In April 2015, Duncan Sheik, a songwriter who has had hits on both pop radio and the Broadway stage, will release Legerdemain, his first album of original material since 2009's Whisper House and the first not connected to a theater piece since 2006's White Limousine. Sheik crafted the album in his Garrison, N.Y. studio, and he's sharing two songs from that album via NPR Music; you can listen and download both of them below.
When Sheik came onto the pop scene in the mid-1990s, his music quietly stood apart from the status quo. In the decade of grunge, diva anthems and the Macarena, Sheik's 1996 breakthrough single, "Barely Breathing," was contemplative and literate. It was a challenge reminding the mainstream that pop could be more artful than obvious. Sheik didn't fit into the hit-making mold, however, and his subsequent albums took him farther from the mainstream. He became a favorite among connoisseurs of pop erudition.
A decade after his moment in the Hot 100, Sheik turned the tables in another art world. He'd been experimenting in theater for a while, writing the music for the New York Shakespeare Festival's production of Twelfth Night; but in 2006 he completed the work that would really make a difference. Spring Awakening, the musical he created with the lyricist and playwright Steven Sater based on a turn-of-the-century play by the German Expressionist Frank Wedekind, startled Broadway into a new era. Its fourth wall-toppling staging, intense sexual themes and music inspired by current rock artists (Sheik has cited Bjork and Radiohead) hit the theater world the way that Nirvana hit pop music in 1991, inspiring a major reboot.
Sheik has continued his musical theater adventures, collaborating with Sater on a new work based on Alice in Wonderland, Alice By Heart; composing the score for a new production of Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and, currently, working on two high-profile stage adaptations, for Ameican Psycho (that one has been in the news lately) and Because of Winn-Dixie. He's also kept making pop albums. These works meld the intimate confessionalism of singer-songwriters like Nick Drake with the electronic elements Sheik discovered in his youth through New Wave innovators like Japan and Talk Talk (whom he honored with the excellent 2011 collection Covers '80s). Sheik's light storytelling touch makes every love song seem like an open conversation. Pushing against the confines of alternative pop stardom in seven studio albums whose touchstones range from prog-rock to ambient music to art song, Sheik has shaped a body of work that's elegant and subtly challenging.
The songs from the new album, Legerdemain, feel full-circle; intimate and contemplative, they recall his very earliest work and especially Humming, his ripe-to-be-rediscovered second album. Telling complicated little stories via spare lyrics and subtle studio wizardry, these songs beautifully balance Sheik's pop know-how and his theatrical impulses.
Sheik recently took some time to discuss, via email, his songwriting process, the acoustic-electronic balance, and how to tell a story when the character is yourself.
There are different ways to bring a story alive inside a song. You can just tell it — like an old-fashioned ballad — or you can be more impressionistic. Your songs have always struck me as narratives in the process of coming together. much of a pre-formed story do you bring into your songs when you are writing them, and how does the music work with the words to create a whole experience?
I guess the first thing I should say about my writing process is that, if I'm going to be the lyricist, I write music first and then graft lyrics onto that music. Usually the music will suggest some kind of emotional territory and that will then suggest a theme or two. If I'm lucky, actual phrases will emerge from that inchoate mess of ideas and the writing haltingly begins from there.
In the case of "Photograph" I knew it was a song about nostalgia but, also, about how a moment captured, whether in a recording or a photograph, secretly contains both the past and the future of that moment. And I like playing with very common idiomatic expressions because, counter-intuitively, they can have the effect of making the line more piquant or acute. Expressions that might have just been clichés in the past take on another set of interesting meanings when sung in the present.
In the case of "Circling" the lyric is kind of "in code" — only the person I'm writing about really knows exactly what I'm saying. But, hopefully, anyone can hear the song and create meaning for it that is close enough to what I'm getting at. And, to be honest, I don't really mind if the listener takes away something entirely different from what I intend.
