Duke Special, Musical Pioneer

Musicals, silent cinema and soul searching. Following a busy few years, Peter Wilson goes back to basics with his latest album

‘If anything I wish I’d started earlier.’ Peter Wilson is cradling a mug of tea and musing on the tenth anniversary of Duke Special, the dreadlocked hobo-chic persona he created as a vehicle for his personal journey down rock ‘n’ roll’s notoriously bumpy, unpredictable highway.

Wilson was certainly a late starter. ‘It took me quite a while to find my feet and my voice,’ he says. Advised at school to become either a music teacher or a classical pianist, he struggled in the Northern Ireland of his youth to imagine ways of making a career as a performer.

While studying for a degree in community youth work, he began playing keyboards for Belfast singer Brian Houston. ‘That was my apprenticeship really, seeing somebody who was actually making a living out of it,’ he remembers. ‘The day I finished college I became self-employed as a musician.’

Though already 27, Wilson had been writing songs since the age of seven. ‘I think I changed the words of 'Gordon is a Moron' by Jilted John,’ he grins, recalling his first efforts to rival Lennon and McCartney. Performing Ian Dury’s 'Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick' into a mirror, using a hairbrush for a microphone, is another vivid (and possibly embarrassing) early memory.

Wilson has no trouble identifying his most potent musical influences. ‘Hymns,’ he says. ‘Going to church as a kid, learning how to play these old hymns, singing harmonies with my three older sisters round the piano, or in the back of the car travelling on journeys.’

And then, unsurprisingly, Beatles, Beatles, Beatles. ‘I had a little turntable I got for Christmas when I was very young,’ he recalls, ‘and I played the Beatles to death.’

The sweetly lyrical, effortlessly fluid vocal style that Wilson gradually developed is unusual in retaining a strong regional accent. This, it turns out, is not an accident. ‘When I played in a band in England, they got me to soften all the vowels, until it sounded completely neutral. I just thought “That’s terrible. Why would you want me to do that?”’

Listening to Van Morrison name-checking Northern Irish streets on the Avalon Sunset album gave Wilson the confidence to let his own softly burring Downpatrick inflections filter through his music. ‘It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone eulogise somewhere in Northern Ireland,’ he remembers. ‘You could tell where Van was from by his accent. And I just thought, "I’m not going to hide where I’m from".’

It was the invention of Duke Special, however, that really snapped Wilson’s developing career into focus. The Duke is Wilson’s on-stage alter-ego, a Celtic Ziggy Stardust figure draped in straggly dreadlocks, with mascara eye-streaks and retro fashion styling creating a notably exotic, mildly gender-bending impression for audiences to fix on.

They also fixed quickly on the music, and on the sheer quality of Wilson’s songwriting. Three early EPs got the critics listening, before two widely acclaimed studio albums (Songs From the Deep Forest and I Never Thought This Day Would Come) confirmed Wilson’s credentials as a melodist of superior quality, with an ear for quirkily sophisticated arrangements.

And then, the unexpected. Out of the blue, in 2009, Wilson was invited to write and perform a set of songs for a new National Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children, in which Irish actress Fiona Shaw was starring.

The result was career-changing. ‘Doing Mother Courage greatly affected me,’ says Wilson. ‘I suddenly realised it opened to me the potential of working with other art forms. It profoundly affected how I saw myself.’

Mother Courage spawned a string of collaborative projects, involving silent film (The Silent World of Hector Mann), photography (Under the Dark Cloth), and iconic Belfast singer Ruby Murray, about whom Wilson made a television documentary.

Have three years of singing songs about and by other people in any way diluted the identity of the real Duke Special? Not a chance, according to Wilson. ‘The only way that I can sing a song is if I believe it myself,’ he says firmly. ‘You do have to put yourself right inside the skin of the song.’

It’s probably no coincidence, however, that Oh Pioneer, Wilson’s new studio album, is such a palpably personal record. He acknowledges its questing nature, its tireless probing and questioning of what it is that makes us tick (or, more likely, not tick) as sentient beings.

‘If I’m about anything,’ Wilson explains

carefully, ‘it’s about trying to make sense of things and the search for meaning. I’m not suggesting that I’m going to find something. But what makes us human is that search for meaning, the desire for something beyond ourselves. Whether you’re a Sunday church-goer or an atheist, that’s common to all of us.’

That desire for illumination, validation, and redemption suffuses every song on Oh Pioneer, unfolding to a burbling, darkly ruminative backdrop of Hammond organ, Moog bass, piano, and assorted keyboard treatments.

It’s a new soundworld for Wilson, less chirpily idiosyncratic than previously, reflecting the album’s underlying seriousness of purpose. It is, however, a record whose message Wilson himself calls 'really positive' and 'hugely hopeful'.

Listening to the bright, chatteringly collegial 'Stargazers of the World Unite', the majestically contemplative 'Lost Chord', or the glowing epiphanies of 'How I Learned to Love the Sun', it’s difficult to disagree with him. Oh Pioneer is simply bursting at the seams with quality songwriting, and is arguably the finest record of Duke Special’s first decade in the business.

For Peter Wilson, however, the itch for collaboration continues. September sees him resident at the new MAC in Belfast, hosting In the Court of… Duke Special, the venue’s inaugural artist-curated mini-festival.

As yet Wilson is coy about the precise detail of his week-long residency. ‘It’s a chance to programme lots of different things that have influenced me or that I enjoy, like theatre, music and spoken word,’ is all he’s saying at the minute.

Expect some interesting names, however, and some surprises. With Peter Wilson presiding, In the Court of… is virtually guaranteed to be (dare I say it) something a little special.

Oh Pioneer is out now.