The Eclectic World Of Duncan Sheik, From Billboard To Broadway A one-time pop sensation, the singer and composer made a deft pivot to theater with his Tony-winning music for Spring Awakening. These days, he's exploring the electronic music of his youth.
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The Eclectic World Of Duncan Sheik, From Billboard To Broadway

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The Eclectic World Of Duncan Sheik, From Billboard To Broadway

The Eclectic World Of Duncan Sheik, From Billboard To Broadway

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Now for a quick spin in the pop way back machine to the mid-1990s. Remember this song?


DUNCAN SHEIK: (Singing). 'Cause I am barely breathing and I can't find the air. I don't know who I'm kidding imagining you care. And I could stand here waiting a fool for another day.

MARTIN: (Singing) And I could stand here waiting - oh, sorry. That is Duncan Sheik's breakout single, "Barely Breathing." And eventually he turned his attention to music for theater, writing music for a New York Shakespeare festival production of "Twelfth Night" and in 2007, a big splash with the musical "Spring Awakening," that would land him seven Tony awards. Now,= he's releasing his first album of music in nearly a decade that was not written for theater. It comes out Friday, and it's called "Legerdemain."


SHEIK: (Singing) We do what we can in Birmingham. We stick to the plan.

MARTIN: Duncan Sheik joins us from our studios in New York. Welcome to the program, Duncan.

SHEIK: Thank you, you're the first person to pronounce it exactly right.

MARTIN: I'm so happy. That was a complete crapshoot, frankly.

SHEIK: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So (laughter) I'm glad I said that right. It is not a word you hear a lot, legerdemain.

SHEIK: No, but you do hear it - like, you'll hear it on CNN business shows, like, when they talk about Lehman Brothers or something they talk about the legerdemain of these corporations and fiduciary sleight of hand that went on, that caused the collapse of the financial system.

MARTIN: So what does that have to do with your music, Duncan, this sleight of hand?

SHEIK: Well, it literally means sleight of hand, right, so it's this interesting word. And it has a kind of subtle meeting of sleight of hand and then this kind of larger meaning of something that's pretty menacing, in a way. And so I think of the record has - it has kind of two sides to it. It's really like a double album. And the first side is kind of electronic, perhaps menacing, and the second half of if is much more organic and subtle. But it still has its darknesses.

MARTIN: Let's listen to a track off the new album. This is called "Warning Light."


SHEIK: (Singing) Do I really need to tell you reasons why you need to make it right? You see the warning light.

MARTIN: What do you like about that sound - that synth-y (ph) kind of sound?

SHEIK: (Laughter) OK, so, I mean, I grew up, obviously, in the mid '80s and my favorite bands at that time were Depeche Mode and New Order and Talk Talk and...

MARTIN: Oh, I know. I know those bands.

SHEIK: ...And Japan. They had this kind of, like, sad disco - is how I guess you would call it - that really appealed to me as a 15-year-old. And I had my first Juno-106 synthesizer when I was 15 and my first TR-909 drum machine. But over the past five years, as I was writing "Legerdemain," I was also simultaneously working on the score for "American Psycho," and that is, like, a completely...

MARTIN: A Broadway production of "American Psycho."

SHEIK: Yes, well, soon-to-be Broadway production. But that's a completely electronic score. So it kind of afforded me the opportunity to dust off the Roland keyboards and the Moogs and the drum machines.


SHEIK: So electronic music is something that I've always loved. I've been a huge fan of. I've had a bunch of my songs remixed, and they've been really big club hits. And in a weird way, I'm much more proud of those club hits than I am of the Top 40 hits, so...

MARTIN: How come?

SHEIK: Because it's just cooler, like...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

SHEIK: I don't - no, I just - you know, it's much cooler to hear your song at 2 o'clock in the morning at Cielo than it is to hear it at Home Depot at, you know, 12:30 in the afternoon.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Have you heard "Barely Breathing" at Home Depot?

SHEIK: Yeah, I mean, so many times.


SHEIK: (Singing) I see it all too clear.

I also have this kind of art song - self-indulgent art song (laughter) desire inside myself. And so there was, like, two sets of song that accrued. And the first set were nominally influenced by electronic music and the second set were these self-indulgent art songs. And that's kind of record one and record two of "Legerdemain."

MARTIN: Can you point to your favorite self-indulgent art song on the album?

SHEIK: (Laughter) I think, you know, "Brutalized" came out really, really well. I had the great good fortune to get Jon Hassell to play trumpet on it. And he is a completely unique musician who's, you know, worked with Brian Eno and has made incredible records with David Sylvian and been making really adventurous avant-garde - you can't even really give it a genre, but he's a real visionary musician and trumpet player.


SHEIK: (Singing) Those men now gone who we admired. They sang of fallen leaves. They never sang of summer wind or evening breeze.

MARTIN: I read that you practice Buddhism?

SHEIK: Yes, since I was 19.


SHEIK: So now this is my 26th year of Buddhist practice. So you can do the math if you'd like.

MARTIN: Long time.

SHEIK: Yeah.

MARTIN: How do we - how does that find its way into your music?

SHEIK: Well, certainly not in any straight ahead manifest way. I mean, God forbid that it did 'cause I - there's nothing I like less than music that kind of, like, tries to insert some sort of spiritual message inside it. That, to me, is nails on the chalkboard. But I do think that practicing Buddhism, I do have a worldview and a way of looking at humanity's place in the universe.

And that does kind of seep into some kind of moral outlook that's in the songs. But it's the darker parts of our psyche and our behavior that are much more interesting. So I think I end up focusing on some of that stuff more than the shiny, happy, hippy-dippy (ph) version of Buddhism that some people might like to think about.


SHEIK: (Singing) Time, it disappears into the blue. Sometimes, sometimes.

MARTIN: Duncan Sheik, his album, "Legerdemain" comes out Friday. Thanks so much for talking with us, Duncan.

SHEIK: Thank you.


SHEIK: (Singing) I got your gaze. Sometimes, sometimes. Time disappears for me, for you.

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