It’s not a
straight line to go from pop star to respected Broadway composer, but
Duncan Sheik never believed in doing things the normal way.
exploded onto the pop culture radar in 1996, when his Gold-certified
self-titled debut album yielded the mega-hit single “Barely Breathing” –
a song which still gets regular radio play thirteen years later. The
album also spawned a couple of other small hits – “She Runs Away” and
“Reasons for Living.” He also got a Grammy nod for best rock vocalist
for “Barely Breathing,” although he ended up losing that nod to Elton
John’s baby-gorilla-huge Princess Diana rethink of “Candle in the
never really saw himself as a music star and he has followed that debut
with an acclaimed-but-quirky body of work. Albums like Humming,
Phantom Moon and White Limousine rewarded fans at the same
time they confounded A&R guys who were looking for a simple, hooky hit
that they could get on radio.
Sheik worked with
playwright Stephen Sater on the Phantom Moon project – and that
collaboration led the pair to put together a musical called Spring
Awakening – which became a surprise Broadway smash and finally won
Sheik his Grammy – as well as a Tony.
album is made up of the songs from his next musical – Whisper House
– which is based on an old ghost story. Whisper House is an
old-fashioned song cycle, a fanciful acoustic set of musical fables
about a young ghost named Christopher and the lighthouse he haunts. The
show is scheduled for its first performances now, hopefully following
Spring Awakening to the Great White Way.
This was the
second time I had interviewed Sheik. In 1996, right before his hit
single “Barely Breathing” exploded, I spoke with him at the Theater of
Living Arts in Philadelphia, as well as another new, little-known singer
he was opening for named Jewel. Thirteen years after our last
discussion, Sheik was kind enough to sit down and talk to me from his
New York City home.
I remember when I
first interviewed you; you told me that you had previously played in
Lisa Loeb’s band while in Brown. You also had played on an album by His
Boy Elroy. When did you know you were ready to go solo?
I graduated from
college in 1992. I guess in my sophomore year I was a guitar player in
Lisa Loeb’s band at the time – which was called Liz and Lisa. Then
around that time I started secretly recording my own songs in the
recording studio in Brown. Over the next couple of years I made a
series demos. I drove across country to Los Angeles after graduation
pretty much with the idea that I was going to attempt some way to
perform to get a record deal. So it was basically right after college.
The His Boy Elroy thing – it was a producer I was working with at the
time and he was producing that record, so he just had me come in and
play some guitar. That was a very casual experience. (laughs)
I interviewed you
right before “Barely Breathing” hit. How surreal was that suddenly
hearing yourself all over the radio and TV?
Well, you know, on
the one hand it was great, because, yeah, you’re on the radio and you’re
making kind of fancy music videos. It seemed like things were going to
be really great. On the other hand, you were still kind of in a van
with four other dirty musicians, staying at Motel 6. When your first
record comes out and you have a single on the radio, it means that
things are on the upswing, but it doesn’t mean that you’re all the
sudden living in the lap of luxury. So it was great, but there was also
a certain amount of kind of cognitive dissonance for me, because I
always thought of myself as a much more alternative songwriter and being
in a Top 40 context wasn’t the easiest thing for me.
It’s funny, but I
sort of remember thinking when you released
album seemed a bit more theatrical than your debut – more strings,
denser production. Were you already experimenting with that side of
actually were quite a few string arrangements on the first record as
well. I have a now very long-standing collaboration with Simon Hale who
has done the orchestration on all of my records and most of the theater
stuff I’ve done. So that’s always been an aspect of my aesthetic or
style. I guess the theater thing kind of came up really almost by
accident, later. Late in 1999, after I finished touring behind
Humming, I met my friend Stephen Sater. We’re both practicing
Buddhists and he’s a playwright. He proposed the idea that we think
about adapting Spring Awakening and turn it into a theater piece
that had songs.
You first started
collaborating with Stephen Sater on
know you met because you are both Buddhist, but how did you first start
collaborating with him? Were you working on
at the time, too? I know that had a long germinating period.
Yes, yes. They
were kind of concurrent. I started working on the songs that became
Phantom Moon. Actually, Stephen had written a play and there was a
song lyric in it and Stephen said, “Would you write some music for the
lyric?” I said sure. We started writing. He had one lyric and then he
faxed me another lyric. Stephen is very prolific. Then he just started
faxing me lyric after lyric and before too long there was a stack of
like 25 of them. I was like, okay, I guess this is going to be my next
record, because I had all these songs that were – well I guess you could
say that they were as completely non-commercial as you could possibly
get. It was all acoustic instruments and woodwind arrangements and all
this kind of very poetic lyrics. At the time, I think I was reacting
against the Top 40 specter of my life. I was like, great, I’ll make
this really arty record and it’ll come out on Nonesuch and I can
reestablish myself as the kind of artist that I wanted to be perceived
as. It actually, looking back on it, it seems kind of funny to me. So
we started working on Spring Awakening while I was writing and
recording Phantom Moon. I guess that began a series of workshops
– it really was seven years before it was staged. We did I think seven
workshops before it made it to the Atlantic Theater.
