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.”
Looks aside, it’s clear that as a songwriter Wilson is becoming ever more adept at fashioning classy pop oddities. What was once deemed ever so slightly out of step in pop-music terms has evolved into a form of overtly melodic musical expressions informed by acute observations of life’s Big Enchilada.
Factor in his drifting into other areas such as theatre – for a few months in 2009 he performed in Deborah Warner’s Royal National Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children; documentary – he was involved in the making of a film on Belfast singer Ruby Murray; and art projects – last November, he released what is arguably his best album, Under the Dark Cloth, a suite of songs based on the work of US-based photographers Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, and you have a measure of someone who simply wants to do things in his own noteworthy, whistle-friendly way.
And yet, perplexingly, regular radio play continues to elude him. While this might not change too radically with his latest album, Oh Pioneer, you can sense a modicum of impatience seeping out. He would like, he admits, more of a commercial presence, but not at any cost.
“None of what I’ve done, ever, has been particularly difficult,” he remarks. “It’s actually inherently melodic. But that’s just the way it is in the music industry – unless certain styles swing in a certain direction then it’s not easy to get on radio. But we all know of great albums with no singles that have become very successful. Is that off-putting? I don’t know . . . The frustrating thing for me, to be honest, is that when people think of me they think of about two songs – Freewheel and Last Night I Nearly Died. They would be the most well-known songs that would be played on daytime radio, and I’m so not daytime radio, at least not in some people’s minds. As grateful as I am to those two songs, I do have others.”
Mustn’t grumble seems to be the modus operandi here; it isn’t too long ago, remember, that Wilson was dragging his sorry ass around bands that no one ever got to know. And 10 years doing the things he loves, pretty much on his own terms, is no small achievement. Not that we’re counting, and not that we’re applauding, but 11 albums in the space of a decade isn’t too bad, is it?
“It’s a bit like climbing a mountain,” he says. “You look forward at where you’re heading to, and when you look back you can see what ground you’ve covered. Sometimes it’s a bit depressing in that some bands play to a crowd in one night that I’m playing to throughout an entire tour, but at those times I have to remind myself what it means to be successful.
“There are some artists that achieve the heights, like Adele, and others that take off and then drop from sight. For instance, one of my early support acts from years back was Duffy. She took off a few months after that, and so sometimes you feel it’s just not happening for you. But what actually happens? And what do I really want to happen?”
The less Wilson thinks about that the better. He takes some comfort (cold though it may occasionally be) that the success he enjoys hasn’t ever been consciously courted.
“I’ve just gone after it and tried to do what I do well. I’m not sure that anything else can be done. That might not be someone else’s story, but it’s mine. I have to often remember that all I need to ask of myself as an artist, is to make the best story for myself that I can under the circumstances under which I work and create. I just think you need to be inspired, and sometimes that just takes hard work.”
Oh Pioneers is out on June 22nd
Duke Special performs at Westport Festival, Sunday June 24th
THE BEST OF THE REST AT WESTPORT FEST
Let’s hope Lowe is scheduled to play reasonably late in the day, for here is a singer and songwriter whose graceful, sometimes grave material benefits from a relaxed atmosphere and a respectful pair of ears.
There aren’t many truly great English songwriters left from the golden era of 1960s pop, but Davies is one of them. He’ll be 68 next week, which is a scary thought when you consider that so many of his songs from The Kinks’ 60s/70s heyday are not only still played on the radio but also retain their charms.
They may not be purveyors of their “Big Music” anymore, but there’s little doubting the potency of the band that Mike Scott rules with a velvet-clad iron fist. From The Whole of the Moon to Glastonbury Song via Bang On The Ear and A Man Is In Love, The Waterboys have the festival fare covered.
One of the most literate of 1980s songwriters, with some of the most quotable lines from intelligent pop music, Cole has embraced the lack of continued major success in a way that is wholly compatible with his present status as hip gunslinger/folk singer. And, yes – some of his later material stands face-to-face with pop songs of his we know and still like very much.