By daring to pursue his artistic ambitions, Northern Irish singer-songwriter Duke Special eschewed the mainstream success he enjoyed on his first few records. But world domination has never been the most pressing ambition for the dreadlocked romanticist.
His more recent records, such as 2011's Under the Dark Cloth, were essentially abstract concept albums. In this case the record was inspired by the work of pioneering American photographers like Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz. And while the the quality of the music and lyrics never suffered, they were never likely to sit comfortably in the charts alongside Katy Perry or One Direction.
“I'm getting less and less concerned about anything that I'm doing because anything that I like, artists and music that I like keeps an eye very little on commercial things. I think any artist worth anything doesn't care about that kind of stuff. Inevitably I want to be able to pay the bills and eat, but in terms of my art I'd rather do something that feels like it's got integrity and is meaningful than ever be on the radio” says the Lisburn born singer.
This year's Oh Pioneer is his first record in the more traditional mold since 2008's I Never Thought This Day Would Come. But having released four records in the time since that album, Special is a little bemused by how it has been received.
“It's interesting, people's reactions because they say things like 'OK this is your third album proper' but I just see it as the next thing that I've been working on”.
Special felt that working under the strict themes of his recent albums (Aside from Under The Dark Cloth, 2010's The Silent World of Hector Mann solely featured songs inspired by the character from Paul Auster's novel The Book Of Illusions), allowed him to explore his full artistic depths, something which he benefited from when it came time to write Oh Pioneer.
“Like any record that anyone makes, if there's a particularly good one there's a boundary to it, there's limitations. I find when you have ultimate freedom and you can write about anything it's really hard. It's quite difficult to know where to start putting your pen and I find limitations really helpful in a project”.
“I suppose as well the first clatter of records I did were about myself and inner landscapes. That's quite exhausting, there's only a certain amount of experiences that you can draw on. So I find it really interesting to look at stuff through the prism of another subject. Inevitably yourself comes through anyway, no matter what you write about. Like any writer, though they write about different characters, it's themselves ultimately that they're exploring and talking about”.
While Oh Pioneer has been praised both as a return to form and as his most accessible album for years, Special insists he had no particular intentions of returning to the mainstream when he sat down to write the record.
“Any of the stuff I release, none of it is particularly difficult to access in terms of tonality or instrumentation. There's nothing really completely bonkers about any of it. Under The Dark Cloth is incredibly melodic. It just so happens that the subject matter is a little bit different. When I came to write Oh Pioneer I just wanted to write good songs. There was no mysterious theme behind it, I just wanted to write good music”.
“I need to and want to pay the bills and make a living. But if it's between where I am at the moment, which is kind of scraping by, and world domination by having to completely tick all the boxes in order to be heard, then I have no interest in that. But I think people are intelligent and have good taste, so I'm hopeful that I'll still have an audience”.