No matter how hard he’s tried to dodge it, the spotlight just seems to find Duncan Sheik.
After bursting onto the rock charts in the mid ’90s with “Barely Breathing,” he retreated into the shadows of indie music and theater.
That didn’t last long.
He wrote the music for the 2006 Broadway smash hit “Spring Awakening.” The rock ‘n’ roll tale of teen angst grabbed eight Tony Awards in 2007, including Best Musical, and nods to Sheik for best original score and best orchestrations.
Sheik came to CSPS in Cedar Rapids in March 2009 for a concert we deemed “brilliant” in our review, showcasing his show tune. He’s returning on Thursday, on a national tour with his stripped-down homage to the music of his youth via his new acoustic CD, “Covers Eighties Remixed.”
- Duncan Sheik trio
- 7 p.m. Thursday
- CSPS, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
- $25 at the door, (319) 364-1580 or Legionarts.org
- Free discussion, noon to 1 p.m. Thursday, University of Iowa Theatre Building, 200 N. Riverside Dr., Iowa City
He just keeps charting new courses.
“‘Barely Breathing’ was a bit of an anomaly in terms of my first record and in terms of the way I saw myself as an artist,” Sheik, 42, says by phone from his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he lives with his girlfriend.
“Really quickly in ’96, I was thrust into this Top 40 context. Frankly, I wasn’t that comfortable there, because I didn’t feel that much kinship with other artists who are in that world. They certainly weren’t the artists that were my influences. As much as I might respect them, it’s not what I was doing,” he says.
“Here I was, listening to Radiohead or Chalk Talk – whatever fairly left-field records I was listening to, and then I was in this very kind of mainstream music context. That caused a lot of dissonance for me in that situation. At that point, you continue to put your head down and do the best work you can do, and people are gonna perceive it however they’re gonna perceive it,” he says.
“I think that I subconsciously and consciously did a lot of work to subvert that kind of Top 40 thing from happening again, for better or worse. The irony is that when I did something in theater – which was a fairly avant-garde, kind of expressionist play, ‘Spring Awakening’ that we adapted our show from – that became, in a way, the most commercial thing that I’ve ever done,” he says.
“You don’t really have control over these things in the end. You just do your work and the culture responds to it however it does and you hope for the best.”
Two Corridor theaters are staging the rock musical this season. The University of Iowa’s production opened Nov. 9 and continues through Saturday (11/17). Theatre Cedar Rapids is bringing it to the main stage June 28 to July 20, 2013. Sheik will be speaking about the show from noon to 1 p.m. Thursday in the UI Theatre Building. The discussion is free and open to the public.
He’s thrilled the show is making the leap from Broadway to community theaters, colleges and other grassroots stages.
“I love the fact that people are doing ‘Spring Awakening’ all over the place,” he says. “I just got back from Mexico City, and there was a production down there in Spanish, which was really wonderful. For me, it’s just great to see it done differently, and with different actors, because then the experience is new and fresh and exciting.”
Thursday’s CSPS audience will hear Sheik in a trio, doing a mix of his vintage tunes and new material from the covers CD released Nov. 6, as well as a set of “brand-spanking new” songs from an album coming out next year.
“I haven’t made a ‘normal’ Duncan Sheik album since 2006,” he says. “Everything I’ve done since then has been either theater-related or covers, so it’s been too long.”
As for the spotlight – he doesn’t mind it so much anymore.
“To be honest, when I first started performing live, which was not that long after my first record, it actually was not my favorite part of the process,” he says. “I’m not the kind of person who wants to get a lot of people to pay attention to me in the room. I love making records and I love writing songs and that’s why I got into this. Performing was part of the gig. Certainly initially, it was just something had to go through.
“Now 16 years later, I do really enjoy those shows when it all kind of coalesces and comes together. When the artist is with you and the music sounds right, it’s totally brilliant. It just took me a little while to get to that place.”