Duncan Sheik – Bringing Down the Whisper House
Updated: Mar 27
Bringing Down the Whisper House
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s not a straight line to go from pop star to respected Broadway composer, but Duncan Sheik never believed in doing things the normal way.
Sheik first exploded onto the pop culture radar in 1996, when his Gold-certified self-titled debut album yielded the mega-hit single “Barely Breathing” – a song which still gets regular radio play thirteen years later. The album also spawned a couple of other small hits – “She Runs Away” and “Reasons for Living.” He also got a Grammy nod for best rock vocalist for “Barely Breathing,” although he ended up losing that nod to Elton John’s baby-gorilla-huge Princess Diana rethink of “Candle in the Wind.”
However, Sheik never really saw himself as a music star and he has followed that debut with an acclaimed-but-quirky body of work. Albums like Humming, Phantom Moon and White Limousine rewarded fans at the same time they confounded A&R guys who were looking for a simple, hooky hit that they could get on radio.
Sheik worked with playwright Stephen Sater on the Phantom Moon project – and that collaboration led the pair to put together a musical called Spring Awakening – which became a surprise Broadway smash and finally won Sheik his Grammy – as well as a Tony.
Sheik’s latest album is made up of the songs from his next musical – Whisper House – which is based on an old ghost story. Whisper House is an old-fashioned song cycle, a fanciful acoustic set of musical fables about a young ghost named Christopher and the lighthouse he haunts. The show is scheduled for its first performances now, hopefully following Spring Awakening to the Great White Way.
This was the second time I had interviewed Sheik. In 1996, right before his hit single “Barely Breathing” exploded, I spoke with him at the Theater of Living Arts in Philadelphia, as well as another new, little-known singer he was opening for named Jewel. Thirteen years after our last discussion, Sheik was kind enough to sit down and talk to me from his New York City home.
I remember when I first interviewed you; you told me that you had previously played in Lisa Loeb’s band while in Brown. You also had played on an album by His Boy Elroy. When did you know you were ready to go solo?
I graduated from college in 1992. I guess in my sophomore year I was a guitar player in Lisa Loeb’s band at the time – which was called Liz and Lisa. Then around that time I started secretly recording my own songs in the recording studio in Brown. Over the next couple of years I made a series demos. I drove across country to Los Angeles after graduation pretty much with the idea that I was going to attempt some way to perform to get a record deal. So it was basically right after college. The His Boy Elroy thing – it was a producer I was working with at the time and he was producing that record, so he just had me come in and play some guitar. That was a very casual experience. (laughs)
I interviewed you right before “Barely Breathing” hit. How surreal was that suddenly hearing yourself all over the radio and TV?
Well, you know, on the one hand it was great, because, yeah, you’re on the radio and you’re making kind of fancy music videos. It seemed like things were going to be really great. On the other hand, you were still kind of in a van with four other dirty musicians, staying at Motel 6. When your first record comes out and you have a single on the radio, it means that things are on the upswing, but it doesn’t mean that you’re all the sudden living in the lap of luxury. So it was great, but there was also a certain amount of kind of cognitive dissonance for me, because I always thought of myself as a much more alternative songwriter and being in a Top 40 context wasn’t the easiest thing for me.
It’s funny, but I sort of remember thinking when you released Humming that the album seemed a bit more theatrical than your debut – more strings, denser production. Were you already experimenting with that side of your music?
Well, there actually were quite a few string arrangements on the first record as well. I have a now very long-standing collaboration with Simon Hale who has done the orchestration on all of my records and most of the theater stuff I’ve done. So that’s always been an aspect of my aesthetic or style. I guess the theater thing kind of came up really almost by accident, later. Late in 1999, after I finished touring behind Humming, I met my friend Stephen Sater. We’re both practicing Buddhists and he’s a playwright. He proposed the idea that we think about adapting Spring Awakening and turn it into a theater piece that had songs.
You first started collaborating with Stephen Sater on Phantom Moon – I know you met because you are both Buddhist, but how did you first start collaborating with him? Were you working on Spring Awakening at the time, too? I know that had a long germinating period.
Yes, yes. They were kind of concurrent. I started working on the songs that became Phantom Moon. Actually, Stephen had written a play and there was a song lyric in it and Stephen said, “Would you write some music for the lyric?” I said sure. We started writing. He had one lyric and then he faxed me another lyric. Stephen is very prolific. Then he just started faxing me lyric after lyric and before too long there was a stack of like 25 of them. I was like, okay, I guess this is going to be my next record, because I had all these songs that were – well I guess you could say that they were as completely non-commercial as you could possibly get. It was all acoustic instruments and woodwind arrangements and all this kind of very poetic lyrics. At the time, I think I was reacting against the Top 40 specter of my life. I was like, great, I’ll make this really arty record and it’ll come out on Nonesuch and I can reestablish myself as the kind of artist that I wanted to be perceived as. It actually, looking back on it, it seems kind of funny to me. So we started working on Spring Awakening while I was writing and recording Phantom Moon. I guess that began a series of workshops – it really was seven years before it was staged. We did I think seven workshops before it made it to the Atlantic Theater.
