October 17, 2021

Duke Special: Interview

“Music makes me feel fulfilled, it is a soundtrack to your life.”

Jude Penman meets Duke Special in Leeds to talk about his latest projects – “The Silent World Of Hector Mann” and Brecht’s “Mother Courage”. 

Can you describe the background to this particular tour? 
This is our first tour since this time last year. This tour is unlike my other tours as I am going to introduce the music from my 3 new records ‘The Stage, A Book and the Silver Screen’. With this tour I wanted to do something different so there is a lot more focus on presenting a ‘show’. The main focus is on the songs from ‘Hector Mann’. Through the use of visuals, the audience will be given the background and introduced to the silent movie star Hector Mann. I will also be playing some songs from ‘Mother Courage’ and ‘Huckleberry’. 

When did you first hear the song ‘Catfish’? 
I was at a gig in Derry and I heard my friend Rea Curran singing ‘The Catfish Song’, by Kurt Weill. I had not heard the song before and asked Rea if he would mind if I learnt the song and I started playing it at some of my gigs. I then began to explore the origins of the song and its background. I discovered that it was part of a Weill anthology which had a few different working titles; ‘Raft in the River’, ‘Huckleberry Finn & Jim’. Weill died in 1950 before the anthology was completed, when I looked on Google I couldn’t find anyone else who had recorded the songs; it was then that the idea came to me to put all the songs together (5 in total) and record them, no one had done this before! I have taken the recording to the Weill foundation in New York and they loved it, they said it was very much in the spirit of Weill, which is a huge compliment. 

How did you become involved in the production of Mother Courage? 
I was approached by Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner who were looking to create a production of ‘Mother Courage’ and asked if I would like to write the music; they created a role for me and I felt privileged to have been asked. The rehearsal process took place over two months and was an enlightening experience; Deborah is very much of the opinion that theatre should be challenging and entertaining and she had lots of ideas on how to integrate the music into the play. I find it inspiring, the whole collaboration between music and theatre; it’s a great way of working. We did 65 shows at the National Theatre, which was an incredible experience. In this role we were part of a bigger machine and not on stage all of the time, so quite a different experience to what I usually do. Being asked to write the music for Mother Courage really crystallised the idea for me of bringing together the music from all of my 3 records (Hector Mann, Huckleberry and Mother Courage). I regard theatre as a melting pot for all the art forms; visual, theatrical, musical. All the ideas in these records were based on literature so it made sense to me to bring them all together. 

How did you become involved in the Pledge Music Campaign? 
Pledge was originally established as a way for unsigned bands with an existing fan base to make a new record, so our campaign was slightly different in that the records were already made. I had recorded Hector Mann in Chicago over 3 days, and the songs for Mother Courage and Huckleberry had also been recorded. Pledge was used as a way for us to raise money to be able to release and market the records; I had parted company with Universal records in October (during my role in the play). We raised £40,000 through various pledges including 7 house concerts, writing poems and requests for me to cover any song; these have included Hank Williams, Flaming Lips, Leonard Cohen, Deacon Blue! I have only just started on completing the pledge promises and it is an ongoing project that is going to take a couple of months to complete. I did my first house concert a couple of weeks ago for 50 people in someone’s living room, they even had a support act so I was waiting in the kitchen before ‘going on stage’! 

Do you feel that the work on your new records is a change of direction for you musically? 
I’ve never really wanted to be perceived as a ‘singer/songwriter’, which is what often happens when you’re a solo artist. In many ways my new records have been a natural progression for me. I have always had a theatrical element in my gigs/concerts so the idea of ‘putting on a show’ has always been very natural to me. Being in the play for 4 months was something that felt very natural. I was ready for a change and being able to do something different has allowed me to be known for being ‘more than just the guy who wrote ‘Freewheel’. It has been very interesting and a helpfully unsettling venture, exploring the relationship between music and theatre. Having a theme to work with on all of these records has been a good way of working. Kurt Weill often worked with playwrights and poets such as Walt Whitman, setting poems to music, it has made me think why do more people not do this?

Where will you venture musically after these new records? 
I have a couple of projects to continue with including writing a series of songs based on a photographic exhibition at the metropolitan museum in New York; I am also going to be presenting a documentary about a singer from 1950’s Belfast called Ruby Murray. When people give me ideas to work with I find it really helpful as writing from your own experiences can often be quite an intense experience. I enjoy the process of collaboration in writing, working with others helps to keep you focussed. 

Do you feel that music chose you? 
Music is something that I felt naturally drawn to; it is a way through life for me. It makes sense to do something that you enjoy, I am of the opinion that ‘why get a job in doing something that you don’t enjoy?’ I did community work at college but I was always in a band, in many ways it was inevitable! Music makes me feel fulfilled, it is a ‘soundtrack to your life’. I really enjoy touring and 5/6 years ago I was doing about 150 shows a year; in many ways when you’re on tour its very much the simple life as everything is focussed towards the gig in the evening. You do get an adrenaline rush, performing is in many ways like a drug. I’m now doing fewer shows a year 70/80 and deliberately seeking out projects so that I’m not always on the road. For this tour we have purposely chosen more seated venues as there is the emphasis on the performance as a ‘show’, so a lot of the venues are seated theatres. I enjoy being able to connect with my audience.