It was another personal privilege to get the opportunity to interview Duke Special at the 2021 4 Corners festival. Here are 10 things I learned about Duke Special.
- HOW GOOD IS DUKE SPECIAL
Some time in the late 90s Peter Wilson who would become Duke Special asked me to be his manager. I had managed Iain Archer and Iain’s talent, not at all my management, had got him places. I was seen as the man. I wasn’t and I was also really enjoying Chaplaincy life in a Residential Hall. I passed Peter on to Stephen Orr, staring out with real enthusiasm.
I say all that because to be truthful I liked Peter’s work but didn’t think it was good enough to make a career of it.
I was wrong. In researching this evening I came to admire the unique gifts that Duke Special has far more than I ever have. This man is not just a singer. He is an artist. His body of work includes pop songs, collaborations with an Irish trad bands, a legendary poet and musicals for theatre. In everything the melodies, the arrangements, the thoughtfulness of content and lyrics is so impressive.
2. FINDING YOUR VOICE
Paul Pilot sees production as trying to help others find their voice. What a job he did with Duke Special. Peter Wilson went through a few years of different musical ideas before finding his voice. That voice became Duke Special. Paul Pilot it seems was the friend who encouraged Duke to follow his vaudeville/musical hall/pop hybrid.
I wonder how many collaborations that Duke Special has had if you count co-writes, projects, players and guests at gigs. The sizeable number speaks of an artist who doesn’t let ego get in the way of art and who is welcoming of disposition. The crux of his band for two decades has been a gang of brothers that came together from various places as if they born to share this music.
4. IN SEARCH OF THE BRILLIANT LINE
Duke Special has written with award winning songwriters, poets and playwrights. He chatted about writing the wonderful Condition with the amazing songwriter Boo Hewerdine and the healthy competitiveness of trading lines. Duke then added. “But I came up with the ‘the words are crawling back inside the ink’ “said Duke with a glint. What a line indeed.
5. ADVENTURE AND MISCHIEF
In researching the interview I discovered the breath and depth of Duke Special’s art. In a documentary Paul Pilot speaks about looking for adventure and producer Paul Pilot adds “and a little mischief”.
6. DIFFERENT LOCATIONS
That adventure was played out in the belief that more interesting locations could play a part in not doing the same musical thing twice. Production of the I Thought This Day Would Never Come started in Champaign Illinois and then moved to Cullybackey, less than two miles from the original Stockman homestead. The adventure and mischief is key to the outcome.
I have so come to admire Duke Special’s authenticity. I was particularly taken by two things he did in the making of Hallow, his record of the legendary Michael Longley’s poems. For the song Remembering Carrigskeewaun, between two gigs a long way away, he traveled to record sounds of nothing more than wind and birds! Also in the poem The Ice Cream Man where Longley’s poem named 21 flowers from County Mayo and later discovered there were actually 21 flavours in the Ice Cream shop on the Lisburn Road. So… before every gig that he played on the Hallow tour it Duke lays out 21 flowers on the stage. This young man is serious about the art!
8 WRITING FOR OTHER CHARACTERS
Since his move into theatre, Duke has been writing for different characters. What is the difference I asked? Duke spoke about finding empathy in the character and finding a little bit of himself in every one. That authenticity again.
9. SINGING SONGS OVER AND OVER EVERY NIGHT
I always considered that it must get tedious for an artist to play the same song over and over every night. Duke however shared how playing the same song every night, if it is particularly confessional, about some mistake once made could be played over and over in an artists heart and soul. It could actually be damaging. Not touring as much as he did I don’t think his Dukeness misses this!
10. SPIRITUAL DEPTH CHARGES
Duke Special has moved in his creedal belief over the years but there is a spiritual reservoir that draws out some nuggets of wisdom. Two songs have left me with depth charges rippling across my soul. Condition that highlights our contradictions “I am holy/I am disaster”. In A Dive reminds those who think they are holy that God is found in intriguing places and “Don't shrink it down to the size of your head/You know that some things are more than can ever be said”. Amen! Advice for the pilgrim to hear.
WATCH the In Conversation HERE