Duncan Sheik is ready to talk politics. The talented singer-songwriter, known mostly for his finely wrought examinations of
romantic and spiritual states of being, has turned his gaze to the state of the world on his new album White Limousine. Songs like the title track and “Star-Field on Red Lines” deal directly and incisively with the hypocrisy of our foreign policy and the tragedy of war.
“My politics are known,” says Sheik, a Nichiren Buddhist who has initiated humanitarian projects in Albania and Cuba, performed in innumerable benefits for hurricane relief, women's issues and the homeless, and participated in 2004’s Concerts for Change. “I've resisted putting those thoughts to music until now.
But there's a point where not doing so seems irresponsible.” The disc also includes Sheik’s trademark ruminations on the joy that is inherent in every moment of life, as well as the evanescence of even the most perfect love.
Included in the White Limousine package are two discs, labeled MINE and YOURS. MINE is Duncan’s version of these songs; YOURS is a DVD that enables listeners to create their own versions. Using the software provided, fans can isolate and remix White Limousine’s many sonic layers, which were produced, this time out, by Sheik himself. White Limousine is Sheik’s fifth album and his first for Zoe/Rounder, following Duncan Sheik (1996), Humming (1998), and Daylight (2002) on Atlantic, and Phantom Moon (2001) on Nonesuch.
The latter was a collaboration with playwright/lyricist Steven Sater, with whom the songwriter would create two more productions he calls “anti-musicals:” a musically modern reading of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Nightingale and a reworking of the 19th Century playwright Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, which premiered at New York's Lincoln Center in 2005 and will have it’s first full production later this year at the prestigious Atlantic Theater in New York. Sheik has also scored the New York Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Twelfth Night, and composed the music for the Magic Theater’s upcoming production of “Another Golden Rome” in San Francisco.
Here, the thoughtful troubadour expounds on the foibles of our “fearless” leader, the joys of twirling the night away at Twilo with hundreds of gay men, and the indescribable highs of composing for musical theater.
CP: There’s some lyrical content on this record that is new for you—less personal, more political, more cultural commentary.
DS: I would say there are two related threads on this record. One is completely personal, and the other is definitely more social and political commentary. There are a few songs that kind of act like a fulcrum between the difficulties that were going on in my personal life and the difficulties that are going on in the world at large, and how those two things kind of mirror each other. The perception of one is always affected by the other and vice versa.
CP: Well, your commentary on the world was more philosophical and spiritual in the past, and now, it’s more pointed and specific. Did you feel liberated to be more political because you completely produced and financed this record yourself without a major label involved?
DS: When I made Daylight, it was right after September 11, and at the time, there was a lot of knee-jerk political music that happened. Some of it was really terrible, and some of it was okay. Most of it seemed not very level-headed or even-handed--it was really far one way or the other in terms of a political perspective—either totally jingoistic or just kind of simple-mindedly liberal. Obviously, I’m on the way left side of the spectrum, for sure, but I just felt like at that time, it would have been ridiculous and annoying for me to comment on that stuff. I felt, “Oh, I’m a 32-year-old white guy with an acoustic guitar who lives in Tribeca—like, who cares about my opinion really?” And then, as time went on, I’ve read a lot more and dug a lot deeper, and I think things have happened politically and historically that has made it more acceptable and necessary to talk about this stuff. I almost feel like it’s a little irresponsible to not engage with what’s going on in the world. And there have been a few records that have come out recently where there was a political aspect to them, and I felt like I wanted to hear that. I really felt that that dimension was powerful. So, having a political bent to these lyrics felt much more natural than it would have before.
CP: Do you think we’re getting to the point where there is a kind of social and/or artistic community of protest?
DS: I am starting to feel that. My brother is 27-years-old, and I’m starting to see it with him and his friends—a much more politically engaged sensibility. And I do hear it in certain music. You know I love this new Elbow record, Leaders of the Free World—I hear it in that record. Obviously, Bright Eyes has a political sensibility, and Green Day. Whether that’s your cup of tea or not, Green Day has really been very intense about making sure there’s a political edge to what they’re saying. I am starting to feel the beginnings of it, and I hope it becomes a real thing without becoming completely tiresome. It’s tricky because obviously, in the culture, people still want bubblegum, and they still want mindlessness. Because the political reality is so scary, a lot of people want even more of that because they just don’t want to pay any attention to the bad stuff that is obviously going on. That’s the hardest part for me—just turning on the TV and seeing so much mindless, pointless programming.
CP: Well, it seems like even the news has been taken over by a high degree of sensationalism.
DS: Just the fact that Bill O’Reilly has the most popular news show in the country—it’s just so full of opinion and so devoid of factual information.
CP: What are you trying to say about American culture with the song “Shopping”?
