Belfast’s most enigmatic man turns his musical lense on another poignant theme

INVENTIVE BELFAST solo artist Duke Special’s latest album is imaginatively different even by his standards. Peter Wilson – a mainstay of Northern Ireland’s boisterous music scene – has long drawn influence from his surrounds. These include an album based entirely on a Paul Auster novel, and another based on the work of famous photographers featured in the New York’s MMA.

Wilson jokes that his latest release, is influenced by “gardening,” (a genuine love of his) but quickly gets down to the real detail of forthcoming ninth album ‘Hallow’: putting to music the poems of popular Belfast writer Michael Longley.

“Poems don’t tend to have choruses,” Wilson explains of the challenges of the tracks, which carefully mirror Longley’s originals. “I have a huge amount of respect for Michael, and I felt I had to be really careful about how I used his work. Some of his poems have a great refrain or a line at the heart of things that I could use, but to make them work I had to live with things a bit.”

“I wrote one song over a year ago and gave it to him. He was speaking at an event, and he was really delighted and encouraging,” Wilson said of now 78-year-old Longley. “After that I sent him stuff as I went along, including artwork, stuff like that. I really felt like it was a great responsibility. It was both wonderful and scary”

Wilson is being typically modest: under the Duke Special moniker he’s become a stunningly delicate performer, basing his style on intricate and smartly-charming piano tracks, soulful, honeyed vocals, and a turn of phrase Longley himself would no doubt appreciate.

Bringing his influences very much from the music hall days, he’s a theatrical, dreadlocked, vaudeville-style performer, seemingly aiming to connect deeply with his crowds. Wilson has twice been nominated for Ireland’s national music prize, Choice. He tells us he likes to be “a bit of an enigma on stage,” and has referred to his look at “hobo chic.”

Much like his earlier work – check out hit singles ‘Freewheel’ and ‘No Cover Up’ to get a feel – ‘Hallow’ very much draws from the old school of music. It’s written almost entirely around piano and vocals. Sure, Wilson layers in plenty of other instrumentation such as double bass and guitar that he describes as “layered and embedded around” the main tracks, but the heart of his music is very much one man, one great tune, and a piano.

“I’ve always wanted to give people a way into what I’m singing about,” he explains. “They can make of it what they will – I don’t want to be one of those singers who explains songs, because it means something different to different people – but I do want people to connect with the topics, be they a Paul Auster novel, a play, or a selection of old photographs from the 1800s [all of which are previous subjects of Duke Special albums]. I like that the meaning might not be so in your face.”

“I have a little theatre background,” he admits. “On stage, I become an amplified version of myself. I embrace it, using props and playing with how I look. You’re always aware you’re on stage, but there’s no point in going up and being self-aware.”

“I probably used to be a lot happier on stage, though. I used to do long stretches, six months at a time on tour sometimes. Life has changed a bit, and I don’t really want to do that anymore. In fact, if I could just play in Belfast over and over again for a year, I’d probably do that, to be honest. Performing is a real chance to express yourself, though, and I do love to do that. I’m just not so in love with the actual travel and touring part anymore. I have things waiting for me at home, you know?”

‘Hallow’ was produced through crowdfunding, with those who supported the album earlier this year getting a unique copy that will never reach the shops. Wilson describes the experience – which included creating his own crowdfunding website – as “humbling. It gives me faith to go and do it. I’ve been around for enough time now that people who like me know what I do, and that I like to explore.”

“I couldn’t go all in and do the Patreon style thing, as it just seems to require so many constant updates and constantly producing stuff, which is not really how I want to work. For me, there’s a little bit too much ownership being given there. But this felt really free, it allowed me to do the artistic thing that I wanted to do.”

In truth, Duke Special doesn’t fit naturally into the Irish music scene. He totally eschews current fashions – something that’s always been more of a positive than trying to adapt to them – and has a wonderful habit of making much from the pieces of art that absorb him. He tends to sing in fantastically phrased near-riddles that just ooze inventive songwriting.

“Some people write in their heads,” he concludes. “I’m inspired by other things.”

Hallow is out on Friday, October 6, while Duke Special plays Draíocht Arts Centre, Blanchardstown on October 14 as part of his Irish tour.

This article is one of my weekly music columns for the Dublin Gazette, reproduced here with permission. Note: this column is published in the Dublin Gazette several days ahead of on this website, so at times, some columns may be slightly out of date. The Gazette is a freesheet paper available across Dublin, published on a Thursday. Pick up copies at these locations

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