Duncan Sheik talks 'Barely Breathing,' 'Spring Awakening' and the 'American Psycho' musical
Believe it or not, kids, there was a time when Duncan Sheik was known as a singer-songwriter, and not just a Tony-winning Broadway hit machine.
That time was called “The ’90s,” and for a while, you couldn’t go anywhere without hearing Sheik’s airy hit Barely Breathing on the radio. Later singles, like She Runs Away, Wishful Thinking and On A High, also wiggled their way into decent airplay.
But that was all before 2006, when Spring Awakening, the controversial musical about teenage sexual discovery that Sheik co-wrote with Steven Sater, won eight Tonys and became a Rent for the 21st Century, turning Sheik into a cult hero among a legion of young drama fans.
“There are people from the theater world who have almost no knowledge of my singer-songwriter career,” Sheik said during a recent call from New York, where he lives. “I feel super fortunate to be able to work in both mediums, but there is a lot of explaining I end up having to do.”
In 2009 Sheik released Whisper House, his first album since Spring Awakening. It also became a musical, which recently debuted in San Diego. He’s also working on a Spring Awakening movie, and he has more theater projects lined up, including an Alice in Wonderland musical and a Broadway adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho. Yes, really.
But on Friday, Sheik will return to his pop music roots with a good ol’ fashioned concert at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. The show is at 7:30 p.m.; tickets start at $25.50; click here to purchase.
We caught up with Sheik to discuss his career’s unexpected twists and turns, including his work on the Spring Awakening movie and why he thinks an American Psycho musical can work.
Explain what this tour is. Is this a Duncan Sheik concert, or is it Duncan Sheik meets Spring Awakening?
It’s a Duncan Sheik concert. I’ll do a couple of things from Spring Awakening — not too much, but I’ll nod to it. I’ll be joined by Holly Brook, who is a singer on Whisper House. I need to have a girl there if I’m going to do the stuff from Spring Awakening. There isn’t a whole lot of it that I can do unless I have many more musicians and singers. There’s a set of five or six songs that are impossible to perform in any reasonable way. That’s the framework that I have to operate within — the price of writing for a bunch of rowdy teenagers.
I was checking out your stuff on iTunes, and one thing I thought was funny is, iTunes has an “iTunes Essentials: Duncan Sheik” album. But there’s also an “iTunes Essentials: ’90s One-Hit Wonders” album, and you’re on that, too. You seem to be both essential and ephemeral at the same time.
(laughs) That’s a really great observation. There are people who know my body of work, and, whether they like it or not, at least they know it. And then there are literally people who are like, “Oh, I love that song Barely Breathing! Have you made any records since then?” I just have to smile and say, “Yeah, I’ve done a few things ...”
Was there a point before Spring Awakening where you thought, “That’s my legacy — Barely Breathing is how I’m going to be remembered by the public?”
You know, even by 2005, I had been fighting against it for so long that I was pretty determined that that was not going to be my legacy, somehow. And for a certain set of people, for my core fans, it’s certainly not my legacy. But I just had to continue to make the case for that over and over. But in some ways, it’s always going to be there.
Whenever they turn a musical into a film, they always seem to add a new song to get attention, or sell the soundtrack, or qualify for an Oscar.
That’s what it is — you need it so you can be nominated for an Academy Award.
It sounds like the Spring Awakening movie is moving right along, right?
It is, and we’ve actually written the song. It’s a new Spring Awakening song, which people can either be excited about, or not. (laughs) It exists, and we’ll see how it plays out.
She’s great, and yeah, I think the show is really cool and fun, and definitely a breath of fresh air in terms of what’s on TV. I’m definitely very, very happening for you.
You’re writing music for the American Psycho musical. I mean no offense by this, but ... why?Well, that’s the exact same question I had when it was put in front of me. I kind of scratched my head and said, ‘This is a terrrrrrible idea.’ But I hadn’t read the book since I was in college. I reread the book, I watched the movie, and I had kind of an epiphany, where I had a vision of what the "band" could be — instead of having this typical ersatz rock band that you see on so many Broadway stages, you have this band that’s like Kraftwerk or Depeche Mode, where it’s banks of guys with analog synthesizers sitting on the stage as these immobile, minimalist guys who are creating the whole sound of the show. You could actually do something that’s sonically really interesting, and definitely has never been done onstage before. It may work, and it may not, but it’s definitely an experiment and a new way of making music on a Broadway stage.
Now the other thing is the question of why these people are even singing at all. There’s a lot of music in the book, and there are these hilarious long monologues about Huey Lewis and Peter Gabriel and Whitney Houston, and certainly, some of that will be in the show, but we’ve got to figure out how and why these people are singing, if they’re singing at all.
Is the music that you’re going to write going to have an ’80s sound at all?
I think it’ll sound like my music, but at the moment, I’m conceiving of it as being played with all synthesizers and drum machines. But that’s the music I was raised on — Depeche Mode and Thompson Twins and Tears for Fears and New Order — so it’s very much something that I feel comfortable working within. Even though most of my records have more of a folk music focus, the music that I grew up listening to, a lot of it was synthesizers. This will be my opportunity to immerse myself in Ye Olde Keyboards. (laughs)
If it ever sees the light of day. That’s a big if.
Have any of your peers from the realm of ’90s singer-songwriterdom asked you for advice about breaking into the theater world?
Sort of. Regina Spektor is managed by the person who signed me to Atlantic Records, so I know her, and she’s a really great talent. She’s working on a show. So there’s definitely been conversations about it with her manager. And I know that Aimee Mann is working on a show, and Suzanne Vega is working on a show, and they’ve gotten in touch in a very sweet way just to talk about my experiences and stuff. I’m happy to warn them against even trying it. (laughs)
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*