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Home / Music / Music Interview: Duke Special

Music Interview: Duke Special

Duke Special’s new album Hallow is out on 6th October, and the pianist, songwriter and performer is embarking on a solo tour in conjunction with the release.

Duke Special has worked with a number of artists, beginning with Belfast songwriter Brian Huston and has since written and performed extensively as solo artist, collaborating with Ulster Orchestra and Clannad to name but a few. Born Peter Wilson, Duke is both a gentleman and a gentle man, who when speaking about music shows a curious and searching soul. We were delighted to talk to him about his inspirations and processes that go into his music.

Hallow is based on the work of poet Michael Longley, a renowned Belfast writer whose work is known for using classical allusions to cast new light on contemporary issues, such as the Troubles and politics in Northern Ireland. How did Duke come to be familiar with his writing and what prompted him to use his words as the basis for the music of Hallow? “I went to see him speak at an event and I was immediately struck by his words and their quiet impact, I was simply drawn to the way he wrote and so I went about reading more of his work, purely out of my own curiosity. The songs started to come about almost randomly; I was drawn to particular poems for no real reason other than they just evoked something in me, and I began to create the music from them.”

Duke has been in the music business for over 15 years, which he says seems like a lifetime. Coming from a musical background – his grandmother and mother both grew up playing piano too – it took a while for Duke Special to evolve into the artist he is today. “It was a case of trial and error! Exploring ways to translate my own experiences and things I was inspired by into my own music.”

Duke is inspired by the art and creativity around him, and throughout his career he has tried to find ways to meld other genres with music. He has written and performed music for theatre, including National Theatre’s 2009 production of Mother Courage and Her Children by Berthold Brecht, and more recently Andrew Doyle’s adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels. “Visual arts, poetry, music, theatre; they are separate things but I like I explore the place where arts collide and create something else. Longley’s poems were never meant to be written to music, but I found songs within them.”

He performs mostly as a solo artist, but collaborates frequently with other musicians, writers and performers. “Through collaborating with other artists I’ve learned a lot, from something as simple as how to set up on stage, to broader techniques and artistic approaches. There is a lot to learn from others even if they are not the same musical style as you. You may also learn about the things that you don’t want to do, or rather that aren’t the right way for you to go about it! So it’s a positive experience either way.”

His openness to share in the artistic process also extends to his audience. Duke raised the funds for Hallow through pre-orders on his crowdfunding platform, For him, it provides the opportunity to connect in a more meaningful way with fans. “It’s not as straightforward for musicians now to get a platform and make music professionally so you have to look at other avenues, but those changes have opened up more channels between artists and their audience. Fans of my work are more directly involved in the process; they have become collaborators in a way, which I think is a really beautiful thing.

“Having that grassroots support following your progress, you are conscious of delivering what they believe in. It provides more artistic freedom – you are not under the pressure of a middle man from a record company making finance-led decisions on your work, you are making music for you and for your audience. Of course, it depends on the artist and how comfortable they are sharing that much – it can be exposing, and it doesn’t work for all, but it works very well for me.”

Outside of the tour, Duke is also writing score for Huckleberry Finn, another new production by Andrew Doyle. “The focus is on Hallow and the tour, I’m in the process of figuring out how the songs will be performed by me solo – during recording there would be instruments and sounds involved that you don’t have on stage, so it’s a case of working out how to make it work without those elements. I think it’ll be fine though! I’m looking forward to bringing it to the stage.”

Article by: Kayleigh Ziolo

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