When there are certain artists performing or special music events happening in town, not even the rainiest, coldest weather can stop devoted fans to go and show their appreciation, not even in a very uninspiring, weather wise, December evening in North London like tonight.
The occasion is far too Special, paraphrasing part of the stage name of the artist that Bluebird Reviews is going to interview, to even consider to skip, because of the weather, the arrival of Peter Wilson a.k.a. Duke Special at the Union Chapel in London, UK, for a special night of a music where the Irish artist, supported by numerous Special Guests on stage, will perform a unique retrospective of his whole discography.
Our website has been a keen supporter of the hugely talented and versatile Irish singer/songwriter for more than a decade, since his highly acclaimed 2006 Songs From The Deep Forest album was released, a record that revealed Duke Special as one of the most fresh, intelligent and inspired artists of the whole worldwide music scene.
Since then, Duke Special has been involved in numerous art projects involving theater, poetry and books, also releasing, as an independent artist, records of a remarkable beauty and depth, often inspired by his immense curiosity about love, life, death and redemption. His latest studio album, Hallow, released in 2017, is a magnificent body of work, based on poems written by the Belfast contemporary poet Michael Longley, an artist whose style had captured Duke Special's attention for some time.
It is heartwarming to see how many fans, despite the poor weather, have made it for this sold-out event in one of the most magical venues in London. The atmosphere in the backstage is buzzing, with Wilson and his Special Guests amiably chatting and smiling, all getting ready to come on stage to celebrate an artist in every sense of the word like Duke Special.
Courtesy of BBC Archive
Minutes before the start of the show, Duke Special welcomes our website with his usual gentleness and cordiality. While we sit down, Bluebird Reviews cannot resist asking to the Irish singer/songwriter about his fondest memories on the making of the album Hallow and working on Michael Longley's poems. "The first thing that comes to mind, about the making of that album, it was meeting him and chat to him. He basically gave me Carte Blanche to do all that I wanted to do with his lyrics. In fact, I remember him one day saying to me that "The worst Hollywood movies are those that stick faithfully to books". At that point, when he said that, I felt that I had a little liberty to gently manipulate some of Michael's material. I found poems being very different from songs' lyrics, in terms of structure, like, not having choruses, for example. That meant for me working on creating choruses from scratch but I didn't mind that aspect at all. It was already for me such a joy and a privilege to get to know Michael and spending time reading his poems. I actually spent a lot of times reading them and I decided to translate instinctively some of them into songs, especially those for which I felt an immediate emotional connection to".
Michael Longley, one of the most respected poets not just in Ireland but in many parts of the world, has been writing poetry since 1965, so one can imagine that Duke Special had to delve into a lot of material, before choosing the material that he thought most suitable, in his vision, for Hallow. "There were many anthologies of poems to go through and because it was a self-generated project, for me, the idea of making an album about Michael's works meant that the main restriction for me was time and trying to record and release the album before I started touring, something that I had already put in place. As a consequence, I wanted to have the album out before I started touring, otherwise, it would have been pointless for me to release an album a year after I have actually been touring it! But I did truly enjoy the process of making Hallow. I had written all the songs on the piano and they all seemed to work well. Then I went into the process of demoing them and then, as the last piece of the jigsaw, it was just a matter of getting the right musicians together so to shape the album in the way I wanted. On Hallow, some of the original vocal demos were kept and some of the original demos of the piano were kept too. There were few other interesting aspects that I kept on the album too, like the piano on the Remembering Carrigskeewaun and the piano on The Ice Cream Man songs. I recorded both piano parts on my I-Phone just that one time and decided to keep them exactly in the same way I recorded them originally on my phone. I like to keep certain type of moods, sounds and atmospheres, when making new records and that happened for Hallow too. I went, as a sort of pilgrimage, to Carrigskeewaun, in the West Coast of Ireland and recorded some of the sounds on the beach there and things like that, to give more authenticity to the whole project. These are things that I don't really have to do, because I could have recorded the sound of a beach anywhere in the world but it was important to me to capture that authenticity of the place I was going to sing about. Yes, Hallow was certainly a project I am very proud of".
It emerges, through Wilson's words, that the making and the release of Hallow was somehow dictated by deadlines linked to his touring schedule. Between all the projects that Duke Special is involved into, we are wondering whether the singer/songwriter prefers to write new material when he is on Tour or maybe in the tranquility of his own house, once the touring's over. "Deadlines have been very useful for me in these past few years (smiles). I had a musical I was working on for the summer and the tickets were on sale. It was amply advertised and I hadn't written a song for it yet, at that stage, because I was waiting to get the script and the rest of it. So, when it all finally came to me, I just had few months to put all of it together, in the summer of 2018 and managed to do all that in a fairly short amount of time. I certainly find deadlines very helpful, because I had a lot on my shoulder last year also in terms of family issues, between moving house and other things. 2018 has been a really busy year, music aside, for me. In 2019, I have got a new musical to work on, plus I shall be busy again with the other musical I did last year and I was telling you of, called Paperboy, which is returning this year, after last year's success. All in all, I think that in 2019 I shall keep on writing songs with no deadlines in mind, just following my instinct and see where it will lead me to".
