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Natalie Herman: This is Natalie Herman and I am at The Mercury Lounge with Duke Special. Hi!
Duke Special: Hello. In the basement, to be precise.
NH: Yes! And he's just gotten through doing sound check and he had a little exciting stuff going on there.
DS: Yeah, just with borrowed gear which doesn't work so I was flapping about trying to get a new sustain pedal, but rather find out now than during the gig. But it's all good now.
NH: And you flew out . . . this afternoon you landed?
DS: No, I landed on Wednesday, so it's just been nice to have two or three days around New York. Went to the Strand book shop and spent too much money and, yeah, just wandered about and, yeah, it's been nice to just kind of chill a wee bit before the gigs. I've got a gig tonight and the next two nights as well, so.
NH: Great, well, spending too much money in a book shop is very much after my own heart.
DS: It's money well spent, I think.
NH: Yeah, I think so, too. You have kind of an unusual thing going on. You've got three brand-new CDs being released simultaneously.
NH: Tell me about that.
DS: Well, I have them here. Together they are called The Stage, A Book, and The Silver Screen, and one of them is based on -- I was in a play for four months. I was asked to write music for a play. It was a Bertolt Brecht play called Mother Courage and Her Children, and it was playing in L.A. two Januaries ago at a film awards thing, and I was playing at the aftershow. There was an actress there called Fiona Shaw, and she saw me play at that and she'd been wondering about doing a production - a new production - of Mother Courage with her long-term collaborator, Deborah Warner, a director. And she put me forward as a - to Deborah as a possibility for writing a new score for it. But they also created a part - a role within the play for me to sing. So I recorded - one of them is the studio recording of the music for that play. The other is an interesting one. It's - Kurt Weill died in 1950 when he was just beginning to work on a new collaboration with lyricist Maxwell Anderson and Lost in the Stars was still running on Broadway when he died, but they had started working on this new musical called Raft and the River, which was a musical about Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain's character. And so I found a song - a friend sang a song to me which was called "The Catfish Song" and I wondered where it had come from, and I found that it was part of this collection of only five songs that were completed. And I also discovered that they'd never been recorded before and so I just thought it was a great opportunity and I recorded the five songs from Raft and the River, and so, that's the second CD.
DS: The third is called The Silent World of Hector Mann and it's - I'd read a novel by Paul Auster, the novelist, called Book of Illusions, and in it there is a character called Hector Mann who was a lesser-known silent movie star who mysteriously disappeared at the kinda zenith of his prowess, just as talkie movies were coming in. And he only left behind twelve two-reel comedies. And I thought it'd be really interesting to have a song based on each of his film titles. I wrote one called "Mr. Nobody," and then I sent the book to eleven other writers that I liked and gave them one film title and asked them to write a song for me to sing in a pre-rock-and-roll style. So that's what we have here is twelve songs recorded over three days with Steve Albini in Chicago about Hector Mann. So that's - that's the three. So they - they kind of - although they were recorded in different times and different lengths - duration to record, it just seemed appropriate to bring them out together, since they're all of a literary nature, so. That's where that came from.
NH: You're quite the Renaissance man, there!
DS: Well, I don't know. . . I didn't deliberately set out to do this, but suddenly I realized I had this body of work which is of a certain thing, so. I don't - I mean I don't know what I'm going to do next but, yeah, it's kinda flung me in a really interesting path.
NH: That's great. Tell me about your involvement with Pledge Music.
DS: Well, I was - I originally started touring about eight or nine years ago as Duke Special and was doing a lot of shows around Ireland and the U.K. without a label and it was working really well. And then I got signed by V2 records and I brought out an album with them called Songs From the Deep Forest and then they were bought over by Universal Records, and I - brought out another record with them called I Never Thought This Day Would Come and then while I was doing the play in October, I was dropped from Universal, and. . .but I had these three recordings, so. I'd already made the recordings, but normally a label gives you a marketing budget as well. And with anything you create, if you want people to buy it, they have to know about it, so.
