Duke Special’s support band punctuate our interview with a brooding piano line, the musical accompaniment to the Duke’s artistically placed dreadlocks and eye shadow. His last release was a trio of concept records entitled The Stage, a Book and The Silver Screen, the themes of which I use to structure our interview.
“It’s music I wrote for a play called Mother Courage and her Children, which is by Bertolt Brecht. I was approached by the director Deborah Warner who was interested in doing something a bit different with the music for it.
“I’d never written anything for the theatre before but I always use theatrical devices to create my music and, to an extent, a persona – or an exaggeration of a part of who I am. When I tour, I like to present the material in different ways every time I perform it. And with a different cast of players.”
He is doing more than just extending a metaphor. Past projects include “a concept show based on a mysterious character called The Silhouette, who’s a detective who shares his time between Paris and Dublin.”
Favourite playwright? “I really enjoy Tennessee Williams. And I’m beginning to read a lot of Maxwell Anderson, who’s an American playwright.”
“It’s from a musical, based on a book [Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn]. I uncovered the unfinished music to a stage production by Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weill. Anderson started it in 1950 and got Kurt Weill to do the music but Weill died within a few months. He’d only put music to about half of the songs. They’d never been recorded, which is quite surprising, so I had this amazing opportunity to record them.
“I think probably because I wasn’t a huge expert, I was probably treading where better informed people would have feared to tread.
“The CDs all have very different flavours. Mother Courage is very oppressive and nostalgic. Huckleberry is very innocent. And it’s kind of meant to sound like the Mississippi is running through it.”
I become aware that our sound check soundtrack has moved on to a sort of jovial accordion number.
Favourite book? “Probably To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s just disarmingly honest. I like that idea of a child describing things like a child. The God of Small Things is the same. There are these horrendous things that are happening but they’re given to you through eyes that aren’t cynical or world weary.”
The Silver Screen
The third disc is based on “a book that depicts the life of a film director called Hector Mann who mysteriously disappeared in the 1980s. His films hint at what was unhappy about his own life and why he went.
“The song I wrote was a synopsis of a film called Mr. Nobody. I sent the book to eleven people who I like and asked them to write songs based on the titles of his films.”
I ask how this level of collaboration impacts on his status as a solo performer. “More than anything I’m an artist, I’m a performer and a writer – and however an artist is defined, whatever the boundaries of that are, I don’t see what they should be. People have been writing songs for other people throughout history.
“There’s this genre ‘singer-songwriter’ now – it’s said like it’s a good thing, and it is to an extent. But I don’t really know what it means.”
Favourite film? “Magnolia.”
So where on earth does Duke Special go from here? “I’m hoping to write a bunch of songs based on a photography exhibition in New York. I want to see them performed in the space where they’re being displayed.
“And I want to do something about this singer called Ruby Murray. She was a huge star in the 1950s.
Like she had five songs in the top twenty at any one time. Not just five over the course of however long, but five all at once. It’s incredible actually, before her most of what was in the recorded charts was sheet music.”
Favourite Duke? (He thinks very hard) “I met the Duke of Argyll at a festival once. I like him because he’s captain of the Scottish Elephant Polo team, which is pretty cool.”
Google Images that evening swarmed with nothing but elephants on desert polo pitches.