Taking the pledge


INTERVIEW:He has starred in a Brecht play at London's National Theatre, sold bespoke songs, poems and gigs to to fans, and co-written an album inspired by Paul Auster novel. Belfast's Peter Wilson, aka Duke Special, is no slave to convention, writes KATHY SHERIDAN. Like all musicians, he is finding new ways to make a living

THREE IMAGES of Duke Special. One, on a small Belfast stage with Paul Noonan of Bell X1, whiskey glasses in hands, performing the old throat-catching cowboy song The Streets of Laredo, with a gorgeously harmonious blend of irony and pathos.

Two, in the even more intimate Odessa Club in Dublin, to try out some new material, where, after a long, nervous wait, by night’s end he seems to be playing the piano upside down in a rip-roaring vaudevillian rendition of songs filled with pleading and rather jaunty foreboding.

Three – and most startling – at a sold-out December matinee in London’s National Theatre, weaving through a clamorous, heart-clenching Deborah Warner production of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, a small, insistent spirit-guide with dreadlocks, eyeliner and a distinctive Northern accent, producing music of “a wheezing sweetness (as if Tom Waits were singing with a throat lozenge in his mouth)”.

That last quote is from a Guardianreview, which also described Fiona Shaw’s towering, Mad Max-in-wraparound-shades performance as “more Sister Sledge than Mother Courage”. The grizzled, world-weary voice of Gore Vidal announced each scene’s plot line. And, amid it all, there was the boy from Lisburn, materialising at Shaw’s hyperactive elbow in the blinding, desolate fog of war, setting music to the bleak lyrics (translated by Tony Kushner, writer of Angels in America), and claiming the stage as co-presenter. For anyone accustomed to seeing Shaw devour the scenery, there’s the surprise: the fact that she and Warner envisioned him not side-stage, but up front, a constant in a drummer-boy outfit, voicing, as he puts it, “the thoughts and memories of the characters from a time before they became unravelled and flawed, back when they were innocent”.

But did anyone notice back home? He grins wryly: “I was telling people, ‘I’m doing this play’ and they’re like, ‘all right, dead on!’ and you want to go, ‘no! Actually, really, you’d want to see what I do in it!’” Well, how do you convey that kind of career high, without hauling people to London and explaining about Brecht, Shaw, Vidal, the sheer vast, international, timeless breadth of it?

Then again, to anyone who has seen Duke Special in any or all of his guises, none of this should be a surprise at all. For all of his shy, soft-spoken reserve, he was never the kind to take to the stage, sing a few songs and call that a night’s entertainment. He is a rare creature: one happy to sacrifice his frontman ego for the sake of a good show.

The Belfast gig he hosted in the Black Box during last year’s Belfast Film Festival could have been all about himself. Instead, he dreamed up an extravaganza called The Silhouette Old Time Mystery Radio Show. He had it “presented” by a dread-locked puppet of himself emerging from an old cardboard suitcase (while the real Duke talked from behind a curtain), included a troupe of actors to perform scenes from an old-fashioned murder mystery, and starred some hand-picked rock, blues and indie rock acts, but with a twist – they were required to perform songs way outside their genre.

So – and here I declare an interest, but only for illustrative purposes – you had the likes of my ear-splitting, scaffold-climbing, punk-rocker daughter, Mary Kate (aka May Kay of Fight Like Apes), emerging on stage as a husky, old-time chantoozie in high heels, crooning As Time Goes By, and the aforementioned cool rocker, Paul Noonan, singing cowboy songs.

More than that, it illustrated the creative, musical, non-fashion-driven artistry of Peter Wilson, whose mission is to take his audience on a journey. “I used to get really bored going to gigs and seeing someone just standing singing songs, then another song, then another song, etcetera, etcetera, and all in a similar kind of mood. Something really appeals to me about making people laugh and then suddenly you pull the carpet out from under them . . .”

He does it partly with his own music and the forensic, sure-footed, musical collision of all the genres – burlesque, music hall, blues, pop, symphony – that makes him the extraordinary entertainer he is, and partly by giving an eclectic array of emerging acts a chance to play support on his tours.

“It’s what I did with Bell X1 and Divine Comedy and various others, so you’d always get a few people saying ‘can we do this tour with you?’. Then my booking agent said, ‘there’s this girl, starting out, she’s going to be really good, would you have her on tour?’”