Your songs can be very personal, but they almost always imply dialogue with another person, maybe just taking place in the narrator's head. These new songs are the same way. Did you write these songs with specific people in mind, and is there a point in that process where that focus falls away and it becomes more universal?
The simple answer here is yes; they are for/about specific people. But, more importantly, I want them to feel as universal as possible. I want the lyric to evoke something strong or beautiful or mysterious in the listener whether that's through specific details or enigmatic turns of phrase. By any means necessary!
"Photograph" is about memory. It's also a tried-and-true subject for pop songs. How do you re-inject some mystery into a familiar image like that.
I think one of the (perhaps only!) virtues of being in your 40s is that you can write about memories that stand the test of time — as opposed to events that might feel very dramatic and important when you are young but are, ultimately, pretty common and banal. I'm not terribly interested in how it was "in the club last night" unless it's written about in a completely new and arresting way. Similarly I'm not interested in someone reminiscing about typically "nice memories" unless it elicits in me some real emotional effect. In fact the "photograph" in question doesn't exist at all — it's just a changing image in my mind. Hopefully that slippery quality comes across in the song.
"Circling" is another of your somewhat mysterious songs, aimed at an interlocutor who might be yourself. And I can't help but notice that the upcoming album's title is Legerdemain. In songs, the sleight of hand often involves telling a story in such a way that it feels open and unresolved, so that listeners can relate to it. Is that one thing that's happening with this song?
You are right that the interlocutor in "Circling" is a specific person. But the final chorus is the singer acknowledging that he suffers from the same delusions as the person he's singing to. Legerdemain is an interesting word to me because it means so many different things in so many different contexts. In this case it's about how we use slight of hand to lie to ourselves.
You're using electronic elements in your songwriting more than ever, partially inspired by the '80s music you've worked on in American Psycho and on your Covers '80s album. It often feels like all pop music is electronic music at this point, but what are you specifically finding in new technologies that complements your songwriting process? Sound-wise, what can you gain from going further into the electronic realm?
Since I started making records in 1996 I have always had a balance of acoustic and electronic elements in the recordings. Initially that balance was weighed much more towards the acoustic and and over the past decade I've started to be more interested in electronic sounds or, at least, the relationship of electronic and organic sounds. Working on the all-electronic score for American Psycho afforded me the opportunity to dive back into using the analog synthesizers and drum machines of my eighties adolescence (in combination with exciting new technologies like Ableton's Live.) Creatively this felt exciting and right and so I continued to use this expanded sonic palette on Legerdemain and other theatre scores that I've been writing over the past few years. I still love guitars and pianos — but sometimes I love my Roland Juno 106 more. I'm really searching for ways that those things can sound great together.
One of the attributes of the new age of musical theater you've helped usher in is a certain intimate quality to the songs. More than the sound of rock music, the attitude of rock (and the singer-songwriter tradition that's part of it) is what matters. The informality, the intimacy, the risks the songs take. At this point, you're experienced and successful in both realms; do you feel that what you've achieved is a kind of fusion? Or was the distinction between theater and art song and pop/rock song false in the first place?
I have too many things to say about this! The fact is that there is less overlap between the musical theatre going public and the alternative music listening public than I wish there were. I know that there are many rock musicians and theatre composers who are actively working to change this but it's been slow. The sound design aesthetic of musical theatre is so different from alternative music. The vocal style of the two camps is also incredibly different. But there are shows (Hedwig and the Angry Inch to give a recent example) that really have tied the two worlds together. I will try to keep fighting the good fight here because I know that the two audiences would really love some of each other's music if they gave it a shot.
Can you tell me what's up with American Psycho right now, and how you'll manage its move to Broadway along with the release of Legerdemain? Will you be touring for this album?
American Psycho is definitely still happening though sadly not off-Broadway this coming season. We are work-shopping it in January with an eye to a Broadway run fall of 2015. That does give me the spring and summer to tour and entertain the states, Asia and Europe with whatever slight of hand I have to offer.