From ‘Barely Breathing’ to Broadway Musicals |

From ‘Barely Breathing’ to Broadway Musicals

Charlie Owen
Vail, CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily

There is a fine line between being a one-hit wonder and writing good songs that don’t get much mainstream attention. Duncan Sheik, who will be playing at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek Monday night, can technically be labeled as both.

Ever since Sheik released his hit single “Barely Breathing” in 1996 it has been a blessing for his career, earning him a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and making him a radio god for over a year.

That same song also became a curse ” or at least a major distraction ” to Sheik, who spent years trying to overcome what “Barely Breathing” caused ” namely a reputation as a pop singer. And even though it was not his only hit song, it was the only one that radio listeners generally remember him for.

“It was unexpected for me, and ultimately a bit uncomfortable because I was put in this Top 40 context, for lack of a better word, and there weren’t a lot of other artists in that universe that I felt, pretty much, a kinship with,” Sheik said.

Imagine what it must feel like to pour your heart into a hundred songs and only be acknowledged for one of them. At first, Sheik shied away from playing “Barely Breathing” in concerts, but eventually came to terms with it and embraced it for what it is: a song he wrote that the public adored.

“You know, every artist wants to have success but you gotta have success in the right way,” said Sheik, who described that period in his career as frustrating.

Sheik said that he has a better connection to “Barely Breathing” now that he has had time to distance himself from it and reflect.

“Now I can kind of, you know, play it once in a while in shows, and not feel, you know, like it’s such a cross to bear,” he said.

Sheik seems happy with his career, even without the benefit of constant radio play.

His last album, “White Limousine,” was released to widespread critical acclaim, even if none of the album’s songs received the attention that came with “Barely Breathing.”

Beyond his regular songwriting, Sheik extended his credentials to include writing film scores (“A Home At The End Of The World”) and music for Broadway musicals (“Nero,” “Spring Awakening,” “The Nightingale”). The latter endeavors have proved very rewarding for Sheik, if not a considerable challenge.

“It’s not a very different process for me to write songs for a record or to write songs for a (Broadway) show. I mean, I’m trying to accomplish the same thing. It’s just that you have some music that’s going to move the person in some way, whether it’s on an emotional level or a physical level or a, you know, spiritual level, whatever way you can,” Sheik said.

Although not a huge fan of musicals, Sheik saw a rare opportunity to jump into the pond and make a big splash. He felt that there was a large section of musical theater fans looking for something different, something new to sink their teeth into, and he was happy to try and give them what they wanted. As a result, he won Tony Awards for Best Orchestration and Best Original Score for “Spring Awakening” ” the Broadway hit rock musical that some critics are calling the new “Rent.”

“I think every medium should try to reinvent itself constantly, whether it’s films or literature or TV. I think, you know, new, fresh perspectives is better than just doing the same thing over and over again,” Sheik said.

One listen to any of Sheik’s studio albums and the listener is immediately transported to a soundscape of melancholy and self-reflective music and lyrics. The kind of music that you want to begin a relationship with or break up to. Sheik’s Buddhist faith shapes much of his worldview, and his lyrics tend to take a personal look at the state of humanity and social issues.

Sheik said that he finds beauty in sadness and that there is a certain cathartic release that comes with songwriting. Sheik’s only creative release comes with the emotions expressed and the statements made in his music, he said.

“I think music can kind of heal you and make you a more compassionate person,” Sheik said.

And at this point, music is Sheik’s life. To avoid becoming stagnant, he plans to keep writing music for different mediums ” be it theater, movies, or the recording studio.

He also considers himself lucky to have so many options.

“Writing music for film is actually quite different from, you know, writing a pop song, and so it kind of exercises another part of your brain and, you know, maybe another part of your heart in a different way,” Sheik said.

A look at Sheik’s career will reveal that it’s alive and full of passion ” and not just barely breathing.

High Life writer Charlie Owen can be reached at 748-2939 or

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