Duncan Sheik started out strong as a singer-songwriter, kicking off his career with a major hit – “Barely Breathing” – and going gold with his self-titled debut. Although he continued to earn critical acclaim with such subsequent albums as Humming (1998), Phantom Moon (2001), Daylight (2002), and White Limousine (2006), the latter release emerged the same year as the debut of the musical “Spring Awakening,” which would go on to win Sheik a couple of Tony Awards. Not too shabby. Still, he hasn’t given up his gig as a singer-songwriter, having released another proper studio album, Whisper House, in 2009, and even as he continues to workshop a new musical at the Royal National Theater in London (“Alice at Heart,” an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), he’s busy promoting his latest effort: Covers ’80s, a collection of his interpretations of some of his favorite tracks from…well, you can probably guess the decade from which the songs originated. Thankfully, Popdose was able to grab a few minutes with Sheik to talk about his new record and his career up to this point.
Popdose: I have to open by telling you that I was actually in the audience when you made your first appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
Duncan Sheik: Oh, really? I had a bit of a cold that day, I think…
Well, you still impressed me.
(Laughs) Well, good, I’m glad.
So let’s just ahead and cut to the chase: what was the impetus to do an ‘80s covers record?
Well, I had been toying with the idea for a long time, and I’d been working on so many theater projects lately that I felt strongly that I wanted to put out another Duncan Sheik record that was not connected to a theater piece. And I have a new record that I’m in the process of writing, but it’s probably another year or 18 months away. So…this is about a year ago, I thought, “Well, you know, I’ve been wanting to make these recordings of covers, I think it would be a good exercise for me, and it’s also a way of kind of communicating to my fans or to my audience what my influences really are.” And I didn’t even know that I would necessarily put the record out, but I thought it would be great to actually record and dig inside these songs and understand their structure, arrangements, and how they’re put together. It was actually a really enjoyable process, and I can’t wait for the record to come out.
As soon as I heard about the concept, I was immediately excited, because I have a copy of the promo EP you put out some few years back (Humming Along) where you did Depeche Mode’s “Blasphemous Rumours” and David Sylvian’s “Orpheus.”
Yes! And, okay, that would’ve been in, like, 1998, right? Something like twelve, thirteen years ago. So, yeah, this is kind of like that, except taking it to a fuller expression, fleshing out the songs a bit more.
You and I are approximately the same age – I’m 40 – and I get the impression that, based on your musical choices, you too were walking sullenly through the hallways of your high school, favoring a black wardrobe, possibly looking a little paler than average.
Uh, yes. (Laughs) Definitely. And going to the indie record store to buy the import records from England, because that was the only way you could get that music at that time.
So when it came time to make selections for this, you obviously didn’t go 100% commercial. For instance, you went with “Kyoto Song,” which is certainly not what the mainstream would consider a go-to Cure song. Did you have a dry-erase board filled with all of the possible inclusions and just weed them out gradually?
Well, no, for me there were a few different litmus tests. I didn’t want the record to just be 12 songs that were all on the Billboard Top 40 for however long. I think if you look at the breakdown, it’s probably about…well, maybe 50/50 or 60/40, with most of the songs being more of my personal favorite songs, things that are a little bit more obscure, but hopefully songs that other people really love in some fashion and so will be excited to hear them dressed up in new clothing. That’s kind of the idea.
Are there any tracks that you actually recorded but didn’t make the final cut?
Well, the Smiths were a tough one, because in a certain way, they’re the most guitar-oriented band on the record. I think pretty much all of the other bands… (Hesitates) Even though the Cure, New Order, and Tears for Fears use guitars, they also use synthesizers, drum machines, and programming, and they had kind of an electronic aspect to them, whereas the Smiths really never had any of that. So I was pretty torn about doing the Smiths at all, but they were a big part of what I listened to during that time…and still to this day. So I had to do something. Initially I did “How Soon Is Now?” and some friends of mine who are really big Morrissey aficionados, they kind of stuck their nose up at that choice and said I should do something cooler. (Laughs) And I know that “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” is also covered all the time now, so “William It Was Really Nothing,” I thought, “Well, here’s a song think is special and unique and sweet.” And it’s kind of a little diversion on the record. So I’m happy to have done that.
I have to say that I was not at all surprised to see that you had selected Howard Jones’ “What Is Love?” I’m a huge fan of “Someone You Need,” your collaboration with Howard.
