His alias, stagecraft and songwriting possess an out of the ordinary quality that separate him from fleeting scenes and passing phases.
At first glance, his black eyeliner and dreadlocked image doesn’t suggest the “bruised romanticism”, tenderness and contemplation that fill his potent back catalogue. But to box him in as a ballad writer would be an oversight.
Emerging over a decade ago, his platinum-selling first album Songs From The Deep Forest heralded a quirky, singular and eccentric talent from the North of Ireland. He is about to release his eighth studio long player Look Out Machines!
From the new album, In A Dive immediately summons some of the problems and struggles associated with religious life in Belfast.
Wilson says: “That song is anti-religious in the fundamentalist sense, coming from Belfast, growing up with religion and the outworking of that. Some of it is really great, you see kindness and grace and you see forgiveness but you also see an unbending attitude, a lack of tolerance and the assertion that one side is right and the other is completely wrong.
I loved the idea of seeing a true religion of love and compassion held up as virtues. You can find those things in unlikely places, often it’s not churches, it might be in bars or even in people that profess to having no faith. Of course you might find it in a church as well but I wanted to draw attention to this idea of finding the virtues of goodness in the most unlikely places.”
Born in Lisburn, the singer grew up in Coleraine, Hollywood and Downpatrick.
Today, the father of three resides in East Belfast. The creative compost of his music remains in the streets of his youth. Look Out Machines! also draws from the work of the late Derry-born poet Seamus Heaney: “The title of Stepping Stones was inspired by interviews with [Heaney] over a period of years. Around the time he died he was writing about someone at the end of their life wondering where the time had gone, in that work there was a yearning for something they had lost, something hadn’t materialised or happened.
I was thinking of ending the album with that song but I went for Domino which is kind of about standing on shaky ground. It was a nice way to bookend the album with that and Wingman because that is about friends and community and the need for people around us when we feel like we are about to crash and burn.”
Significantly the 44-year-old singer-songwriter and performer worked on a community arts project in Swindon after leaving school.
Long after post-punk and new-wave, the late 1980s and early ’90s in Belfast seemed to offer little hope for a budding musician: “It was always something I wanted to do but it seemed like a bit of a pipe dream. In Northern Ireland at that time there wasn’t really any infrastructure or record labels, it was seen as a bit of a backwater. You had to move to London or at least Dublin to make any waves."
Gradually Belfast’s cultural reputation began to shift gear after indie guitar bands enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-90s allowing a foothold for the likes of Ash, Divine Comedy and Snow Patrol who all put the North of Ireland back on the musical map.
Belfast began to host showcases and a roll of record companies looked to the city for new signings.
A growing sense of community around the bands was also essential to the transformation: “When you began to see these new acts coming through it opened doors. Snow Patrol were very generous in their patronage of other acts by taking people like myself on tour and highlighting what was here. Everyone starts as a support act and knows what it’s like. I compare it to hitchhiking. I would stop and give a lift because I know how that feels and how difficult it is.”
Positive relations also flow south of the river. A collaboration with Clannad delivered the stirring single Brave Enough, included on the Celtic band’s 2013 album Nádúr: “I first met Moya [Brennan] about 2000 when she was working on a solo record and we always kept in touch. They were doing a St Patrick’s Day concert and asked me to sing on [their 1986 single with Bono] In A Lifetime. “It was quite nerve-wracking because I was singing the high part which Bono did originally. It went well and they asked if I would be interesting in doing a duet. Touring with them was incredible, seeing how those records are made was a very surreal experience.”
Aside from writing and recording his own material the Belfast boy has also added another string to his bow reinterpreting the back catalogue of 1950s luminary Ruby Murray, herself from the Donegall Road, and American singer/song-writer Harry Nilsson.
“With both of those artists you are kind of familiar with a handful of big hits they’ve had but going through their albums I wanted to find less well known songs that really resonated. I wanted to sing something I could really believe or identify with. These songs are waiting to be discovered like a chest in the attic with poems or letters, suddenly there is new life in them,” he explains.
His rendition of Van Morrison’s Orangefield is particularly poignant; he brings something truly unique to the Avalon Sunset cut. The Belfast Cowboy’s songwriting, often focusing on his home city, showed others what was possible, says Wilson: “What’s incredible is how he writes about places we all know in such a poetic way. He wrote about Belfast in a style that you only previously heard in American songs. He made places like Orangefield and Cyprus Avenue sound exotic and romantic. All you have to do is open your eyes and channel a certain poetry and soulfulness.
What’s interesting now is that he is playing ever closer to the source, he is going to perform at Cyprus Avenue [the title of his classic track from the iconic 1968 album Astral Weeks]. Last August he played Orangfield, his former school, before it closed down. Imagine any of the greats like Bob Dylan, Neil Young or Leonard Cohen playing really small gigs where they grew up; it is literally unbelievable.”
Have they ever met? “I’ve seen him around town and in restaurants but I wouldn’t dare to go over unannounced. I supported him a couple of times at the Waterfront in Belfast.”
These austere times are particularly difficult for those in the creative arts. Although Duke Special was originally signed to V2 (and latterly Universal who acquired the label) he found himself without a record deal in 2009. He has since gone on to fund his work through Pledge Music where a community of fans and supporters provide finance to cover recording costs and promotion:
“The good thing [about a major record deal] was that it suddenly opened a lot of doors, it puts you on the radar in a way that I hadn’t been before, but it’s not like you are suddenly any better. I had written Freewheel years before. It was this very human thing where people were aware of you, [but] after a little success people see you in a different way. That shouldn’t be the case but it is. It was sobering to be off the radar again.”
In 2009 he wrote the music for and appeared in Deborah Warner’s critically acclaimed production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children at London’s National Theatre. The experience brought about a fresh perspective and impetus:
“It was encouraging and it showed me that there was a much bigger world than the pop way of doing things; recording, rehearsing, touring etc and doing the same thing over again. When I looked at artists like Tom Waits or Nick Cave who have written for theatre or film, it blew apart the model that I had been used to.”
Like those artists, Duke Special has brought elements of music hall and vaudeville to his artistry. He’s used everything from cheese graters and wardrobe doors to old gramophone records to bring a unique atmosphere to the work. Musically we are living through a particularly conservative era where television talent shows devour public attention and industry songwriters are cynically drafted in to enhance the chances of modern pop stars.
Wilson also shows genuine concern for his home city of Belfast and how the cuts are affecting communities: “In the arts we’ve been hit massively by cuts. There is a huge amount of work done in communities from reminiscence therapy in homes and hospitals to projects in schools with music, poetry and dance.
“Belfast also has a huge number of festivals which have been affected. My hope is that the arts will prevail because who wants to live in a grey society that is all about the buck and the financial line? It’s an important consideration because why are we here, what makes us thrive and flourish?”
Does he think the North of Ireland has embraced grass roots politics in the way that parts of Scotland have since the Independence referendum? “I think there is still a lot of ground to cover, people are frustrated that politics remains a very black and white subject here. I think we need more colour and thinking in a different way, we have definitely made progress but it can still be difficult a lot of the time because it can get stuck on things that we are trying to move on from.
“I don’t know what the answer is, I’m not a politician, but I don’t envy their task. I certainly look forward to a time when there are more people getting involved at grass roots level who are not defined by their religious backgrounds or allegiances to governments. It would be really great to see people that want to do something that makes a difference in their community… because everyone has the ability to create no matter what it is, it seems to me such a healthy mental aide in whatever way for the individual and society as a whole.”
Look Out Machines! is released on April 6. Catch Duke Special on his 21-date British tour from now to May