Songs from the Deep Places – Duke Special, Part 2: The Commissions

Duke Special at the Met

In a world where the corporate music factory is killing talent and creativity, you could argue that Duke Special’s personal cottage industry is a model for how musicians should work in the 21st century.

He has flirted with mainstream success – Radio 2 made his Songs from the Deep Forest its ‘Record of the Week’ and he has appeared on ‘Later with Jools Holland’ – but it is his less mainstream work – often commissioned – that truly sets him apart.

He was invited to write new songs for Berthold Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at London’s National Theatre (in which he also performed); to DJ with vintage 78s as part of the Shellac Collective; and to present a documentary about the life of Irish singer Ruby Murray, whose songs he subsequently recorded on a charity EP.

But the project that has most impressed me is Under the Dark Cloth, his commission from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to write an album inspired by the work of three pioneering photographers: Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand.

George Clooney has said that he makes commercial films to fund the artier ones he really wants to make. Backstage, before a festival set, I asked the genial Peter Wilson (as Duke Special was born) whether that is the way he sees his music, and whether commissions excite him more than his songs that work their way into the charts.

Duke Special“I love it all, to be honest! But as you say, any success that you have, which is usually not a commission thing, but is something on the radio, definitely opens me up to a bigger audience and helps me to still be doing this ten years down the line. But I find off the beaten track really interesting and you kind of need a little bit of success in other places to help you keep doing it. Radio 2 only ever played two songs: “Last Night I Nearly Died” and “Freewheel,” but that helps to pay the bills and keeps people interested.”

And how does the commission process work?

“It’s different every time,” he explained. “For Mother Courage, I was paid some money to write the songs, and I took a few months to write those. Then I was also in the play and you get paid for being in the play, but Under the Dark Cloth, although I was commissioned, there wasn’t really any money in it, so I applied to the Arts Council to get £150 towards my flight. But going to New York, hiring a string quartet, hiring visual guys who were projecting images up on the screen, flights and all, cost me personally eight grand – and that didn’t even include my time!

The Irishman’s sacrificial approach to the project in no way compromised the quality of the work, and he is still highly enthusiastic about it. “I’m really glad I did it, as it took me somewhere I never would have gone to subject matter I never would have known about.

“I wanted to do a really good job. It’s probably my favourite batch of writing I’ve ever done.”

The commission came from an organisation within the Met, whose remit is to attract a new audience. The Head of Photography plied him with plenty of information and sent him files of photographs. Researching deeply, he approached the task with no preconceived ideas and had “three lovely strands to choose from”: the photographers themselves, the pictures they took and sometimes a purely impressionistic take on their world.

One song in particular, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest” stands out. It is one he wrote with Neil Hannon.

“I knew this would be right up Neil’s street!” said Wilson. “’You press the button, we do the rest’ was Kodak’s slogan, and I read that Stieglitz hated the Kodak camera initially. I’d read a lot of other things about him and how cantankerous he was, very opinionated and dismissive of other people’s work, actually, and he was very dismissive of the Kodak camera – and then realised, ‘Oh, actually, if I break the rules, what you’re meant to do with it, and use it in different ways…’ it became very useful for him. It was portable, for example. So he changed his mind.”

Laughing, Wilson added, “But I love the idea of this man ranting about the Kodak!”

Rita da Ascosta LydigIf the pioneers were characters, so were those who hung around with them. Rita de Acosta has a song. “It’s purely her story,” Wilson said. “There’s nothing made up about it. This amazing woman, who married twice and then engaged, seemed a bit of a gold-digger. She kept marrying these elderly gentlemen, who were very wealthy, and then spent the whole lot and died alone in a hotel room. That’s the song, really.”

As well as collaborating with Neil Hannon, Wilson wrote a lot of the songs with leading British folkie Boo Hewerdine and Irish poet Paudraig o’ Tuoma. They responded to a couple of photographs with poems from which Wilson created songs.

Likening co-writing to going on a blind date, where you try to impress and hope it works out, he explained, “There needs to be chemistry. The best collaborations are where your own agenda and egos are put aside and that’s definitely the way it was with those guys.

“It’s a very educational thing,” he continued. “Everyone has their own little trademarks in writing and when you collaborate, you learn from the other person what they do really well.”

This more creative way of working is so much better for artists, as well as for their audience. Wilson had his eyes opened when he discovered that a musician does not have to continually pedal the cycle of writing, recording and touring, writing recording and touring.

“There’s so much more,” he enthused. “People that really matter, like Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Nick Cave, are magnetic fields, dipping into other genres and being inspired. I want to do this until the day I drop.”

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