For the last few months now, Glaswegian singer songwriter C Duncan has been living under the mantle "underdog." There's good reason for this: His debut album, the fey and charmingly folksy Architect, was nominated for a Mercury Prize when no one within his small circle, least of all the 26-year-old himself, expected it to be. Prior to the nomination, C Duncan was a mystery, an enigma. Who even knew what the "C" stood for, much less what he sounded like?
"It's Chris," he explains haltingly, in his charming, soft-spoken manner on a cold November afternoon, halfway through a U.K. tour that's drawing bigger crowds than he had previously anticipated. "Or Christopher."
He refers to himself as Christopher, he explains, mostly when he paints—for Duncan is something of a renaissance man; he is fond of creating aerial views—and "C" when he sings. "I thought C Duncan, for a songwriter, was shorter, catchier."
Born and raised in Drymen, near Loch Lomond in Scotland, Duncan is the son of a violinist and viola player who between them have played with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. He was weaned on classical music, but also The Carpenters. Perhaps inevitably, by the age of 16, he had turned rebellious and discovered heavy metal.
"But only briefly." He laughs. By 18, he was studying classical composition at the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow, and went on to score soundtracks for TV shows. Pop music was merely a side project, but it has proved a particularly fruitful one, for Architect might well be the cheapest album ever to be nominated for so prestigious an award.
"It cost me about £50 [approximately $75]," he says, "and I recorded it direct onto my laptop. I had all the instruments already [including a 1940s classical guitar that had belonged to his grandfather], so all I really had to buy was a soundcard—and a lot of coffee."
Architect's overriding charm is in its delicate, almost hymnal nature, and Duncan's cascading, whispered vocal. Songs are wintry and wistful, and he sings as if pining for something he'll never find. He is already hard at work on a follow-up.
"I studied to become a classical composer, and that's still very much what I want to do: to make modern classical music. But this pop stuff," he says, smiling, "is very satisfying, and the exposure courtesy of the Mercury nomination, while entirely unexpected, is…well, it's nice. I could get used to it."