Sheik's Collaboration With Playwright Yields 'Phantom Moon'

When New York playwright Steven Sater approached Atlantic singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik to write music to his lyrics, neither expected the result to become a full-fledged recording.

When New York playwright Steven Sater approached Atlantic singer/songwriter Duncan Sheik to write music to his lyrics, neither expected the result to become a full-fledged recording.

The two met at Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist organization, and quickly hit it off. "I went to chant with him," says Sater. "It was one of those rare meetings where you end up talking for four or five hours."

Due March 20 from Nonesuch Records, the eventual Sheik/Sater collaboration - "Phantom Moon" -- stands as a major departure from Sheik's previous Atlantic releases, "Duncan Sheik" and "Humming."

Sheik notes, "Steven wrote a song lyric for the play 'Umbrage' and gave it to me, asking if I'd like to set it to music. I'd never written music to other people's words, but I thought I'd give it a shot."

Sater -- who won a Steppenwolf New Play Contest award for 'Umbrage' -- had also never written songs with anyone else before. "I'd had great relationships with directors and editors," he says, "but I'd never had a co-creator."

Their initial teamwork -- which led to a pair of Sheik/Sater songs being incorporated into the play -- moved the pair into new creative territory. "It was a bit of a windfall for me," Sheik says. "Steve was constantly faxing material to me. I'd have some notes in my head, or I'd think of some idea, and there'd be a fax waiting for me. I was able to create quickly without any torture."

Once Sheik completed more than a dozen songs, he realized that he had the makings of an album. "Well, this is a recording," he told himself. "I should just put it out myself."

Sheik brought the demos to Ron Shapiro, executive VP/GM of Atlantic. The new color to Sheik's work was no surprise to Shapiro, who had long thought the artist would end up doing film scores. "I'm always impressed and moved by Duncan's work," he says. "It has gorgeous, lush melodies and great instrumentation. It's very sonically rich."

Shapiro felt the project could benefit from the involvement of Atlantic-associated label Nonesuch, from both a creative and marketing standpoint. "I'm a huge fan of Nonesuch and have great respect for [Nonesuch president] Bob Hurwitz," he says. "No [other] record company is so adept at marketing music with little or no radio support."

Upon hearing the material, Hurwitz shared some of Shapiro's excitement. "I felt that the quality of writing was not too far from the mark," he says. "It had a certain sound that could appeal to an adult audience while not alienating Duncan's younger, more pop-oriented following."

"Phantom Moon" teams Sheik as producer with engineer/mixer Kevin Killen (U2, Peter Gabriel, Tori Amos) and associate producer Tommy Krasker (Audra McDonald, Adam Guettel). "I was so pleased when it turned out that Nonesuch was interested in working with me," says Sheik. "Tommy Krasker and Bob Hurwitz had a huge effect on the final sound."

Sonically, "Phantom Moon" also reflects Sheik's appreciation for the work of art-pop singer/songwriter David Sylvian, Talk Talk's Mark Hollis, and Nick Drake -- an artist whose sound is more ubiquitous now than ever. "Listening to Nick Drake's 'Pink Moon' certainly had an influence on me," Sheik says. "I mean, my album is called 'Phantom Moon,' so I'm not trying to hide it." Still, "it's not really a folk record," he adds. "It has more of a composed feel to it."

Both Talk Talk and Sylvian began in the world of synth-pop but "later exchanged electronic music for something simpler," Sheik continues. "I consider their later works to be seminal recordings of great beauty that I refer back to for inspiration. Nick Drake also took his music to its furthest point of subtlety."

A "Phantom Moon" tour is scheduled to begin April 11 in Minneapolis. It will continue through May and cover most of the key markets, including New York in late April. Sheik's artist Web site will also relaunch in time for the release.

Shapiro says he is confident that Sheik's manifold talents will acquire new fans. "There are very few young artists today who can do everything he can do -- [as a] writer/producer/singer -- and co-exist simultaneously in an MTV world."

But Sheik says "Phantom Moon" isn't about commercial success. "It was never made with any regard for media outlets. I wanted to make this for its own sake.