You grew up partially in New Jersey. When you were growing up did you go to New York for theater often?
You know, I did. I did. My mom would take me to see things. I remember seeing things as diverse as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and then my mom took me to Sweeney Todd when it first came out. I had done… in grade school I was the Artful Dodger in Oliver! and all – the normal thing that kid’s do. I think when I was twelve or thirteen… I was a guitar player. When you’re thirteen, playing a guitar becomes a lot cooler than doing the song and dance numbers. (laughs) So after I was thirteen I really wasn’t involved in musical theater at all. I would go see plays, I’d go see straight plays, but it wasn’t until 1999 when we started working on Spring Awakening that I kind of jumped back into that world.
In 2002, you did some music for the New York Shakespeare festival’s version of Twelfth Night, even before Spring Awakening was staged. How did that opportunity come up?
The director of that show was a guy named Brian Kulick. I guess he was a fan of Phantom Moon and he thought that kind of organic almost-folk music or orchestrated folk music aspect of that record would sound really good with his version of Twelfth Night. That was just a really cool experience. It was the first time that I had done something that was mainly underscore, as opposed to writing songs. That was a lot of fun.
You were working on Spring Awakening for eight years. How gratifying was it when it finally opened on Broadway to such acclaim?
It was amazing. For the first seven years of development, nobody was talking about it as a Broadway show at all. Even our own director and our own producers were thinking of it as something that was kind of a coolavant garde piece that would exist off-Broadway and maybe do the alternative theater circuit like the Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Festival. It wasn’t until the very end of the run at the Atlantic, in the summer of 2006 that people started saying, ‘Oh, well maybe we can bring this show to Broadway.’ I remember when they announced it was going to transfer to the O’Neill it was just amazing. I didn’t realize how emotional I’d be about it. It was really exciting. When we were in previews, the show was losing a ton of money, because we had been playing in a theater to 185 people a night and all of the sudden we were in a theater with 1,100 seats. So it was very touch and go, but then opening night happened and the reviews started coming in that next day. I remember there were like 23 rave reviews from 23 newspapers. It was incredible. Then people just started coming in droves. That was really surreal. That was like walking on air for the next couple of months.
Due to the bad economy, Spring Awakening recently closed on Broadway, though it is still doing touring companies. Was it sort of bittersweet to see it leaving Broadway?
Yeah, a little bit. I actually was really, really happy with the run that we had. We had over 800 shows. That to me was a small miracle. And yes, the show is touring. It just opened on the West End in London. It’s opening in eighteen different territories around the world this year. It’s kind of living on in a different incarnation. That makes me very happy.
Back in the old days, they often previewed musicals with concept albums. Was it an interesting experience to do that with Whisper House?
Well, yeah. You know, it’s funny. I didn’t realize until later that this was something that people did. I guess maybe they did Jesus Christ Superstar…
Yes, they did Jesus Christ Superstar, Chess… I believe Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice did it a lot…
Okay, right, so they would put out the records first and then develop the show. So I did that with Whisper House, not really knowing there was a precedent for it. It’s been great, because the record has allowed artistic directors at theaters to really get into the songs and hear them produced properly. It looks like we’re going to do that show at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego in January of next year.
Okay, yes, I was going to ask you what the plans were for staging it…
Actually, we’re going to do New York Stage and Film up in Vassar (which runs from June to August 2009). It’s really like a workshop process, but there will be a couple of performances at the end of that. Then we head to San Diego in January.
You’ve also been doing some live concerts with other artists to preview the songs. Do you see that as almost a workshop of the show as well?
Sure. I mean, it’s really just a way of getting the music out there in front of people and making people aware of the project. Maybe filling them in a little bit on what the narrative is – this ghost story that these songs are telling. I’m personally not the most theatrical performer, but it’s kind of nice to have this persona to jump into – to play the part of this ghost onstage. And the best thing of all is it gives me something to talk about between songs. (laughs)
Have you always been a fan of ghost stories?
Yeah, I guess, when I was a kid. There is a lot of ghost lore in South Carolina where I grew up. So, I would listen to ghost stories that my friends’ dads would tell us. We’d go on camping trips and they’d try to freak us out around the campfire. Those were good memories. (laughs)
Whisper House is part of a darker genre than Spring Awakening. Were you looking to do something entirely different with the musical?
