Duke Special is almost continually moving.
Ever-creative, the Irish singer's fourth album 'Look Out Machines!' is a dextrous, literate return, referencing everything from Seamus Heaney to Scottish songwriter Gary Clark.
Out on April 6th, the fan-funded record is a neat encapsulation of where the songwriter's head is at. "This album is a photograph of where I am right now; it feels like a kind of gathering-in,” he says. “I'm not quite sure how to describe it. What's the word where you stay in one place to recharge your batteries, and then you're ready to go again? It feels like that; almost like a little launching-pad."
Out next week (April 6th) you can check out Duke Special's track-by-track guide to 'Look Out Machines!' below.
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I wrote this with my good friend Phil Wilkinson who has drummed on most of my recordings and has co-produced 'Look Out Machines' with Dave Izumi. I came with some thoughts about an evening I had where I was attempting to be a friend's wingman after a show. It turns out I was rubbish at it and scared people away!
In the end Phil and I ended up talking more about our need for friends who know us well and the idea of community where we can be ourselves. This was one of the first songs we completed for the record and to me, despite it being the opener, felt like a central song in terms of the lyrical idea and the production values. We wrote this in Phil's spare room in Islington, London.
I had been thinking and reading about stories concerning elephant graveyards. I was intrigued by the idea that these amazing creatures somehow knew when their time was approaching and that they might journey to a holy or mystical place of their ancestors to lie down and die. I also read accounts of people who had gone in search of these graveyards never to be seen again. I wrote this with my friend Iain Archer in a bell tower in London.
Step To The Magical
This is another Phil and I composition. Phil had the title and as we talked, an image of a young woman walking through the city streets came to mind.
In the picture we saw her as someone brimming with confidence and a feeling of kindness towards the world. It isn't that she is stunning looking, rather that she has this mesmerizing quality and a sense of wonder which passers by can't ignore. As she walks through the streets she has several encounters with strangers in which she somehow helps them or leaves them wondering about what has happened which makes her feel like this.
In A Dive
I had met David Saw and Jonathan Quarmby a few years ago, David at a show and Jonathan when I was recording a duet with Beth Rowley for her debut album. When I heard they were writing together I thought I'd like to try something with them. A few days before going over to the legendary RAK studios where they were based, I was driving and the verse words and melody came into my head. This only happens every so often so, when it does I try and sit up and take notice. We completed the song and made a demo upstairs in RAK and I knew immediately it was a song I could imagine making the record. It does concern my living in Belfast and finding beautiful and profound qualities in people in the most unlikely of places.
Boo Hewerdine is a songwriter I have loved for some years now and don't need an excuse to write with him. I had an idea for this song and went to Ely near Cambridge to spend some time writing. We finished the words there and then I came away and after some attempts, settled on the finished melody.
It's a song that finally came together in the studio where we tried various approaches before the beautiful sparse and haunting version which made the album.
Son Of The Left Hand
Phil had the title for this and the original idea. We wrote it about the idea of being cursed for being left-handed, which used to be the belief in certain quarters. For me it is a song about understanding ourselves and confronting our demons and I love the sound of the track and how it feels like a step into somewhere a little different to where I've been before.
Look Out Machines
I write this song with the legend who is Gary Clark, formerly of Danny Wilson, at his home in Dundee. We had never met before so it was with a sense of excitement and nerves that I arrived at his house where we spend a couple of days together. One of the amazing things about song writing is that beforehand there is nothing there, just blank pages and a need to express something.
I started scribbling ideas and Gary began to play some instruments and create some beats. Before long, the idea of a warning to the machines and systems which seek to squeeze us into boxes and conformity began to emerge. I suppose this is something I think about from time to time and the idea that, as human beings we often need to exert ourselves to lift us above the rules and boundaries which are meant to serve us but which we often end up serving.
Nail On The Head
Phil had the idea for the title and we talked about our need for people in our lives who speak to a place in us where we need to hear it, even when it's difficult to hear. The Moog solo which Dave plays is one of my favourite moments on the record!
I started writing this song with my friend and long time collaborator Paul Pilot for the record 'Oh Pioneer'. We wrote the first verse then and I finished it as I walked to the shops to get some food during the recording of 'Look Out Machines' in Eastbourne. For me, the song is the realisation that we are not alone in whatever it is we are feeling, that many people have been there before.
Like many songs I write there is a mixture of sadness and hope in its DNA. I then went through the same streets and onto the beach in Eastbourne near the reamains of the burned pier with a tape recorder recording the sounds of Eastbourne which is what you hear in the background.
I was asked if I would like to try a writing session with an emerging writer from Northern Ireland called Fiona Harte. I said yes and we ended up writing this song together in my writing room in the Oh Yeah building in Belfast.
The title came from a book on my shelves of interviews with the late Seamus Heaney but songs have a way of going where they want and being about what they want to be about. We imagined someone at the end of their life thinking back over the years and their regrets and love and experiences. We had a more orchestral backing track originally but I really love where it went in the end.
There was some discussion between Phil, Dave and myself as to what the closing track on the album should be. The obvious choice was the previous song 'Stepping Stones' but I am so glad we decided on 'Domino'. I started writing this as I was driving once again and finished it with David Saw and Jonathan Quarmby in RAK.
It's another song which has seeds of hope within it and again expresses my need for friendship and community. One thing leads into another, row on row, row on row. This hollow tree still needs a brother.
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'Looks Out Machines!' will be released on April 6th.