WHEN BELFAST songwriter Peter Wilson adopted the name Duke Special some years ago it led to a transformation that truly set him apart. With his long dreadlocks, dark eyeliner, and lovelorn songs, he became the pied piper of the Irish indie music scene.
There were hints of his potential from his early EPs in 2002 but it wasn’t until he signed to V2 Records and released his debut album Songs From The Deep Forest that he really stepped into the spotlight.
‘Last Night I Nearly Died (But I Woke Up Just In Time )’ and ‘Freewheel’ became instant radio classics and a Choice Music Prize nomination followed soon after.
Duke Special returns with a new album I Never Thought This Day Would Come and plays a ‘Róisín Dubh presents...’ show at the Black Box on Monday December 1 at 8pm.
Adventures in Gramophone
Wilson began his music career quite late in life, and being married with three children he is different from your average travelling musician. When we last spoke Duke told me a story about how one of his sons told a neighbour that even though his father is a big rock star they aren’t rich by any means. So, has the financial situation improved anything since then?
“Nothing’s really changed!” he tells me. “The tours have increased and more people are coming to the shows but the actual set-up has become more extravagant and I’ve been able to be really creative with the live show. It makes for an interesting show but not a very healthy bank balance!”
Growing up in Lisburn, Wilson was surrounded by music from a very early age. His grandmother was a music teacher and taught him and his three sisters to play piano. Wilson’s parents had an extensive collection of vinyl records and were keen fans of classical music.
The urge to become a full-time musician didn’t occur to Peter until later in life. He attended school in Downpatrick at a time when local band Ash was making big waves in the British charts.
“Two of them were in my cousin’s class,” says Wilson. “I wouldn’t have known them that well but we were sort of in the same circle. I took a much longer route to kind of find my voice, whereas they had such an assured sense of what they wanted to do.
“I thought I’d leave school and become a teacher or a classical pianist and music always seemed like a bit of a pipe dream. I suppose when people like Ash, The Divine Comedy, and my good friend Brian Houston started to make it I realised it was actually possible”
Wilson served his apprenticeship under Brian Houston and also got involved in various community arts projects in England. On his return to Ireland he played with several bands and became a journeyman musician for hire.
It was while taking part in The Ruby Sessions in Doyle’s pub in Dublin that he really started to find his own distinctive voice. In 2002 he went solo and changed his performing name to Duke Special.
In April 2003 Duke Special was included on a Ruby Sessions compilation CD alongside Fionn Regan, Declan O’Rourke, Nina Hynes, and Martin Finke. A mini tour of Ireland which accompanied the release proved to be an introduction for Duke Special to a wider public.
“I actually bumped into Conor, who runs The Ruby Sessions, the other day,” says Wilson. “I’m hoping quite soon to get an opportunity to play there and sort of re-visit that whole scene.”
In recent months Wilson has collaborated closely with Neil Hannon and the duo even had an onstage musical duet to benefit Amnesty International.
“I met Neil for the first time a few years ago when he invited me to tour across the UK and Ireland with him,” says Duke of the Fermanagh man. “I’ve always admired his music and his capacity to continue doing his own thing. He’s always done stuff that’s just a little outside what’s ‘current’ or ‘in vogue’. I think we’ve built up a good rapport and he’s definitely a big inspiration.”
Duke Special has been an inspiration and a help to emerging talent himself. On his last Irish tour he gave a little known Welsh songstress by the name of Duffy her first ever shows.
“My booking agent called me and asked me if I’d like to have this girl Duffy as support,” says Wilson “I’d never really heard of her but when I heard a few song samples I immediately said ‘yes’ She had a little backing band with her so we all got into the back of a Transit van and toured around all these great small venues like Campbell’s Tavern.
“For that tour I just wanted to do a solo thing and to re-invent things for a bit. Obviously Duffy brought out her own record after that and became absolutely huge. She invited me to play in London recently and she’s still really down to earth. She speaks very fondly of that Irish tour.”
I Never Thought This Day Would Come
After the initial success enjoyed by Duke Special it seemed nothing could stand in his way. Wiithin months of releasing his debut, V2 disappeared after it was bought by Universal Records. Many artists were left high and dry.
“There were a few weeks there where we didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “Other Irish artists such as Declan O’Rourke, Juno Falls, and Jape were in the unfortunate situation of having just signed to V2 when the label folded. I was re-signed by Universal and was very lucky that I was able to get an album out at least.
“I’m up against releases by Snow Patrol, AC/DC, and Oasis but I’d much prefer to struggle against them than to be a big fish in a little pond. I’ve always aimed to punch above my weight and I enjoy the challenge”
Wilson’s music and distinctive look has always set him apart in an industry that frowns upon artists that they can’t compartmentalise into a certain box or genre. In the past he has described his look as ‘hobo chic’ and has revelled in being different. Yet in recent years a piano-playing Australian comedian by the name of Tim Minchin has begun to emerge with a very similar look.
“I’m actually waiting for a call from him today,” says Wilson. “I’ve asked him if he’d be interested in being a guest performer at my Belfast show. I was doing a tour in Norwich about a year ago and there were posters of Tim Minchin up everywhere. People were saying ‘That guy looks like you’ and suggested I get in contact with him. I think it’s quite funny so I’ve invited him to come along and take the piss out of me!”
Another case of mistaken identity has occurred with English grunge rock band The Duke Spirit.
“There’s been some misunderstanding down through the years where people have bought tickets to my show expecting to see The Duke Spirit,” says Wilson. “Thankfully though the majority of them have enjoyed what I do and have stayed with me. I remember, six years ago, when they were signed by Alan McGee, I was really worried that they’d become well-known before me. It’s worked out fine though.”
Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh, Zhivago, and the Town Hall on 091 - 569777.