Duke Special is still dreaming

Duke Special, aka Peter Wilson, is one of our most distinctive creative forces, with a devoted following in Ireland and beyond. Jane Hardy catches up with the singer, songwriter and composer ahead of a busy summer - which includes a 'with friends' show and the debut of Breadboy, his latest musical theatre project - to talk songwriting, art and stepping outside his own skin...

Musical adventurer Duke Special. Picture by Mal McCann.
Jane Hardy

PETER Wilson, aka Duke Special, seems jaunty when rendezvousing in east Belfast at one of Ballyhackamore's numerous cafés. A young 51 ("It was weird at the time, but I'm feeling a lot better in myself now."), the singer-songwriter is finishing his sixth musical.

It's the second based on a chapter in Tony Macaulay's life, Breadboy, and airs at the Lyric Theatre in July. He wanted to meet near his home so that he could race back to do some more work. It's a new song for the show, titled Superhero which, as you can guess, is fairly upbeat.

Yet Duke Special's writing process hasn't always been sunny, with intense hits such as Ballad of a Broken Man in the back catalogue.

"When you're writing from your own experience, that's emotionally draining," he tells me.

"Songs like Last Night I Nearly Died are partly therapeutic but if you're singing about not being in a good place every night on tour, they can perpetuate the feeling.

"When I discovered you can write songs about anything, it was a relief."

He adds that producing a score for the National Theatre production of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children in 2009 resulted in this lightbulb moment. "I realised songs can exist in all sorts of places," he says.

Wilson's approach to songwriting these days is different. "In recent years, a lot of what I write has been project based. You find a subject that's interesting and write songs around it," he explains.

"But what I found is it's still about yourself – what you choose isn't by accident and when you're writing, you're being that other person. It's like acting – an actor doesn't have to have had every experience."

One topic Wilson has worked on recently as part of his doctorate in creativity at Queen's University is the art of Modigliani, who specialised in portraits of thin, mannered figures hanging around Paris during the Great War.

"Why Modigliani? Well, he was the ultimate tortured artist and I think for a long time I believed that. It's about embracing everything and being in pain to make good art," Wilson laughs.

The numbers from this work include a song called Cursed. In reality, these aren't the happiest characters around. Wilson says: "It's about a young woman in a late night haunt that Modigiliani frequented in Montparnasse.

"There were these people he hung out with full of wild abandon while the First World War was raging round them. They were in this bubble and yes, it was escapism."

Wilson reveals he and his collaborator Boo Hewerdine might start with a few words or a guitar riff, then build up to a complete song. The suite of art-based songs hasn't got a title yet and is, he says, "a work in progress".

They have also written a song about the painter's Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne, a depiction of the mother of Modigliani's child. And one about a rare self-portrait: "It's a reverse Dorian Gray so the painting doesn't remain young."

We go further into the Romantic idea still kicking around of the troubled creative spirit suffering for his or her art. Wilson says that he's never been on a clinical downer. "No, I wasn't depressed but writing from my own life experiences," he says.

He goes on to list musical heroes, including Nick Cave, who have travelled through dark times and emerged. Some in the music business have not, such as members of the so-called 26 club (those who died at that age) which include Amy Winehouse and Jimi Hendrix.

"So many within popular music have died very young and it's sad," he observes. "But some of my favourite musicians like Cave and Tom Waits turned the corner."

He goes on to say that there is a method of composing that can be more positive. On cue arrives Wilson's friend, the artist Brian Ballard, a senior member of the Ballyhackamore creative community and in good mood.

There follows some chat about charity shops, returning to art after heart surgery and the fact that Wilson gets his beard done at the local Turkish barber's.

Wilson's hairstyle has changed. He no longer sports the trademark dark blond dreadlocks, which may seem a superficial detail but is pretty significant, as he admits: "Yes, it was a useful camouflage at times."

With a smile, he says that ironically the change means he remains concealed. "I can go places now incognito, and people don't recognise me," he says.

"But it was done three years ago, and I'd had the style for 20 years."

Yet the resonant name Duke Special isn't going anywhere. "I find that using the name 'Duke Special' is a way of stepping outside my own skin for a moment to be open to inspiration," he explains.

Wilson has various projects on the go. At the end of the month, he is presenting a concert at The MAC 'with friends', titled It Was Only A Dream.

"Ruth McGinley is one of the performers and as she's currently artist in residence at The MAC, that's why we're having it there. Also Niamh Dunne, Mark McCambridge, Rachel McCarthy, Seán Óg Graham on guitar, Nick Scott on bass and Steve Davis on drums."

Over the past four years, the composer has been a part-time hod carrier and lumbered bricks around as with his partner, the artist Trina Hobson, he has been doing up their house in BT5.

"It was a fixer-upper and the walls are single brick. Happily, my Trina's father is a builder and he's been the brains." Wilson's downtime music track involves "a lot of Artie Shaw, also Duke Ellington, Fats Waller".

Politics is in the air the day we meet with talk - again - of getting rid of prime ministers. The Duke Special catalogue contains only one work devoted to a political subject, Erskine Childers.

"I was asked to write something for the centenary at the National Concert Hall, Dublin," he says, adding that Christy Moore and John Spillane were among the other artists.

Wilson had carte blanche and chose a complex Englishman who initially regarded Ireland as a dominion state: "His opinions changed and I found that interesting. Childers was arrested for possession a weapon and sentenced to death."

Movingly, he asked his son, Erskine Hamilton Childers, on a visit the day before his execution, to go and shake hands afterwards with everyone who had signed his death warrant as a gesture of forgiveness. The son went on to be president. It's unsurprising this life appealed to the man who says he "hates to be pigeonholed" on the Irish identity question.

Art works, according to Wilson, when it conjures up something people can relate to: "When they think, 'I know what that is'. They may not have the words. And it doesn't have to be suffering, it can be something joyous."

Good art, though, is also nuanced and may actually involve multiple interpretations. "I like it when different interpretations emerge."

Expect something special and slightly different then from the Duke Special MAC gig, then, based on a musical treasure trove of Irish-American songs.

"There are about 1,500, they cover a hundred years from the 1840s to the 1940s and were sold to the Princess Grace Irish Library, having been catalogued by Fintan Vallely," he says.

"They cover immigration, slavery, spirituals, popular music." The Foggy Dew from about 1918 is one moving example. "It's a love ballad and there's something wonderful about that melody."

:: Duke Special and Friends: It Was Only A Dream will be performed at The MAC on June 30.

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