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The fascinating world of Duke Special

(Raffaella Mezzanzanica)

If you are an artist, you have to be curious. Curiosity defines Duke Special, an artist curious of many, many things, from theater and books to gardening.

Duke Special is an extremely fascinating songwriter, composer and performer based in Belfast. In his career, he has published ten albums and six Eps. His latest album, “Hallow”, published in 2017, is a beautiful collection of songs entirely based on poems by Belfast contemporary poet Michael Longley.

During the years, he has been involved in the production of several musicals (he is working on his 6th at the moment), among which “Paperboy” for the “British Youth Music Theatre”.

In this interview, Duke Special talks about his many projects, the reason why, in a world dominated by technology, he still loves to have a gramophone on stage, and why he has “self-defined” his style as “hobo chic”.

And yes, he also tells the reason why he had to use a pair of scissors to make a radical change.

Q.: Having a look at your official website, this is how your bio begins: “By nature Duke Special is a curious person. He is curious about theatre, books, music, poetry, art, love, life, redemption, death, 78RPM records and most recently, gardening!”  How much of your inspiration comes from each of this component?

D.S.: It would be difficult to quantify the impact each of these concerns has had on my writing but they have each been what I think of as ‘muses’ to greater or lesser extents over the years. A number of projects I have been involved in over the last decade or so have drawn inspiration directly from the worlds of theatre, visual art and poetry but themes such as love, life, redemption, death are the underlying stimulants to everything I do… I think!

Q.: Your sound has been identified as “hobo-chic”. What does it exactly mean?

D.S.: I was frustrated at the pigeon holing of music into tidy genres so I remember being asked what kind of music I played and coming up with the term ‘hobo chic’!  It somehow fitted the kind of music, instrumentation and ethos to what I was doing at the time. I imagined an itinerant Charlie Chaplin character roaming the countryside with a group of vagabond friends, playing with found instruments in interesting and lesser known venues.  

Q.: Among your projects, which are always many and extremely diversified, you have always had a strong connection with the theatre. Your album “Mother Courage and Her Children” was written and performed for Deborah Warner’s production of the Bertolt Brecht classic play, translated by Tony Kushner and staged at the National Theatre in London over two months in 2009. How was that experience?

D.S.: To be honest it was a game changer in terms of where I thought music could exist and how I was currently doing things. It made me realize that music could exist outside of the relentless writing, recording, touring cycle.  I felt at home in theatre with that danger element of anything could happen and the live audience but it was also intriguing seeing how music was just one element within the bigger picture of the story, the dialogue, the set, the actors and the overarching theme of the play.  

Q.: You also worked with the “British Youth Music Theatre” on several musicals. “Paperboy” which basically gives a look at the story of Belfast in the 70s through the eyes of twelve-year old Tony. I suppose that experience was really challenging for you, not only because the “musical” as an art form is challenging, but because of the plot of the piece: having to look back at Belfast back in the days, at the time of bombings, and having to do this from the point of view of a child. How did you deal with this?

D.S.: Every musical has its own challenges (working on the 6th one at the moment) and requires me to empathize with the characters as much as possible in order to capture the right tone and emotions. Musically, things develop in conversation with the book writer, director and sometimes the actors I’m writing for themselves, to create a collection of songs which have a coherent thread running through them and which set the right tone musically. Of course, the setting or time period might be an influence but not necessarily. It really is a slightly different approach each time.


Q.: I think that sometimes people underestimate the importance of arts for children and teenagers while they should have an important role in their growth. In general, how much did you like working with young generations of singers, actors, dancers and musicians?

D.S.: What I love the most about working with younger performers is the level of enthusiasm. It’s off the scale and impossible not to get drawn in to the idealism, lack of jadedness and desire to put on the show of your life!

Q.: At Metropolitan Museum in New York City, they are always eager to captivate new audiences and adding new perspectives. I wasn’t surprised at all to read that in 2011 you were asked to write original songs inspired by the exhibition Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand. Would you tell me more about this project and where did you get the inspiration from?

