It was only a dream... or was it? Q&A with Duke Special ahead of 30 June MAC gig

Duke Special © Tim Millen

Tell us the inspiration/story behind your upcoming show It Was Only A Dream. Tell us about finding the old sheet music.

As a child, I remember visiting relatives and opening the lid of their piano stool and finding long forgotten, obscure songs and pieces of music and I think that excitement of discovery has stayed with me ever since. Over the years, people have given me bundles of song sheets they have discovered in the attic or have inherited, and on occasion, I have learned a song from these old sheets and performed it in concert. A couple of years ago, I happened to be reading about the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco and saw that it was home to a significant collection of Irish-American Tin Pan Alley song sheets, and that was the start of this journey.

Monaco? Tin Pan Alley? This sounds like something straight out of The Adventures of Tin Tin. Why does this old music deserve a modern-day audience?

Of course, there are some songs written a long time ago that don’t age well and are very much of a time, but there are others that still resonate today because they concern themes which feel universal and timeless, themes such as love, death, loss, a search for meaning and so on. The songs we are performing at the MAC are some of the ones from the archive that struck a chord with me and that I felt I could own and believe when I was singing them.

What will the ensemble bring to the table...or the stage?

What a joy to play with these incredible musicians. The singers, Niamh Dunne (Beoga), Mark McCambridge (Arborist), and Rachel McCarthy (Darkling Air) are all wonderful songwriters and performers but they are also brilliant interpreters of songs and completely understand how to channel the spirit of a song through themselves. Seán Óg Graham (guitar), Nick Scott (bass), and Steve Davis (drums) are all masterful players and utterly sensitive to what the songs need. Then there is the sublime playing of Ruth McGinley, currently the artist in residence at the Mac, Ruth has music running through her veins. Niamh, Mark, Rachel, and Ruth will be bringing other pieces to the concert which they have discovered and which connect to the theme of the evening.

What sort of style/genre can the audience expect?

Many of the songs have a connection to Ireland and span over 100 years, between the 1840s and the 1940s. Stylistically they draw on traditional Irish music, classical, vaudeville theatre and parlour songs, but they sound fresh and relevant which is down to how well they were written.

So, the songs go back a long way. If you could choose one era to go back in time to, what would it be and why?

Oh, I think the last couple of decades of the 1800s which was when people like Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner began to see the possibilities in the newfound ability to record sound.

Can the audience expect to hear any classic Duke songs or will all the songs be from the sheet music?

This won’t be a typical Duke Special concert. It is a special, one night only opportunity to hear some of the beautiful songs from the archive, augmented by the additional pieces brought by the rest of the band, so it’s going to be a beautiful night.

Can you tell us about the process of developing these songs for a live show and why you chose certain instruments for certain songs/sections?

The most important considerations in choosing the pieces were if I could ‘own' the song in terms of being able to sing the lyrics and mean them, and if the melody felt good. A couple of the songs I actually set to new music and for one, I loved the melody but wrote new words. The instrumentation grew out of my belief in the other players whose involvement came from a gut instinct that they were the right people for the job.

Can you describe a typical weekend in the life of Duke Special?

I generally swan around in a smoking jacket listening to gramophone records while sipping absinthe and reading Edgar Allan Poe.

This is the exact answer we wanted. Thank you.

Duke Special performs at the MAC on 30 June, 7.45pm with Niamh Dunne (Beoga), Mark McCambridge (Arborist), and Rachel McCarthy (Darkling Air) on vocals, Seán Óg Graham (guitar), Nick Scott (bass), and Steve Davis (drums), and Ruth McGinley (piano). Tickets are available here.