Duncan Sheik’s career came to life in 1996 with the hit single “Barely Breathing” from his self-titled debut. He received critical and professional accolades for the album, but took his style in a different, more socially conscious direction with his later work. Sheik has cited artists such as Talk Talk, Blue Nile, David Sylvian, and the Cocteau Twins as influences.
Sheik was born in Montclair, New Jersey, and spent much of his first five years with his maternal grandparents. At the time, his mother, Zonnie Sheik, was a jewelry designer and a single mom. Sheik’s interest in music began at a very young age through his grandmother’s influence. “My grandmother had been a piano student at Juilliard, and she’s really the one who got me interested in playing music,” Sheik said in his record company biography. He began by learning to play the family piano. “But I pestered them to get me an electric guitar for years,” he continued, “and when they finally did, it completely took over.” Sheik later discovered that he had musical roots on his father’s side as well. His paternal grandfather had played trumpet in a 1940s big band.
Before he reached school age, Sheik and his mother moved to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. His mother later owned a jewelry store and antiques stores there. As Sheik grew up, his interest in music never lost momentum. During the summer, he played classical and jazz music at music camps, and played rock music the rest of the time. When he was just 12 years old, Sheik joined his first band, Slightly Off, as a guitar player. Slightly Off played cover songs, and the other members of the band were all in high school.
Once Sheik entered high school in 1983, he transferred to Andover boarding school in Massachusetts. The school’s administrators took away all of his musical equipment when he refused to stop playing it too loudly. After high school graduation, Sheik enrolled in college at Brown University in Rhode Island. Sheik, who was raised Catholic, also began practicing Buddhism at the age of 19. His religion would later show its influence in his songwriting.
While at Brown University, Sheik played guitar for a band called Liz & Lisa, which featured Lisa Loeb and Liz Mitchell. He stayed with the band for a year before deciding to sing and play his own music. “The songs I was writing had gotten to the point where I needed to express them myself,” Sheik later said in his record company biography.
He honed his singing abilities by taking voice lessons from an opera singer for three years. “I was super self-conscious about my voice,” Sheik told Lisa Phili-bosian in First Cut.“I couldn’t sing in front of people at all, so I got a vocal coach, who is an opera singer, and she helped me get it together technique-wise and psychologically.” With his singing confidence rising, he
Born Duncan Scott Sheik on November 18, 1969, in Montclair, NJ. Education: Graduated from Brown University with a degree in semiotics, 1992.
Signed record contract with Atlantic Records, 1994; released Duncan Sheik, 1996; contributed to Great Expectations film soundtrack, 1998; contributed to Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, 1998; released Humming, 1998; released Phantom Moon, 2001.
began to focus on writing and recording his own music while still attending Brown University. He recorded a song with his friend and fellow classmate Tracee Ellis Ross, who also happened to be singer Diana Ross’ daughter.
In 1992, Sheik graduated from college with a degree in semiotics, the study of contemporary philosophy of cultural media. That year, he drove cross-country to Los Angeles in search of a record deal. Ross gave a copy of his demo to her mother’s entertainment lawyer who helped shop it around to various record companies. Within six months of his arrival in California, Sheik had signed a record contract with Immortal Records. However, the label had primarily signed rap artists and wasn’t quite sure how to market their newest discovery. Instead, the label left Sheik “in a kind of limbo.”
Sheik eventually signed a publishing contract with BMG which continued to try to market him to other labels. In 1994, Sheik did a solo acoustic performance for Atlantic Records executives right in his own living room. Atlantic bought his contract from Immortal and signed him to a new deal. Producer Rupert Hine was enlisted to work with Sheik on his debut, which they recorded in outside of Paris, France, in Precy-sur-Oise. Hine, who had worked with artists such as Kate Bush, The Waterboys, and Tina Turner, owned a 150-year-old chateau there that also featured a recording studio.
In early 1996, Sheik’s first single, “Barely Breathing,” was released to radio stations across the United States. The song was about his pursuit of a woman who was involved with another man. On June 4, 1996, Duncan Sheik was released on Atlantic Records. Sheik wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on the album, sang lead and most of the background vocals, played much of the guitar, keyboard and accordion parts, and even programmed some of the drums. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote, “this debut album by a singer-songwriter with an intense droning voice is a pleasing tonal bath of vague, dreamy ballads orchestrated to the hilt.” The album was filled with emotional music and lyrics focused on romance and heartbreak.
