Man at His Best

Duncan Sheik: What I've Learned

"I want to be an artist. I want to make art that will stand the test of time."

BY Darren Foong | Apr 18, 2016 | Music

Chng Dju-Lian

Whatever is happening in the moment, you just have to really focus and concentrate on that.

I want to be an artist. I want to make art that will stand the test of time. If it makes a lot of people happy and is popular, great. But the important thing is that the quality of the work is great.

It’s about what you are determined to do. How can I create value, how can I create something positive? That’s always my hope, and I don’t always get it right, but I try.

It’s something in my psychology that I always want to do more.

When I was first making records, if you had a hit on the radio, it was easy to sell seven, or nine, or a million records. Now a hit will sell a hundred thousand. The music business has changed so much. That’s just the way the wind has blown. Anything that can be converted to zeroes and ones is going to be infinitely distributed. This decade is going to be very interesting.

Every artist wants to be as successful as he or she can be. There’s a part inside that says you should write 50 pop songs, send them out, and make a lot of money. You want many people to like your stuff, but really, life’s too short, and it seems too boring to even try to do that. What you want to do is to move people’s hearts.

It’s upsetting. There was a time in pop music where you could talk about politics and important things. I think a song like Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” is genius, but 98 percent of pop music isn’t compelling to me; it doesn’t affect me or move me. Take any classic piece of music; for example, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”… these songs have breadth, and people continue to love them.

I’m always aspired to write music that will have that longevity. You might not be able to predict it—you never know what people are going to feel—but that’s what I’m always trying to do.

You don’t have to be so literal. You can be poetic, and that will broaden the meaning of what you’re singing about.

Do something that’s going to make the audience sit up and shout—whether it makes them angry, or excited, or thrilled, or moved, just do something that affects them. You must push the form forward, and if you’re not doing that, then I’m not that interested. I want to push people’s buttons. There’s a lot of laziness, and formulaic people following rules and doing boring work.

But look, I’m just a songwriter, so if I start pontificating about this stuff too much, I might start sounding like an idiot.

On some level, music is cathartic.

I’ve learned not to second-guess what people like. The only way anybody else is going to like what you do is if you like what you do. 

Art should be for everyone.

You’re always a different person. Twenty years ago, I probably was not a very nice person, and I wasn’t very good at what I was doing at the time. I was a terrible performer. But it’s not about me; it’s about the audience. I have to make the best music that I can, and give the audience a great experience.

I was pretty negative about musical theatre. As a kid, I would do theatre—I was the Artful Dodger in Oliver!—but musical theatre wasn’t connecting with me. And now? Now, I’m a composer. That’s the way the wind blows.

Musical theatre and “live” music—you can’t turn those into zeroes and ones. “Live” experiences are always going to have value. People will always want to see something “live”, and thank god, because otherwise, forget it; we’d all be screwed.

The whole point of me making music is to move people’s hearts. It’s important for me to move as many people’s hearts as I can. When I was 15 or 16, I would sit there and listen to Depeche Mode, Talk Talk and David Sylvian, and it would really affect me. That’s what I want to do for other people.

If I could live my life over, maybe I would be a visual artist. I could make one crazy painting that appealed to one person, and I’d be done; I could be happy with that. With music, you make a song that needs to appeal to 20 million people, and that can mess with your mind—force you to go for a lower common denominator—and I never want to do that. I want people who are going to enjoy it to be able to experience it. I don’t want it to be pushed down people’s throats; I just want the people who might like it to discover it.

Joy is much harder than pain. Pain is actually pretty easy—if you feel pain, it’s pretty easy to write songs about that. If you’re really happy, why bother writing a song?

But I just try to write a nice song and forget about it.

From: Esquire Singapore's April 2016 issue.