Duncan Sheik's Lessons in Lyricism

Singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik calls his new album, Phantom Moon, something of a surprise. A collaboration with lyricist and playwright Steve Sater, it grew out of a couple of melodies Sater — a fellow Buddhist — asked Sheik to write to accompany lyrics to songs for his play Umbrage.

"I thought it could be an interesting little side project," Sheik, 31, recalls. "Steven started faxing more and more lyrics and we really got into a collaborative process. It was kind of a real windfall of material for me, because I come up with music much faster than lyrics. At a certain point, I just said, 'This is my new record. There's no reason for this to be thought of as a side project.'"

And even though Phantom Moon finds Sheik — a Brown University graduate whose debut single, 1996's "Barely Breathing," spent 55 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart — singing someone else's words, the artist himself has no problem with the concept.

"There's kind of an irony to this," he explains. "Even though they're not my words, there's something about when you just receive a lyric and you get a first impression from it, a sense of impact and emotion that's much more immediate than if you sat there for days and weeks crafting the lyric by yourself. In some ways, having a lyric sent to you, you can have a visceral-ness of impact there with you."

Sheik is taking that lesson into his next "proper" album, which, like his two previous outings, will be released by Atlantic Records, whereas Phantom Moon appeared on Nonesuch. Not sure yet when that record will appear, Sheik reports that he's focusing even harder on his lyrics now, "looking into the poetic value of each word and how these words sound together," as well as the overall messages of his songs.

"Steven has, in some ways, taught me what it means to write a really great lyric," says Sheik, whose next musical theater project, Spring Awakening, is expected to open during the fall of 2002. "He's someone who sits around and reads T.S. Eliot and Chekov all day, not somebody who works in this normal sort of pop songwriting mode. That's very inspiring to me. I think it's very profound, what he does."