Interview: Duke Special
EG caught up with Duke Special (aka Peter Wilson) shortly after the Meteor Awards, Ireland’s version of the Brits. Having been nominated in three categories, he came away empty-handed – although the evening did have its compensations:
“The Best Album award went to Snow Patrol – but the cool thing was that Gary (Lightbody), when receiving the award, said that Duke Special should have won. Then he held the award up, and got everyone to clap!”
Erm, isn’t that what award winners usually do on these occasions? Still, it’s an impressive endorsement. As for duplicating his Irish success in the UK, Duke is taking a relaxed, long-term view.
“I’ve been working in both places equally – but Ireland’s population is less than London, so it’s easier to succeed over there. It’s served people like Damian Rice and David Gray well in the past. The way I’ve gone about things has been very organic – just going back and playing the same places over and over, and people bringing their friends along. It’s only in the last six months that there’s been any kind of media attention.”
When it comes to his performing alter ego, where does Duke Special start, and where does Peter Wilson end?
“It was important to have a name that said something about what I was doing, in the same way as having a band name is like setting your stall out. Peter Wilson is a very popular name, shall we say, so I wanted something a bit more enigmatic. What I want to portray on stage has elements of theatre and performance, that’s more than just ambling on and singing some songs – so having an alter ego helps.”
But with any alter ego, the boundaries can blur. In some cases, artists have turned into their aliases, dropping their real names altogether.
“Well, unlike Elton John, no-one’s going to think that my parents gave me this name! It’s more like Badly Drawn Boy – a suitable vehicle to do what you do onstage. Some people call me Duke, but never my close friends and family.”
It’s a reassuringly well-balanced answer. So what are Duke’s – or rather Peter’s – major musical influences?
“It’s constantly changing. When I was very young, it was Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson. Tom Waits was an epiphany for me, in terms of presenting something in a more showmanlike way. There were old country records which my Dad would have played, and my Mum used to play Nana Mouskouri every Christmas!”
“There are certain things which get under your skin, whether you like it or not – like my mum singing You Are My Sunshine, and a lot of novelty songs from my Dad. I’ve never wanted to be overly earnest when I’m singing. I feel like a mixture between a soul singer and a vaudeville performer. I want to say something that is meaningful and has depth, but I also want to make it playful and entertaining.”
How does Duke feel about the frequent comparisons with Rufus Wainwright? Flattered, annoyed or bemused?
“Before Rufus, there was nothing like that in the mainstream – so the comparison is tempting. He’s been a pointer for me along the way. When I heard him, I thought: Brilliant, there’s another person doing this! What he does is absolutely incredible, and he’s further on than I am – but his collaborations with the likes of Van Dyke Parks, and his orchestral approach to pop music, make everything sound as if it’s in its own world.”
Whereas Wainwright takes an arch, detached approach, Duke’s songs feel warmer, and more emotionally direct.
“Perhaps. I start my writing from a point of experience – where I collide with something, and it throws something to the surface – and I think inevitably, most songwriters will do the same. There will be some kernel of reality in there, and then songs can go off somewhere else, and even become fiction. In some respects, I don’t mind what people get out of a song – what’s important is that it impacts them in some way. So it doesn’t matter whether the events in the song happened or not, as long as I believe it when I sing it.”
As if to emphasise the fictional elements in his songs, Duke’s album is illustrated with various cute looking animals, which look as if they have sprung from the pages of a fairy tale. Animated versions of these animals also star in his videos.
“An illustrator friend approached me, and asked whether he could experiment with my music. We had no idea what angle it would take. The second picture he drew was of an old theatre in the middle of a forest, with branches encroaching over the top of it, and an audience of bears. I loved it, and said to him: whatever happens, I want this to be the next album cover. I then called the album – which I hadn’t even written – Songs from the Deep Forest. Over the next year, he collaborated with me: listening to the music, and providing the other illustrations. So it was an evolution of ideas between the two of us.”
“Fairy tales are child-like – but there’s a darkness in them as well, which sometimes comes to the surface. That really appealed to me. As you emerge into adulthood, you realise that people aren’t perfect, and that a lot of bad stuff goes on in the world. Suddenly you’re discovering all this bad stuff within yourself – but you’re also trying to hold onto a sense of child-like wonder.”
This mixture of lightness and darkness is reflected in the songs. Many are jaunty, catchy and musically uplifting – but other more bruised qualities emerge in the lyrics, and the two elements play against each other in an interesting way.
“I want to convey that contrast in the live shows. There’s a whole visual aspect to play with. It’s important to give people some visual cues. I want them to walk in and know that it’s not going to be just another singer-songwriter, but another world.”
As an artist who revels in playing to an audience, Duke’s music takes on an extra dimension when heard live – but can that live sound be captured in the studio?
“I approach them in two different ways. Playing live, I want to pull in elements of theatre and illusion – whereas recording an album is like making a film. An album is hopefully something which you’ll be happy to hear over and over again, improving with each listening – whereas a live set is something of the moment, and right for that particular audience.”
Speaking of pitching to the right audience on the right night: if invited onto Al Murray’s Happy Hour, where all guests must perform something by Queen, which song would Duke pick?
“It would have to be from A Night At The Opera, which was my first Queen album. Bohemian Rhapsody might be a little ambitious and over-cooked. I really like the John Deacon song that goes: Ooh, you make me feel…”
You’re My Best Friend it is, then. A fitting choice for such a genial, open-hearted artist, whose music often feels like one extended bear-hug.