On Meeting Our Icons: Duncan Sheik

James and I have been very lucky over the last few years to meet some of the people who have an impact on our creative lives. This weekend was a huge one: we got to meet Duncan Sheik, one of James’ earliest musical influences. Through a little bit of luck (and the awesome people at Tunespeak), I won tickets for us to see Duncan with Suzanne Vega, at the Saban Theatre, as well as a meet & greet with Duncan, and a signed set list.

James has been a huge fan of Duncan’s since his first album dropped in 1996. As a budding songwriter, James was profoundly impacted by Duncan’s work; the lyrics, music, and orchestrations spoke to him in a very powerful way. Duncan’s album, Humming, was the impetus for James’ decision to pursue songwriting. The first time we met Duncan (after a performance at the Iron Horse Music Hall in December of 2011) James actually got to tell Duncan, “I became a songwriter because of your music, thank you.”

Duncan put both hands over his heart, and said a very humble “Thank you.”
I cried.

Unlike James, I was decidedly uncool as a teenager, so I didn’t have a very broad knowledge of Duncan’s music. I knew “Barely Breathing” and “She Runs Away” but I don’t know who sang them (confession, I may not even have known that they were by the same artist). Duncan finally got on my radar after I discovered  Spring Awakening. The album resonated with me, I played it obsessively, sang the tunes at work, and did as much research into the back story as I could. Read the liner notes of the original soundtrack sometime, the creative process to develop this show was awesome.

When James and I first started dating, we were talking about music and musicals, and I brought up Spring Awakening, excited to talk about my new favorite thing. I was thrilled that, not only had James heard of Spring Awakening, he was able (and eager) to share his vast knowledge of Duncan’s catalog of music. About a year later, April 2011, I finally got to experience Duncan’s music live for the first time when we went to the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord to see the Spring Awakening National Tour. I was hooked.

That summer, I became even more obsessed: James’ dad bought him Covers 80s  to celebrate our son’s birth (and James’ first Father’s Day) and I found myself listening to it repeatedly. In particular, Duncan’s version of the Thompson Twins “Hold Me Now” grabbed my soul. As new parents, James and I were frequently overwhelmed, exhausted, and not always considerate of each other. One morning on my drive to work, feeling frustrated beyond belief, I was struck by the pain, sadness, and hope in Duncan’s voice. The words struck a chord in me, reminding me that partnership takes work.

The other album that I played a bit obsessively that summer was Whisper House, a musical that tells the story of a boy who goes to live with his aunt in a Maine lighthouse during World War II. The music is beautiful, haunting, and still a perfect blend of pop and rock. The music in the show isn’t performed by the main characters, but is instead sung by the ghosts who haunt the lighthouse, somewhat reminiscent of the method in Greek & Roman theatre of using the Chorus to comment on the action both on and off stage. When we saw Duncan at The Sinclair in January 2013, I was delighted to find that the merch table actually had two copies of Whisper House on vinyl. I almost bought them both.

In July 2013, we got to see a performance of Arms on Fire, another collaboration between Duncan and Steven Sater featuring music from Duncan’s album Phantom Moon. The play was stunning: it’s an incredible exploration of how music can drive the plot of a show without requiring the actors to spontaneously combust into perfectly coordinated choreography. And the story is hysterical, moving, and intriguing.

Cut to this weekend, when we got to see Duncan perform tunes from his new album Ledgerdemain and his upcoming Broadway show American Psycho. As part of our Meet & Greet win, we were allowed into the theatre early, where we got to watch the last ten minutes or so of sound check. Then, all of a sudden, there was Duncan Sheik, walking up the aisle to talk to us.

As we chatted, I mentioned to Duncan that we really enjoyed Arms on Fire, which led to a wonderful discussion about the differences between the original album and the interpretations of the music in the play, how the actors related to their characters, and how the show was received by the audience at the Chester Theater Company. It was such a joy to be able to tell this incredible artist that his work is so very much appreciated.

If you’re not familiar with his music, get listening. Now. I promise you’ll thank me for it.

My Favorite Duncan Tunes (in no particular order):
Half-Life – Daylight
Birmingham – Legerdemain
Half a Room – Legerdemain
Hold Me Now – Covers 80s
Earthbound Starlight – Whisper House
The Song of Purple Summer – Spring Awakening
Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind – Spring Awakening
On a High – Daylight
For You – Daylight
Alibi – Humming
That Says It All – Humming
Mr. Chess – Phantom Moon/Arms on Fire
Lay Down Your Weapons

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