Duke Special: I have experienced the dark clouds and looked into the abyss many times ... now I'm really content
Belfast singer-songwriter Peter Wilson, aka Duke Special, tells Una Brankin of his collaboration with acclaimed poet Michael Longley on his new album, which is released on Friday, coping with divorce, and why he'll never leave NI.
For someone who put the word 'special' into his stage name, Peter Wilson comes across as a surprisingly unassuming soul. "Try to be kind and try not to offend," he says of his approach to life.
The meek chuckle that follows this pronouncement emerges at regular intervals; he is chatty and affable, if prone to flights of arty rhetoric. But, despite having the nerve, for his new album, to rearrange the carefully chosen words of one of our most revered poets, Duke Special - for all that his grandiose moniker implies - does not seem pretentious in the slightest.
For the recording - Hallow - the Lisburn-born, piano-based songwriter has undertaken the brave task of putting music to the eloquent poetry of master wordsmith Michael Longley.
At first, it seems an odd collaboration. Longley is much admired for the subtle loveliness and the economy of language in his meditative poetry. Duke Special is a dramatic and theatrical showman.
Yet, the album works. A curious blend of semi-classical and free-jazzy piano, some tracks on the album are dreamy and ethereal; others strident and dissonant. Echoes of seabirds and street noise and the ocean - all recorded on the musician's phone - pepper the production.
He even drove to the wilds of Mayo to capture the sounds from the Carraigskeewaun beach Longley wrote of in his eponymous poem.
"I've a habit of walking into these things naively; maybe that's a good thing, given the enormity of the undertaking," he says. "I read Michael's poems repeatedly and lived with them. You allow the words to lead where the music should go.
"Some of the poems, like 'Emily Dickinson', have no refrain, so I had to play around with the words.
"But, yeah, I got his approval."
Growing up in Downpatrick, after his early years in the Dunmurry area and in Coleraine, young Peter was aware of Longley but not familiar with his poetry. After the death of Seamus Heaney, whose work he knows well, he decided to go along to one of Longley's poetry readings and talks, and was particularly taken with one short poem, Lena, and its war theme.
"I went home and set it to music and emailed it to Michael - I'd had a brief conversation with him after the talk," he recalls. "He was very positive, so the seeds were planted. He has a huge number of poems; it was a huge world of discovery for me.
"Some jumped out, like Ice Cream Man. The more I read, there were certain themes - ornithology, botany, art and music. There's a lot of war poetry, too. In the end, there was a synchronicity between his themes and mine."
The voice, over the phone, is immediately recognisable from his warm singing style, which is still delivered in his distinctively homegrown accent. After rising to prominence in 2005/2006 with his acclaimed albums, Adventures in Gramophone, and Songs from the Deep Forest (2006), both of which were nominated for the Choice Music Prize, he went on to build a loyal fanbase and record a further seven albums, as well as writing for musical theatre and collaborating with Clannad.
Since 2012, he has been releasing his music on his own label, an artistically liberating but often financially challenging enterprise, particularly when it comes to a highbrow project like Hallow. Fortunately for Peter, serendipity intervened, in the form of an Irish Arts Council-funded initiative.
"I was in the car thinking, 'How am I going to do this?', when I got a call from the Hawkswell Theatre in Sligo, asking me if I had anything that would work for the Strollers Network tour, which commissions an artist for a new body of work," he explains.
"I pulled the car over and said: 'Yes I do!' That gave me the time to live, breathe and write. I feel like there are ideas birthing inside me and I'm figuring out how to make it work. It's an adventure - I enjoy feeling out of my depth. It's like visiting a different country, you come back and you pick out the amazing, beautiful things you've seen and hope that other people will like them. The album is a doorway for both those familiar with Michael's work and for others who aren't."
As for the production costs of the album, the divorced father-of-three must foot the bill himself. In the past, he has offered fans dinner a deux and personally guided tours of Belfast as a means of financing his music. These days, he prefers to raise funds through his Advocate scheme, wherein fans pre-order the recording from his website.
