duncan sheik is an artist for whom there are no easy comparisons. At once intimate and intelligent, romantic and progressive,"duncan sheik," his Atlantic debut album, marks an unusual meeting of creative ambition and pop sensibility. Starting with his songs, his voice, and his acoustic guitar, he carefully introduces a variety of other musical elements - including some powerful string arrangements -to create an entrancing musical environment which defies categorization.
"I'm just into fresh sounds," says duncan. "I want to combine an adventurous sonic palette with... I don't want to say 'accessible' songwriting, but songs that people can sink their teeth into. It is important to me to create something of value, to do something that's not just everything that's been done before... and, hopefully, to create a unique feeling in a listener."
duncan sheik (the person) is a dark-haired 26-year-old who took to his family's piano around the time he learned to speak, and hasn't come up for air since. "duncan sheik" (the album) is less easy to define: from the melodic rock feel of "She Runs Away" and "Barely Breathing" to the almost Billie Holiday-esque melancholy of "Little Hands" to the chillingly transfixing "November," the songs are stylistically diverse yet unified by a singular, captivating mood.
"There aren't too many records that sound like this, at least not now," he says. "Although a lot of the demos were more rock-oriented, as we went along, some of the songs organically became a bit mellower and more ambient, because, really, that's the kind of music that I love, whether it's Nick Drake or The Blue Nile or whoever. It's the kind of record you might put on late at night with the lights low."
It's also a record imbued with an atmosphere so arresting that it sounds like it could have been recorded in a 150-year-old French chateau - which, in fact, much of it was. The chateau - in Precy-sur-Oise, about 45 minutes outside Paris - is owned by producer Rupert Hine, whose vast resume includes work with The Waterboys, Kate Bush, Tina Turner, Howard Jones, and literally dozens of others.
"Rupert was incredible," says duncan. "I'd never worked with a producer before, and I was apprehensive about being controlled, but he was great. For the most part, he would let me do what I wanted, and then we'd step back and take stock. Our tastes overlap in some areas, but they're very different in others, so when something worked for both of us, we knew that it was working on several different levels."
Despite "duncan sheik"'s sonic scope, it's very much a solo album: duncan wrote all the songs (co-writing the music on two tunes with guitarist Fran Banish); sang lead and nearly all the backing vocals; played several guitars, several keyboards, and an accordion; and even did some drum programming. "We were very careful about what we recorded - we really wanted to make every sound count," he says. "For a while, some of the songs were just acoustic guitar, drums, and vocal, but as we added other instruments, the songs began to take on much bigger dimensions. The day we recorded the strings was probably the best day of my life! I didn't really know what to expect, but (arranger) Simon Hale did an amazing job - I was literally in tears."
In a way, it was a day he'd been working toward all of his life. duncan spent his first five years living with his grandparents in New Jersey, showing a precocious interest in the piano. "My grandmother had been a piano student at Julliard, and she's really the one who got me interested in playing music," he says. "But I pestered them to get me an electric guitar for years, and when they finally did, it completely took over."
He'd amassed a wide variety of musical experience even before reaching high school age, playing classical and jazz at summer music camp, and rock during the school year. duncan's first band bore the priceless name of Slightly Off. "I was 12 and in a band with a bunch of high school guys - I was like this novelty kid," he laughs. "We mostly played Van Halen and Def Leppard covers. It was horrible."
duncan spent the remainder of his teens obsessed with "the British Invasion of the '80s: The Smiths, Tears For Fears, New Order, Depeche Mode, all that stuff," which led him to the music that would have the most profound effect on "duncan sheik." "By tenth grade, I was into albums by The Blue Nile, David Sylvian, Cocteau Twins, and especially Talk Talk's 'Colour Of Spring' - those are all genius works of insane sonic beauty, and they were a huge influence on me."
Although he'd been writing songs for years, duncan remained "just" a lead guitarist until he attended Brown University, where he played in a band with Lisa Loeb for a year before striking off on his own. "I didn't really start singing until my first year of college - very late. But the songs I was writing had gotten to the point where I needed to express them myself."
A demo tape that duncan had made while at Brown found its way into music industry circles, and "I drove cross-country to L.A. after graduation, and by Christmas, I had this quote unquote hundred thousand dollar record deal. I was like, 'Life is great!' But it ended up not really being the right label for me, and I proceeded to spend the next two years in the worst limbo: okay, what's going on? What are we doing?
It was pretty miserable, but the good part was that during that time I wrote like mad - we had 25 songs to choose from by the time we were ready to make this record." duncan was eventually freed from that original deal, and he was quickly signed by Atlantic.
The songs on "duncan sheik" deftly fuse memorable melodies with musical complexity in a way that is revealingly reflective of their author. Ask duncan about the songs' unusual structures and tunings, he can go on all day about chord voicings and harmonic movement. But ask him what's going on emotionally in the lyrics, and this engaging, intelligent, articulate man gets uncharacteristically vague. "'The End Of Outside' is about the more spiritual side of things, achieving an ideal and what it takes to get there. And 'She Runs Away' and 'Little Hands' have more to do with romantic... whatever..." he trails off with a grin.
"I wish I had something more fascinating to say about the words, but the songs are really interior monologues. I just write what moves me. I think the lyrics are pretty literal - most of the inspiration and the stories are right there, and hopefully they're open enough for people to have their own interpretations. But, having said that,'November' is about coming to grips with a relationship from my past. And when I sing it now, I realize that I was writing about something deeper and darker and probably subconscious - it's like some tragedy that happened to me in another life," he laughs. "Now, if there are demons like that lurking in all the other songs - I don't know. Yet. Ask me in a year."