In 2012, the Irish artist started to record and release his music independently, something that has become a modern trend for young artists too. To follow this artistic route, it allowed Duke Special to be able to carefully choose all the diverse projects he wanted to be involved into. A decision that has certainly paid off, looking at the numerous fans gathered at the Union Chapel tonight, although, presumably, at times financially challenging. "Well, for a start, I got dropped by the label with which I initially started, therefore I did not have many other choices, at the time. When I look back at the time I started my career in 2002, I was initially self-releasing my materials and then it gradually grew and grew, until a label came on board publishing my records and all the rest of it. I think that, when that happened, which was 2006, the music industry was at the tale end of the time when all the major labels were still investing in new artists. Then we all know what happened next. For what concerns young musicians, I think that it is different for everyone, really. As you may know, labels nowadays just want to work with artists that create waves, attracting attentions, constantly creating audiences and ensuring revenues at the same time. Even when I was with a label, to be honest, I felt that I wasn't put under too much pressure by them, for what concerns creative decisions, so I never felt like a manufactured artist, in any shape or form. Clearly, now my artistic freedom is even stronger than has ever been before and I sense that many young artists, nowadays, are following the trend of not signing to any label but trying to find instead their own audience using their own artistic skills. Of course, creating publicity is still an important aspect for a musician, in order to gain even more attention from the masses but, self-promoting, for a young artist, is something that has become more and more easier to achieve, in present times, thanks to technology and social platforms. Me, I don't think that I am very good at that as they are (laughs)".
Music and art in general has always been something gravitating in Wilson's household as far as the singer/songwriter can remember, between his sister's love for Beatles and David Bowie and his father's love for artists like Johnny Cash and Burl Ives, among others. "Yes, I would say more Burl Ives than Johnny Cash for sure, for my father. He liked Johnny Cash, don't get me wrong, but I remember that he had a lot of country music too. He collected also lots of 78RPM records and I think that he still has some of those. I just think that having music in my house was a very normal thing to do and to have around and it was definitely a way of self-expression for our family. I like to think that, growing up surrounded by music, it has been just a very healthy and natural progression in my life and I am grateful for that".
Courtesy of Duke Special's Official Website
78RPM records are something that have always been very close to the heart and soul of the singer/songwriter, so much so that Wilson , among his many artistic interests, also belongs to The Shellac Collective, an organization made by lovers of Vintage Music on 78RPM Shellac Records and set by his friend Greg Butler (who will be also playing, before the starting of the London show, some old 78RPM exactly in that style, through a Gramophone Record Player). "I think that I always enjoyed the sound of 78RPMs when I was younger but it really kicked off when I started as Duke Special, when I was trying of a way of presenting songs and when I saw Andy Kaufman using a Gramophone Record Player, that really inspired me and since then, I have always had this special relationship with Gramophones and 78RPM Records".
Throughout the years, Duke Special has cemented a very devoted fan-base, which has often heavily contributed also to finance some of Wilson's self-released albums. Should the singer/songwriter have the opportunity to write a personal "Thank You" note to each of his fans, Bluebird Reviews is keen to discover what words would a wordsmith like Wilson choose to express his gratitude. "Well, I feel I am pretty much a learner in writing words but it would certainly be very hard to find the right words. I guess I would maybe write something like "I couldn't be doing what I am doing without the fans that I have" as a way to thank each and everyone of them. You can't make art without an audience and I couldn't certainly make a living without people coming to my concerts or buying my records. I feel really really grateful, I have to say. I think what I really love about my fans is that, when I am going into a new project, sometimes, where I don't know that much about yet, the fans would still have faith in me and trust me to come back with some songs that would somehow connect with them and with their day-by-day lives".
Duke Special, who has grown up in the area of Downpatrick, now lives permanently in Northern Ireland's capital Belfast. Through the years, Northern Ireland (and Ireland, to be honest, in its entirety) has always been one of the most fertile countries in the world, when it comes to art, any form of art. A country constantly able to provide new and exciting fonts of inspiration through its moody but tantalizing landscapes and the Irish people's strong history and traditions. In a world that is constantly evolving on a daily basis like the one in which we are living right now, Bluebird Reviews is wondering how healthy, for his artistry, does Wilson find living in a part of the world like Northern Ireland. "Well, you know, there are still some complications and challenges in Northern Ireland and in the whole country of Ireland, a country that some would define as "a land of Saints and Scholars". I think that music and songs are just part of our tradition, part of being able to tell our stories, of who we are. There is also such a huge amount of emerging talents right now in the whole country. You know, it's funny, it used to be very difficult, many years ago, to be able to make it in the music industry if you were from Belfast. But then, gradually, the huge talent of artists like Undertones, Van Morrison or more recently, Divine Comedy, Snow Patrol and many more, attracted so much attention, through the years, to our country, to our love for music in general and to the many talented musicians coming from the whole of Ireland. I'd say "Long May Continue"! (smiles)".
There is just time for a final question, before the Irish artist needs to part company with our website and go on stage for tonight's performance, which is, inevitably, related to what is, in Duke Special's own words, the ideal definition of Art at 360 degrees. "I think that, for me, Art is an expression of the soul, it's a way of try and articulate the inarticulable through the material form of words. It's something that you can't express, it's expressing the inexpressible".