With his smoldering voice, classic good looks, and a knack for writing honest, but not obvious, lyrics, it's not hard to understand why Duncan Sheik sold millions of copies of his 1996 Grammy-nominated debut album, propelled by the success of the hit single, "Barely Breathing."
Sheik, a friendly, unassuming fellow and practicing Buddhist, took his sudden fame in stride, quietly continuing on his quest for musical growth and creative freedom.
"I'm not really a radio-oriented person, I never was," Sheik says. "I didn't really grow up listening to the radio, I was somebody who grew up listening to records. With my first record, especially, I never felt like it was a pop record. For me, it ended up being more trouble than it was worth, because I wasn't somebody who was comfortable in that Top 40 context at all."
Instead, Sheik, an unabashed fan of cult favorite troubadour Nick Drake, made another album for Atlantic, 1998's Humming, before taking a bit of a hiatus to collaborate with his friend, the playwright Steven Sater, on 2001's moody, atmospheric Phantom Moon (an overt homage to Drake's classic album Pink Moon), which came out on Nonesuch Records.
He fulfilled his contract with Atlantic with 2002's Daylight, an album that dissected the personality of a son of a bitch masquerading as a balladeer, which the label spent a good deal of money on but failed to really promote.
"[The split from Atlantic] was totally amicable, but maybe a little bit disappointing on everyone's part," Sheik says. "The reality was, I think, they had a different vision for who they wanted me to be as an artist and the kind of music they wanted me to make, and when it became clear that they weren't gonna get the kind of stuff out of me that they wanted, it made sense for us to part ways."
Since then, he's been working on a variety of projects, including producing albums for other artists and composing songs and scores for films (A Home at the End of the World, a new Famke Janssen project called Churn the River) and theatre productions. He and Sater spent seven years working on an unconventional "anti-musical" called Spring Awakening, a reimagining of Frank Wedekind's 1891 play, which recently opened Off Broadway to rave reviews.
"We extended another month at the Atlantic Theatre," Sheik says, "and there's all kinds of conversations now with ... Broadway producers and stuff like that, about the kind of further life of the show and what may happen in the future ... it looks like they're chomping at the bit for me to actually produce the record for Spring Awakening."
Sheik is currently on the road in support of his latest album, White Limousine, which, as both a treat for fans and an experiment, he decided to release with a bonus DVD that lets listeners remix the entire album, piece by piece, using an included software program called LIVE.
"I initially wanted to make a minimalist electronica record, and ultimately White Limousine turned into this much more organic affair," Sheik says. "I thought it would be cool for other people to take these raw materials and ... have versions of the songs that were more in that kind of electronic mode. We have a website up [limoremix.com] where people can send in their remixes. For me, the more different they are from the existing songs, the better. I want people to take those tracks and really go to town, really kind of mess 'em up and reconceive them in a completely different genre. I don't want anybody to be polite about the remixes."