Duncan Sheik returns to the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton on Dec. 12

Recently, Duncan Sheik's life came close to unraveling. In June, on the day his latest album, Covers ’80s, was released, Sheik entered a treatment center for alcohol abuse. He wrote extensively about the experience on his website: "Duncan here, offering you belated apologies for the cancellation of my June tour. The truth is I didn’t do it because I realized I was drinking too much and chose to confront that situation, with the help of family, great friends and some thoughtful, highly qualified professionals."

Things have settled down. Sheik's writing new songs and working on new musicals (an adaptation of the 1991 Bret Easton Ellis novel American Psycho is in the works). On December 12, he'll perform a stripped-down, two-man show at the Iron Music Hall in Northampton as part of an eight-city jaunt, his first time back on the road after the cancellation. He’ll play selections from Covers '80s, his homage to his favorite music from that decade, and songs he's written for an upcoming singer-songwriter album.

"I just want to get in front of some human beings before I record them," Sheik said by phone. "It’s a little bit of an experiment, an exploration."

Career longevity isn't something you necessarily associate with popular music. Most artists, if they find success at all, are washed up before 30. (Or when they release a sophomore album, whichever comes first.) But there are ways to navigate through the music business over the course of a long career.

Sheik, whose early successes include the 1996 smash hit single "Barely Breathing," found Broadway. He began working with a writing partner, poet and playwright Steven Sater, on a musical called Spring Awakening, a rock adaptation of a century-old Frank Wedekind play, in 1999. Not really a fan of musicals, he had to be dragged into it.

"It was, like, six years of development before it was staged anywhere on or off Broadway," Sheik said. "It was a long process... To be honest, I didn’t really intend to become a composer for the theater at all. It’s just something that happened because Steven gave me this play and suggested that we adapt as a musical. Initially, I was like, 'This is not really what I do.' That particular genre wasn't my cup of tea. But I said, 'You know, if nobody minds that I write music in my own style, with my own aesthetic sense, I’ll do it.'"

Writing musicals takes a long time, and there are a number of other players involved. At times, Sheik found it difficult to give up control and to collaborate so extensively. "Certainly, there are there was an adjustment in working with a director and working with a kind of cast of singers who come from a different tradition," he said. "Being a singer-songwriter, it's your name on the record, but in the case of theater, it is more collaborative, and it's harder in a way."

Working through far-reaching years of headaches and head-butting, Sheik and company managed to create a unique, new direction in the rock musical genre, far removed from Hair or even Rent. Spring Awakening went on be nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 2007, winning eight, including best musical, direction and score, a stunning success for a first-time musical composer.

You have to wonder how a guy who writes albums of discrete songs ends up weaving a convincing musical thread through a narrative.

"For me," Sheik said, "the songs are meant to be able to function on their own as well as in the context of the show. I’m not necessarily a fan of recitative. The songs have to, in some way, have a verse and chorus and bridge, the traditional rock and roll aesthetic. But I think that now that I've been writing [musicals] for awhile, I’ve expanded my palette. You understand that you are writing for a particular character with a point of view and voice, and it allows you to go into other places stylistically, harmonically and rhythmically, more than if I was just writing a singer-songwriter record... You are given a license to go into different directions."

Duncan Sheik w/Aunt Martha, Senator and the New Republic, Dec. 12, 7 p.m., $22.50-$25, Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686, iheg.com

Write to mhamad@hartfordadvocate.com Follow me on Twitter @MikeHamad

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