"There are some things I'd be uncomfortable with now," he admits. "No, I had no weird stalkers or groupies but I had an impersonator online - identity theft - which was pretty strange.
"But Advocate's fantastic. It's really encouraging that people want to hear it and trust me. It's a real grassroots way of making a record. I play in people's houses, too.
"It's a strange mix of fans and their families, most of whom have never heard of me. It's a very intimate experience and a privilege to share in a special occasion, such as significant birthdays."
Entertaining people in their living rooms harks back to Peter's childhood, when he'd perform his party piece, the Ian Dury & The Blockheads classic Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick, to bemused aunts. He grew up in a happy Christian and musical household; his maternal granny had taught his mother, Anne, and her siblings to play the piano and the tradition was passed down to him and his three older sisters.
Meanwhile, his father, Trevor, a former electrician, had a vinyl collection that included Johnny Cash and Burl Ives, which gave his youngest an appreciation of country music from an early age. Trevor is now 82. Anne, a former care worker, is 79.
"I was listening to Walter Love's interview with Van (Morrison) on the radio - he was hugely influenced by his father's 78s; that massively informed his songwriting," he remarks. "Music was ever present at home. It became a language I could relate to, find solace in, a form of self-expression. That's incredible, whether it becomes your job or not.
"Dad had this crate of records and my eldest sister - she's 12 years older than me, she'd play the Beatles, David Bowie, Jackson Browne. We were all musical. One of my sisters still sings a lot and one of them has kids who are very into music."
Of his own three sons, he says the youngest, at 14, is the musical one. The eldest is 21 and interested in filmmaking. The middle one, at 18, is "into animals". Respectful of their mother's privacy, he shies away from talking about what sounds like a very painful separation in 2010.
"I have experienced the dark clouds and looked into the abyss many times - enough to do me for the rest of my life, but I've come out the other side," he says. "I don't buy into the tortured artist idea - I used to, but now I believe your role as a writer is to be honest; to have your eyes wide open.
"The last handful of years are the most contented I've ever been within myself. I think that shows itself in my writing. I did go through a stage of wrestling with other people's expectations of me, and my own. Now I'm really content."
The evocative cover of Hallow was painted by artist Trina Hobson, his partner of the last two and a half years. The couple enjoy visiting art galleries with their two sets of children, when Peter isn't recording or performing. Based in east Belfast, he also teaches songwriting once a week at Queen's University.
"I flirted with idea of moving away, at times, but I've a great affinity with Ireland, all of it. I love the people and the proximity to nature. It feels like poetry and music are in our DNA here.
"Northern Ireland has its foibles but my partner and her kids are here, and my kids are here. And it's not necessary to leave home now to work; that's one advantage of technology.
"It can be all-consuming and damaging, constantly working, but what I've learned is to keep striving to be creative and to follow my artistic gut and muse, but also to balance real life with these passions. I love listening to records and I love reading, and I spend as much time as I can being around the kids."
At 46, he still has his distinctively long dreadlocks, now accompanied by a greying beard. Asked if he'll go to his grave with his Rasta hairdo, he jokes that he may have to sell his dreads on eBay to fund his next album. And speaking of death, it appears he's no longer sure that he'll meet his maker in the aftermath, despite his previously strong religious convictions.
"I think my journey of wrestling with belief and stuff will continue 'til the day I die," he concludes. "I grew up Presbyterian but I find labelling frustrating and really unhelpful. We are all much more complex.
"I'm full of doubts and wonder and hope. Empathy is something I strive to have; to walk in the shoes of others. Of course, we're all riddled with bias and preconceptions here, but there's got to be something more than identity politics in the future."
And what of the modest, personal dream he has for the future - that of a little house with a garden, and maybe a dog?
"I'm getting there."
Hallow can be ordered from www.dukespecial.com which also includes details of the Hallow UK and Ireland tour dates, which include Belfast and Dublin next February