Putting up your Dukes

Star: Duke Special
Star: Duke Special
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Irish singing star Duke Special’s fascination with the older forms of music began almost as far back as he can remember.

The dreadlocked singer songwriter, who has charmed critics and public alike with his vaudevillian and music hall inspired sounds, says that one of his earliest memories is becoming fascinated by a certain tune on a visit to his aunt, when aged about three.

He remembers: “I r emember hearing a record played on a old record player up at my aunt’s house. I can’t remember the name of the band but the chorus was “Shalalalala oh oh oh.”

“It was like just this old song, I don’t even know when it’s from. But that was the first thing and I remember just wanting to hear that, you know, when you go and visit a relative, you always associate them with what they did last time and I just remember always wanting my aunt to play that - which she dutifully did. Turned everyone’s head, I’m sure of it, haha.”

His obsession with the musical past has served him well. Both his debut album, Adventures in Gramophone in 2005, and the follow up, Songs from the Deep Forest, in 2006, were nominated for the Choice Music Prize, Ireland’s answer to the Mercury Music Prize.

Since then, the prolific musician has averaged a record a year, including I Never Thought This Day Would Come, in 2008, Little Revolutions in 2009, The Silent World of Hector Mann and Mother Courage and Her Children, both in 2010, and Under the Dark Cloth, inspired by a collection of vintage photographs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, last year.

Born Peter Wilson in Lisburn, he grew up in Coleraine surrounded by music, particularly the piano, a situation for which he can thank his grandmother, even though he barely remembers her.

He says: “She taught all my sisters and my mum and all her siblings but she died when I was two so I don’t really remember her apart from through other people’s stories. But the piano was definitely a staple in the house.

“All my sisters went to piano lessons and played records in the house so it just felt very familiar. It felt like an old friend, music, from the beginning.”

Growing up in Ireland where traditional musical forms exist much more comfortably alongside mainstream and pop music than in the UK may also have augmented his feeling for the musical past.

He says: “It’s maybe held on to the fabric of the culture a bit more. Obviously in London, you’d have the singalongs round parlour pianos and indeed throughout the Western world, the sheet music was the thing that drove a song’s popularity - and the piano or ukelele were the things that enabled people to learn new songs, even before recorded music.

“But maybe in Ireland, traditional music has featured as part of the mainstream for longer than in the UK. The folk revival of the late 1950s and 1960s helped rejuvenate things in England. But it hadn’t gone away really in Ireland.”

As a teenager, he served a musical apprenticeship by playing piano for Belfast folk songwriter Brian Houston and also became part of several bands.

But in 2002, he threw off the shackles and went solo, with the name Duke Special as a tribute to his vaudeville inspirations.

He says: “A lot of vaudeville performers had some sort of monicker, stage name, whether the Great or the Magnificent Something - and an enormous number of them were called Duke. And the Special part came from the band, The Specials.

“Believe me, I was driving around for a couple of days before I had to make the decision, going: “Duke this, Duke that, Duke whatever,’ many, many different words. And then I just thought of the Specials - and I thought, OK, that might work!”

He doesn’t regret leaving his former bandmates behind, saying: “I’d been in a couple of different bands and it’s a real art, being in a band, any kind of collaboration is a skilful thing. It can be a really satisfying thing, like a band of brothers, you know, just the feeling of you all being in it together.

“But I think we had kind of reached the height of what it was going to be, which was very much a local thing, and I knew it wasn’t over for me. I had a fire that I couldn’t ignore. And whereas some of the others were happy to say whatever and I really wanted to try and make things happen a bit better.”

He began playing everywhere throughout Ireland and UK “for no money”, adding: “I wasn’t going to wait for a record label to turn up but just going to go out and find an audience.”

Despite his love of traditional forms, it was comments by those who heard his music which first made the vaudeville connection.

He recalls: “When I started, a lot of people said to me, ‘Oh your stuff sounds like it’s from music hall or something, or from a musical.’ And although I’m not a massive fan of musicals per se, the idea of something theatrical about what I was trying to do, I really kind of related to that. So I spent a lot of time reading about music hall and vaudeville.

“The idea of bringing people on this crazy journey that might have some funny things in it, might have some moving things, might have some things that people join in with, I just saw that as an interesting thing to explore as a context for a gig.

“I think I always loved the idea of being outside a genre so people of different ages would come to the gigs which is what happens actually, really pleasingly. But people then, it’s harder to maybe pigeonhole you or to be part of a particular scene. But I’m in it for the long haul so I guess scenes come and go and if you can hang around long enough, that’s maybe the trick.”

This Wednesday, he comes to 53 Degrees on tour to show off his most recent release, this year’s offering, Oh Pioneer - and it marks a deliberate move away from his trademark style.

He says: “I just never want to repeat myself. For sure, vaudeville is an early influence and informed part of how I wanted to do things early on. But I have no interest in just pedalling out the same thing all the time.”

Duke Special plays 53 Degrees on Wednesday December 19. Tickets are £13 from the box office on 01772 893000.