”I seem to find myself in these romantic torture chambers, “Sheik told Elysa Gardner of In Style.”Certainly, your art is often driven by your suffering, so I guess in some sense I do look for it because it inspires me in a strange way.” Sheik toured in an opening slot for Jewel on her first major headlining tour, and played with Jars of Clay and Frente later in 1996. The following year, Sheik had a song called “In the Absence of Sun” on The Saint movie soundtrack. Around this time, Sheik decided to leave Los Angeles and move to New York City.
In 1997, Sheik’s debut album finally began to get some recognition, nearly nine months after its release. In March, it reached the number one spot on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart. Soon after, Sheik embarked on his first headlining tour across the United States. By August of that year, Duncan Sheik had been certified gold for reaching half a million in sales. And the momentum did not stop there. In 1998, Sheik received a Grammy Award nomination in the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance category for “Barely Breathing.” The single became the fourth longest to stay on Billboards charts in the history of the magazine.
Despite his success, Sheik did not take a break. He released “Wishful Thinking” on the Great Expectations movie soundtrack, and recorded his version of “Songbird” for Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, which was released for the original album’s twentieth anniversary. He also went back into the studio to record his next release. Once again, he worked with producer Rupert Hine, and this time, they recorded at El Cortijo studios in the southern part of Spain.
Sheik went in a different direction with his next effort. The first single, which was released to radio in September of 1998, was called “Bite Your Tongue.” Instead of a song about romance, this tune’s lyrics railed against the concept of victimization. “It’s a serious point about the culture of victimization, and the fact that it’s really unhelpful when people blame all their life’s problems on outside forces,” Sheik explained to Mac Randall of Launch.com.
On October 6, 1998, Sheik released Humming, an album filled with social commentary. Neva Chonin wrote in a Rolling Stone review, “the Duncan Sheik of Humming has lost interest in being a Byronic hero; and in sacrificing his hammy romanticism, he has become a more compelling songwriter.”
“The new record is me reacting against the ’tortured lovelorn songwriter’ I was, and wanting to be a little more socially aware and philosophical,” Sheik told Dudley Saunders in Interview .“My own romantic angst is not so interesting to me anymore.” Sheik followed up with a second single titled “That Says It All,” which was a tribute to artists like John Lennon and Bob Dylan. “The concept [for that song] is that there’s this whole incredible world, full of mysteries and wonder, and you have to continually seek that stuff out and not just focus on the past,” Sheik told MTV News. After the release of Humming, Sheik toured both as a headliner and in support of the Barenaked Ladies.
In May of 1999, Sheik transferred his social commentary from artistic expression to physical action. He traveled to Albania to help inaugurate War Child’s mobile music therapy program. The program was designed to use music to help young refugees in Kosovo deal with the trauma they have suffered. “I am honored that War Child has asked me to help them with their efforts in bringing relief to the crisis in Kosovo,” Sheik said to PRNewswire. “I feel it’s very important that we understand what’s happening in the region, and through the healing power of music to do whatever we can to stop the suffering of children.”
While taking a break from his recording and touring schedule, Sheik collaborated with playwright Steven Sater on music for the off-off-Broadway play Umbrage, which tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a factory worker and a young, aspiring musician. Sheik and Sater, both practicing Buddhists, began their friendship chanting together. Their work on Umbrage led to further collaboration on Sheik’s third release, Phantom Moon, on Nonesuch/Atlantic on February 27, 2001. Sater wrote all of the lyrics on the album, and Sheik wrote the music.
Stephen Holden described Phantom Moon in the New York Times as relief from the “garbage heap of one-hit wonders and hip-hoppers whose samplings of the past sound more like licensed theft than creative recycling …. Mr. Sheik’s beautifully orchestrated meditations suggest that pop can still aspire to a lofty, searching classicism.”
Sheik described the album as a “folk record with string arrangements.” By working with Sater, Sheik expanded his musical view and stretched his creativity into new horizons. “I think, in a way, because I’ve embraced all these different kinds of projects, it will allow me to do something unique on my next album for Atlantic,” Sheik explained to Darren Davis at Launch.com. “For me, the best part of the past year  has been the feeling that I’ve done a lot of growing. At this point, I’m open to doing anything.”
Duncan Sheik (includes “Barely Breathing”), Atlantic Records, 1996.
Humming (includes “Bite Your Tongue, ““That Says It All”), Atlantic Records, 1998.
(Contributor) Great Expectations (soundtrack), Atlantic Records, 1998.
(Contributor) Legacy: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, Atlantic Records, 1998.
Phantom Moon, Nonesuch/Atlantic Records, 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, March 28, 1997; March 20, 1998; October 9, 1998.
In Style, December 1998.
Interview, November 1998.
