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Duncan Sheik muses about life and success
Former S.C. resident talks about new CD, Broadway success and his gay following

by Peter Galvin

Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik grew up in Hilton Head, S.C., where he was urged to pursue his musical interests by his grandmother.
Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik grew up in Hilton Head, S.C. He spent his teen years immersed in the music of the Beach Boys, the Smiths and the Blue Nile. It was while attending Brown University in Providence, R.I., that he met Tracee Ross (the daughter of Diana Ross), who would eventually bring him to the attention of executives at Atlantic Records.

His eponymous debut album for Atlantic spawned the 1996 hit single “Barely Breathing,” which remained on the charts for 55 straight weeks. In 1998, he was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Barely Breathing.”

Over the course of four outstanding albums released between 1996 and 2002, Sheik has established himself as one of the best singer-songwriters working today.

Now he’s back with his latest release and even more success on Broadway as a composer.

The CD, released on Rhino Records, “Brighter/Later: A Duncan Sheik Anthology,” offers a comprehensive overview of the first several years of his career.

The title of the CD is a play on — and tribute to — singer-songwriter Nick Drake’s second album “Bryter/Later.” This “Brighter/Later” surveys Sheik’s three Atlantic Records CDs (“Duncan Sheik,” “Humming” and “Daylight”) as well as the Nonesuch release “Phantom Moon.”

Of the set’s concept, Sheik says: “I wanted to have these two CDs where you would kind of stay in a particular mood and wouldn’t be sent back and forth. As you listen to each CD, you could get into one headspace and stay there for a while.”

Disc One, “Brighter,” showcases Sheik’s more energetic pop-oriented songs, while Disc Two, “Later,” highlights his more contemplative compositions.

In addition to singles, album cuts and concert favorites, “Brighter/Later” contains a number of rarities and previously unreleased tracks: a studio recording of “Lost On The Moon” (from the international-only version of the “Daylight” CD); “Wishful Thinking” from the “Great Expectations” soundtrack; an unreleased recording of Joni Mitchell’s “Court And Spark”; an unreleased remix of “For You”; and a new live recording of “Home.” The collection also offers the “hidden” tracks from “Humming” (the epic “Foreshadowing”) and “Daylight” (“Chimera”), available here as stand-alones for the first time ever.


Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik grew up in Hilton Head, S.C., where he was urged to pursue his musical interests by his grandmother.
Sheik’s latest CD is “White Limousine,” released earlier this year by Rounder Records. His most recent project, the German Expressionist play “Spring Awakening,” for which he wrote the music to accompany Steven Sater’s lyrics, moves from Off-Broadway to Broadway’s Eugene O’Neill Theater, opening Dec. 10.

In our interview Sheik talks about the genesis of “Brighter/Later,” the thrill of composing a Broadway musical and the new gay fans he’s garnered on the Great White Way.
Did you actually choose the songs on “Brighter/Later” yourself?

A. It was a collaborative process. Originally, the label wanted a single disc of mostly my singles. I was afraid of that. The more popular songs — “Barely Breathing,” “She Runs Away” and “Half-Life” — have been kind of a cross to bear. Most people have just heard those songs, and for me, it was important to tell the other side of the story. I was very intent on doing this two-CD thing. That way, it just feels a little less throwaway.

So, does this album signify the end of an era?

A. It’s definitely the end of a period — it’s a nice way to tie it all up in a bow. For me, I feel like there’s this body of work, and it kind of feels like it’s done. It’s been interesting to listen to some of these songs, a lot of them I really haven’t listened to in years. It was a nice trip down memory lane.

You’ve done cover versions of songs by Morrissey, Depeche Mode, Radiohead and, of course, Nick Drake. How did Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” end up on the album?
A. It was meant to be on a Joni Mitchell tribute album — a bunch of people like Bjork and Seal were also going to be on it — but it never came out. I thought it would be nice to give that version a home.

Last time we talked, we discussed you making the transition from your singer-songwriter career to writing the music for your Off-Broadway musical ”Spring Awakening.” Tell me about your shift in perspective as the show has moved from a little theater in Chelsea to the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.

A. It’s kind of enormous. It’s big enough that I don’t really realize what’s happening most of the time, except at moments when you see that there are 1,000 people in this gorgeous theater on the Great White Way, and they’ve come to listen to your music. Just to be a small part of that — along with Steven Sater, who wrote the lyrics, [director] Michael Mayer and [choreographer] Bill T. Jones — is an honor. I kind of didn’t realize how much I love it until recently, when I was standing at the back of the theater watching previews. It’s an amazing feeling.

Do you feel the success that “Spring Awakening” has had so far is any way a vindication for difficult times in the past when you felt your music wasn’t getting the kind of exposure you would have liked?

A. Totally. 100 percent. I would be the first one to admit that there was a period there, after I left Atlantic Records, where I felt like I was doing the best work I could, yet I was not getting the kind of audience that I hoped I would receive. It was very frustrating. The other night, at the show, there was a full house and they wouldn’t stop clapping. I couldn’t help but compare that moment to some of the frustrations of the past.
We’ve talked before about the fact that you have a large gay following. They will be very glad to know about “Brighter/Later.” Have you seen your gay following increase as you’ve become more visible on the New York theater scene?

A. Every night, I’m standing in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre on Broadway. There’s definitely a gay audience to see the show. Its funny, I was at “Grey Gardens” a couple times and that show more than ours is a show for theater queens! But I did see some faces from “Grey Gardens” that had been in our audience too. I have to say my favorite scene in our show is when the character of Hanschen, a schoolboy, seduces his friend Ernst. It’s a really sublime moment.

As a musical composer on Broadway, how does it feel to be in the musical company of legends like Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim and Kander and Ebb?
A. You definitely get into that I-am-not-worthy frame of mind. Stephen Sondheim actually came to see “Spring Awakening” Off-Broadway and he really seemed to like it. In a way, I feel like the work that Steven, Michael and Bill have done really deserves to be on Broadway. And in a way, it definitely pays tribute to everything that has come before it.

I hope “Brighter/Later” doesn’t mean the end of your singer-songwriter career.
A. No, not at all. I have another musical that I’m working on, and there’s also a play with music that’s in the works. But I will definitely always be recording and touring. I have an idea for a true covers record that I want to do. But whatever music I’m doing, I will always be a singer-songwriter at heart.

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