Duncan Sheik to roll out new material at Drury show

Grammy and Tony Award-winner Duncan Sheik, a singer/songwriter and producer, will be the national headliner on Friday for this year's Drury Performing Arts Center production season.

NORTH ADAMS — Duncan Sheik always has something up his sleeve.

This Friday as he headlines the Drury Performing Arts Center's 2014-15 season, he'll treat local audiences to a preview of work from his new album in the works, "Legerdemain."

The album title translates to the concept of using the skill of sleight of hand. As a musical artist, Sheik continuously keeps his audiences and critics alike wondering what to expect.

Even Sheik himself has found a career path that's brought him to unexpected places, from building his own recording studio in the Hudson Valley hamlet of Garrison, N.Y., to standing in the spotlight at ceremonies for the Grammy and Tony awards.

"In a certain way there's the double edge of doing a show," Sheik said. He spoke with The Eagle in a phone interview last week from Wilmington, Del., where he's preparing to launch a musical he co-wrote based on the award-winning children's novel, "Because of Winn-Dixie," at the Delaware Theatre Company.

"Having had one really big radio Top 40 song you get these two audiences, which are like little islands onto themselves, converging like Venn diagrams. My shows will have theater fans who have no clue I've made a bunch of records and another group who have never seen a theater production I've worked on," Sheik said. "I'm enjoying my work with the latter, but I've never stopped making records."

Sheik has a musical background that spans back to age 5 when he began playing guitar, then piano. "I'd pick up anything with frets, keys or anything you can hit," he said.

His grandfather, the late William Edward Tracy, was born and grew up in Stockbridge, giving Sheik a chance to visit the Berkshires and see shows over the years at places like the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, where Sheik performed in 2008.

Sheik attended the Eaglebrook junior boarding school in nearby Deerfield and then the Phillips Academy in Andover, where he graduated in 1988.

He went on to continue to play music and study semiotics, the philosophical theory of signs and symbols and how they're used, at Brown University in Providence, R.I. He graduated in 1992, having collaborated with fellow classmate and successful musical artist Lisa Loeb, whose hit "Stay," later launched her career in 1994.

Around the same time, Sheik, who had moved out to Los Angeles, began signing his own recording deals, first with Immortal Records of the Sony-affiliated Epic, then in 1995 with Atlantic Records.

That year, his debut single, "Barely Breathing," released on a self-titled album, struck a mainstream chord. The track rose to the Top 20 on U.S. Billboard charts, holding steady for 55 weeks, helping him to earn as a 20-something, a 1998 Grammy Award nomination for "Best Male Pop Vocal Performance."

His four other studio albums ("Humming," "Phantom Moon," "Daylight," and "White Limousine"), released between 1998 and 2006, earned him critical acclaim but less commercial success then his first hit. Sheik responded by delving deeper into writing and producing.

While working on "Phantom Moon," he began collaborating with dramatist and poet, Steven Sater. Sater later coerced Sheik to write music to his book and lyrics for "Spring Awakening," a rock musical adaptation of German playwright Frank Wedekind's 1891 play of the same name about a group of young people coming of age and coming into their sexuality.

"I'd never thought of writing musicals and didn't like musicals much in my life," said Sheik, "But I did my homework and saw a lot of shows."

Sitting through the good and the bad paid off for the duo. After much off-Broadway work with the production, "Spring Awakening," opened on Broadway in December 2006, at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. The show garnered eight 2007 Tony Awards, including "Best Original Score," and the original cast album went on to win a 2008 Grammy for "Best Musical Show Album," among dozens of other awards.

In 2013, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts staged the show on campus, and, that same year, the neighboring Chester Theatre Company staged the world premiere of another Sheik and Sater musical, "Arms on Fire."

"I find writing music for theater offers me the perspective of writing for different personas and embracing characters that are not me," said Sheik. "It's a fun, cool thing to be able to do, and because, at certain point of being a solo artist, you're not interested in being that white guy playing acoustic guitar singing about girl who doesn't like me anymore."

He said after doing theater work, "I can go back to work as a solo artist and find ways that use some of those techniques."

Sheik said he still enjoys the practice of tinkering with sounds, equipment, instrumentation, songwriting and interpretation.

In 2011, he released the album, "Covers 80's," featuring covers of hits by the Cure, Love & Rockets and Tears for Fears, all stripped of synthesizers and drums. He then gave the same songs a reboot by teaming up with a cast of deejays to produce "Covers Eighties Remixed."

In a complete 180 degree turn, Sheik's upcoming studio album, "Legerdemain," from which he's already released two digital singles, is a manifestation of "stuff I had always been wanting to do in terms of my own work as a songwriter and performer."

"I've spent the past five or six years figuring out the record — with no pressure to put it out — until I hit upon something interesting and progressive," he said.

He went on to describe his new work as a two-part progression, with the first incorporating electronic dance elements and the second part yielding a more "organic, arty" palette. "It's almost like two sides of the coin, or like a battery, one side a positive charge and a negative charge on the other, flowing between."

Motivated by embracing that sense of dynamic expression Sheik, who recently tweeted that he'll never act his age, continues to forgo trends in pursuit of his own ever-expanding aesthetic. The approach seems to be working well for him.

In teaching classes and workshops at New York University he often encourages his students to take the works that influence them "and transform them to come out so they're unique to you and not second- guessing what the audience might be thinking of your art."

"You have to be excited about your work as an artist ... or else you're going to meet an artistic dead end," said Sheik. "If you want to have a satisfying creative life, you have to stay true to your passions and what you're excited about."

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.