DS: I was trying to think of a way I could raise money for it. My manager alerted me to this new kind of model of. . . It was originally set up for bands who wanted to make a new record and they had an existing fan base. And for the band, it was a way of making - raising finances. For the fans, it was a chance to get something exclusive. And what we did - we set up, through pledge[music].com, people could go on and for a limited time of thirty days, they could either purely buy the music - buy the - like a signed copy of the CD up front, and you know, pay for it up front, or else there's a whole range of, like, exclusive experiences or other things. Everything from limited vinyl to, there was twenty. . .
NH: Actually, I have the list here. . .
DS: Yeah, yeah. Well, things like "write a poem on a subject of your choice," like a totally exclusive thing, right up to I'll come and do a gig in your house, which is the most expensive, and we raised over $40,000 through doing this.
DS: Over 40 days, I think, or something. And basically for me, it's a way of being able to release the records at a high level.
NH: And I saw on there that you actually exceeded your goal?
DS: Yeah, in fact the original goal was $30[,000], and we raised about $40[,000].
NH: Let's see - here's some of your exclusives. . .
DS: Yeah, everything from a hand-written poem to a special, exclusive concert, to I'll work - working with ten different people on - working on songs for an afternoon. So, a whole range of things, yeah.
NH: And how - how did you come up with the - the things that were going to be offered?
DS: Pledge has existed for about a year, so I did troll other people - what other people had thought of and then put in some of my own. Yeah, so it seemed to work really well and there's a price bracket for everyone.
DS: But, the kind of result is that I am able to market the record to a high level.
NH: That's. . . that's - I think it's a fantastic idea and it's great that you were able to do that .
NH: It's amazing, and it would be terrible to have you to either lose the recordings to the time period -
NH: - Or to have to put them out to a soft release and just have nobody know about them.
DS: Yeah, yeah.
NH: So it's fantastic that you were able to find the way around it. I love how the music industry's actually going in that direction.
DS: Well, interestingly, the head of A&R of V2 is now one of the top guys in Pledge.
DS: Yeah, so I think it says a lot about the industry are scrambling trying to find out how they can sustain their own jobs. But it felt like a very pure way of raising money though working with your fans - existing fans to tell other people about the record, you know. So I've - through touring a lot over the last seven or eight years, I've kind of managed to garner quite a loyal fanbase and. . .yeah! Seems to work.
NH: Well, anybody who's not seen Duke Special - kinda maybe in for a surprise when they see this guy on the stage. You've got a very unusual - I guess - an image?
DS: Yeah, I've just - I've kinda always liked doing my own thing, really, and not ticking the boxes, you know? And I like to throw people off the scent a little bit of what I do and then just for them to hear the music. But it's essentially melodic music but I'm influenced by all kinds of stuff from Elliot Smith to Kurt Weill to Magnetic Fields, so, yeah, I draw on all those influences really.
NH: I have a friend who's a huge Cure fan from, like, way back when they started. Before they were even known, she was a Cure fan and I knew that she was going to be interested in - in your music and especially your image and I - I . . .I sent her down your path and - and she was pointing out all of these nods that you had to - to The Cure. Are they an influence to you?
DS: Yeah, I mean it was probably - Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me was probably the album that I remember listening to a lot. But, yeah, kinda like - I like his. . .I like his songs, his persona. I went to see The Specials recently, which is partly where my name came from and I think that's another great band. Gosh, there's so many influences, I suppose, and recently with the kind of more literary stuff, I'm discovering a whole new range of composers and influences. But I think - I think as an artist, you need to keep growing. You need to keep absorbing other influences and making new discoveries and I think only then can you keep developing as an artist. Otherwise, you're just - you're repeating yourself over and over again, and it's definitely not what I want to do.
NH: I've certainly - I've been going through your back catalog and - there's such a range and it's just really kind of grown on me to the extent where it's constantly playing in my head, so, you're doing a good job! You're doing a good job! How does your style - how do you think it helps your career and how do you think it might hurt your career? As far as bringing in new fans just from your face? You know? From the face value?
