An audience with the Duke

An audience with the Duke Desiring to be creative is among the many inspirations for Duke Special, whose latest work mimics a fictional silent movie actor’s testing times. Peter Cheney caught up with the alternative artist just before his second Belfast gig.

A regular name at festivals and more intimate appearances in Europe and the States, Duke Special’s current tour took him home to his Belfast roots in early June.

“I had an ancestor who was a highwayman and he was doing what he was doing,” he says of his name. “There was a carriage going past with a nobleman in it and he stole the title.”

Asked about the overall inspiration for his music, he replies reflectively: “I suppose a desire to create, a desire to mine and express your kind of inner landscape, a desire to connect with people, to entertain, to feel fulfilled.”

In the past, he thinks he shone the spotlight on himself with his songs, but now it’s shining on other people.

Foremost among them is Hector Mann, the silent movie star of 12 films, invented by American writer Paul Auster in ‘The Book of Illusions’.

Duke penned ‘Mister Nobody’, pointing to Mann’s career ending, and asked 11 friends to write one song each based on the other films. He is taken by the way that each of Mann’s movies “almost point to actual events that were going to happen in his own life”, up to his own disappearance.

‘The Silent World of Hector Mann’ formed the second of the concert’s three parts, the first being English singer Hannah Peel’s songs on a music box and the last a selection from his soundtrack to Brecht’s play Mother Courage.

The combination – “somewhere between a concert and a play” – seems to have worked well on the tour but it is, in some ways, a lot to ask of an audience “because it’s not loads of songs they might know from the previous gigs.”

Duke sees this set-up as “three different parts bringing people on a journey” and has concluded that the audience can cope with not knowing what’s going to happen at the end “as long as you give them a strong voice to follow.”

It’s easier for an artist to be a “big fish in a little pond” but touring brings challenges that can only have a good influence on a musician’s career.An audience with the Duke

“It’s part and parcel of being a musician and being an artist. I think it sharpens your performance and the more of other people that you see [the better] … I think generally it’s important for your development to go to other places and play, and not be the big man in town but have to fight for people’s attention and, I suppose, earn your stripes.”

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