Stringing Along With Duncan Sheik (1999)

Duncan Sheik is eating lunch. It’s a fall day in Manhattan, and the songwriter with the Baldwinesque looks is cramming in a bite between recording sessions. This time, however, he’s not the artist, but the producer — “for nobody you would know yet.”

That description certainly doesn’t fit Sheik himself anymore, since he glided into the public consciousness three years ago with “Barely Breathing”.

Crafted is a word that can sound pretentious, but it applies to his breakthrough hit in the most complimentary fashion. Soaring, with some bite around the edges, it announced a real if unconventional talent. The strings and orchestration throughout Sheik’s debut were not exactly the safe path to pop success, but they worked.

Humming Different Tunes

As it turns out, the South Carolina-bred musician considers the strings to be an essential part of his sound and a favorite step along the way.

“Going in to record the strings is the most enjoyable process for me. I knew I would have the strings this tim around. I was dead set on it.”

New material in general was probably nothing short of thrilling for Sheik, who had survived 200 shows in the past two years on the strength of but one album, one hit, and one odd contract rider (“Fennel,” he confesses).

Sheik also set out to record some relatively serious, thoughtful material without drifting beyond a listener’s attention span. Humming does have some relationship material, but it also goes beyond the standard boy/girl fare.

Another departure from the ordinary comes up in “A Body Goes Down”, written for the late Jeff Buckley, who drowned in the Mississippi last year. Sheik felt good about the song, but wanted to avoid any appearance of taking advantage of Buckley’s death.

He got reassurance from a reliable source — Matt Johnson, his drummer, had worked with Buckley quite a bit.

“I did ask Matt about it, and having heard the song, he was very supportive.”

New material in general was probably nothing short of thrilling for Sheik, who had survived 200 shows in the past two years on the strength of but one album, one hit, and one odd contract rider (“Fennel,” he confesses). He is still more comfortable in a studio, but that much touring improves anyone’s performance skills.

And naturally, it affected the creative process for the material on Humming.

“When I conceived these songs, they were band-oriented a little more. And I recorded them in such a way that we could pull them off live. The only issue is string arrangements, and how you handle that. Do you play to a click [track to align with pre-recorded strings], or find other ways to reproduce that? Before, I was doing a click. This time, we’ll see.

The Sound Less Taken

Sheik will tell you that his songs are better suited for a living room than some club. But despite his commitment to making this orchestrated sound work live, there may be another sound altogether lurking inside the singer. The subject came up over a discussion of his very first foray into the business — a publishing/songwriting contract several years ago.

“The stuff I was writing at that point was, believe it or not, ever so slightly more modern. But by the time I made the record, I’d metamorphasized into someone who could only accept very organic timbres.

“It’s not a battle, but I still go back and forth about it. I can see myself trying one of two possible directions. One would be to completely disavow any kind of technology, using only microphones to record instruments made by humans and played by human hands.

“And the other would be to say, ‘OK, samples are good. Analog synthesizers are good.'”

A Hit (Or Two) Right In The Mouth

For now, Sheik is staying faithful to the marriage of pop and strings that has brought him, like it or not, to the pop idol altar.

His own musical idols, so to speak, aren’t exactly household names. Despite recounting the wisdom of a list of legends — Mick Bob, Brian, et al. — on “That Says It All”, Duncan Sheik lists a more metropolitan and lesser known ensemble for personal influences. He cites Bjork for influencing the string arrangements. Others include “David Sylvian, the late Talk Talk records, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead … Nick Drake should be there.”

When it comes to sculpting a single, though, it’s Sheik who continues to earn admiration. “Bite Your Tongue” picks up where “Barely Breathing” left off, in more ways than one. It depends less on strings, but it’s very nearly as successful in creating a four-minute haven for fans of the sophisticated but catchy.

Breathing trouble? Biting tongues? Do you detect a trend? Has Sheik stumbled onto some head-and-throat theme that translates to chart success?

“Concidental,” he chuckles. Some kind of oral fixation isn’t out of the question, he admits, but there’s no dental/mental grand plan. That said, if Sheik gleans his next hit from imagery about pulling teeth, or goes platinum rhyming something with tonsillitis, you heard it here first.

With his tongue firmly in cheek (there’s that theme again), Sheik revealed his marketing savvy when asked where he’d like to be in ten years.

“Basically, I’m hoping that I will have completely lost my mind, and then bounced back from it, so I can be on a ‘VH1: Behind The Music’ program.”

(The original interview originally appeared in the February 1999 issue of the Music Monitor. Thanks to then-editor and now Record Store Day empress Carrie Colliton for her blessing in sharing it here.)

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