You grew up
partially in New Jersey. When you were growing up did you go to New
York for theater often?
You know, I did.
I did. My mom would take me to see things. I remember seeing things as
diverse as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and then
my mom took me to Sweeney Todd when it first came out. I
had done… in grade school I was the Artful Dodger in Oliver! and
all – the normal thing that kid’s do. I think when I was twelve or
thirteen… I was a guitar player. When you’re thirteen, playing a guitar
becomes a lot cooler than doing the song and dance numbers. (laughs)
So after I was thirteen I really wasn’t involved in musical theater
at all. I would go see plays, I’d go see straight plays, but it wasn’t
until 1999 when we started working on Spring Awakening that I
kind of jumped back into that world.
2002, you did some music for the New York Shakespeare festival’s version
Twelfth Night, even before Spring Awakening was staged.
did that opportunity come up?
The director of
that show was a guy named Brian Kulick. I guess he was a fan of
Phantom Moon and he thought that kind of organic almost-folk music
or orchestrated folk music aspect of that record would sound really good
with his version of Twelfth Night. That was just a really cool
experience. It was the first time that I had done something that was
mainly underscore, as opposed to writing songs. That was a lot of fun.
You were working
for eight years.
How gratifying was it when it finally opened on Broadway to such
It was amazing.
For the first seven years of development, nobody was talking about it as
a Broadway show at all. Even our own director and our own producers
were thinking of it as something that was kind of a cool avant garde
piece that would exist off-Broadway and maybe do the alternative
theater circuit like the Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Festival. It
wasn’t until the very end of the run at the Atlantic, in the summer of
2006 that people started saying, ‘Oh, well maybe we can bring this show
to Broadway.’ I remember when they announced it was going to transfer
to the O’Neill it was just amazing. I didn’t realize how emotional I’d
be about it. It was really exciting. When we were in previews, the
show was losing a ton of money, because we had been playing in a theater
to 185 people a night and all of the sudden we were in a theater with
1,100 seats. So it was very touch and go, but then opening night
happened and the reviews started coming in that next day. I remember
there were like 23 rave reviews from 23 newspapers. It was incredible.
Then people just started coming in droves. That was really
surreal. That was like walking on air for the next couple of months.
Due to the bad
recently closed on Broadway, though it is still doing touring
companies. Was it sort of bittersweet to see it leaving Broadway?
Yeah, a little
bit. I actually was really, really happy with the run that we had. We
had over 800 shows. That to me was a small miracle. And yes, the show
is touring. It just opened on the West End in London. It’s opening in
eighteen different territories around the world this year. It’s kind of
living on in a different incarnation. That makes me very happy.
Back in the old
days, they often previewed musicals with concept albums. Was it an
interesting experience to do that with
Well, yeah. You
know, it’s funny. I didn’t realize until later that this was something
that people did. I guess maybe they did Jesus Christ Superstar…
Yes, they did
Christ Superstar, Chess… I believe Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
did it a lot…
Okay, right, so
they would put out the records first and then develop the show. So I
did that with Whisper House, not really knowing there was a
precedent for it. It’s been great, because the record has allowed
artistic directors at theaters to really get into the songs and hear
them produced properly. It looks like we’re going to do that show at
the Old Globe Theater in San Diego in January of next year.
Okay, yes, I was
going to ask you what the plans were for staging it…
going to do New York Stage and Film up in Vassar (which runs from June
to August 2009). It’s really like a workshop process, but there will be
a couple of performances at the end of that. Then we head to San Diego
You’ve also been
doing some live concerts with other artists to preview the songs. Do
you see that as almost a workshop of the show as well?
Sure. I mean,
it’s really just a way of getting the music out there in front of people
and making people aware of the project. Maybe filling them in a little
bit on what the narrative is – this ghost story that these songs are
telling. I’m personally not the most theatrical performer, but it’s
kind of nice to have this persona to jump into – to play the part of
this ghost onstage. And the best thing of all is it gives me something
to talk about between songs. (laughs)
you always been a fan of ghost stories?
Yeah, I guess,
when I was a kid. There is a lot of ghost lore in South Carolina where
I grew up. So, I would listen to ghost stories that my friends’ dads
would tell us. We’d go on camping trips and they’d try to freak us out
around the campfire. Those were good memories. (laughs)
Whisper House is
part of a darker genre than
you looking to do something entirely different with the musical?
Well, you know, I
actually… Spring Awakening deals with some pretty dark themes. I
think Whisper House, in a way, is much more whimsical.