Well, you know, I actually… Spring Awakening deals with some pretty dark themes. I think Whisper House, in a way, is much more whimsical. Whimsically malevolent. There’s a little bit of a knowing, winking quality to a lot of those songs that hopefully people will get. And, yeah, I think they’re actually just very different, because Spring Awakening has so much to do with adolescence and puberty and sexuality. Whisper House is in a way pre-sexual. Christopher is only eleven. It’s doesn’t really deal with those themes. It touches a little bit on romantic love between the other characters, but in a way it’s a much more innocent piece.
Many of the songs are duets with Holly Brook. How did you start working with her and what do you feel she adds to the process?
Holly was opening up for me on a tour I did in 2006 for White Limousine. I thought she was a great singer and a great songwriter. I was touring next in 2007 with a string quartet and doing some of the Spring Awakening material, so I needed a female singer who could also play keyboards. I invited Holly out to join the band and we’ve just been working together ever since. She sang on Whisper House, obviously, and I just produced her new record which hopefully will see the light of day later this year. She’s an amazing singer and an amazing songwriter. Especially for someone her age, it’s a little bit frightening.
So many of Broadway musicals now are either revivals, turning old movies into plays or shoehorning old pop music into a play. Is it hard to launch more original works like yours – which I know were based on old tales, but not ones that are generally known?
I think that both Stephen and I have an appreciation for classic pieces of literature and classic plays. Things that are in the canon of western literature, but they aren’t necessarily big pop culture things. I think that those kinds of stories and those kinds of source materials are what appeal to us. We’re working on… we have two shows in development, one is about Nero. Another show is based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairytale called “The Nightingale.” In some ways, they are kind of diverse. But they are similar in the sense that they deal with historical themes and classic pieces of literature. But they are historical themes that have great relevance for today. I think that’s what Steve and I both enjoy – finding ways of taking these great tales and turning them into something that people can enjoy in this decade.
When I was researching this interview, I did see in Wikipedia mentioning one of those – Nero (Another Golden Rome). They said you were working on it, but I couldn’t really find any other info. How far along is it?
We’ve done a lot of work on it. We’ve done four or five workshops. At the moment, we are talking to a few different theaters in London about having it produced there. I think, mainly because the Brits have that particular period of western history more in their curriculum than the Americans do. The material is in some ways more familiar to those audiences. So we want to get it started over there. We’re looking to get that show up in London. Then we’ll look and see if it will make it here as well.
Now that you have sort of segued to musical theater, can you see a point where you’ll ever go back and just do a straight album again?
Yeah. Actually, the next record I think that I’m going to put out is kind of a covers album. Songs from the eighties. English bands like The Smiths, New Order, Depeche Mode, Psychedelic Furs… all these bands that I listened to as a teenager. I’m kind of reimagining what people would refer to as sort of synth-pop songs in a kind of different style.
Sort of like Grant Lee Phillips’ nineteeneighties….
A little bit along those lines. (Also) I’ve started… not really on purpose, but there are a batch of songs that have accrued over the past couple of months taking shape as some kind of album, but it’s a little bit early to say exactly what it’s going to be. The other thing is, here we are in 2009… how much longer is the compact disk going to be something that people consume? (laughs) Therefore, does it make sense to release things as albums in the way maybe you will release collections of songs? Or maybe they will be released serially – one song at a time. I’m trying to figure out what’s the best way to get music out there in accordance with what’s going on in our digital age.
What gets the prize spot in your home – your Grammy or your Tony?
(laughs) They’re actually sitting on a couple of books over here. On the same level pretty much, let’s put it that way.
Okay, a few vague questions to close out. What would people be surprised to know about you?
Surprised to know about me? Wow. (long pause) That’s very vague. I’m sure there are a lot of things they’d be surprised about. (laughs) But I probably shouldn’t talk about them in the interview. Umm, let’s see. I’m a very big James Bond fan.
How would you like people to see your career?
What I hope to continue to do is create a body of work that is diverse and meaningful to people. That’s challenging the way that music is made and how people hear songs, finding different and interesting contexts to compose music. In a way I just want to continue doing what I’m doing. Hopefully people will be able to appreciate that music can function in so many ways and it can exist and wear so many different clothes. But the important thing is that you are moved by it. That it has an impact on your soul.
Are there any misconceptions you’d like to clear up?
Well, for a long time it was very frustrating to me – like we talked about before – being in the Top 40 context. I think I went through an almost ten year period of trying to find a different audience for myself. Trying to find the specific audience that I thought was supposed to appreciate my music. But, you know, the truth is your music is going to be appreciated by the people that like it. You can’t really control that, so I think now it’s more just about putting your nose to the ground and trying to write the best songs you can write. Fight the good fight in terms of creating art. Hopefully people will appreciate that.
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 7, 2009.
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