DS: Well, it’s partly about American consumerism, but it’s a little bit more about the act of creating some piece of culture—whether it’s a song or a record or a movie or a TV show—that creative act---and what that means in today’s world. It’s about the underlying impetus of why a person undertakes that kind of project. I was kind of adopting a persona that is certainly an aspect of me, for sure. It’s that kind of really cynical part of yourself that says, “Well, somebody thinks that I’m baring the deepest part of my heart and soul with this song, but in fact, I’m doing so it gets played on the radio a lot, and I can make a lot of money.” I have always strived to make my music in a genuine, organic way, but there’s a part of you, whether it’s in your subconscious or wherever—a devil inside you—that creates that desire for fame and commercial success. So, in some ways, that song is poking fun at myself, and then it’s also poking fun at this larger idea of people creating “art” purely for financial reward. To me, it’s very clear which kinds of things are created to make money, and which kinds of things are created because people are really passionate about it.
CP: Was this record created to make money?
DS: [laughs] Well, obviously not because I didn’t even have a record label when I made it. I didn’t even know if it would come out. I figured, worse-case scenario, I’d put it out myself. The real reason I made this record has almost more to do with the DVD than anything else. It’s really more like a college art project than anything else, where I’m kind of putting this thing out there to see what I get back.
CP: Were your Atlantic records made to make money?
DS: I don’t think that I ever wanted them to be that way at all, but I think it’s impossible for there not to be a certain amount of expectation and desire from lots of people that these things succeed in the marketplace. And it’s very difficult to ignore that entirely. Obviously, I did ignore the marketplace when I made Phantom Moon because that record wasn’t even meant to be released by a record company at all. But then you kind of get pulled back into a commercial sensibility. It’s not that I’m not totally proud of Daylight, but I do think there are certain songs on there—whether it’s “On a High” or “Half-Life”—where I let lots of people talk me into the idea that that was the right way to go. So, there’s 70% of that record that I really love, and 30% that I could really do without.
CP: Your lyrics have often conveyed a conflict between an indulgence in worldly pleasures, whether it’s making money or carousing or a kind of romantic promiscuity, versus a search for spiritual meaning and a more grounded, Zen-like existence. How do you reconcile the two sides of that conflict without going crazy?
DS: There’s concept within the type of Buddhism I practice that says earthly desires equal enlightenment. What it means is that if you really look into yourself and try to determine what your true desires are, by satisfying those desires, you will ultimately bring yourself further into an enlightened state.
And that doesn’t mean that you go out and do crazy stupid stuff all the time just because it’s fun. It means really looking inside yourself to see what the important things are. The desire is necessary because if you didn’t have it, you wouldn’t bother to get up in the morning. So, I see desire as crucial; it’s really about how you deal with those desires. And certainly, you can get into a place of hating yourself for trying to satisfy certain desires, and I have certainly done my fair share of that. But it’s not very useful.
CP: Why do you think you have a desire to create music?
DS: I really do feel like the real reason why I’m compelled to make music is because I want to create value, and I want to enable other people to have some kind of experience of joy, catharsis, longing, awareness or whatever it is they get from the experience of listening to any given song. I’ve found that the only way for people to have that experience is if I’m able to have certain kinds of experiences myself when I’m creating it. So, you do have to be kind of self-indulgent for it to be meaningful to other people.
CP: At times, on songs like “Hey Casanova” and “So Gone,” you really seem critical of the pursuit of earthly pleasures. The songs’ narrator seems to feel a real sense of loss and regret from his hedonistic pursuits.
Are there times when you really ask yourself, “How have I spent my time here?”
DS: Oh, totally. But with “Hey Casanova,” I’m ultimately saying that, for all of that wasted time, for all of that foolishness, you can’t just throw in the towel. You have to use even that experience as fuel. It’s like Proust said in Remembrance of Things Past: unless you have all of these really intense experiences, bad and otherwise, there’s not that much to write about. I think, in a way, you do have to kind of live fully and make mistakes. And I think that does create a greater depth of experience that you can draw from.
But I’m not advocating doing things that are self-destructive. I just think you have to live dangerously sometimes.
CP: In the song “White Limousine,” there is an anti-Bush verse, yet on your web site, you wrote that you feel sorry for him. Can you talk a little about that?
DS: Well, I believe that he’s convinced himself that he’s doing the right thing. And somewhere in his heart of hearts, maybe he knows he’s not doing the right thing. I don’t know. But I believe that there’s a huge part of his psychology that’s wrapped in the idea that he can be the superhero who rids the world of evil, and he sees that as a positive thing. How can any one person take it upon themselves to rid the world of evil? I mean, even Jesus, Mohammed, or Buddha—none of those people had that as their project. They were really trying to say, “Here are ways to be happy within yourself, and then provided all of that works out, maybe you’ll reach a better place where there’s less suffering.” That’s why I feel bad—Bush has a really fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a human being and to be a leader of human beings. But what can I say? As Buddhist, you want to have respect for all human beings no matter how misguided you think they are. So, I try to have that. But I also need to make fun of him too, because it’s so absurd and ridiculous with him on that ship in the flight suit saying “Mission Accomplished.” I mean, there’s a kind of black comedy there, too. And so, “White Limousine” is certainly trying to convey that.
