Before his mid-November concert at SPACE in Evanston, Illinois, singer, songwriter and producer Duncan Sheik, who was catapulted to stardom and pigeonholed as a “one-hit wonder” by the success of his breathy single, “Barely Breathing,” shared some thoughts behind what prompted him to embark on his most recent projects and what was next on his musical horizons. Never mind that Sheik hasn’t been the twenty-something heart throb known for that 1997 single for over fifteen years now; he’s matured into a forty-plus bearded baritone with a touch of grey here and there, and a multiple Tony winner as a writer of the music for the 2006 Broadway show, “Spring Awakening” (the soundtrack album of which also won a Grammy).
His most recent release, Cover 80’s, is a new twist on a record he put out in 2011 on his own Sneaky Recordings label, in which he initially provided spare renditions of twelve of his favorite songs from the 1980’s, ranging from the “hits” like Tears For Fears’ “Shout” and Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now” to the more obscure numbers like The Cure’s “Kyoto Song” and “Stay” by The Blue Nile. To paraphrase the Depeche Mode cover that began the original record, the songs were “stripped” of their original (and at times heavy on the synthesizer) instrumentation and featured not much more than Duncan Sheik singing, with backing vocals from Rachel Yamagata and his previous female collaborator, Holly Brook (now known under the moniker Skylar Grey).
Earlier last month Sheik released Covers 80’s Remixed, twelve reinterpretations by ten outside contributors (and two he remixed himself), in a different running order, which pile instrumentations, electronic effects and beats on top of those originally austere cover versions. So, it’s a re-re-interpretation, if you will.
He describes the original record, his seventh full-length release, as “An homage to some of the bands and artists that I listened to as a teenager when I was first starting to make music myself. A lot of them were my touchstones,” he says.
“It was also a way for me to create a set of material that I could sit down in someone’s living room and play that weren’t songs that I had written myself,” Sheik says. “Until recently my repertoire of other people’s music consisted of one Radiohead song and one Oasis song and then I was done, so I needed to . . . expand that.”
Sheik says that there was no story behind the selection of any of the songs in particular. “Other than they were songs that I loved as a teenager and they were songs I thought I could pull off and do justice to them as a singer, in my reimagining of them,” he says. “They were all just the things that were in my consciousness and meant something to me when I heard them.”
Covers 80’s in its original form was quite a revelation, focusing its spotlight on Sheik’s unaffected yet strangely affecting male lead vocal, that, despite a lack of melodramatic histrionics, still carries with it a deep emotional resonance. His lead vocals illuminate lyrical plots and subplots that might have gotten lost in a denser mix, and to many may have in the past, especially the conflicted voice of the narrator in “Hold Me Now” and the past tense of the narrator in the haunting “Love Vigilantes.” The same goes for the poignancy of the lyrics in Howard Jones’ “What Is Love?” and the cover that concludes the 2011 release, “Ghost In You,” originally done by Psychedelic Furs– once they are “stripped” of their 80’s synth-rock conventions, their wonderful and sometimes profound lyrics come to the fore.
“The next record that I’m currently writing is using a lot of sounds and textures that come from the electronic dance music world. [The remixes on Covers 80’s] were partly an experiment in dipping my feet into these different waters in music production and specifically in an electronic context,” he says.
Whereas before he has tended to “foreground acoustic instruments and orchestration,” now he’s “a little bit more interested in foregrounding the machine.”
Of course, it helps to have your own studio in which to do that recontextualization, and that’s just what Sheik has built in Sneaky Studios, in New York’s Hudson Valley. “[I wanted to] create a place Upstate where I didn’t have neighbors, and nobody to complain about how loud it might get, and a little more room to bring in some different kind of cool instruments and a place to have where bands could stay and hang out by the pool and make really cool records,” he says.
Aside from recording and producing his own records and those of other artists, since opening in 2011 they’ve had quite a few musical acts come through and his Sneaky Studios, in his words, is “becoming the go-to studio for young, cool, hip-hop artists,” he says with a laugh, including El-P, who recorded and produced his most recent release there. El-P in particular returned that favor by remixing the cover of “Love Vigilantes” on the new release.
Speaking of the future, aside from his immediate tour dates, Sheik is staying busy, hoping to restage his version of Hans Christian Andersen’s Nightingale at a regional theater next summer, and hopefully bring it to New York, after a successful showing in La Jolla this year. He also speaks with enthusiasm about another theater project, his musical reinterpretation of “American Psycho.”
Duncan Sheik says that he has seen a lessening of the perception that he is just a “one-hit wonder” since the success he had with “Spring Awakening” (and press reports indicate that a movie, with McG directing, may be forthcoming in 2013). But he can’t ignore the elephant in the room, and he does close his show the next night with “Barely Breathing,” albeit in an R&B setting.
“The song happened the way it happened, and people still hear it on the radio, and if they like it, that’s great, and if they’re totally annoyed by that, I totally understand,” he laughs. “I just kind of have to put my head down and keep trying to write great songs and make great records and do what I do.”
Duncan Sheik – Covers 80’s Remixed tracklist:
- “Shout”—Original Recording by Tears for Fears; Remixed by Chi Duly ft. RachaelYamagata
- “What Is Love”—Original Recording Howard Jones; Remixed by Gabriel & Dresden
- “William It Was Really Nothing”—Original Recording by The Smiths; Remixed by Max Tannone
- “Gentleman Take Polaroids”—Original Recording by Japan; Remixed by Ben Casey
- “Kyoto Song”—Original Recording by The Cure; Remixed by Samantha Ronson
- “Stay”—Original Recording by The Blue Nile; Remixed by Duncan Sheik
- “Love Vigilantes”—Original Recording by New Order; Remixed by EL-P
- “Life’s What You Make It”—Original Recording by Talk Talk; Remixed by Bookworm
- “Stripped”—Original Recording by Dépêche Mode; Remixed by Terry Urban
- “So Alive”—Original Recording by Love & Rockets; Remixed by Duncan Sheik
- “The Ghost in You”—Original Recording by Psychedelic Furs; Remixed by Chico Mann ft. Holly Brook
- “Hold Me Now”—Original Recording by Thompson Twins; Remixed by 16 Bit Lolita