The girl, from Wales, was Duffy. “They were the first shows she did as Duffy; she played Campbell’s Tavern outside Galway, Dolan’s in Limerick, Cyprus Avenue in Cork, some really small venues – then, a few months later, she was everywhere.” Her first album sold six million copies.

His, by contrast, has not been an easy path. His struggle to make it as an independent artist in a fairly squalid industry will be familiar to every band or singer straining to make a living when hedge fund managers think they can run recording companies and music fans see no reason to pay for something they can get for free.

Is he making money? “I’m better off now than I was 10 years ago. It seems to me, the way the record industry is going, it’s in disarray. They’re frantically trying to find new ways of working, because people don’t buy half as many CDs as they used to. There’s almost an expectancy that music should be free. You can download it, you can listen to it online. So I think everyone is looking for a new way of working. Everyone’s saying ‘live’ [performing] is where it’s working because people maybe go to more concerts, so I think that’s one way. I’m interested in finding different ways of raising money so I can have high production values for a tour.”

But is he making a living? “What can I say except that I’m making a living now?” A good living? “Not compared to my peers , who got jobs where you can go up a ladder. You can to an extent, if you become more well-known, but money has never been my motivation. I was never someone who’d say, ‘I’m going to make a decision to do this because it’s really well-paid’. If I was, I’d have got a different job a long time ago. I just don’t care if I don’t have money. I want to provide for my family, but I’ve no interest in being rich and famous. Honestly, I would rather keep creating till the day I drop, without hesitation, over riches.”

But he and his wife, Heather, an artist, have three children aged 13, nine and six, about whom he talks lovingly: “The youngest is the most musical, the eldest loves science and the middle boy loves animals, extinct animals, marsupials” – and who have to be supported.

Originally signed to the V2 label, which became a part of Universal, he parted ways with the latter last October, but moves swiftly on from the why. “I’m very excited,” he says, talking about a new way of financing albums, that in truth requires a artist to check his ego at the hall door.

“I’m using a model called Pledge Music, through which people go online and buy CDs, or there’s a whole range of other things they can invest in – anything from, say, I’ll write a poem about any subject you want – it’s like a very limited edition, I’ll do, say, 50 of those. Or if you want me to record any song in the world, I’ll do a one-off recording just for you. Or you can buy access to every gig I do for an entire year. Or I’ll do a concert in your house. It’s all available for a short period of time and it’s a way for fans to help me fund what I do.

“Interestingly, the head of Pledge used to be head of the first label I was with, so you can see how the industry is trying to morph into a different way of working. There are loads of bands starting to do this. It’s early days and we’re one of the more established acts using it, but I just don’t want to go down the route of being at the mercy of a record label that maybe doesn’t get what you do or doesn’t put its full weight behind you. This is a way of arming yourself with the finances you need to hire the press team, to hire the marketing team, everything a record label does. But we’ll just get our own team in as we need them for a limited time. There’s a lot more profit then.”

In this instance, the funding is for three albums. The first is a studio version of the songs in Mother Courage and Her Children. The second is Huckleberry Finn, the first-ever recordings of five songs of an unfinished musical by Kurt Weil, based on Mark Twain’s novel. The third is a 12-song collection inspired by Paul Auster’s novel The Book of Illusions, entitled The Silent World of Hector Mann, written by Duke Special and friends including Neil Hannon, Matt Hales and Ed Harcourt.

Pledge Music takes 15 per cent commission, while the artist keeps the rights to his creations. The remarkable outcome has been that more than €25,000 was raised in some 200 pledges in the first week of the December launch. You can check out the site to see how Duke’s investment fund is faring. Anyone with a yearning to write a song with him (£100), or have him record a special cover song (£300), or dine with him (£300), or to have their own private concert (£1,500) or even to have a phone conversation with him (£55), has missed the boat. But there are plenty of other ideas on the site, such as original artwork, poems and photographs.

“Nothing will stop music being made,” he says. “Things change and the way that people make money will change as well. I think if it keeps going on the way it has been and music becomes almost a throw-away commodity, the production values will decrease. But music always finds a way. I’m not overly concerned about it. I think it’s an exciting time. I could actually be at the forefront of a new way of working as opposed to being in a very tired, old system where the label bosses were driving big cars and the artists were struggling. I think this is a time for artists to take the reins.”

Mother Courage and Her Children, Huckleberry Finn, and The Silent World of Hector Mannare available from dukespecial.com. See also pledgemusic.com