Duke Special on driving to Mayo for Michael Longley, Paperboy and gardening
Dreadlocked troubadour Duke Special has earned himself a reputation as one of Northern Ireland's most distinctive musical voices. He tells Lorraine Wylie about the lengths he went to while putting Michael Longley's poetry to music, and his new project, a stage adaptation of Tony Macaulay's Belfast memoir Paperboy
WITH his long dreadlocks, black eyeliner and outfits that he describes as ‘hobo chic’ Duke Special’s performances are highly theatrical. When I caught up with him, however, the grandiose alter ego was nowhere in sight and Peter, as he’s known to friends and family, was probably looking more hobo than chic. To be fair, he was working in the garden at the time.
“It’s more like a building site,” he laughs at my use of the word ‘garden’. “My partner and I got a house together and we’ve been working on it, doing it up bit by bit. But at the minute it’s very much an aspirational thing. I imagine I’ll enjoy it when I get to that stage. You can lose yourself in a healthy way that isn’t music and that’s something I look forward to. The process takes patience and imagination and being out of your depth completely.”
Lisburn-born Peter Wilson first came to prominence as Duke Special in 2002. Prior to stepping out alone, he honed his craft playing piano for Brian Houston. Over the years, his romantic style and distinctive voice have cemented his reputation as a unique performer and talented songwriter. More recently, his album Hallow has proven an ambitious but successful attempt to set the eloquent poetry of Michael Longley to music.
How did he go about it?
“Well, each poem was a puzzle,” Wilson says. “Michael gave me permission to wander through all his work so I began the process of picking up a poem, looking at it, setting it down and going back again and again. Gradually, as I worked my way through, doors began to open within the poems. Not every poem unlocked easily. Some didn’t feel appropriate for me to sing the words; it was more like a musical response. I had to come at each one in a completely different way and not assume what worked for one was going to work for the next. But it all came together.”
The album is a beautiful reflection of the harmony and gentleness of Longley’s poetry and Peter went a long way to achieve the authenticity of sound. He literally drove to Carraigskeewaun beach in Co Mayo to record the noise of the sea and the wildlife on his phone.
Is he a bit of a perfectionist?
“No, I don’t think so. It’s about being authentic. It may not make much difference in terms of what people hear but knowing I’ve done it is very satisfying and important for me. I could have recorded any beach but going to Carraigskeewaun, where Michael spent a lot of time and wrote many poems about, felt like a ritual or a kind of pilgrimage. It made me believe in it more and somehow if I believe it others might believe it more too.”
So what is he up to now?
“I’m currently doing a lot of theatre work. We’ve just had the first public performance of Huckleberry Finn, a collaboration with writer Andrew Doyle. We worked together before, on Gulliver’s Travellers for Youth Music Theatre. But now Huckleberry is a direct commission from the Lyric so yeah, I’m very excited.”
Wilson is particularly chuffed to be involved with the musical adaptation of Tony Macaulay’s book Paperboy another YMT project, due to open at the aforementioned Lyric theatre in Belfast later this month.
“Yes, I do really love it,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “Its brilliant to hear other people sing songs you’ve written. I also love that I don’t have to be on stage.
"Musically you are able to explore a lot of varied terrains because of the multiple characters. The play as a whole will have a dramatic kind of theme, in terms of music. It’s a lot of fun to go there and not have to worry about it being the same ballpark as an album. You can go a bit more eclectic and lose yourself in an alternative mind.”
Learning to play piano was part of the Wilson family legacy but equally, so was a Christian faith.
Has his religious background influenced his spirituality today?
“I think, like many people in Northern Ireland, there have been times when I’ve been in that world. Now I struggle to identify with any religion or faith. In my opinion, it conjures up so many misconceptions and views that are prejudged. I guess I’d say that, like everyone, I’m on some kind of spiritual journey and at the minute I find the arts is the place to explore that.”
How his attitude to music changed?
“I think I find it therapeutic but it’s also different to how it used to be. I think now I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin and find music a real place of adventure, somewhere to push the boundaries. For me music is a spiritual thing. It reaches parts of me that words can't touch. I find the act of performing and singing on stage is something I really enjoy. I’m not doing it as much now due to the writing but yes, it’s very spiritual for me.”
Like many who come through divorce, Wilson has known some dark times. But the clouds appear to have parted and the sun is pouring through.
Is this the happiest he’s been?
“Oh yeah, most definitely!”
Hallow is available to buy on Amazon; Paperboy is at Belfast's Lyric theatre from July 26-29.