With eyeliner defining his eyes and his head part-shaven and part-dreadlocked, Duke Special doesn’t need a global marketing machine to give him an image. Character and talent are the twin traits that get him business.
From his earliest performances, he would stand at his piano, peering past a gramophone that sat on top of it. It is an idea, he told me, borrowed from the actor and comedian Andy Kaufman, in the film Man in the Moon. It became his first prop and appeared on early album covers.
Born Peter Wilson, he took his moniker from so many 1920’s acts having Duke in their name. The ‘Special’ just seemed to work with it. Despite the old roots of his name, his gramophone image and coverage of pre-rock & roll work, he hasn’t wished that he were born at an earlier time. “I’m really happy to be around now. I think the use of things like the gramophone were really just a way of trying to make performing solo interesting, so it wasn’t just someone earnestly singing their songs. It’s just a way to cope with performing on my own as much as anything.
“I like using visual images and props; it just makes it a wee bit easier to connect with an audience and immediately gives people the idea that this is another world we’re walking into. Because that what music does: it transports people somewhere else and makes people feel something. It’s amazing.”
But music needs more than an image to thrive. Wilson has depended on neither his visual appeal nor on the roots movement catching up with his rock-free writing. Whether performing on his own or with his regular collective, he explained, “I’ve always tried to exploit the fact that a show is a live thing, something visual, something different from the record.
“But I also try to write decent songs. Playing really small venues, I’ve tried to deliver the songs with the same amount of enthusiasm and passion as if there was a huge crowd and a huge stage.”
Any artist has to start with where they are born and Wilson had a big advantage in growing up in Ireland. He agrees that, had he been born in, say, Wolverhampton, his work might be unrecognisable.
“Northern Ireland’s one and a half million people. It’s not a very big place. So inevitably, musicians know each other and run into each other, like Snow Patrol and Iain Archer. I used to play with them. I know those guys and there’s a real cross-pollination of people playing in each other’s bands.
One of the things I’ve found really interesting about Ireland is that you run into classical musicians, jazz musicians and actors. It’s a smaller community of full-time creative people, so maybe it feels more natural to collaborate and cross lines. You’re influenced by all these different things. Living in Belfast particularly has influenced the content of my songs. Van Morrison is from there and it’s probably part of our DNA that we can turn to music to express something. As you say, it would have sounded different if I’d grown up in a different city.”
Earlier in his career, Wilson apprenticed under gospel singer Brian Houston, added backing vocals to the New Irish Hymns project, and even released an album (under the name Booley) distributed through the Christian ICC label.
“I’ve never wanted to be tied in with any particular genre”
When I interviewed him a couple of years earlier, the topic came up and he said, “My faith is something that I’m not ashamed of, of course. There’s definitely some praise and worship albums that I’m a bit embarrassed about, because I don’t think they were well produced – in the same way as I’m embarrassed about other albums that I’ve played on that I wouldn’t want to see the light of day. No, I don’t care if anyone knows about my faith, but in the same way, I’ve never wanted to be tied in with any particular genre of music or certainly didn’t ever want to be known first and foremost as a Christian musician – that’s a red herring anyway.”
When I asked him this time how his faith impacted his creativity, his body language changed. He paused, looked down and seemed to struggle to find the right words, telling me that there is always a tension in his relationship with his faith.
“It’s something that sits uneasily with me.” he explained. “I’ve struggled for a lot of years with the established church and all that kind of stuff; partly through growing up in Northern Ireland and just being so frustrated – there are so many things that I don’t agree with, you know?
“I’ve seen people say, ‘Use religion as hard, cold fact’ and faith as hard, cold fact, which is unbending and so aggressive to other people and I really struggle with that. I trust people who have a belief or a faith, who recognise that they could be wrong, or they don’t have the whole picture.”
Yet there are still sparks inside that refuse to go out. “I think ultimately, I feel something comes alive in me and things like grace and hope really, really resonate with me and I can’t shake them. So I’m enjoying exploring some of that at the minute.”
He considers the new album Look Out Machines! to be a snapshot of where he is at the moment, and the new song “In a Dive” (named after places he has sensed God outside of churches) could be a summary of our conversation:
“Jesus and his blood don’t mean so much anymore.
Something must have died in this rotten apple core.
Don’t get me wrong: it isn’t that I don’t believe.
Maybe it’s this place I grew that burns in my throat;
Fundamental shoes who carry souls to the boat…
Certainty’s a city I decided I should leave.
Don’t shrink it down to the size of your head
You know that some things are more than can ever be said”
The title track gives a further clue to the way that he is thinking. It is about machines and systems that try to squeeze people into boxes and conformity; a cry from humans that we will, as he told the Irish Independent earlier this year, lift ourselves above “machines or systems in any form, whether it’s religion or politics or anything that makes us a number or tries to make us all the same.”
Including religion in that quote suggests that, ironically, aggressive rules-based believers have pushed him away from faith in Jesus, who fought so strongly against those who turned faith into a heartless, rules-based system.
Other tracks on the album sometimes employ religious phrases, but are in a different context. Songs have been inspired by topics as distantly removed from each others as love of friends and community, feeling like being on shaky ground, the poet Seamus Heaney, and old views of left-handed people.
Wilson went on to explain, “A very inspiring film for me was Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. A musician called Jim White grew up in the Southern States and he goes back. He finds this weird statue of Jesus, which he puts in his car and drives around, almost like taking it on a journey where he grew up, a crazy Bible belt area.
“He describes how society tries to make us conform to certain things. He pulls an ice cream up and he says that conforming is like being pushed down into the cone, and what you have all around the edge of the cone, you’ve the criminals, religious fanatics and artists. I feel very safe in exploring that stuff in art.
“I think the role of the artist is to ask questions that are difficult to ask and to explore things that are difficult to explore and say things, which might offend, but might actually scratch where people are itching.
“Yet there’s a gentleness within that, which sometimes doesn’t exist, but I find the arts and this area to be really important to me as a way of looking at things.”
Part 2 looks at his musical collaborations and his commissions – particularly his fascinating work based on the pioneers of photography.