Covering Duncan: Sheik At Infinity Hall
If you prefer your love odes on the bittersweet side, Duncan Sheik is your man, and his upcoming Valentine’s Day show at Infinity Hall is just the ticket for you and your date — or just you and a fantasy one. “I’ve written a lot of songs that are romantically themed,” says the singer-songwriter and Tony-winning composer of rock musical phenomenon Spring Awakening. “Although it’s mostly doomed romance,” he laughs. “I like there to be a twist in the lyric, not have it be so on the nose.” At the suggestion of an all-gloomy-ballads evening for heartbroken divorcees, he laughs again, even harder. He is a jolly man, a Buddhist with a wicked sense of humor, taking time out from helping his mother buy a 1911 Steinway piano to talk to Rural Intelligence about his remarkable, still unfolding career. What might fans expect on February 14, when he treads the boards of the esteemed Norfolk, CT, venue for the first time?
Sheik will be fronting what he half-jokingly calls his “power trio.” In addition to dipping into his extensive back catalog of smart pop, of which 1996 megahit “Barely Breathing” (55 weeks on the charts!) is but one exalted example, Sheik promises “theater things.” He’s referring not only to Spring Awakening, but also his gorgeous concept album Whisper House (click title for stunning video) and Alice By Heart, his adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written with librettist/lyricist Steven Sater, coauthor of Spring Awakening and other musical theater projects; perhaps he’ll even essay “Die Yuppie Scum” from the all-synthesizer score to the upcoming musical version of American Psycho. (So romantic!)
He promises covers drawn from his excellent 2011 disc Covers 80’s. On this critically lauded, largely acoustic album, Sheik celebrates his anglophile fanboy tendencies by revivifying MTV-era tunes from Ole Blighty, replacing dated production baggage with spare arrangements. With loving care and nary a drum machine, he offers up a stirring, string-drenched version of Depeche Mode’s “Stripped.” Covers 80’s also features campfire singalong-y renditions of The Blue Nile’s “Stay,” Talk Talk’s “Life’s What You Make It,” and Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You.”
Although “Barely Breathing” was one of the biggest hits of the 90s, Sheik’s heart clearly belongs to the Me Decade. “My musical upbringing was David Sylvian, Cocteau Twins, Talk Talk; I remember going to see The Cure in 1985 in Washington D.C., and I don’t remember hearing a word of what Robert Smith said, but they were just so fucking cool, I was like, ‘OK, I’m in.’”
Thanks to his success as a Broadway and film composer, Sheik says, he’s still able to make albums. “I had a big hit, but between ’98 and 2006 — those were tough years for me; the music business transformed in such a radical way, and I didn’t know if I could keep being a songwriter who makes records. Luckily, Spring Awakening allowed me to remain a recording artist. Frankly, I feel if I’m on earth to do anything, it’s to write songs and move people in some fashion with that work.”
To that end, Infinity Hall attendees will hear tunes from a forthcoming Duncan Sheik album. “I’ll play some brand, brand new material, unreleased. My audience, God love ‘em, they’ve heard me play my old songs too many times. They’d like to hear some new material.” Among the fresh songs is timely “Lay Down Your Weapons,” which Sheik says he’ll soon offer as a free download. “I played that on tour in Texas and had to explain that it’s a metaphor, but it’s also in response to the craziness that’s going on. I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia and Europe, where the idea of a normal citizen owning a gun is anathema.”
Few performers can claim such a diverse audience as Sheik’s; Spring Awakening brings in modern-day high schoolers, his heavily-80’s-influenced catalog hooks the 40-somethings, and theater geeks turn out to see one of their own. They all fascinate him. “I’ve realized,” he says, with yet another laugh, “because of social media, there’s no rhyme or reason to my fan base, no particular aesthetic about them at all, it’s a completely eccentric, eclectic group. I can’t figure it out. I’m not in with the cool kids, but I love it. Once in a while you’ll have somebody who looks like they might go to a Grizzly Bear concert, but because I had a Top 40 hit out of the box, the Pitchfork crowd never gives me any love. But I’ve got everybody else. So I run with it.” —Robert Burke Warren
Infinity Music Hall
Thursday, February 14 @ 8 p.m.
20 Greenwoods Road West