CP: Well, to be able to blot out evil, you have to come to a conclusion of what evil is. But you’re still only one man, or one administration that is decreeing what is evil. Clearly, on the list of what’s evil to this administration and many of its followers is the idea of a “homosexual lifestyle” and certainly gay marriage.
DS: Yes. I mean how tragically ironic is it that Bush’s anti-gay policy or stance is so similar to that of the Taliban or whoever he says he’s going after in order to give people freedom.
Again, you get back to these kinds of ridiculous contradictions that come up over and over, and people don’t really seem to acknowledge them.
CP: Well, you fight the Taliban in the name of women’s rights in Afghanistan, but you oppress the rights of American gay people at home.
DS: Well, people feel that as long as they are going after the “Terrorist Boogeyman,” the government can do anything it wants. People are willing to throw every civil liberty out the window. I can’t help but laugh that you have all of these hawkish right wing people that are pretending to be such tough guys, yet they’re peeing in their pants every time this threat of terrorism comes up. Again, it’s blackly comic to me.
CP: Speaking of gay issues, tell me about your awareness of your gay fans.
DS: Well, there was this one time in particular. Junior Vasquez had done a remix of my song “Reasons for Living,” and I went to Twilo or somewhere like that, and it was a totally gay scene—hundreds of super-cut dudes with their shirts off dancing to my song, which I thought was awesome. It’s just one of those experiences that you can’t even categorize. It was surreal. [laughs] And recently, I’ve done two full-scale musicals, and obviously, most of the men in the musical theater world are gay, and I don’t even bat an eye anymore. It’s just the environment that I live and work in.
CP: What is your feeling about gay marriage?
DS: Well, really, what is the argument for not allowing it? The argument for not allowing it just doesn’t make sense to me on any level—on a human rights level, on a psychological level, on a spiritual level. The argument against gay marriage is just stupid. What else can I say?
CP: How is it different to compose songs for musical theater versus writing songs for an album?
DS: Well, the great part about working with Steven Sater, my collaborator on these shows, is that he’s very prolific. He writes a lot, and he’ll send me lots and lots of lyrics. And I come up with a lot of music on my own, but lyrics are more of a painstaking process for me. So, it’s a great way of being more prolific. And both Spring Awakening and The Nightingale have between 17 and 20 songs in them. So, when Spring Awakening opens this summer at the Atlantic Theater in New York, it will kind of be like another whole album release for me. And then, when we do The Nightingale next year in La Jolla, it will be like a whole other album coming out. So, really all I’m trying to do is to put out more records than Ryan Adams [laughs]. But seriously, it’s great to have this amazing narrative in place that you can use as a skeleton to create a new work. And it’s amazing to work with all of these incredibly talented people, like Michael Mayer, who’s directing Spring Awakening, and Bill T. Jones, who’s going to do the choreography.
CP: In what way is writing for musical theater more rewarding for you than making records and going on the road to perform them?
DS: We just did a big workshop of the The Nightingale at a studio in Times Square, and we had a really amazing cast and a wonderful group of creative people working on the project. I spent two weeks with these folk mounting this show, and when we did half a dozen performances at the end of the thing, I kind of sat there watching the show six times in two days, and I was totally thrilled each time in different ways. I just enjoyed it so much and really felt the potential of what it was. It was such a great feeling. Not that there weren’t problems, but when it’s working, there’s that thing about theater that you don’t get in any other medium where all of your senses are totally engaged. And that’s a feeling that’s really hard to beat.
CP: Let’s talk about the DVD that accompanies your new album. As an artist, do you feel that it’s all risky to allow people to rearrange and transform your music in whatever way they’d like?
DS: It is totally risky, but it’s really exciting too. Yeah, people can pull the songs apart, and maybe there are some that are going to do really terrible things to them and make them sound really awful [laughs]. But hopefully, other people will turn them into something that’s really interesting and better than the originals—cooler, more progressive, more modern. To me, that’s what’s so cool about it—you don’t know what you’re going to get. When I was at Brown, I studied semiotics, and Roland Barthes said that once an author creates a work and puts it out there, it’s no longer his own. It becomes the property of anyone who reads it, and whatever that person’s perception of the work, that’s the reality for them. So, this is kind of taking that idea and taking it to a further place, applying it to a piece of music that can be altered by another person.
CP: The DVD is a kind of gift to your fans--an interactive gift.
DS: Yes, absolutely. And I like that it could create a conversation between myself and another creative person where they do another version of a song, and then maybe I take that version and make yet another version. So there’s an evolution that can happen. In that way, the record is never truly done. You know, I mentioned the whole thing about hearing my song at Twilo at 2:00 in the morning, and that’s really what I’m into—I would love to hear electronica versions of these songs. That’s a not-so-subtle hint of the direction that I’d love people to go in.
Event: Duncan Sheik perform songs from his new album White Limousine at a special in-store appearance and performance at Borders on State Street, Wednesday, February 15th at 12:30PM. (event details)