"Touch Me" from the soundtrack to Spring Awakening
Over the last few years, New York based performer Duncan Sheik — the award winning songwriter and composer known for his subtle wit and low-key singing style — underwent a remarkable artistic transformation. Sheik sold millions of copies of his 1996 self-titled, Grammy-nominated debut album, thanks to the success of the hit single "Barely Breathing." But since that rich period of pop success, he's leaned increasingly further into unlikely territory.
Sheik performs at the Sottile Theatre on Friday evening on the heels of winning a Grammy and two Tony Awards for writing the musical score for the recent hit Broadway musical Spring Awakening. He collaborated with lyricist Steven Sater and composed the original score.
Variety described the production as "the most startling and exciting rock tuner to hit the boards since Rent." The New York Times called it a "deft blend of straight-up rock, folk, and melodic pop."
The story of Sheik's unusual musical transformation began in 1999, when he and "a Buddhist friend" of his, Steven Sater, started working together almost by chance.
"He wrote a play that had a song lyric in it," says Sheik, speaking last week from his Manhattan loft. "He asked me to write the music to it, and he eventually started faxing me other song lyrics. That's how it started. He gave me a copy of the original play Spring Awakening that was written in 1891 by Frank Wedekind. He thought it was a cool piece that could be adapted and involve music.
"At the time, I have to say, I was not an aficionado of musical theater," he adds. "Musicals were something I did as a kid in elementary school and high school. I moved away into the world of regular rock music, for lack of a better term. The music that was happening on Broadway in the 1990s wasn't my cup of tea or really interesting to me. As I thought about, I considered the story, the actors, and the staging and production — and the idea of having modern music in the play for a contemporary, young audience. I believed we could make something that could be ground-breaking and powerful. That was the initial thought ... Granted, it took seven years to manifest that."
Sheik's career highlights are featured on a two-disc collection of songs titled Brighter/Later: A Duncan Sheik Anthology, which was released by Rhino in 2006. By that time, he was heavily involved in composing and collaborating in film and stage productions — an experience he found to be wide-open to ideas, rather than limiting and narrow.
"I realized that during the process," he says. "I found that not only can the music help the story, but the story can actually deepen the music, too. Instead of just being a random song about a random subject, the song can deepen the emotional moment of what's happening in a scene. I found that to be a really great surprise. Now, almost everything I'm doing musically involves narrative in one form or another, even my new set of songs that are meant to happen in a play."
With this theatrical success, is Sheik more of an "accomplished composer" rather than a rock-styled singer/songwriter?
"You know, 'composer' is a bit of a highfalutin term that I avoid using myself," he says. "I feel very fortunate that each role has kind of fed each other in a certain way. After I made Phantom Moon [in 2001] and from Daylight [from 2002] on, my own lyric writing went through a major transition. Specifically, on Whisper House (his forthcoming album due in January), I'm writing from a persona rather than as myself. It opens things up, and it's a lot of fun. There are old-timey story-telling songs — like the first song on the record, which is called 'It's Better to be Dead,' which is something I normally wouldn't sing."
Sheik, a native of Hilton Head now based in Manhattan, spent 10 days in downtown Charleston in January writing most of Whisper House. "Because the new album is such a ghost story-themed collection and because Charleston has such a great ghost lore — it was a really good place to come up with those songs," he says. "There was all this great raw material all around."
For the concert at the Sottile, Sheik leads a nine-piece ensemble with strings, wind, and brass players. He is joined by singer-keyboardist Holly Brooke and original Spring Awakening cast member Lauren Pritchard. The set list will include original songs from the play's soundtrack as well as songs from his back catalog and the new Whisper House collection.
"Lauren will do her solo opening set, and then she'll come back out with us for the Spring Awakening mini-set in the middle of the show. She and Holly and I will sing all of that stuff. It should be fun.
"These days, the whole thing feels a lot more comfortable," he adds. "It's a position where it's less about me being in the spotlight and more about the music and the singers that I work with. It's more like being a bandleader. It's also nice to work from a large body of work instead of doing eight or 10 new songs from a new album. Plus, to work with these great female voices. I don't have to sing the entire show for two hours straight. It creates a different sound and allows people another place to put their focus ... I mean, who wants to hear me sing for two hours straight, you know?"