Oh, great! That’s very kind. Yes, Howard’s a very good friend, and I knew I had to pick one of his songs, and that was the song that I heard when I was…I guess I was probably 14 or 15 years old, and I was going away to boarding school in New England, and I saw him on some TV show with his banks of synthesizers and drum machines. And I thought, “Oh, my God, that’s the coolest song I’ve ever heard in my life.” (Laughs) So I definitely had to include that.
I did an interview with Howard awhile back, and my suspicion was that you guys had hooked up as songwriters because you had a mutual friend in (producer) Rupert Hine, but he said that you actually came together as mutual Buddhists.
That’s right. I mean…yes, it’s true. We met at a Buddhist center near London that I had gone to visit, and Howard happened to be there coincidentally. And I introduced myself to him by saying that I was making a record with Rupert, so he didn’t think I was a crazy person. (Laughs) But he was very, very sweet, and we had an instant rapport. I was on tour with him last October here in the UK, and that was a lot of fun. So he’s definitely someone that I’m happy to call a friend.
Is there anyone else whose song you cover on the album who you’ve had contact with in the past?
Yes, Richard Butler from the Psychedelic Furs is a pretty good acquaintance. He actually lives near where I live in upstate New York, and both Richard and Howard were very pleased with… (Hesitates) I sent them the songs to make sure they didn’t think that what I’d done was blasphemous or anything. (Laughs) But they both really enjoyed them, so that was a relief.
You were talking about wanting to do something outside of theater to mix things up a bit, but how have you enjoyed your foray into theater?
You know, it’s been amazing. And I’m actually in London right now doing a workshop of a theater piece that’s an adaption of “Alice in Wonderland” at the National Theater, and I’m having a great time working with these teenagers. And, you know, I feel like it will always be a part of my creative process, writing music for stage. At this point, anyway. But hopefully I’ll also keep writing records, making songs, and continue to tour as a singer-songwriter. You know, to continue the career that I started off in the first place! (Laughs) But, you know, I look at them as complimentary things. It keeps life fresh and interesting most of the time. Certainly a little more interesting than it might be if you were just doing one thing.
So where do you keep your Tony Awards?
Oh, they’re sitting on some books in my house in Garrison, New York. (Laughs) So they’re there. But they’re kind of camouflaged.
When the time came to do Whisper House, how did you feel that your music had changed as a result of working in the theater?
Well, I think at that point, having worked on Spring Awakening for so long, I had a little bit of a better sense of how to write songs specifically for characters. I think when I was writing songs for Spring Awakening, I was in a certain way just writing them in my own voice, but by the time I was writing for Whisper House, I felt like I had a better understanding of narrative arc and the different voices of the way different characters might sing the songs, both lyrically and musically, and just kind of diving a little bit deeper into this idea of writing from the perspective of a persona that’s different from my own. That was a lot of fun. By the time I got around to making Whisper House, I felt a little bit like I knew what I was doing, whereas before… (Starts to laugh) …it was kind of, like, “Okay, I’ll write this song now.” It was definitely trial by fire. But I think it’s like anything else: the more you do it, the more you hone your craft, and hopefully you improve and get better at it. But that’s not for me to say. (Laughs)
And, of course, you’ve never really had a problem with bouncing around between different sonic templates, I guess you’d call them. I mean, you had pop songs like “Barely Breathing” and “On a High,” but then you’ve got an album like Phantom Moon, which is decidedly a different sound from the albums that preceded it.
Yes. Well, not to make any real comparison, but if you look at, like, visual artists or writers, a lot of times they’ll have different periods that they go through. They go through phases where they’ll write a certain way or paint a certain way. I would like to be a composer that has a really extensive body of work by the time I kick the bucket, so I think it’s important to follow all these different paths.
Were you happy with the selections on the Brighter / Later compilation, as far as being a representation of your career up to that point?
Well, I think that… (Hesitates) Rhino was really great, in that they allowed me to have that second CD of songs that were not really pop songs. Or were certainly less well known, anyway. But they were things that I felt were really more representative of what I was really trying to do and communication. So I was really happy that they let me have a 2-CD version of that record. So, yeah, I’m proud of that.
Because a lot of the mainstream tends to know you for those two big singles, do you have a favorite album that you wish more people had taken notice of?
Well, no, I do think that Whisper House is this really great recording. I mean, I can’t take total credit for it, because there was some really great playing by a wonderful set of musicians and some really amazing arrangements by Simon Hale and a really great story written by Kyle Jarrow, the playwright. So I hope that that record continues to have a life, whether it’s on stage or as a film or even as a piece of literature, or just as a record. That’s just something that I’m hoping more people get a chance to hear.
