In the past 12 months, Duncan Sheik has made music in London and New York studios, in a Cuban music hall, on a stage in Albania, and in Bill Frisell’s living room. Yet by late January, the songwriter was back home in Manhattan, eager to talk about Phantom Moon, a just-released disc that sprung from another of last year’s projects: a collaboration with playwright Steven Sater revolving around Sater’s award-winning play, Umbrage.
Beneath Sheik’s contemplative vocals, Phantom Moon relies on acoustic guitar and tasteful orchestral arrangements for a rich but generally understated sound. I thought that since it represented the first cowriting attempt for either man, the process might’ve been a struggle. I was wrong.
“To be honest, there was this kind of quasi-mystical thing that would happen more often than not, where Steven would just start faxing me things. Meanwhile, I would have this weird experience where I was just walking down the street, and this chord progression would come into my head.
“I’d go home to sort it out, and there’d be a fax in the fax machine and, lo and behold, a song would exist 20 minutes later. At the risk of sounding lazy, a lot of this stuff happened very quickly like that, so it was very satisfying.”
“If you think of the model of great movies like The Graduate or Harold and Maude, you’ve got Simon & Garfunkel, or Cat Stevens, who become this other voice in the movie. That’s very much what we want to do with Umbrage.
Since it took Umbrage to get this partnership started, Sheik set the scene. “The play is about a guy in his 30s who’s from the midwest. And he comes to New York, and he’s a wannabe musician, a bit of a hustler, a bit of a drug addict. He has this unlikely friendship with this middle-aged Latino factory worker, and he winds up moving in with him.
“There’s this platonic bond, where they both help to reveal each other’s demons, in a way. Even though there’s a tragic aspect to it, the whole thing is laugh-out-loud funny, because these characters are so great.”
Having achieved success on the stage, the concept is now headed for the big screen, with the usual soundtrack process now working in reverse. “Right now, Steven’s turning a play into a screenplay. And since many of the songs of Phantom Moon come from the world of Umbrage, he’s actually writing six or seven of the songs into the screenplay.
“If you think of the model of great movies like The Graduate or Harold and Maude, you’ve got Simon & Garfunkel, or Cat Stevens, who become this other voice in the movie. That’s very much what we want to do with Umbrage. Magnolia is another great example, and Good Will Hunting is another great example, with Elliott Smith.”
Given that Sheik’s first hit was “Barely Breathing”, a remarkable single that stayed in Billboard’s Hot 100 longer (55 weeks) than only three other records in pop history, I wondered if setting music to someone else’s lyrics might be less than completely fulfilling. And again, I was wrong.
“Despite the fact that it’s not my words, it might be my most personal record because the whole approach to making it was, ‘Here’s my vision of what a record should sound like … wooden instruments played by human hands, and a kind of total authenticity in performance,’ where nothing is really construction.”
This recalled a 1998 conversation marking the release of his last album (Humming), when Sheik had said that he hoped to do a completely “organic” project some day. The New Jersey native confirms that Phantom Moon represented that opportunity, but he admits bending the rules a tad.
“I broke the rules once or twice: Bill Frisell played electric guitar on one track, and a little bit of Hammond B-3 … but both of those instruments, they’ve been around long enough, right?” he chuckles.
Having heard the results, the styles of Frisell and Sheik do seem perfectly compatible, but how Sheik enlisted the versatile jazz legend was less clear.
“He was one of my guitar heroes,” Sheik explains. “And when Bob Herwitz of Nonesuch said they wanted to make Phantom Moon, there was this one song, “Far Away”. It had had a bigger string arrangement, and Bob was like, ‘Ugh, enough with the arrangements! We need something else here. What about somebody like Pat Metheny?’”, Sheik recalls.
“Then I said, ‘Well, I love Bill Frisell so much, can you just call him and see if he likes the song?’ And of course, Bill being the sweetest guy in the world, he got the song and was like, ‘Oh, it’s very nice, I’ll be happy to play on it.’ So I went out to Seattle for the day, and brought the song with me. We recorded out there and spent a really great afternoon together, then I came back to New York.”
