Belfast Telegraph

The grand young duke

NI singer songwriter Duke Special (aka Peter Wilson) tells how his foray into the theatre inspired his new songs.

By Jamie McDowell

For Peter Wilson, the cross-over from recording artist to theatrical musician should come naturally.

Performance art has always been lurking in the shadows of his mystic, diverse live performances. And now the two merge as he launches a triple box-set of his latest work.

For one of the albums contains the music from Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children which marked his first foray into a major theatrical production. Given that it starred Fiona Shaw and ran at London’s National Theatre, it was certainly a daunting first step onto the proper stage.

Yet, he confessed,.he had few nerves stepping out into the unknown. Indeed, his music for the show was described by one critic as the best part of the production. That was no mean accolade given that he was a relative novice performing in a new musical genre. This month, Peter launches his new triple-box-set entitled The Stage, A Book and The Silver Screen. One of the albums — The Stage — is, of course, based on the music from Mother Courage. Another, A Book, takes its inspiration from Mark Twain’s novel, Huckleberry Finn and the third pays tribute to the silent movie era.

He described the concept behind the Silver Screen album. “Last summer I recorded 12 songs based on a book by Paul Auster, who'd written about a lesser-known silent movie star called Hector Mann, who'd only ever made 12 films before he mysteriously disappeared in the 1920s.

“I decided to record 12 songs — one based on each of his silent movies. I wrote one myself, then sent the rest to 11 other musicians who I admire and asked them to write a song each, based on the movie they were given.

All songs were to be written in pre-rock 'n roll style. That was last summer and I just didn't get a chance to release it until now.”

He adds: “The inspiration for the Huckleberry Finn record came when a friend introduced me to the work of composer Kurt Weill a few years ago and I absolutely loved it.

“Kurt Weill died in 1950 when he was in the middle of working on a stage play about the life of Huckleberry Finn. He obviously never got the chance to complete it and had only completed five songs.

“I found out that these songs had never been recorded before so I decided to record them all and sent the finished recordings to the Kurt Weill estate. Thankfully, they gave me the thumbs up to go ahead with it.

“For The Stage, when I heard that I was doing Mother Courage I wanted to release a record containing the music from the play. Kurt Weill had collaborated many times with Brecht who wrote it, so there's a connection there as well.”

Peter did more than just provide the music for Mother Courage and her Children. He, and the musicians who performed along side him, were just as much a part of the show as the actors.

Peter's own live performances have something of a theatrical presence to them, and in this way, he feels it was a welcome and fitting twist in the path of his musical career. He explained: “I've always tried to make my shows theatrical. Sometimes I find that a simple musical gig can be quite boring, where bands go through the motions of just singing their songs.

“Not that that's wrong, but for me, it wasn't something that I wanted to do. When I'm on stage, I go under the name Duke Special — as well as on record. My own name doesn't ever appear.

“I've tried a few performance-orientated things in the past, like a few years ago at the Belfast Film Festival when I presented a night of Eastern European animations which I wrote the music for. I performed songs via various characters including a puppet of myself.”

Peter explained how he first became involved with theatre, and how he was taken by surprise when asked to be a part of Mother Courage.

“A couple of Januarys ago I was playing at the Oscar Wilde ceremony and appropriately named Irish Film Industry bash in Los Angeles.

“Actress Fiona Shaw was one of the people being honoured at the show, but I didn't actually meet her until a few months later when she and director Deborah Warner came over to Dublin to see me perform.

“Unbeknown to me, they had this idea to ask me to write the music to Mother Courage. I realised where I was going as an artist and that it would be a big chunk of time out of my normal touring schedule, but I was just ready to go somewhere else and to take a very decisive left turn in how I did things. They brought me really centre stage in the play as well, so I felt completely honoured.”

Peter's vaudevillian style has bestowed him with a loyal army of fans. His music isn't conventional in a popular music sense, and is relatively hard to pigeon-hole.

On describing his style, he explained: “My dad had a lot of old 78 records and he liked novelty songs like ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain' and artists like Burl Ives and Boxcar Willie. John Lennon influenced me to a large extent as well. I've always loved what I call happy/sad music. Music that has you crying then the next moment laughing — bands like Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire. Elvis Costelloe said, “music should move you. If it doesn't move you then it's not doing its job”.

Married with three children, Peter said he feels the strain of touring has had an influence on his style.

“The nature of my music means that I have to go on tour and I think to be a good artist you have to be a bit of a tortured soul and live in extremes.

“It doesn't make for a nice person to live with and I'm learning that I can actually be dangerous within my art and in what I create and that I need balance in my private life.

“There's something in me as an artist that means I don't want to just live and then die. I want to do something with my life.

“I want to talk about things that are difficult to talk about and explore the dark side of things in a way that brings some understanding for me. I don't believe any more that you have to be a bit f****d up to make good art.”

He's come a long way since his first critically acclaimed album, Adventures in Gramophone, in 2005. And he still remains an admirably modest man.

“It (recognition) happens gradually so you don't notice it so much. But about 10 years ago if someone had told me where I was going to be now I wouldn't have believed them.

“In Northern Ireland, other than the obvious icons like Van Morrison, The Undertones or Stiff Little Fingers, there aren't many who've gone on to achieve phenomenal success so I kind of think, ‘How could I follow that?'“

Peter added: “When I was at school, if you were good at music you would either become a music teacher or if you were really good you would join a classical orchestra.

“There wasn't a well-worn path into the music industry. I used to play the piano for Brian Houston and for me he was someone who blazed a trail and made me think that perhaps I could make a living at doing this.

“Since then there's been bands like Ash and Snow Patrol. It feels like something's happening at the minute. The labels are becoming less powerful and it's becoming easier for bands to forge a career for themselves. I think the industry is still ‘London centric' but Northern Ireland isn't the musical back-water that it used to be.”

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