Dynamic Duo

With playwright Steven Sater, Duncan Sheik sidesteps his usual breezy pop

Though it's only about 93 miles as the crow flies from Toronto, Ontario, to Rochester, New York, it's a straight line that runs primarily through Lake Ontario, requiring a drastic detour if you're going to travel between the two by automobile. You have to head southwest and wrap around the great lake's southern shore, enter New York state and head east toward the finger lakes where the city on the Genessee River rests. Somewhere along that route singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik answers his cell phone with an obvious delight in his voice. Surprising even himself, Sheik is in good spirits in these early days of his current seven-week tour.

"I generally don't like to play live," the 31-year-old Sheik says, laughing at himself as the words leave his mouth. "I'm not one of those people who loves to be in the spotlight and wants to entertain everybody. That's not my m.o. But [this time out] it's been amazing. It's been surprisingly joyful."

Great expectations:  "I'm not one of those people who loves to be  in the spotlight,"  Duncan Sheik says.
Julian Broad
Great expectations: "I'm not one of those people who loves to be in the spotlight," Duncan Sheik says.

Sheik can't pinpoint what's making this tour so pleasant, though the warm response to his latest album, Phantom Moon, could be the cause for his easygoing confidence. What started as a small, acoustic side project between Sheik and playwright Steven Sater has turned into a critically championed album on the typically more esoteric Nonesuch label. "Steven and I are both practicing Buddhists," Sheik explains. "We met through this kind of lay Buddhists organization called Soka Gakkai International. Steven had a play of his being produced at an off-Broadway theater in New York, and he asked me if I wanted to write some music for it. And he sent me this play, called Umbrage, which I thought was really beautiful. He had a song lyric in the play, and I set that to music. And then Steven started faxing me lyrics fairly frequently after that, and eventually we had a whole set of songs."

As Sheik received Sater's lyrics, he folded them into his arrangements, meandering from small-scale, intimate instrumentation--like the naked-as-a-newborn "Requiescat," which hangs its forlorn requiem on a guitar and Dobro duet--to full-blown productions such as "The Winds That Blow," which includes Sheik on guitar and piano plus another guitar, a double bass, drums and the London Session Orchestra. (The song "Longing Town" was the lone exception to this process, where Sheik wrote the music and gave it to Sater to set lyrics to it.)

Phantom Moon and its aching sensitivity isn't the typical album from Sheik, who is better known for his breezy, literate-minded pop. The Brown University graduate--while in Providence, he played in an outfit called Liz & Lisa that included former fey Dallasite Lisa Loeb--released his Atlantic Records self-titled debut back in 1996. But like Loeb, his initial pop breakthrough came hitched to a soundtrack. Thursday-night drama hit ER included Sheik's "Reason to Live," and soon his appropriately titled "Barely Breathing" off his debut crept into the pop-music ether, where it climbed charts and pushed his album into the gold-sales territory. Two years later, his song "Wishful Thinking" appeared on the soundtrack to the insufferable Ethan Hawke-Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Great Expectations, and its popularity bled into Sheik's sophomore release, Humming, a more rich, lush and self-mocking version of Sheik's adult contemporary.

Even though Sheik didn't write the lyrics on Phantom Moon, Sater's words nicely dovetail into Shiek's penchant for pretty phrasings and visual panache. It's a trait that Sheik isn't shy to admit is influenced by his fondness for English songwriters.

"Certainly Nick Drake has [influenced me], and I love Robert Wyatt," Sheik says. "And there's a couple of other artists in particular--Mark Hollis, who was the lead singer of Talk Talk, and David Sylvian. These people have had a big impact on my creative process. And, to be pretty honest, I'm pretty much an Anglophile, I guess I should say. For some reason, there aren't very many American artists that I like very much in that vein--Jeff Buckley would be an exception to that. But I tend to gravitate toward English bands and artists."

Given Sheik's themes, that British kick shouldn't seem too surprising. The singer-songwriter mold in America is tied to a folk tradition--from the worker tearjerkers and fist-raising anthems immortalized by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan to the likes of Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar (plus or minus Mellencamp). America's song-poets keep their ears and eyes closer to the soil than their English counterparts, who often look to the love, lust and longing produced by poets for inspiration. (Lest we forget, Leonard Cohen was a Canadian cad who was only interested in going south of the world's most permeable border for the cool clothes and wanton women.) It's a songwriting approach that leans more heavily on reflection than turning personal experience into dramatic arcs in the way that storytelling pop songwriters so often do.

"The thing is, even from the very beginning I was never going for the pop jugular," Sheik says. "That's not really how I operated. And certainly one wants success, and you want your music to be exposed to as many people as possible. But I didn't want to work just within this normal pop music framework and be restricted by that. There are singer-songwriters that I had been very impressed with and moved by, and I felt making music within that kind of sadly neglected tradition was a good thing to do; it was a positive thing to do. And the fact is that there's a million rock bands, and there's a million hip-hop artists, and there's a million super-crafted country artists and all these different genres that have carved out very definable musical niches for themselves. And then [there's] people like myself, and our kinds of music have been very marginalized. So, of course, I would like to change that."

He may be doing just that with Phantom Moon, which has earned its fair share of celebratory reviews. It's a down-tempo outing, more concerned with atmospherics than hit songs, maintaining its august mien through its flowing moves from sparse accompaniment to ornate orchestrations. That sort of approach was a luxury Sheik was able to exercise by releasing the album with an artist/composer-identified label like Nonesuch. "To be fair to Atlantic, they never really imposed any restraints on me even when I made my first two records," Sheik says. "They were always supportive of what I was doing. When I first set out to make Phantom Moon, I basically was just going to make it and release it myself. And I went to Atlantic and said, 'You don't want to have to deal with trying to market my little acoustic side project. It'll be a headache for you.' So they were cool. They said, 'We'll entertain that idea.' But first they wanted to play it for [head of Nonesuch Records] Bob Hurwitz to see if Bob responded to it. And luckily for me, he did."

Sheik's collaboration with Sater doesn't end with Phantom Moon, however. After his current tour, Sheik will join up with Sater in New York City for a monthlong workshop preparing their new musical adaptation of German playwright Franz Wedekin's 1891 play, Spring Awakening. But Sheik hasn't completely abandoned his own muse. "I'm also kind of in the middle of making my next record for Atlantic, which is kind of the antidote for Phantom Moon," Sheik says, making light of his current occupation. "It's the other side of the coin. It's going to be much more modern."

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