Duke Special: The Man of the Moment
CultureNorthernIreland talk touring, dreadlocks and the NI music scene with Duke Special
WATCH Duke Special's mad musical sidekick Rea Curran in this short film.
Duke Special is the face of the moment. He’s adorning front pages of glossy magazines, blasting out of mobile phones, mastering the airwaves. Following a sell-out European tour, the Duke will be performing in Washington DC as part of the Northern Ireland Music Industry Commission’s (NIMIC) showcase of the best of NI contemporary music.
With his album Songs from the Deep Forest hotly tipped to go supersonic, and his current single Freewheel about to break the Top 40. With a nomination for Best Album at the Choice Music Awards under his belt, Duke Special is a man going places.
They’re helpless, intoxicated by the Duke’s special brew. Inhibitions loosened, Q, The Word and Uncut are all declaring their love. Songs From The Deep Forest is creating merry drunks of the national music press and Duke Special’s claim to music’s high table can no longer be ignored.
Not that The Duke – Peter Wilson to his mother – is letting the hullabaloo distract him. He’s been on the Duke Special campaign too long, befriended disappointment with early incarnations Booley House and Benzine Headset to think that now, suddenly, he’s made it.
‘Today the only thing I’m focusing on is a new song I’m writing. I try and get my head into that and let other people worry about the bigger picture. I just want to get better and better at what I do, it’s not a careerist thing, it’s just about wanting to be a better artist and about being proud of what I do. That’s what I keep reminding myself; I try not to get too hung up on the other stuff that goes along with this.’
Currently touring Europe on his first headline tour, the challenge of playing to new audiences, of converting new lands to his musical creed, is keeping Duke Special focused on the job at hand. Having sold out nearly all the UK and Ireland dates (Dublin sold out in 15 minutes flat!) the Duke is heading for the crest of a wave as well as a very busy few months.
‘The aim has always been to do things gradually, to win people over gradually and build things that way, but yeah, there’s definitely a sense that things have moved on a step.’
Steps along the Duke Special journey have seen him appear on the UK's famous Jools Holland Show, a televised coronation and an opportunity that can have a marked impact on a musician’s career.
‘Playing Jools Holland is a dream come true, it’s always been one of my musical ambitions to play on that show. Things like that and doing the Janice Long show, it’s just really exciting to be given those opportunities. Things are beginning to happen.’
Quite a contrast to how things used to be. A&R men came and went, never doubting the Duke’s ability, only perhaps their own in being able to market him.
‘I had one guy came to see my shows and he just didn’t think he could sell my records, which was ridiculous. It’s about having the right people around me, a good team, people I can trust. Most importantly it’s about having people that believe in you and understand what you’re doing and how to present you correctly.’
There’s no doubting that Duke Special is an idiosyncratic performer, anyone who has seen the wondrous theatricality of his lives shows can attest to that. But, look beyond the vaudeville charm and dreadlocked vagabond chic and you’ll discover an artist whose musical gift resides in his ability to deliver in simple, affecting terms.
He is a unique artist whose music has a universal resonance, songs that infiltrate the listener’s very being, caressing while pricking the soul.
‘There’s nothing so terribly subjective about the music we write that people can’t relate to it. We’re not trying to be wacky for wacky’s sake. I usually write at the piano, or just walking along. I always write a melody or lyric first, so it’s always going to pretty melodic stuff and I think that’ll be what comes across when people hear the music. I want people to feel it, to relate to it.’
What is particularly cheering is that whatever Duke Special achieves he will achieve on his own terms. His songs are peppered with references to the local, he sings, rightly so, in his native Belfast accent. He is irrevocably a Belfast boy.
‘What really pleases me is that I’ve never had to move away from Belfast. Historically the music industry has always been very London-centric, but now with the internet and cheaper travel there are more possibilities, people don’t necessarily have to move away.
'Things are becoming possible. Previously you would have had a lot of people playing around the bars in Belfast, but they didn’t really get much further than that. It gives people hope that now we can see people are actually getting somewhere.’
Indeed Duke Special isn’t the only NI act getting somewhere.
'Snow Patrol have done so much. And they’ve given so much back to NI music, the support they’ve shown, name checking the likes of me and Leya in interviews. That’s bringing something back to Northern Ireland.
'People outside are waking up to fact that we’re not some backwater, that there is a huge community of poets and musicians and artists here, doing really interesting and creative things. It’s exciting for me to think that, even in some small way, I might contribute to that.’
Gracing the cover of this month’s AU Magazine (Alternative Ulster), recently invited to broadcast on ATL (Across the Line radio show), play at the City Hall's New Year's celebrations and featured in every local newspaper of note, the Duke’s contribution to our music scene has been recognised.
He is quick to reciprocate, to acknowledge the contribution that the local believers and supporters have made over the years in helping him achieve his success.
'I want to do well for the people around me, the people who’ve supported me. Growing up in Northern Ireland you have to be pretty determined if you want to break through anywhere. That’s what drives me, that determination.
'I can’t imagine me doing anything else. This is what is most natural for me to do. I’ve always performed and sang and written songs. It’s my means of expression. I want to be doing this until the day I die.’
Songs From The Deep Forest is out now on V2 Recordings.