‘I find music to be incredibly spiritual’

Duke Special at his writing studio in Belfast
Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Duke Special at his writing studio in Belfast Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press

Ulster singer/songwriter Duke Special has set the poetry of Michael Longley to music for his new studio album, Hallow. The artist tells JOANNE SAVAGE about finding holiness in art

Duke Special has had us hooked since his plaintive debut album Songs From the Deep Forest, full of pre-rock balladry, by turns jaunty and mournful. Since then he’s played Jools Holland, toured the world, scribbled scores of new songs and supported acts like Van Morrison, the Divine Comedy and Crowded House. He’s been feted by the arbiters of cool, all of them beguiled by his kooky Duke-ness. It’s rock via the circus, the music hall and the dark side of the moon, with a pinch of burlesque, ska and Bridie Gallagher thrown in.

When we meet Duke is playing piano in his writing studio on Belfast’s Lombard street, filling the room with melodies from his new album Hallow, a collection of symphonic, layered and sensitive musical interpretations of the poetry of Michael Longley.

Dressed down in jeans and striped jersey the 46-year-old singer/songwriter, real name Peter Wilson, is a sincere, down-to-earth and sanguine presence; Duke Special is a persona for the stage much like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, the alter ego allowing him to perform with particular abandon and dramatic flair.

The eclectic ‘hobo chic’ styled artist, who has mined a welter of musical influences from vaudeville and concert hall styles to indie, folk and pop is surrounded by vinyl records, sheet music, books and written notes - on one page he has scribbled: ‘In poetry there are no rules. The same could be said of song writing.’

Duke Special is certainly no fan of rule books having consistently defined himself as an artist with unique cachet, creating music that mixes generic influences, also often references other art forms and is often challenging in its dabbling with esoterica. Wilson composed songs for the National Theatre production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and All Her Children, releasing an album of the same name, while his 2012 album Under the Dark Cloth was commissioned by the Met in New York as a response to the pioneering work of modernist photographers Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. Another project entitled The Silent World of Hector Mann considered a 1920s silent actor featured in a Paul Auster novel. Hallow is another literary-musical enterprise that developed from a meeting with Belfast poet Michael Longley.

The result is a collection of tracks that sonically translate Longley’s sentiments across poems about nature, love, loss, the Great War, the Troubles and musings on the sense of place.

One of Duke’s favourite challenges as a musician and songwriter is to provoke people to think about these other art forms in different ways.

“I think people are intelligent and have a capacity for enjoying songs that are not just about boy meets girl,” he reflects. “I don’t think of myself as incredibly learned. I wrote in response to different things but I went into a lot of these subjects as an amateur.

“I realised my music could be a response to other art forms. People like Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Stephin Merritt inspire me and have written for theatre and been inspired by different kinds of art. I’m a magpie who takes inspiration from everywhere.”

Hallow began after a chance meeting with the Belfast poet who has written movingly in his work about the Troubles and the redemptive wonder of nature.

“I met Michael Longley at an event for the 50th anniversary of Corrymeela - Northern Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation organisation that was initially set up to help people who were affected by the Troubles. I loved what he said and the way he said it,” explains Duke.

“So I went out and bought one of his anthologies and began to read his work. The first poem I adapted was Lena [about a childhood devotion to a Fermanagh girl] and I sent it to him and he was really positive so it grew from there.”

Wilson’s songs move from the ebullient and jocular to the plaintive as he explores Longley’s poetry and ideas in melodies and riffs that encompass the shifting moods of his most lapidary lines. Particularly brilliant is No Continuing City which is rousing, anthemic and powerful, a ballad that gives Longley’s words about commitment and love particularly effective sonic form.

Wilson manages to inhabit Longley’s poems and has a knack for remaining true to the emotional pith of each one.

Duke explains: “I called this album Hallow which means holy because I think there is a certain holiness in Michael’s work and that he himself finds holiness in so many different places, it’s this non-religious sense of wonder about life and art and people. There’s also a lot of heartache and longing in Michael’s work, a lot of poems about the First World War and a real celebration of life that is never naive. I think he is reverent about life and love. There’s also a questioning and wrestling about the idea of faith.” Much like Longley, Duke Special himself ponders, as all great artists must, the eternal questions of love and life and death.

Peter describes himself as spiritual rather than Christian and talks about art as a way of experiencing spirituality. “Art is definitely the place where I find holiness and I think art helps me to see holiness in the world. Music for me is spiritual.”

Perhaps the most moving track on the new album is The Ice-Cream Man, named after the poem of the same name that Michael Longley wrote about the 1988 IRA murder of John Larmour on the Lisburn Road.

The off duty RUC man had been working in his brother’s ice cream shop when two gunmen entered and asked for ice cream sliders before shooting John Larmour. Whereas Duke sings Longley’s words throughout the album, repeating them and arranging them to fit the melodies with brave creative licence, sometimes editing them to fit, on this track he has the poet recite his own poem verbatim to a melancholic musical backdrop; the effect is heartbreakingly poignant and the piece sums up the horror and absurdity of the Troubles in an understated but powerful way.

The poem is followed by Longley reading a letter he received from John Larmour’s mother thanking the poet for remembering her son in this way;‘they murdered the ice cream man on the Lisburn Road’- Longley records stark sentiments with such effective simplicity.

Setting The Ice-Cream Man to music is an importantly personal response to the Troubles that is not about taking sides but rather movingly captures the desperate futility and horror of sectarian violence. By setting the piece to music Duke Special recharges the brilliant poignancy of Longley’s lines, reminding listeners of the darkness and sorrow of the Troubles and all the desperate tragedy that ensued.

“It’s been a wonderful journey to live with these poems and to have Michael Longley’s blessing to use them and write around them. His words like him are full of innocence, wisdom, passion and love,” continues Peter, who is looking forward to playing his new music for fans during his forthcoming tour.

Hallow is an amplification of the poetry and it draws you into a new world.

“I’m really content in what I’m doing. My job is a mixture of things but the centre of that is writing songs, singing them, recording. I’d rather be thought of as someone who made excellent artistic choices rather than financial ones.”

Authenticity and finding the spiritual in art are certainly hallowed for Duke Special.

Duke Special’s new album Hallow is released on October 6. He will perform at Belfast’s Empire Music Hall on February 23.