Duncan Sheik

by John Noyd
February 2009

Duncan Sheik

Duncan Sheik

MAXIMUM INK recently caught up with singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik hoping to break away from the panel discussions at the Sundance Film Festival to take in some snowboarding. Eleven years earlier Sheik found himself navigating an entirely different slippery slope. The single, “Barely Breathing,” from his self-titled debut stayed a record-setting fifty-five weeks on the charts and made him a Grammy-nominated pop star. A role, he admits, he was ill-suited to play.  “Call me lazy,” Sheik says, “but at the end of the day I prefer to be sitting in the audience than performing on stage.” Not satisfied continuing with the personal love songs of his debut, Sheik moved to narrative songs packed with elusive introspection, subtle themes and smart literary devices. At the same time he was feeling he was having less and less of an effect on his audience. Being in the spotlight was just not a natural setting for Sheik and yet his desire to create remained strong.

Cue Sheik’s second chance. “Theater saved my life,” he simply states.  Collaborating with poet and fellow Buddhist Steven Sater, Sheik found a new creative outlet that eventually resulted in the Tony award-winning musical, “Spring Awakening.”  Inspired once again, Sheik’s theater work energized his recording career as well as opening up opportunities scoring films.  But even before. “Spring,” brought him renewed mainstream recognition, another theater piece called him. First pitched three or four years ago by actor Keith Powell, “Whisper House,” remained little more than an idea about a play with ghosts and light houses until a ten-day theater workshop last summer in Charleston S.C. brought a burst of creativity from Sheik where not only was the play’s concept was solidified but nearly all the songs for it were written. “Normally,” Sheik says, “I write the music then the lyrics but here the lyrics and music came simultaneously.”

Full of dark prophecies and inescapable fates, “Whisper House,” is buoyed by Sheik’s light elegance and graceful melodies. Toying with pathos, Sheik sees his latest work as “whimsical cynicism” and while he says he seems to be more of a curmudgeon these days he admits this is the happiest he has been in years. His label heard the demos of, “Whisper,” and thought it could work as his next record “killing two birds with one stone.” Sheik says happily, and uniting his pop career with his theater work. 

Currently touring with a nine-piece band, Sheik plays UW’s Union Theater on March 5th. A dry run last year proved to be the most fun he has ever had on tour and credits being able to bounce ideas off his band and sharing the spotlight with them. A self-professed, “culture consumer,” who, “likes cool shit,” Sheik recently unplugged the cable from his TV, sold his Tribeca apartment and is planning to move upstate. “I recently got a new version of ‘Walden’,” Sheik confesses, “perhaps I’ll go from curmudgeon to recluse.” If the clever conceits of, “Whisper House,” are any indication misanthropy may actually become fashionable.

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Duncan Sheik
CD: Whisper House Record Label: Victor
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