The year was 1996. Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing” sat on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for a roaring 55 weeks and set his career in the right direction as his debut turned into a certified gold record. Sheik has created a loyal fan base following behind his five studio albums and greatest hits collection.
This music man’s talents are not bound within the frame of the recording studio door. The songwriter’s vast musical abilities went highly noticed earlier this year upon the release of the critically acclaimed Broadway musical Spring Awakening. Sheik wrote the music along side Steve Sater for this musical based on the controversial play of the same title by Frank Wedekind.
Spring Awakening marked Sheik’s dent in the world of musical theatre and showcased his talent and full potential in a brighter light.
What has the aftermath of Spring Awakening‘s Broadway release been like?
It’s got amazing reviews! The best thing is that Steve Sater and I now have other theatre projects that we want to start working on.
A real spring awakening of sorts then.
Yes! Because of the success of Spring Awakening, we’ve got all these great producers, directors and talented people who want to work with us now all of a sudden, whereas before we were desperately trying to find a team to put together to do the show. Now we get to pick. I can’t complain about that at all!
What are some of your favourite musicals?
This might be a strange list: Lars Von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark. I know it’s not a theatre piece but it’s still a musical, right? Laurie Anderson’s Songs and Stories from Moby Dick; but it’s more of a multi-media musical theatre piece. Then I’d have to say Sweeney Todd and Porgy and Bess.
Is there a difference between writing a song for a theatre piece and writing a song for your own personal album?
When I write songs for shows I set lyrics to music. When I write songs for my own record I usually write the music first and then the lyrics usually come after. But I don’t really make a distinction between writing songs for a record vs. writing songs for theatre. But at the very end of the process, when I’m watching Spring Awakening and I hear a song sung by the cast it doesn’t get any better than that.
You’ve composed music for films, for example “Wishful Thinking” for the Great Expectations soundtrack. How did that come about?
The director Alfonso Cuarón asked me to write a song based on the theme of Great Expectations and that was my shot at it. Unfortunately it didn’t have much of a presence in the movie, but it was the first single from the soundtrack and had something of a life. We got a gold record out of it. No complaints.
Speaking of gold records, is your Grammy nominated song “Barely Breathing” off your 1996 gold record still tagged to your shoulder?
Less and less now and that’s a relief! [Laughs] I’m happy that people liked the song but I don’t have any particular desire to keep playing it.
Six months back you released your anthology Brighter/Later and it’s a play on Nick Drake’ s album Bryter Layter. You also covered his song “River Man”. Why these tributes? What does this artist mean to you?
This artist means a lot to me and many artists of my generation because he was this unsung hero and a real innovator as a guitar player and songwriter. He never really got his due while he was alive. As people rediscover him, they realize there is this treasure of amazing material. There’s the fact that this music was rarely performed live and it’s nice to be able to give people the experience of hearing it that way. They’re just really beautiful song and they’re a joy to play.
Does living in New York City inspire you?
When you live in a city like New York you don’t take advantage of it until you have a friend come and visit. When you have a friend from out of town then you’ll go see all the things New York has to offer. Recently I said to myself “I’m in New York City and I almost never go to museums or art galleries and that’s really pathetic!” But whenever I do go I get so inspired.
Speaking of being out in New York City, there are sightings of you in the 2003 film Uptown Girls starring Brittany Murphy based in Manhattan.
Yeah I was in it. [Laughs] I’m friends with one of the producers Fisher Stevens and he asked me to do a cameo. That was my small, big moment. A simple fun thing.
Do you have any more theatre projects in the works?
I’m doing another show called The Nightingale based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale very soon. We’re also working on another play about the Emperor Nero and we have an idea of doing a song cycle based on Alice in Wonderland. Finally we have another idea of doing an almost contemporary version of Twelfth Night, somewhere along the lines of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet.
And what about an album?