Whimsically malevolent. There’s a little bit of a knowing, winking
quality to a lot of those songs that hopefully people will get. And,
yeah, I think they’re actually just very different, because Spring
Awakening has so much to do with adolescence and puberty and
sexuality. Whisper House is in a way pre-sexual. Christopher is
only eleven. It’s doesn’t really deal with those themes. It touches a
little bit on romantic love between the other characters, but in a way
it’s a much more innocent piece.
Many of the songs
are duets with Holly Brook. How did you start working with her and what
do you feel she adds to the process?
Holly was opening
up for me on a tour I did in 2006 for White Limousine. I thought
she was a great singer and a great songwriter. I was touring next in
2007 with a string quartet and doing some of the Spring Awakening
material, so I needed a female singer who could also play keyboards. I
invited Holly out to join the band and we’ve just been working together
ever since. She sang on Whisper House, obviously, and I just
produced her new record which hopefully will see the light of day later
this year. She’s an amazing singer and an amazing songwriter.
Especially for someone her age, it’s a little bit frightening.
So many of
Broadway musicals now are either revivals, turning old movies into plays
or shoehorning old pop music into a play. Is it hard to launch more
original works like yours – which I know were based on old tales, but
not ones that are generally known?
I think that both
Stephen and I have an appreciation for classic pieces of literature and
classic plays. Things that are in the canon of western literature, but
they aren’t necessarily big pop culture things. I think that those
kinds of stories and those kinds of source materials are what appeal to
us. We’re working on… we have two shows in development, one is about
Nero. Another show is based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale
called “The Nightingale.” In some ways, they are kind of diverse. But
they are similar in the sense that they deal with historical themes and
classic pieces of literature. But they are historical themes that have
great relevance for today. I think that’s what Steve and I both enjoy –
finding ways of taking these great tales and turning them into something
that people can enjoy in this decade.
When I was
researching this interview, I did see in Wikipedia mentioning one of
Golden Rome). They said you were working on it, but I couldn’t
really find any other info. How far along is it?
We’ve done a lot
of work on it. We’ve done four or five workshops. At the moment, we
are talking to a few different theaters in London about having it
produced there. I think, mainly because the Brits have that particular
period of western history more in their curriculum than the Americans
do. The material is in some ways more familiar to those audiences. So
we want to get it started over there. We’re looking to get that show up
in London. Then we’ll look and see if it will make it here as well.
Now that you have
sort of segued to musical theater, can you see a point where you’ll ever
go back and just do a straight album again?
the next record I think that I’m going to put out is kind of a covers
album. Songs from the eighties. English bands like The Smiths, New
Order, Depeche Mode, Psychedelic Furs… all these bands that I listened
to as a teenager. I’m kind of reimagining what people would refer to as
sort of synth-pop songs in a kind of different style.
Sort of like Grant
A little bit along
those lines. (Also) I’ve started… not really on purpose, but there are
a batch of songs that have accrued over the past couple of months taking
shape as some kind of album, but it’s a little bit early to say exactly
what it’s going to be. The other thing is, here we are in 2009… how
much longer is the compact disk going to be something that people
consume? (laughs) Therefore, does it make sense to release
things as albums in the way maybe you will release collections of
songs? Or maybe they will be released serially – one song at a time.
I’m trying to figure out what’s the best way to get music out there in
accordance with what’s going on in our digital age.
What gets the
prize spot in your home – your Grammy or your Tony?
actually sitting on a couple of books over here. On the same level
pretty much, let’s put it that way.
Okay, a few vague
questions to close out. What would people be surprised to know about
Surprised to know
about me? Wow. (long pause) That’s very vague. I’m sure there
are a lot of things they’d be surprised about. (laughs) But I
probably shouldn’t talk about them in the interview. Umm, let’s see.
I’m a very big James Bond fan.
How would you like
people to see your career?
What I hope to
continue to do is create a body of work that is diverse and meaningful
to people. That’s challenging the way that music is made and how people
hear songs, finding different and interesting contexts to compose
music. In a way I just want to continue doing what I’m doing.
Hopefully people will be able to appreciate that music can function in
so many ways and it can exist and wear so many different clothes. But
the important thing is that you are moved by it. That it has an impact
on your soul.
Are there any
misconceptions you’d like to clear up?
Well, for a long
time it was very frustrating to me – like we talked about before – being
in the Top 40 context. I think I went through an almost ten year period
of trying to find a different audience for myself. Trying to find the
specific audience that I thought was supposed to appreciate my music.
But, you know, the truth is your music is going to be appreciated by the
people that like it. You can’t really control that, so I think now it’s
more just about putting your nose to the ground and trying to write the
best songs you can write. Fight the good fight in terms of creating
art. Hopefully people will appreciate that.