Duncan Sheik had the kind of overnight success in the ‘90s that crystallized him as a pop star, and even though he admits to having been slightly uncomfortable in the context of Top 40 radio, he’ll also tell you that he remains forever grateful for the experience.
The song responsible for Sheik’s meteoric rise to fame was, of course, “Barely Breathing,” which also happened to be the very first single off his 1996 debut album. When you tell him you’re still not sick of it, he says, “That’s cool,” with a laugh, then adds, “it kind of took on a life of its own.” Indeed, the song has been featured on shows like Girls and Glee in recent years.
Sheik’s career has taken so many twists and turns since “Barely Breathing” that he looks back only for a split-second and strictly for nostalgia’s sake. Today, he enjoys the kind of recognition and fulfillment that comes only when you’re brave enough to take risks. For Sheik, that meant creating music for the stage, in a musical adaptation of the German 1891 play, Spring Awakening. The Steven Sater-penned musical has toured the globe, earned rave reviews, and won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book (for Sater), and Best Score (a shared honor for Sheik as composer and Sater as lyricist).
For Sheik, that first production of Spring Awakening in 2006 was the beginning of an entirely new parallel career, one that keeps taking him to unexpected yet exciting places. Just as a new, soul-stirring production of Spring Awakening, which incorporates sign language into the choreography, ends its run on Broadway on January 24, American Psycho, a musical adaptation based on the 1991 novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, begins previews at the Schoenfeld Theater on March 24, 2016. Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and with music and lyrics by Sheik, it’s bound to be a hit.
But just because Sheik’s star keeps rising in theater doesn’t mean he’s abandoned his career as a recording artist. His new album, Legerdemain, released in October, flirts with electronic music while staying true to his organic, artsy sound. “The whole thing is like a battery,” Sheik tells BMI. “The first half has a positive charge and the second half has a negative charge but it kind of works together as a whole.”
The Tony and GRAMMY winner, who is based in New York City, talked to BMI about musical rebirths, getting into the mind of a serial killer, the future of digital distribution, and how theater has elevated his sound to new heights.
We’re excited about the return of Spring Awakening! When you were first approached to score the original production, you were reluctant. What ultimately inspired you to do it and what approach did you take so that your music might change our perception of Broadway?
I wasn’t really approached; I had become friends with the playwright and it’s material that’s in the public domain so we had been talking about adapting it as a musical and right off the bat I said, to be honest I’m not a huge fan of a lot of the music that’s happening on Broadway right now. Stylistically, it’s not really my cup of tea, but if you’re ok with me writing music that’s more up my aesthetic alley then that’s fine. So over the course of the five or six years that we were writing the show, the music that I was most connected with was nominally indie rock. There was a return to authenticity after the bubblegum pop music of the beginning of the millennium and I knew that young, cool people were embracing it, too, so if we could pull it off in the context of a piece of theater where there’s a larger narrative, I thought that it could broaden the audience beyond the normal crowd that would go to a Broadway musical.
How does the new production differ from the original?
Musically, it doesn’t, it’s the same score. But we have a couple extra musicians because in this production you have hearing-impaired and deaf actors, so there are another five people onstage, and we have three guitarists instead of one, and we have a harpist now. The production sounds beautiful, and I kind of love the irony that it’s a production for deaf and hearing-impaired people but it’s really one of the best sounding productions we’ve ever had, so I’m really happy about that. It’s just a really powerful version, having the deaf actors onstage, the struggle that they go through to be heard, it kind of doubles down on the essential thematic thrust of the story, which is about the inability to communicate and the inability of parents and teachers to talk to adolescents about sexuality.
Spring Awakening is set in 19th century Germany, but the music you wrote is very contemporary. How did you balance that and come up with such an authentic sound, like you’d tapped into that culture and time?
We just said, rather than try and make it a smooth transition between the themes of the songs, let’s do the thing where once the actors’ scenes are finished, the song kind of comes in and it’s a very clear break in the flow of the show. It’s almost like there’s a cut to the year 2015 from 1891. And of course the lighting, especially in the original production, made it really clear that we were going to a different part of the time-space continuum. So it was about being as blunt as we possibly in those transitions.
Spring Awakening not only brought you great success, but also introduced the world to such breakout stars as Lea Michele (Glee, Scream Queens), Jonathan Groff (Frozen, Hamilton), and John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom). How was it working with such a talented young cast and do you recognize any “breakout stars” with the current cast?
You know me; I’m a real star-maker! [laughs] No, I love that [first] cast and we got along really great. It was a lot of fun and I will always cherish those memories – the good, the bad and the ugly of developing that first version of Spring Awakening. And there are definitely some incredibly talented kids on stage right now. I don’t want to play favorites because frankly any of them could be the next big thing, especially some of the folks in the band, but I will mention Katy Boeck [voice of Wendla / guitar], Kathryn Gallagher [voice of Martha / guitar], Sean Grandillo [voice of Otto / bass] and Alex Boniello [voice of Moritz / guitar]. Those are the four people in the band with whom I’ve worked the most. They’re just really talented and definitely going to have great careers as musicians or actors or whatever they want to do.