Based on what I’ve read, some of the topics that were covered in the lyrics were somewhat personal.
I suppose they were in a certain way, but I think more in the general sense that I grew up listening to ghost stories. I was mostly raised in South Carolina, and there’s kind of a great tradition of ghost stories down there, so it was a lot of fun to write songs that were in some way harkening back to that feeling that you got when you were listening to those stories as a prepubescent kid.
Were you disappointed that Humming didn’t take off quite as substantially as your self-titled debut? Do you think it was just because the music wasn’t quite as overtly poppy and therefore didn’t catch listeners’ ears in the same way?
Yeah, I mean, of course I was disappointed. I think everybody was kind of, like, “Oh, what’s going on? Why isn’t this record automatically on the radio and selling 50,000 copies a week?” Or whatever it was. But the thing was that that moment was when music went in one direction and I went in another. (Laughs) It was a moment when you had Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and Backstreet Boys and N*Sync, and pop music – with a capital P – because the flavor of the day, and that just wasn’t what I was doing. So, y’know, you just have to do your work. And the audiences are either going to get it or they won’t, and it’s out of your control. You just have to do the best work you can.
On the flip side, were you pleasantly surprised when “On a High” caught a bit of fire?
Yeah, that was fine. It was…in a way, I guess I was playing with the idea of pop music formulas and seeing if I could find something interesting within the formula of pop music. But also, in some way, I feel like I…I don’t know, there’s something about that song that’s more formulaic than it is unique. Which is a frustrating thing for me. But I actually really love the remixes of the song, and I love that it had this life outside of just the version that’s on the record. I think that’s really cool.
Yeah, I mean, wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s representative of your work as a whole, but it’s a hell of a pop song.
(Laughs) Well, good. Thank you.
You’ve also turned up on a bunch of different compilations and soundtracks over the years. Do you have a favorite from those inclusions?
Well, let’s see… (Goes silent for several seconds to consider the question)
Or if it’s easier, the song that you most often have people come up to you and say, “I love that song you did for that thing that time.”
(Laughs) Yeah, I mean, people still really love the song that was on the “Great Expectations” soundtrack (“Wishful Thinking”). I mean, the movie’s a little bit of teenage Hollywood silliness. But “Half-Life” was in “What A Girl Wants,” and I know that a much younger audience was exposed to that song as a result of that movie, so that’s nice. So I love it. I love getting songs into movies. I’m very influenced by film composers, and I’m a huge moviegoer, and I think it’s a great context for music, so I’m always really happy to be there when I can be.
I have to ask you about your appearance on “American Dreams” as Bobby Darin, specifically how it came about.
Well, I’m a shit actor, so that was pretty tough for me. (Laughs) But I survived. Barely. But it was interesting to record that song (“Beyond the Sea”) and attempt to sing in that style, which is so different from my own. But it was something that happened over the course of 48 hours and, uh, I haven’t done a whole lot of that since. (Laughs)
By the way, apropos of nothing besides the fact that you’re on it, somewhere in my CD collection is a copy of the self-titled album by the band His Boy Elroy.
(Snorts) Um, wow. You’re going very deep into my catalog.
(Laughs) I try, man, I try. So what was that period of your career like?
Well, you know, I had just graduated from college, and I could barely sing in public to save my life at that point. I’d written maybe half a dozen songs, and I was just going around L.A., trying to get my career started. So it was nice to play on any record. And, really, I’ve been a guitar player since I was a little kid, so I think my skill set at that point was more useful as a guitar player than anything else. And it took me a few years to be able to write a set of songs that were really worth recording. That was the very beginning for me.
Lastly, are you planning to tour behind this new record?
Yeah, it’s pretty short. I’m just doing a handful of shows on the east coast and a handful of shows on the west coast. Then I have a little break, and I’m doing maybe two shows in the Midwest. These will be in June and July. And I have some theater stuff going on between it all. So it’s a bit broken up. But I’ll at least kind of get the ball rolling with the record release and play some shows so that people know the record’s out there. Then hopefully in the fall, if people are enjoying the record and it’s having a life on its own, then I’ll do a more full-fledged, proper tour in the fall of 2011.
Post-script: Unfortunately, both the east and west coast dates were canceled due to what is described on Duncan’s website as “unforseen circumstances,” which means that everyone should buy a copy of Covers ’80s every month until the fall, just to keep sales up and inspire that aforementioned fall tour.