D.S.: I think it was in 2011?  Photography wasn’t a subject I knew terribly much about never mind early photography but I was captivated by the images I was shown at that first meeting at The MET. The idea was put to me the day after I had played a small club show in New York the night before, which had been attended by two people who worked at the museum. I had about 9 months to write something in response to an exhibition that was going to be up, showcasing some of the iconic work by Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand the following the year. It was one of the most enjoyable projects I have ever done and in the end, I ended up performing the songs in the auditorium at the MET accompanied by a string quartet and with the images being projected on huge screens behind me. The songs became an album – Under the Dark Cloth – which I recorded with the RTE Concert Orchestra and I’ve had the chance to present the show on a number of different occasions since, from Belfast to festivals to Czechia.  

Q.: And how was putting the history of Ireland into music for Country Museum, Dundalk, Ireland and taking part in their annual “Culture Night”?

D.S.: Ah, that was a song originally written for a musical I worked on with the writer, Andrew Doyle. It suited the remit perfectly and the video was made by my son Ben Dornan Wilson with a very short turnaround time, so that was excellent fun.  

Q.: Your country and your city play a fundamental role in your music production, as a solo artist but also with collaborations with other artists, for example the album “A Note Let Go”, your project with Ulaid. How did the two of you decided to collaborate and what was the main purpose of the album?

D.S.: The collaboration was an experiment suggested by Tiona, the sister of uilleann pipe player, John McSherry. We didn’t know if it would work or where to start but fiddle player, Donal O’Connor suggested we write about Belfast and that there was a collection of old writings and poems in Belfast Central Library, collected by Francis J. Bigger, that might be an interesting starting point. We wrote some songs, toured them and realised it was working so we went on to record the songs as a live album in a brilliant studio in Rathfriland, County Down, called Analogue Catalogue. We recorded to two inch tape and picked the best takes from the two nights.  

Q.: With all this technology surrounding us and a lot of music coming out of computers instead of instruments and a disproportionate use of synthesizers, drum machines, loop machines etc., you are still playing with a beautiful gramophone on stage. Is there a story behind it and how important is it for you?

D.S.: Originally I used the gramophone on stage as a prop, not only to set the scene but also to play records as interludes between different parts of the set. My fascination with the gramophone has grown over the years to collecting 78RPM records, Dj-ing with gramophones and currently running a monthly online show called “Duke Special’s Gramophone Club”. I am also a year into a PhD looking at songwriting as a form of translation including writing a suite of songs in response to some very early Berliner recordings.

Q.: You performed a socially distanced version of “Orangefield” as part of “Rave On, Van Morrison”, the celebration to commemorate the 75th birthday of one of greatest Irish singers and songwriters. What does this song mean for you? And what does Van Morrison mean for you and for your country?

D.S.: I remember becoming aware of Van’s music when Avalon Sunset came out and I was living in Downpatrick which is mentioned in one of the songs. It was the first time I had heard anyone singing a song about somewhere I lived, never mind that he sang in his own accent which was also mine. I now live close to Orangefield, in Belfast, so the soundtrack continues. Van is unique and comes from that line of soul singers who are deep in the river of song.  He’s up there for me as one of the greatest and is probably under my skin in the way only early influences can be to a person.  I had the fortune of supporting him a couple of times about 15 years ago and have seen him play a few times. He still has it.  


Q.: You’ve always had a really unique image, with your long dreadlocks. When did you decide to cut them? Was there a specific reason?

D.S.: I’ve always believed that music is more than image yet, yes, I was known for the dreads, eyeliner etc. I never wanted those things to define me and felt like I wanted a change hence the scissors. I still wear eyeliner when I feel like it and it’s been fun experimenting with my remaining hair while I still have any. It’s still me underneath it all and in some ways I’m enjoying being ‘me’ more than I ever have before. Besides, there’s always the option of glue.

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