New York Times, October 17, 1996; November 29, 1996.
People, May 5, 1997.
Rolling Stone, October 6, 1998; November 26, 1998.
“An Interview with Duncan Sheik,” Wright Productions, http://www.members.tripod.comrwrightproductions(January 20,2001).
“Being Sheik,” Duncan Sheik Down Under, http://www.powerup.com.aursheik (January 20, 2001).
“Duncan Sheik,” Atlantic Records, http://www.atlantic-records.com (February 10, 2001).
“Duncan Sheik,” First Cut, http://www.firstcut.com(January 20, 2001).
“Duncan Sheik,” emagic VIP Lounge, http://www.emagicusa.com/viplounge (January 20, 2001).
“Duncan Sheik,” The Music Monitor, http://www.penduluminc.com/mm(January 20, 2001).
“Duncan Sheik Biography,” Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com (January 20, 2001).
“Duncan Sheik: Closet Extrovert?” Launch.com, http://www.launch.com (January 20, 2001).
“Duncan Sheik Marches Out Protest Song for New Record,”MTV News Gallery, http://www.mtv.com (January 20,2001).
“Duncan Sheik’s Next Album a Departure from Pop,” Launch-.com, http://www.launch.com (February 10, 2001).
“Duncan Visits Albania with War Child Effort,” PRNewswire, http://www.prnewswire.com (January 20, 2001).
“Playwright Sater and Composer Sheik to Release Phantom Moon,” Playbill Online, http://www.playbill.com (February 10, 2001).
“Questions & Answers with Duncan Sheik,” The Concert Hall, http://www.e-ave.com/concerthall (January 20, 2001).
Born: Montclair, New Jersey, 18 November 1969
Best-selling album since 1990: Duncan Sheik (1996)
Hit songs since 1990: "Barely Breathing," "Bite Your Tongue," "Wishful Thinking"
Duncan Sheik is best known for his breakthrough single "Barely Breathing," a surprise radio hit. Despite its decidedly downbeat subject matter—a bitter breakup—"Barely Breathing" is classic pop with a catchy, guitar-based melody. Sheik's sensitive lyrics, and his clean, rich baritone, which is imbued with a dreamy sadness, made him a poster boy for Sensitive Nineties Guy. The success of the single helped propel his self-titled debut on Atlantic Records to gold status by August 1997.
As a child, Sheik lived with his mother in New Jersey until they moved to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Sheik started to play the piano before the age of five. Later, as a teenager, he picked up guitar. Though Sheik was relatively unknown before his first single, he had played guitar with Lisa Loeb, a singer/songwriter who was a classmate of his at Brown University in the early 1990s.
After graduating from Brown with a degree in semiotics, Sheik moved to Los Angeles and shopped his demo tape around. Atlantic Records signed him, and released his self-titled debut in 1996. Critics called the album a stunning pop masterpiece. In his early songwriting, Sheik shows a penchant for rich orchestrations and clear guitar playing. Cellos and violins dot the songs, including the cinematic sweep of the opening track, "She Runs Away," in which he sings, "Happiness ain't ever how you think it should be so / She runs away." In the album's hit single, "Barely Breathing," the shoe is on the other foot as Sheik is the one who runs away from a troubled relationship: "Cause I am barely breathing / And I can't find the air / Don't know who I'm kidding / Imagining you care."
After the first album, Sheik left Los Angeles for New York, where he became acquainted with playwright and fellow Buddhist Steven Sater, who was scripting a play called Umbrage. Sater wrote the lyrics and asked Sheik to supply the music. The end result was Phantom Moon, a primarily acoustic and somewhat experimental effort that his record label released on a suitable imprint, None-such Records, home to artists such as Laurie Anderson and Phillip Glass. Sheik had been playing the entirety of British folk singer Nick Drake's album Pink Moon in clubs in New York City, and the title, Phantom Moon, is in homage to Drake's album. The New York Times called him a "supersensitive, superspiritual troubadour" after its release.
Daylight (2002), his fourth album, is full of classic rock textures and layered guitars. With some distinctly different albums under his belt, all illustrating a predilection for strong pop composition, Sheik follows the whims of his inspiration, whether folk, instrumental, pop, or rock.
Duncan Sheik (Atlantic, 1996); Humming (Atlantic, 1998); Phantom Moon (Nonesuch, 2001); Daylight (Atlantic, 2002). Soundtracks: Great Expectations (Atlantic, 1998).
D. Ikeda, with a foreword by D. Sheik, The Way of Youth: Buddhist Common Sense for Handling Life's Questions (Santa Monica, California, 2000).