Duncan Sheik

by Roger Catlin

Duncan Sheik's first break came early in his career, with a 1996 hit "Barely Breathing" that still pops up here and there in TV and film, and helped define its era. When a second hit failed to follow, he turned to writing for the stage, winning a Tony Award for Spring Awakening, a 2006 hit that enjoyed a second revival on Broadway in 2015 with deaf actors.

The pop sensibility brought by Sheik, 46, kept him in demand and he wrote a number of musicals including a 2013 adaptation of American Psycho that was successful in London and is on its way to Broadway. At the same time, he's kept up his recording career, with his seventh album of original material, Legerdemain, released in 2015, which he followed with a tour.
Roger Catlin (Songfacts): Where am I reaching you?

Duncan Sheik: [Pause] Los Angeles. Sometimes when you're on tour you have to think for a minute where you actually are.

Songfacts: How often do you get to tour?

Sheik: I usually play maybe 30 or 40 shows a year, which is not too grueling. I have some theater commitments I have to get done this spring, but after that, I hope to be playing a lot more shows.

Songfacts: How did that happen for you, taking the leap to the stage? Was Spring Awakening the first thing?

Sheik: It was the first thing I had done that made it to Broadway.

Songfacts: What was that process? Why did it take seven years?

Duncan credits Tom Hulce as helping shepherd his first musical Spring Awakening. And who better to do so than Mozart? Hulce, 62, earned an Oscar nomination playing that role in Milos Forman's 1984 film Amadeus (losing to his co-star F. Murray Abraham). Hulce also played Pinto, who hooked up with the mayor's daughter in the classic comedy Animal House in 1978. He was the voice of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996, then shifted to producing, staging a version of John Irving's The Cider House Rules. Several of his productions involve contemporary songwriters, including Patty Griffin (10 Million Miles) and Green Day (American Idiot).
Sheik: We workshopped it at La Jolla, we workshopped it at Sundance, and we did two big workshops at the Roundabout Theater in New York, who were going to present it and it just kind of fell apart for a minute. Luckily Tom Hulce, the actor and now theater producer, came along and rescued us from obscurity. He organized a one-night-only concert version at Lincoln Center in 2005, and the Atlantic Theater folks were there for that. So that kind of resuscitated the show and then we went to off-Broadway.

The great thing was that, even when nobody really expected it to go to Broadway, Lou Reed showed up and David Byrne showed up and David Bowie showed up. It became this cool downtown thing, and people started filling it out. The rest was history in this really lovely way.

Songfacts: How involved were you in the revival that ran through January?

Sheik: I was a little more involved in the Broadway revival, working with the three guitar players and working with the sound design. But they had their act together because they'd been doing it for a year in LA, so I knew it was going to be awesome.

Songfacts: Do you get involved when there are international productions of Spring Awakening?

Sheik: Yeah. I've gone to Japan, I've gone to Finland, I've gone to Mexico, gone to Austria. I try to see them whenever I can. I haven't seen all of them - there's been like 40 of them. But it's a great experience.

Songfacts: Are they in different languages too?

Sheik: Yeah. They're completely translated. It's a bizarre experience, because I know every line of that text by heart, but I don't speak any of those languages, so it's fun to be able to follow along.

Songfacts: Your new album dabbles with an electronic sound. Do you bring that equipment on the tour you're doing with Suzanne Vega?

Sheik: Oh yeah. These shows are extremely electronic. What's great is Suzanne Vega, one of her biggest hits is the remix of "Tom's Diner," so I do my thing and then Suzanne does her much more acoustic set and then we end the show with this big remix of "Tom's Diner" and it's really fun.

Songfacts: Do you perform acoustically as well?

Sheik: The record has two sides to it: The first half is much more about programming, and the second half is much more internal and organic. So I try and play a little sampling of those things. And I'm playing some Spring Awakening stuff and stuff from American Psycho in the set. So I'm trying to get it all in there.

Songfacts: Who else is in the band?

Sheik: I have an amazing drummer named Doug Yule, who is also doing some laptop stuff and a keyboard player named Jason Hart, who is also doing some laptop stuff. And I'm doing guitar and keyboards, so there's a lot of shenanigans up there on stage.

Songfacts: People still want to hear your big hit "Barely Breathing," though.

Sheik: No worries. We play that too. But at the end of the show we all get on stage together and play "Barely Breathing" together and "Tom's Diner" together. It's a big celebration of pop music I guess.

Songfacts: It's also a way to ensure that nobody leaves early, right?

Sheik: Yeah. You never know. But they seem to be sticking around on this tour.

As much as some people like Duncan Sheik's "Barely Breathing," for others it can be an instrument of torture. On the second season of Girls, Marnie Michaels becomes briefly fascinated with an artist named Booth Jonathan, who invites her to see his latest piece: a tower of video screens showing gross images while that mid-'90s anthem plays on repeat.
Songfacts: That song is still heard in TV and movies. It means something to people.

Sheik: Exactly. It was on Glee and then it was on Girls. The use of it on Girls was kind of funny and pretty snarky and pretty great, so I approve of that a lot.

Songfacts: Were you surprised when you saw it used that way?

Sheik: Obviously they have to get approvals, so we know it's happening. But we don't know how it will appear on the show. So that part of it was a lot of fun.

