Duncan Sheik, Better Than Barely Breathing, Reinvents Himself

Duncan Sheik.

Duncan Sheik is thinking of getting rid of his Maserati.

“It just doesn’t fit in here,” he said as he piloted the black power yacht of an automobile along a dirt road in Garrison, the small town an hour up the Hudson where he has lived for two years. He could just as easily have been speaking of himself. Garrison is little more than a telephone booth (missing the phone) and an antique bookstore, closed for the day by 2 p.m. Mr. Sheik, 42, lives up a small mountain that can be approached only by a one-lane track of gravel. As he drove, a pick-up careened around a corner, nearly colliding head-on with Mr. Sheik before backing up slowly and pulling off into a neighbor’s driveway to make room.

“I’m not really a country mouse,” he said, waving appreciatively at the truck, the dust from the road pluming behind his Italian flashmobile.

As far as one-hit wonders go, many have fared worse than Mr. Sheik. He released his first single, “Barely Breathing,” in 1996, and it became an unexpected top-40 hit, staying on the Billboard Top 100 for 55 weeks. Sonically, the song was a high-water mark for the kind of conventional soft pop that had held sway in the mid-90’s. (For years he wouldn’t play it at concerts and remains reluctant to do so.) He is still trying to live it down. “I feel like it’s been this 15-year process of trying to change the perception of myself,” he said. “Which is a really quixotic and stupid thing to even attempt to do. But I feel the need.” It is not just in Garrison where Mr. Sheik feels out of place.

The eponymous first album went gold just in time for the mass adoration of the sensitive singer/songwriter to be redirected toward an oversexed adolescent army led by the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, ’N Sync and other “pop music with a capital P,” as Mr. Sheik calls it.

In subsequent years, he released a number of albums that Mr. Sheik is the first to admit few actually heard; they had more in common with the verdant electronic compositions of Talk Talk than the middlebrow adult-pop single for which he is known. This week, he will release another eccentric record that makes him even more difficult to classify: a collection of 80’s covers—most of them gaudy electronic pop hits—that he recorded at home with only his voice, guitar, piano and harmonium.

To a certain extent, though, recording LPs is something of a sideline at this point.

In recent years a strange thing occurred: the same imagery of adolescent lust that bumped him from the charts has made him a huge success once again, only this time it was teenage carnality set in fin-de-siècle Germany. Mr. Sheik composed the music for the Broadway hit Spring Awakening, which would eventually win eight Tonys and run for 888 performances. He did not necessarily want to become one of musical theater’s great innovators, but he did anyway. Now, he is looking to replicate the success with a musical stage adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho.

The car eased up to a white house with cracked paint and a dusty porch. Inside, the bathroom sink had no knobs. There was no sign of the two Tony Awards, the Grammy or the gold record, just rooms strewn with instruments. In the living room were microphones and amps set up for band practice, a black grand piano and several guitars. Behind the house was a large barn with a recording studio, two Hammond organs, three banks of synthesizers, a large mixing board, more guitars, a small harp and a Fender Rhodes. In here, he’s been writing songs for American Psycho using a single analog synthesizer—how it would have been done in the 80’s, he says—called an Evolver. The songs are bombastic and dramatic—Depeche Mode meets Stephen Sondheim. He envisions the musicians in the show standing at banks of analog synthesizers, playing like Kraftwerk. Mr. Sheik was hunched over a computer sitting next to the harp, listening to a demo of one of the songs from the musical.

“We are sinners,” his voice rang out in the barn recording studio, layered with morose electronics. “Modern sinners.” He smiled subtly, noticeably excited.

“I read the book in college,” he remembered, referring to American Psycho, “and at that time I thought, what is this litany of clothing designers and absurd restaurant menu items and these really lame soliloquies about these really bad records that were made at the time? So I get asked to work on this and first I thought, ‘Oh no, this is a terrible idea.’ But I decided to read the book again just in case. And this light bulb came on in my head: there’s this pretty cool tradition of serial killers in the theater, especially in the Sondheim school, and also the book is actually really amazing! It’s not even an indictment, but just this incredible thing about late capitalism and culture at that moment,” he said. “It’s a moment we’re still in.”

