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The pop star as artist

Duncan Sheik
Friday, May 4, Orpheum Theatre's Stage Door, 8 pm

Duncan Sheik enjoyed early success in the mid-'90s with his moody self-titled debut, even charting the single "Barely Breathing." But though he was tagged with the "alternative" label, the Andover- and Brown-educated singer-songwriter (he majored in semiotics) hardly fit in with the army of scruffy guitar-wielders who'd changed the face of American rock in the high grunge era. He was a literate pop tunesmith, and he wasn't content to reproduce the gray-toned dissections of love and longing that made his first album a modest commercial success.

Instead, over the next eight years, Sheik balanced out songs about love and relationships with social commentary, reflections on the Buddhist practice he'd embraced and meditative antiwar songs. Some songs were bare-bones, some were more orchestrated and full-blown. All of them proved that he was an artist, not a pop star, and the fact that he didn't come up with another "Barely Breathing" only confirmed to his most devoted admirers that he didn't really belong in an industry more interested in bankable trends than quality songcraft.

Sheik's story doesn't end there, however. At the invitation of his sometime collaborator, the lyricist Steve Sater, he signed on to compose music for an updated version of German playwright Frank Wedekind's potent 19th-century exploration of adolescent sexuality, Spring Awakening. The musical opened in New York in 2003 to strong reviews and quickly became a hit with young Broadway audiences. None of the songs became pop hits, but that hardly mattered. Duncan Sheik had arrived - again.

Today, Sheik's concerts include material from Spring Awakening along with songs from his albums. On the tour that comes to Madison, he'll be working with a string quartet. Singer Holly Brook, who's had steady success since leaving Wisconsin for L.A., will both open the show and perform with Sheik.

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