Few musical careers are as varied as Duncan Sheik’s. For some, his name conjures acid-washed memories of his 1996 radio hit, “Barely Breathing.” Others might think of Spring Awakening, Sheik and Steven Sater’s Tony-winning rock musical about teenagers exploring their sexuality in nineteenth-century Germany. But with pop troubadour and musical-theater composer already on his résumé, Sheik has added a new notch to his belt: electronic musician.
Last month Sheik released Legerdemain, his first non-musical solo album since 2006’s White Limousine. Recorded in his own studio in Garrison, New York, Legerdemain is half layered electronic music, half analog acoustic tunes — and, as such, a departure from what the artist describes as “ye olde Duncan Sheik.”
“I thought that maybe this record should be like a battery: One side has this very positive charge and one side has this negative charge, and they make a whole. The shift is supposed to be very extreme, like we’re in a different record,” Sheik explains. He cites influences ranging from the bare acoustic stylings of Nick Drake to the dense synth of Talk Talk.
The idea of finding balance in an off-kilter world pervades the album. Songs like “Avalanche” and “Warning Light” tackle anxiety about mankind’s relationship with the environment, and the violin-inflected closing track, “So There,” trains a wide existential lens on the human condition. But first there’s the opener, “Selling Out,” a catchy but dire tune about the state of the world and the music industry that Sheik describes as “a rebuke against a lot of people, including myself.”
“So much pop music is about, like, ‘I’m going to the club tonight, we’re gonna party. Woo!’ ” he says. “And if you try to write about something deeper or something that, God forbid, has a metaphor in it, you’re really in trouble.”
As enamored of electronic music as Sheik is now, he’s aware that it carries a certain stigma in the pop world. But rest assured, there’s nothing EDM about Legerdemain. “There is a lot of electronic music that just stinks of Axe Body Spray,” he says. “Just dumb people acting ridiculously, and it’s just this bombastic whatever. But the truth is — and Björk kind of said it best — it’s not like electronic music is soulless. It depends on the person who’s making it. So I felt like, ‘OK, I’m finally in a place where I can kind of put my soul into these machines.’ ”
Sheik has been immersed in music all his life, first picking up the guitar at six years old and the monophonic synthesizer at thirteen. But after his moment in the sun in the Nineties — first performing with Lisa Loeb, and then with the success of “Barely Breathing” — the last thing he expected was to become involved in musical theater. That is, until he met Sater at a Buddhist center in 1999. Still, when Sater proposed that the two collaborate on an adaptation of an obscure 1906 German play called Spring Awakening, Sheik was wary.
“I was pretty negative about that at first, because I didn’t really like musicals at that point,” he recalls. “But I read the play, and it was really eccentric and racy. And I thought, ‘If I can write music that’s the style of music I’m interested in and get away with it, and you don’t expect me to do some weird ersatz version of Sondheim, then yeah, let’s do it.’ ”
It took seven years from when they started working on the show to when it first appeared onstage; at the time, theater producers were leery of rock musicals. “People didn’t understand the style. Like, ‘This doesn’t sound like musical theater.’ But we showed them,” Sheik says with a laugh. “In a certain way, I feel vindicated that I was maybe leading the charge of showing people that it’s OK if the music that happens onstage reflects the taste of what the people are listening to in the wider culture.”
That vindication has certainly come. Spring Awakening helped usher in an era of rock musicals, from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson to Green Day’s own American Idiot, and these days Broadway is even embracing other popular forms — just look at the runaway success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop-indebted Hamilton.
Sheik is currently on tour in support of Legerdemain, sharing a bill with singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega (of “Tom’s Diner” fame). On November 21, he’ll make a stop in New York to play Carnegie Hall. But that’s far from all that the musician has on his plate right now. The break to record his solo album aside, he’s still hard at work in the world of musical theater. Spring Awakening is currently enjoying a second life on Broadway in a groundbreaking new production from Deaf West Theatre, a Los Angeles–based company whose productions combine deaf and hearing performers.
It’s only been six years since Spring Awakening was last on Broadway, but Deaf West’s production is a whole different animal, double-casting some roles with deaf actors who sign and hearing doppelgängers who sing for them. This new version of the show incorporates a seamless critique of how deafness is treated in the educational system into a show that’s already all about how adults fail teens who deviate from the norm.
“The theme of the show is really about the inability of parents and children to communicate,” says Sheik, who altered his original arrangements to suit Michael Arden’s production. “When you introduce deaf actors into the scenario, it just doubles down on the difficulty of that communication. It packs a huge emotional punch.”
And that’s not all that Sheik is up to on the Great White Way. In March, his work will hit Broadway again with American Psycho, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s musical adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel. Sheik wrote both the music and the lyrics to the score. As on Legerdemain, he turned to electronic music to complement the story of Eighties Übermensch/maniac Patrick Bateman.
Sheik says that giving American Psycho an all-synth score was his reaction to the overflow of rock musicals flooding Broadway in recent years. “It’s jumped the shark so badly,” he says. “[I wanted] no guitars whatsoever. Just analog synthesizers and drum machines. It’s set in 1989 in New York, and all those guys were going to clubs where they were playing early versions of house music and techno. It made sense, stylistically.”
Sheik is still perfecting American Psycho for New York following runs in London and L.A. “I’ve just continued to refine the sound of it, to make it hit harder and be more muscular and be a little cooler,” he says. “You could do a version of American Psycho that’s totally campy and silly and ridiculous, but I definitely did not want to do that. There’s a lot of stuff in there that has teeth and is quite serious and hopefully will really mess with people’s heads.”
As if two Broadway shows and a national album tour weren’t enough, Sheik is also working on two additional musicals: Alice by Heart, a version of Alice in Wonderland (again with collaborator Sater) set during the London Blitz, and an experimental L.A. thriller called Noir with Kyle Jarrow.
But Sheik doesn’t mind being busy, or that he’s working all over the sonic and genre map. “I just try to keep my head down and do the best work I can do, and to do it for the right reasons,” he says. “For me, it’s always been: How can I make music that’s going to make the listener feel some undefinable, wonderful, excellent feeling? And the only arbiter you have of that is: Does it do it to me?”
Duncan Sheik plays Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall on November 21.