Let’s talk about American Psycho. How did you get into the voice of a serial killer for the project and what can we expect from the music?
Oh, that was a piece of cake! If you only knew… [laughs]. When I first read American Psycho I was going to Brown University, it was 1991, and we would come to New York City every weekend and go to nightclubs. I was a musician at that time but a lot of my friends were headed over to Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs and they were like Patrick Bateman prototypes at age 20, so I really felt like I knew a lot of aspects of that character because I hung out with different iterations of that throughout my college years. It was a really fantastic opportunity for me to get back into electronic music which I’ve loved since I was a teenager, even though I’ve done most of my records with a more organic sonic palette, so this was a great way of pulling out some of the old synthesizers and drum machines that I’ve had since the ‘80s and then use some of the newer technology like Ableton to kind of create the sonic picture for that show.
How has writing for musical theater influenced you as a singer-songwriter?
I just think it’s really helped broaden my palette. Especially as a lyricist, it’s enabled me to understand that’s it ok to write from the perspective of a different persona. Every song that you write doesn’t have to be this exercise in navel-gazing, this kind of self-analysis. Every song doesn’t have to be about ‘oh, this girl doesn’t like me anymore,’ which ultimately starts to get incredibly boring [laughs]. Working with Steven Sader has certainly opened me up to using more poetic and enigmatic language and not worry about being so literal all the time, which is my pet peeve with the current pop music scene.
Tell us about your new album Legerdemain. What was the concept behind it and why are the songs so diverse?
It’s this album of two parts, the first half of it reflects my kind of renewed excitement about electronic music, and it’s really I guess my own strange hybridization of pop song structure with EDM aesthetics. And then the second half of the record is more what I call typical Duncan Sheik self-indulgent art songs and it’s more organic, sparse, internal and darker. But the whole thing is like a battery, the first half has a positive charge and the second half has a negative charge but it kind of works together as a whole.
What’s the most profound experience that shaped your career
Obviously when my first record came out and the first song was a big radio hit, that was life-changing, but I will say there was also some cognizant dissonance for me as an artist because my influences and the things that I was excited about musically did not tend to be Top 40 artists, so to be thrust into that context was a little bit strange for me. I think I subconsciously subverted that in whatever way I could, but that was still a great experience. Over those years between 2000 and 2005 where I was trying to figure out who I was as an artist and what I was interested in doing, I was lucky to meet Steven Sater and we embarked on these various theater projects. Because of the success of Spring Awakening, I kind of felt validated again as an artist and reenergized and I kind of felt like maybe there were still people out there who really wanted to hear the music I was making.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced along the way?
The biggest challenge right now for pretty much all recording artists, songwriters and performers is this changing world of digital distribution with Spotify and Pandora and YouTube and all of the different ways people can hear music “for free.” It’s just about figuring out how to have a career and make a living as a writer and as an artist. Obviously there’s a way to do it and be very successful at it, but you have to keep being progressive in your thinking about how to pull that off. Right at this particular moment, not to be overly critical of any one outlet, I don’t really feel that artists are quite getting the cut that they should be getting and I think that that’s going to have to be redressed in some way over the next decade. Hopefully it will get sorted out sooner rather than later and people can continue to make a living out of being songwriters and artists. I’m lucky because I do have this tangential career in the theater that allows me to live my life as an artist. But not everyone wants to do that so I think it’s important to get it figured out.
Tell us about your relationship with BMI.
BMI has been fantastic, especially during those kind of leaner years in the beginning of the millennium; those quarterly checks were among the things that kept me afloat. It’s obviously an incredible resource and BMI has always been supportive of me, both on the pop side of things and on the theater side of things. I’m really happy to be a part of it for, I guess, 20 years now.
Can you share a day in the life of Duncan Sheik?
I wake up, I have some coffee, I try and get my blood flowing in some way, so I either take a bike ride or go on a run. I’m a practicing Buddhist, so I also chant every morning and evening and then depending on what’s going on, I will wander into this second bedroom I have in my apartment where I have what I call Studio B, and I’ll get to work on whatever it is I need to work on. But if I need to something that’s a little more involved I have a studio in Garrison, N.Y., so I might take a drive up there and do some work there. I’m a cultured person so I definitely like to go see theater and I’m a big movie buff. These days, for better or for worse, there’s so much good TV that I’ve become addicted to HBO and Showtime and all the cool stuff that’s happening, and even, heaven forbid, a couple of network shows [laughs]. Consuming art is kind of a nice break from work, but it also gives me some inspiration.