A cross-country day trip for a guitar track sounds tiring, but that probably felt like a drive around the block to Sheik, who traveled to Cuba with the Musical Bridges Foundation last spring. Playing with American artists like college friend Lisa Loeb as well as distinguished Cuban musicians, Sheik had mixed emotions about the trip.
On one hand, the musical comraderie and seeing great Cuban players in their own environment was a rare treat. On the other hand, he was frustrated by a firsthand view of how U.S. political embargoes designed as a Cold War weapon continue to make a hard life more difficult for many Cubans.
Songs For Foreign Ears
A couple of months later, Sheik was flying to Albania for a benefit concert organized by the renowned War Child organization. Having just read about the group over the holidays, courtesy of the diary published several years ago by producer/musician and War Child supporter Brian Eno, I mentioned the book to Sheik.
“A Year With Swollen Appendices? It’s in my bookshelf. It’s funny,” reports the soft-spoken guitarist, “because I read that diary right before my first record came out. And I almost said a little prayer to myself like, ‘I hope my record does well enough so I can go do something like that someday.’” The actual shows took place at Albanian camps for Kosovar refugees, an experience Sheik succinctly describes as “very intense.”
“And a few months ago, I went to Bosnia to do a benefit concert in Mostar, which is one of those cities that was hit very hard during the war. Brian (Eno) was there, and Horace Andy; I got to do ‘Redemption Song’ with him.
“It was great to help an organization which has done a lot to help kids over in Bosnia and Serbia. They do things like music therapy, and they have recording studio there for local Yugoslavian bands that wouldn’t get to record otherwise. [War Child] also does more practical things, too, like planning and operating bread bakeries.”
Not surprisingly, it’s impossible for a writer to do this kind of thing and not have it influence the creative process.
“When you’re in that situation, and you have to play music for a group of people,” Sheik reflects, “they don’t even speak English, they don’t know your music, they don’t even have the same set of cultural references that you have. So you have to try to perform music that is still going to reach them in some way. And even if you can’t do that, in my case, I at least began to have a sense of what the music would have to be to do that.
“So it was very inspiring to say, ‘Could I go home and produce a piece of music that I could play in that environment, and have people be just as psyched as if they heard one of their favorite pop songs?’ Since I’ve been back, I’ve been messing around with some things that I think go furthest in that direction in terms of my work so far, but you’re going to have to wait for my next record for that to come to fruition.”
Pop Up Next
Pressed about future plans, Sheik mentions a second collaboration with Sater, but first up is a “normal” Duncan Sheik disc. “I’m working on the demos for my next record for Atlantic. And at the risk of contradicting what I just said, now that I’ve done Phantom Moon, I’m kind of interested in doing something that is – at first blush – very, very, very pop,” he says with a laugh.
“Really, that’s every musician’s aspiration, to make things work on several levels,” he continues. Now that I’ve made Phantom Moon, I’ve kind of made my “arty-farty record,” and I can go and play with samples and loops and technology, and see if I can find a satisfying way to work within that framework, while trying to widen that framework, too.”
Sure, record companies need to be a little less formulaic about what they offer. But at the root of it, songwriters need to get out there and make music that is going to move people, so they’ll change what they’re willing to buy.
Reminded of a contemporary pop environment where intelligence and melody are not always rewarded, he reluctantly surveys the landscape, placing his current project in perspective at the end of a full day of interviews – and a long year of projects and frequent flier miles.
“Well, David Gray’s doing really well, and bands like Coldplay are doing great stuff. But I’m a little tired of criticizing all that nonsense – and I do think it’s nonsense. Sure, record companies need to be a little less formulaic about what they offer. But at the root of it, songwriters need to get out there and make music that is going to move people, so they’ll change what they’re willing to buy.
“There’s a huge audience of people out there, 25 and above, who are not being marketed to at all. And Phantom Moon is a record for that audience, or some portion of it.”
(This article was first published in the Music Monitor. Many thanks to the Monitor’s then-editor [now Record Store Day empress] Carrie Colliton for her OK to share it here.)