Mr. Sheik grew up in Hilton Head, S.C., and began playing music young. After graduating from Andover, he majored in semiotics at Brown, studying everything from Italian cinema to Jacques Lacan. He also began practicing Nichiren Buddhism, a kind of Zen Buddhism that was popular after World War II. He became an adamant chanter, which he says helped him grow confident in his singing (“You learn to sing one note really well, then you move on to the next note”). After college, he moved to Los Angeles and within six months had signed a record contract with Immortal. This introduction to professional music marked the first time he would feel out of place in the industry: Immortal was largely a hip-hop label. Atlantic Records bought his contract from Immortal and released his first record in 1996. Even then, his label was not sure how to place him. On his first tour, they had him opening for Jewel.

“I wasn’t in a position to say no,” Mr. Sheik said, though, perhaps feeling some kind of kinship—Jewel’s own career stalled as the interest in the sensitive sufferer gave way to lyrics like “rub me the right way”—he came to her defense. “You know, Jewel was not the person who was the host of a reality TV show at that point. She was a—kind of sort of—alternative folk singer who had this—kind of sort of—eccentric hit. The perception to me at the time,” he said taking in a breath, “it seemed cool enough,” and he let the air out of his mouth with a chuckle. “At that point she had already sold three million records—her own kind of phenomenon, which I wasn’t. She was in a bus and I was in a van with four other smelly guys. Even at the end of that process, when I had sold 700,000 records, I was still, you know, in a van with four other smelly guys.”

His second album, Humming, was a consummate example of a sophomore slump. It was positively reviewed, but sales lagged—the last word on the dying popularity of soft-around-the-edges pop. His appearance, as himself, on the ninth season premier of Beverly Hills 90210 did not help.

Mr. Sheik was himself changing as taste in popular music transformed. His next album, the orchestral Phantom Moon, was his first collaboration with Steven Sater. When Mr. Sheik approached Atlantic about making an album with lyrics by a then-unknown playwright, filled with songs composed for woodwind instruments, they were hardly thrilled. The label grudgingly handed over the demos to Bob Hurwitz at Nonesuch, the label of John Zorn and Philip Glass that had recently done well with Buena Vista Social Club. No one bought the record.

“Maybe that was a mistake,” said Mr. Sheik. “But it’s the bed I made for myself. It’s tough when it’s like, here’s this person that was on Beverly Hills 90210 playing the Peach Pit three years prior, and then to say, oh look, he’s really this credible artist on this really credible record label. That’s a tough thing to pull off.”

During this time, Mr. Sater and Mr. Sheik began composing the songs for Spring Awakening, which was nearly seven years in the making. The show was workshopped at Sundance and was eventually showcased at Lincoln Center as part of the American Songbook Series. On the success of that performance, the Atlantic Theater Company agreed to a production; it was the company’s first musical. The show received glowing reviews and the previews were extended, but, in the end, Mr. Sheik netted $5,400. Hardly the life of a chart-topper. Once the show made its way to Broadway, however, those fortunes shifted, and given the ensuing success, expectations are high for his next Broadway effort.

That afternoon in Garrison, he was more worried about keeping his bandmates waiting. He raced down the dirt road from his house—almost colliding with another car—to the train station where they were waiting. In this last moment before switching gears to band practice, Mr. Sheik was contemplating out loud doing a cover of “Coming in the Air Tonight” as a huge choral arrangement in American Psycho.

“Maybe,” he said to himself.

“Duncan’s running a free-lance car service,” Jason, the piano player, said, slumping into the backseat.

“Yes. It’s very expensive.” They laughed. “You joke but unless another show works out,” Mr. Sheik said, his voice teetering on somber, “I might have to start doing that.” He smiled, but then his face faded to a reflective wince.

“My career has been so strange,” he said.


  Duncan Sheik, Better Than Barely Breathing, Reinvents Himself