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Home Suite Home: An Interview with Peter Wilson AKA Duke Special

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Having recently successfully completed a Crowdfunder campaign to ensure its release, Peter Wilson AKA Duke Special and Ulaid recorded their collaborative show The Belfast Suite across two nights at Analogue Catalogue Recording Studio in Rathfriland, Co. Down. Eimear Hurley catches up with Wilson to delve deeper into the project, as well as his own speckled, genre-spanning career to date.

Over the course of your career to date you’ve been part of many diverse and fruitful collaborations. What is it that sparks your interest in collaborating with a particular artist? And what do you think makes a successful artistic partnership?

I guess the spark comes out of an itch. Something which has been nagging me for years or something which resonates with me immediately. I think a successful collaboration occurs when both parties respect each other and are open and willing to venture into uncharted waters. An attitude of ‘let’s see what happens, do our best and have fun in the process.’

How did this collaboration with Ulaid come about?

It actually came about from bumping into Tiona McSherry (her brother John is a member of Ulaid) in The Sunflower Bar and her suggesting I collaborate with her brother’s band!

Did you have much experience playing Irish traditional music or was this a new musical venture for you?

I grew up in Downpatrick with three older sisters and listened to their records and influences. I remember an album called All The Folk That Fits from 1981 which was a compilation album featuring Planxty, Tommy Makem, The Bothy Band, amongst others, which my sisters used to listen to and which I was exposed to from a young age. I never had the opportunity to attend sessions but I was enthralled by the stories and melodies which I heard on these records. I remember signing up for uilleann pipe lessons at school but with no outlet or encouragement, I didn’t last.

In terms of playing Irish traditional music, I have always sat outside the circle but loved it from afar, so this was definitely a new and welcome venture for me.

‘The Belfast Suite’ is a collection of arrangements of traditional songs and newly composed fusion pieces. Re-arranging traditional tunes in Irish music is one thing, but composing in a traditional style and with traditional musicians is quite another. Can you tell me about the musical process of playing and writing this music with Ulaid?

I have come to realise that story and melody are what I do and in the last decade, I have had various experiences of setting words and concepts from different contexts to music. I’ve encountered photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, words by Bertolt Brecht, silent movies by Hector Mann, old sheet music, poems by Michael Longley and have felt inspired and enriched by these collisions. Donal had mentioned a collection of old texts collected by the antiquarian – Francis J Bigger, which are housed in the Belfast Central Library, so that became the mine which I went to explore. Fortunately, I found some amazing texts which we were then able to live with and put music to. I’ve come to realise that often, we are drawn to particular stories because they resonate with us which is why I’m able to sing them and make those stories my own in some way.

You’ve done a lot of concept work – inserting yourself into personas, and stories, and taking inspiration from the creations of other people to create new work. The subject matter of ‘The Belfast Suite’ is surely quite personal to you and to Ulaid, but you took specific inspiration from the Francis J Bigger Collection when putting together ‘The Belfast Suite’. Can you tell me a bit about this collection and why you chose it as the lens through which you focused your work?

When Ulaid and I had our first meeting, I imagine we were all wondering how to proceed and how to find a way into each other’s worlds. The Bigger collection was like coming at things in a less personal way, in a sideways approach, where we would hopefully still get to the centre of things. I find these sideways approaches really helpful in new projects. I like sneaking up on myself. It’s really about being open and trying different things but ultimately you are always looking for a way in.

Ulaid and Duke Special’s 2016 tour also had the support of the Irish Arts Council. Do you think that Arts Council funding is something touring and recording musicians in Ireland should explore when looking to get their music out into the world?

I think it makes sense to utilise whatever help there is, especially if you are creating something unusual, or a little off kilter. Ultimately, it needs to be good enough to engage people and warrant an audience but yes, knock every door going I say!

2016 was a big year for the promotion of Irish culture and heritage around the world. “Irishness” is something that comes across in your own music – particularly in your accent! But since you began playing and engaging with Ulaid and with has your perception of Irishness and what it means to be an Irish artist changed?

I have always considered myself to be Irish but the north has made us into these strange, hybrid creatures. I grew up in a really open, non-Catholic (protestant – but not in the hard line unionist, cliche kind of way) family which accepted people at face value. It’s too easy to put people into convenient boxes. We are more complicated than that. I feel Irish but Northern Irish with a connection to Ireland as a whole and also an attachment to the UK. I think there is a whole other identity which exists outside the political tribes which seem to have dominance in this part of the world. I know so many people who are massively concerned with the important issues which affect us as human beings. So often, our petty, colloquial squabbles seem so ridiculous and narrow minded. I feel extremely privileged to be involved in an area of work which, by it’s nature, is about something much more universal.

9. Finally, once the ‘Belfast Suite’ is recorded, can we expect to see and hear more from Duke Special and Ulaid in 2017?

I hope so!