Songfacts: "Barely Breathing" was on the chart for how long? A year?

Sheik: Yeah, it was a year. Like 54, 55 weeks. Too long!

Songfacts: Too long? Is that a bad thing? I thought a long run on the charts was a good thing.

Sheik: It was a good thing as far as my business manager was concerned. But for me, I was in the state of like, "Can we please go on to the next single now?"

Really. I was like, "Can I go record a new record now and go on with my life?" Which of course I did.

But that was a weird time in the music business, just as now is a weird time. Because that was the moment in 1998, 1999 when we shifted from a post-grunge, organic music-making process and we went into that time of Britney and Christina and 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys - really bubblegum, engineered pop music. I was also like, What am I doing in this universe? Because it wasn't music I felt a lot of kinship with. So the theater in some ways was a bit of a savior for me.

Songfacts: It seems the times when singer/songwriters come to the forefront comes and goes.

Sheik: I do see that. It's hard for artists to make money now in the music business because of digital distribution, and what's going on with radio vs. Pandora vs. Spotify. It's really hard for people to make a living in the music business, but I think there's a lot of good music being made right now, and the barrier of entry is pretty easy. So there are a lot of people who are making really cool music who may not have been able to in a different era. You just have to sift through a lot more stuff to find things that are great.

Songfacts: How is the barrier of entry into music, as you call it, easier now?

Sheik: It's more from the ground up. I was teaching at the Clive Davis School of Music at NYU the past couple of semesters and these kids are 18, 19, 20 years old and they have laptops in their bedrooms and they make recordings that sound like completely finished major-label releases. It's extraordinary what kids can do if they're savvy and they learn how to use the technology. Of course they need to be good musicians and good writers, but you don't need a million-dollar recording studio to make a great record.

The British singer songwriter Nick Drake, who plied his rich voice with acoustic guitar and strings, continued to influence music long after his death in 1974 at age 26. Saddled with depression and a shyness that kept him from many live performances, interviews or photographs of any type, he released just three albums. Respectably reviewed in his time, he gained wider audiences posthumously and influenced a number of musicians. His music turned up in the movies Garden State and The Royal Tenenbaums, but he gained his widest audience when "Pink Moon," the title track to his final album, was used in an ad for the Volkswagen Cabriolet in 1999.
Songfacts: You were always a big Nick Drake fan. How did you find him?

Sheik: I came to Nick Drake relatively late. I've been playing guitar since I was 6 years old. I was introduced to him when I was in LA and I was trying to get my first record deal. There was an A&R person at Geffen Records named Tony Berg, who played me the song "River Man." At that moment I was still in the process of writing material for my first record, and that song blew me away. This is the sound I was looking for: this golden gem that's been hiding under a rock for two decades. It kind of crystallized a lot of things I wanted to do in terms of using string arrangement and acoustic guitars, and the possibility of that sonic palette. So after a while, it's like anything else: I had made so much music with that sonic palette, I wanted to play with some different paints.

Songfacts: It seems like everybody finds Nick Drake in their own way. It's always a very individual discovery.

Sheik: Yeah.

Songfacts: So you've been playing music since you were 6. What inspired you to pick up a guitar then?

Sheik: My grandmother was a passionate pianist [say that three times fast]. She was born in Scotland and she came over and was a great visual artist and really great musician. She was always really supportive of my musical endeavors, even my obnoxious loud electric guitar ones. I had a really awesome person there who I grew up with who was kind of nudging me in that direction, so I guess it was my karma to want to play music, because it didn't take that much nudging for me to want to pick up a guitar. It was almost innate in some way.

Songfacts: What artists inspired you as a young person?

Sheik: Weirdly, I guess when I was 6, somebody gave me a copy of Yes' Fragile, which is a weird record to give to a 6-year-old. But I was really into it, so from a very young age I was into all this prog rock stuff and I was listening to all this Yes and Genesis and King Crimson; Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It was a very strange musical diet for an 8 or 10-year-old, but what can you do?

Songfacts: At a time when other kids were listening to what?

Sheik: That would have been late '70s, so I don't know. In some ways it's sort of a forgettable era of pop music, if you ask me. I was glad I was listening to the weird stuff. And then I think the '80s is a very underrated time in pop music, because there was a lot of great music, especially coming out of the UK. So as I matured and became a teenager, I shifted from the prog rock to more arty new wave, new romantic kind of music. It was basically music girls wanted to listen to.

Songfacts: You did that whole '80s album [Covers 80's, 2011]. Was that your salute to that era?

Sheik: That was my own little love letter to some of the songs of that area. Some people think of it as throwaway, but there's really cool songs, so I wanted to deconstruct them and reimagine as if Nick Drake were playing them, so that was just a fun project.

Songfacts: Before you go, I wanted to ask about the Spring Awakening movie. Will that happen?

Sheik: It definitely will happen. It's just that making a movie and especially making a musical movie is a very hard thing to pull off, and you need to get all the right pieces together. So we're in search for the director right now, and we have some really great producers, so it's just a question of getting the team together and the timing. I'm confident it will happen.

March 23, 2016
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Comments: 1

  • Charlie from Houston, Tx UsaI've always wanted to know more about Duncan and what was behind his music. I'm happy to come visit Song Facts and find myself reading such an intimate article about him. Thanks Roger Catlin (and Song Facts) for the good info.
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