Très Sheik: An Interview with Duncan Sheik

Songwriter Duncan Sheik talks with PopMatters about the musical Spring Awakening, nominated for 11 Tony Awards, and writing music that's relevant to a larger cultural argument.

If you're fortunate, you get to a point in your life -- hopefully early-on enough to really enjoy it -- where you have earned the freedom to do what you want. Thanks to the success of Spring Awakening, the Broadway musical he and his partner Steven Sater have worked to bring to life for the last eight years, Duncan Sheik finally feels like he's there.

It was Sater who first brought the work to Sheik's attention, giving him a copy of Frank Wedekind's 19th century German play of the same name in 1999. "I read it, and I thought it was really bizarre but cool and interesting," Sheik says, "and we started writing songs." Like real life and real love, Spring Awakening is a complicated, bloody story of the struggle from adolescence to adulthood that Sheik describes as "obviously not an evening's light entertainment. There's comedy and there's tragedy, there's love, there's lust, there's betrayal, there's heartbreak and all kinds of other scandalous things that go on. It's definitely representative of the fullness and richness of life." For a play that has been banned repeatedly, Sheik feels "the controversy that surrounded the play was a plus for me in many ways. The fact that ... people were so scandalized by it, that's only a good thing in my book."

Influences, both overt and subtle, were found in a myriad of places when writing the music for Spring Awakening. "There were many things Steven and I went to go see as we were working on the piece," relates Sheik, "including things like Porgy and Bess at Lincoln Center, and things like Laurie Anderson's [Songs and Stories from] Moby Dick at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. In some ways, those two are good examples of things at two ends of a spectrum but that were certainly influential." He also cites Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and the John Doyle-directed revival of Sweeney Todd as important to their writing. Sheik views all of these pieces as "a beginning, a kind of reeducation of what you could do in the theater."

By combining the theatre influence with his popular music pedigree, Sheik came to the conclusion he "wanted the music to be something that people in the larger culture could relate to, and not be something that was just for a somewhat more insular theater audience." He adds, "Any kind of cultural product -- whatever it is -- for me doesn't feel satisfying unless it has a certain kind of breadth to it," and because of that, all the things he and Sater are working on "have this kind of very large scope in terms of the human emotions that are represented in the pieces. And I think that's certainly due to the fact that we have a similar worldview and a similar philosophy and a similar aesthetic, too."

That approach between the partners is, in part, due to their shared lay Buddhist background. Both men are members of Soka Gakkai International, and Sheik readily admits "it's unusual that two people who practice Buddhism would form a creative partnership. That doesn't usually happen, and to some degree it's even kind of not encouraged because partnerships ... can be amazing but they can also breed resentment. So, I think from the perspective of Buddhism ... you want to be very careful that you're not getting into a situation with a fellow Buddhist that is not going to be healthy and good." But their professional affiliation is one that has grown more fertile and culturally relevant over the years. Although he has found it very natural to write music for other people's words, Sheik says "it's not something I had done before [working with Steven on Phantom Moon]. Writing music for Steven's lyrics was always something that just felt right from the beginning."

When asked if he feels the cast recording of Spring Awakening is as much of a "Duncan Sheik" album as something like Phantom Moon or White Limousine, he responds, "I look at it as kind of a hybrid. It would feel disrespectful to the cast to say, 'Oh, it's a Duncan Sheik album with other people singing on it,' because I think everyone did bring so much to that album both as performers and then people on the creative team. But, that being said, it was made exactly like I would have made a Duncan Sheik album. I didn't make it like a normal cast album where you just bring the cast and the band in the studio for two days and press 'Record.'"

Although he studied electronic music at Brown University, he confides that his major in semiotics "doesn't really affect specifically my creative process, but it affects how I think about what it means to produce an article of culture and put it into the world and have people pay money for it." Sheik expands on the simplistic definition of his degree course studies at Brown as the study of signs and symbols to say "[semiotics is] a lot of actually Marxist theory about how the commodification of culture affects what those cultural products are," which leads directly to a discussion about technology and its role in the music industry.

Sheik notes that, "on balance, [technology has] been a really good thing," while conceding that "the music business is a disaster right now because people haven't figured out really how to use information technology in a way that can continue to create a functioning music business." But there is still good to come of the situation, both for Sheik personally and for the indie music world as a whole. Echoing the sentiments of many similar underdog, cult artists, Sheik says "it's great that the technology exists because that means a lot of people would hear my music that otherwise would never hear it." He also acknowledges that "if you're a band like Maroon 5 or something, instead of selling 10 million records you sell 3 million records because everyone's downloading the CD, that's a problematic situation for a variety of reasons," especially in the bigger picture, "because you don't have the trickle-down effect of the music business where they have made a huge amount of money on a given band and they can sign a hundred other artists off the profits of that one band. I think that's kind of gone away in large part." Yet necessity continues to breed ingenuity, and Sheik is convinced that "indie music world people have had to kind of create scenarios where they can make a living outside of the corporate structures, and actually I feel that that's healthy."

Looking ahead to the next five to 10 years, Sheik doesn't necessarily see himself moving fully away from making his own albums. He is currently collaborating with David Poe and, later this year, plans to put together a covers album for release in 2008. Of the covers album, he volunteers, "It's all things from the '80s that were English, kind of art-pop bands, like Psychedelic Furs and the Cure and the Smiths and New Order and Depeche Mode, Tears for Fears, Talk Talk, Japan, stuff like that. Love and Rockets. All the stuff that was really important to me as an adolescent. I was going to call it Sad Songs from My Adolescence, but everyone hates that title!" But it's hard to understate the importance of Spring Awakening's success on Sheik's prospects. "There's a lot of theater projects and a couple possible film projects, too."

But the immediate future is all about Spring Awakening. After bringing home four of its 10 Drama Desk nominations (including Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Music for Sheik, and Outstanding Lyrics for Sater), the production is up for 11 Tony Awards -- the most of any show this season. Along with selections like Best Musical, Sheik has been recognized with nods for Best Orchestration and Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre. Sheik seems to be handling the attention that is preceding the 10 June ceremony with a sense of perspective. "I'm very much looking forward to it, but there is a factor of dread, certainly. When we did the Drama Desk awards, it was that [feeling of] sitting in the chair and knowing that you're nominated for something and not knowing if you're going to get it at all. It's its own little weird kind of torture, but I will survive. I have a nice tux ... I'll try and at least look good no matter what happens." It's a perceptive quip filled with all the genuine humor and self-conscious grace Sheik conveys in casual conversation.

Along with opening doors, the accolades provide validation for Sheik and a sincere appreciation for what he's accomplished and what's been laid before him. "It's a real relief to have people recognize the work you're doing and champion it. You know, after five years of feeling very frustrated with the reaction to my albums and the reaction to the work I was doing and just feeling like it was being ignored or shoved to the side and really not culturally relevant, and now it feels like we're part of the cultural argument, and that feels really good."

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