DS: Yeah, well, I'm not a big fan of having my face on the front of CDs or anything like that, so I always - I work with two guys who are great artists and illustrators and we try and develop a concept for each album which is - with imagery that's consistent with what the music is. So I find that helpful. I think probably I'm not easily . . .categorized - yes - which is helpful because you stand out then. It's distinctive, but I think it's not so easily pigeonholed, which a lot of record companies like - being able to pigeonhole who I am. "This person sounds like this and this" and it just makes for lazy journalism when people do that. People say, "Oh, he's the Irish Tom Waits, the Irish Rufus Wainwright" or something like that. I think it's just, well, those are just two people that - are - are, you know, not doing piano ballads but play piano or something, you know?
DS: Yeah, I kind of like to keep them on their toes. Those mystery people.
NH: That's really cool. Have you ever been mistaken for anybody else?
DS: There's an Australian comedian called Tim Minchin who. . .there is a very weird similarity in our look, but - to the point where people kept saying, "Oh, I saw you on this TV program," and I'm, "No no no, that was Tim Minchin." But I actually invited him to come and guest with me in Belfast at a show, which he did, and he's a songwriter / comedian, whereas I'm not that funny, so. Yeah, but it was good for people to see us both in the same room. I think it dispelled any rumours that we were moonlighting as each other.
NH: I - I had passed on your music to somebody that I know that advised me that you remind him of a wrestler. So you - you've got a pro wrestler doppelganger.
DS: I've never had that comparison before. I would get my ass kicked, I think.
NH: I spoke with Roddie Cleere, and -
DS: Oh, yeah, yeah, from -
NH: - Waterford -
DS: - Waterford, yeah.
NH: And he had told an interesting story about your song, "Last Night I Nearly Died (But Woke Up Just in Time)." I'd like to hear it from you.
DS: Well, a lot of songs have starting points. The starting point for that song was falling asleep at the wheel of a car and - but it goes. . .takes on a - I find that with songs you have an initial, kind of, catalyst, and then the song takes on its own character. Which is the case for that, as well. So that's how - that's the origins of it, yeah.
NH: Yeah, that's. . .that's certainly an interesting - an interesting experience!
DS: Yeah, well, I woke up and the car was scraping along the central reservation of the motorway, and. . .ugh. Yeah. I guess, not good!
NH: How much of "Duke Special" do you take home with you? When you're off tour and you go home, how much of that is you?
DS: I think that when I - I've toured a lot, it's difficult to return to normal life and - cos when you're on tour, your whole day is leading up to a gig that evening. But it's something I'm trying to be careful about now, as to how to keep the two separate, you know? Yeah, I remember Annie Lennox saying once that when she's onstage, it's still her, but it's like a heightened version of her, it's an extension of her. I like to think of it in that way, that it's - that it isn't . . . you know, that there's something that I can retain for myself and for friends and family, but I like. . . But more and more I like the idea of . . .Like I used to probably think that you had to be a bit of a mess to write good songs. You know, your personal life had to be - had to suck and, you know - to get at those interesting, dark places, but I think now, I am more of the opinion that - that you can make the craziest art and have a stable life, you know? I think Tom Waits is a great example of that. In fact, his art started getting more crazy when he began to be more stable himself, so.
DS: Yeah, so I - I kinda take that as inspiration.
NH: Okay, that's great. How much formal piano training have you received, or has it all been off-the-cuff?
DS: Well, I went to piano - was sent to piano lessons when I was seven, and I learned - you know, did all those scales and classical pieces and it wasn't really me cos I wasn't disciplined enough and I didn't have the technique. But I - someone taught me how to listen for chords and how to construct chords and listen by ear to records and I - that was something. A whole world was opened to me. But now I can actually appreciate classical music and written music much more. I'm still not very good at it, but I can certainly appreciate it a lot more when I don't have to, you know?
NH: Yeah. Okay, last year, Foy Vance played the Craic Fest Saturday night. You worked with Foy -
DS: I don't like him, actually. He's a horrible guy, his music is terrible, so. Yeah.
NH: . . .okay. . .
DS: No, he's a. . .no - great songwriter, one of the most distinctive, amazing, soulful voices that you'd ever hear. And a good friend. Yeah. Bet you only print the other previous. . .
NH: Thank you so much for your time!
DS: No problem.