Villain Heart) together to make his 2005 debut album, Adventures In Gramophone, which was nominated for the Choice Music Prize. “I also did Other Voices – so that and Choice were very helpful in bringing me to the attention of the mainstream.”
Subsequently, Wilson signed to V2, released a follow-up album, 2006’s Songs from the Deep Forest (which was also Choice-nominated), and proceeded to get his name and visage into as many commercial nooks and crannies as possible. “I didn’t really have a plan,” he says. “I just loved playing gigs and making records, and as long as there was some kind of progression, as long as things were getting even slightly better along the way, then I knew I could keep going.”
A third album, I Never Thought This Day Would Come, arrived in 2008, but Wilson sensed his major label days were numbered.
He’s a curious chap, is Duke Special. It’s rare that you see someone over 40 looking so idiosyncratic, or indeed, continuing to want to. Does he think the way he looks is off-putting to some people?
“I think it’s confusing,” he replies, doing his best to keep his dreadlocks out of his pint. “Maybe some people think I’m metal or reggae. It’s been more interesting in the past few years, though, because the similarities between me and the Australian comedian/songwriter, Tim Minchin, are uncanny.”