Matt Jones delves into the realms of music hall and silent film with Belfast-based singer-songwriter Duke Special
The first thing I’m struck with on meeting Duke Special (apart from the hair, of which more later), is how welcoming and unassuming he is. This genuine warmth and enthusiasm, with not a trace of ego or pretence present, is perhaps befitting of a man who in many ways refuses to conform to any common conceptions of what a recording artist should be. But then, Duke Special( a name which he informs me derives from an ancestor in the Dick Turpin mould who robbed a nobleman of his title) was always going be a little bit different- it’s in his DNA.
Duke Special’s breakthrough into the public consciousness in 2005 with the singles ‘Freewheelin’ and ‘Portrait’ and the albums that accompanied them ‘Adventures in Gramophone’ and ‘Songs From the Deep Forest’, was not made in the traditional way. He had previously played piano for Brian Houston in his native Belfast, but decided in 2001 that he would go solo:
“I kind of just wanted to make a go of it. So we broke up the band and I recorded a few demos and decided I was going to put them out as an EP- a collection of six songs called ‘Lucky Me.’ I was going to send it out to record labels and then I thought, you know what, let’s not do that. I’m going to go out and play first. I remember a penny dropping in my head and realising I didn’t actually need a record label to endorsed what I’m doing, I’m an artist now, let’s just do it.”
He began touring the UK and Ireland over the next few years, and as word spread about the dreadlocked Irish storyteller he began to see the fruits of his labour:
“You could feel the progression each year, the shows were getting bigger each year as more and more people were coming, it was a very organic thing.”
Organic is a good word to describe Duke Special’s approach to making music. Innovative is another one. This innovation comes to the fore in the story-telling aspects of his music, something he is keen to expand on:
“I think every song is a story really. A lot of songs are maybe in the boy-meets-girl kind of vein, but I think there are so many other interesting stories. Recently a lot of the records I’ve made have been led by the stories around them.”
This last comment is certainly true. Duke Special is evidently one of those people who is truly fascinated by life, and by the lives of others. On recent records he has drawn on a range of forgotten stories from the deeper realms of pop culture.
One recent album, ‘The Silent World of Hector Mann, was a collection of songs about the silent movie star Hector Mann:
“I took an interest in Hector Mann after reading a book about his life. For that record I wrote one song and sent the book to eleven other artists who I liked and asked them to write one song for the album. ‘Huckleberry Finn’, which was an unfinished musical by Kurt Weill, became another record that I put out- so there’s sometimes stuff I don’t write myself but I’ll put a record out to share that story with the world. Two years ago I was asked by a museum in New York to write some songs based on a collection of old photographs, and that became a record. Ruby Murray was the inspiration for another record. I became fascinated by what a massive star she was in 1955, the biggest there was in the UK- do you know she still holds the record for most songs in the top 20 simultaneously? And she was just a wee girl from Belfast.”
There is always something energizing and life-affirming listening to someone who has a real passion for they’re talking about, and Duke Special is certainly a case in point. This passion has translated into a considerable body of work- he has released eight albums in eight years and fourteen recordings since 2002, prolific by modern standards. He also appears to be someone who becomes engrossed in the subjects of his work- at the time he made the Ruby Murray recording he also presented a show on RTE( the main Irish television broadcaster) which looked back at her career and her life.
Stylistically, there are elements of The Cure in Duke Special’s sound, but perhaps the strongest parallels can be drawn with a vaudevillian style of musical theatre one would associate with the early 20th Century: “I’m influenced a lot by music from the first half of the 1900s, parlour songs and music hall, stuff like that. Particularly when I started I drew a lot on that kind of era. I was intrigued by the kind of journey the audience would go on with the performer back then, it was almost like poor man’s opera. It was rough as anything; people would be shouting and screaming at the stage. You lived and died buy how you performed that night. I wanted to bring a bit of that into my performances, I wanted them to be theatrical and interactive as opposed to just a quiet night out.”
A Duke Special show is certainly a rowdy and interactive affair- he regularly hands out lyric sheets so the audience can sing along, whilst he is often accompanied by the wonderfully named ‘Temperance Society’ Chip Bailey, the drummer who also has been know to play cheese graters and egg whisks onstage.
It is clear that Duke Special is someone who thinks, and lives, outside the box. It is no surprise then that his apperance is not exactly run-of-the mill, the combination of dreadlocks and eyeliner meaning that even without songs about silent films and his strong music hall influences he would manage to stand out in a crowd:
“I think the look confuses people sometimes, they think I’m going to play reggae or metal or something. I’ve always experimented with haircuts, I’ve had the dreads for about twelve years. What can I say? I’m just myself.”
Talk turns to his most recent album, ‘Oh Pioneer’ released last year:
“I knew I wanted to call it that, it was based on a book by Willa Cather. The inspiration I suppose is they are all songs about wondering what’s on the other side of the mountain, about challenging yourself to go somewhere you’ve never been before.”
This is perhaps the most fitting metaphor to describe Duke Special’s approach to making music. A man constantly fascinated by new projects( in the pipeline is a is a film he is writing the music for: an adaption of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ set in Belfast’s Crumlin Road Prison), a deep thinker always willing to take the road-less-travelled, Duke Special is in a sense, forever wondering what’s on the other side of the mountain.