In late 1996, a fresh, guitar-driven song took over America’s airwaves. It was Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing” from his self-titled debut album. Sheik performs for two nights next week, April 24-25, in our intimate and stylish Cabaret Jazz venue.
With undeniably catchy lyrics and a sing-along chorus, “Barely Breathing” stayed on the U.S. Billboard charts for more than a year. With its staying power, the song won a BMI Award for most played song of 1997. It was also nominated for a Grammy® Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
Before this smash hit, Sheik attended Brown University in Rhode Island, where he studied semiotics, or the philosophy of symbols. He also performed with another notable ‘90s guitar-based singer-songwriter and college mate – Lisa Loeb.
His training in symbols and images is something that inspires Sheik’s artistry.
“These days I tend to be inspired by work in other mediums. Every time I see good contemporary visual art I get ideas for composition. Those ideas are usually more process oriented,” Sheik tells Spotlight.
“Then there’s literature, films and the really great TV that’s out there lately. Those mediums inspire me on a more narrative and lyrical level,” he adds.
Following his breakout success, Sheik recorded albums with a folky flair such as Phantom Moon (2001), as well as works with pop sensibilities like Daylight (2002). He also released Duncan Sheik Covers 80s (2011) – a collection of classic post-punk and New Wave songs by the likes of Depeche Mode, New Order and The Cure.
Sheik has ventured extensively into cinematic and stage music territory. He scored a production of Twelfth Night for the New York Shakespeare Festival (2002) and recorded the soundtrack for A Home at the End of the World (2004).
He also made a huge impact with Spring Awakening (2006). Created over a period of eight years, the musical garnered eight Tony® Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Orchestration. Even further, the cast recording won the 2007 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
After Spring Awakening, Sheik focused on Lewis Carroll’s famous character in the original work Alice by Heart (2012) and a stage adaptation (2013) of American Psycho, Brett Easton Ellis’ best-selling novel. His latest contribution to a stage production is the score for the musical adaptation of Because of Winn-Dixie (2013), the much-loved children’s novel by Kate DiCamillo; it is currently playing at Delaware Theatre Company.
Throughout his career, Sheik has honed in on something he finds important in songcraft – that it is emotionally compelling.
“A great song has to move the listener in some powerful way. It can be incredibly sad and filled with pathos but it has a cathartic effect, or it can be really up and exciting and have a euphoric effect,” says Sheik. “It can be really strange and enigmatic and have a mysterious, compelling effect. But it has to have a strong effect.”
Most recently, Sheik has crafted Legerdemain, a new album to be released this spring. Two gorgeous songs – “Photograph” and “Circling” – provide a perfect preview of Sheik’s upcoming Cabaret Jazz shows.
Sheik is no stranger to playing Las Vegas and Cabaret Jazz. He performed in tandem here with the legendary Suzanne Vega in 2012, just weeks after The Smith Center opened.
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