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Duncan Sheik

Establishing himself in the mid-'90s as a singer/songwriter with a knack for literate adult pop songs with hazy surfaces and a touch of alt-rock grit, Duncan Sheik had a Top 20 hit with the song "Barely Breathing" from his 1996 eponymous debut. He had three more albums land on the Billboard 200 by the end of the next decade, including his fourth full-length, 2002's Daylight. Featuring intricate production and multiple overdubs, it was co-produced with frequent Madonna collaborator Patrick Leonard. After scoring his first feature-length film, 2004's A Home at the End of the World, Sheik's career turned toward Broadway with the success of 2006's Spring Awakening, a hit rock musical. It won him the Tony for Best Original Score as well as a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album, both with lyricist Steven Sater. Sheik continued to juggle adult-alternative albums, film scores, and musical theater in the years to follow, issuing his eighth solo album, the ranging, over-hour-long Legerdemain, in 2015 and moving his musical American Psycho to Broadway in 2016. For that show, Sheik served as composer, lyricist, and orchestrator. Following off-Broadway excursions including 2019's The Secret Life of Bees, he issued the studio album Claptrap in 2022. It sought out a more positive state of mind.

Born in Montclair, New Jersey, in 1969, Duncan Sheik grew up in South Carolina but spent many of his early years staying with his grandparents in New Jersey. Inspired to play the piano while there, he later switched to electric guitar and performed in bands throughout high school. A fan of musical theater from a young age, he also acted in school plays and attended the occasional Broadway show with his mother. While studying at Brown University, he played in a band with Lisa Loeb but began shopping his own demo tape soon after graduation. After moving to Los Angeles, he appeared with His Boy Elroy on a 1993 album for Epic, and spent several years writing songs before he signed a solo deal with Atlantic.

Atlantic released his debut album, the Rupert Hine-produced Duncan Sheik, in mid-1996, with the single "Barely Breathing" following later in the year. The song reached number 16 on the Hot 100, and after another single, "Reasons for Living," appeared on the soundtrack to the hit TV show ER in late 1996, the debut peaked at number 83 on the Billboard 200. Also produced with Hine, the follow-up, Humming, arrived on Atlantic in 1998 and reached number 163.

Nonesuch issued 2001's self-produced Phantom Moon, a more orchestral collaboration between Sheik and poet/playwright/lyricist Steven Sater, who provided its lyrics. It featured appearances by the London Session Orchestra and guitarist Bill Frisell. Though it failed to reach the Billboard 200, Sheik returned to the chart with his fourth album, 2002's Daylight, which reached number 110. It would be his final release with Atlantic. In 2002, Sheik also composed music for a New York Shakespeare Festival's production of Twelfth Night.

Continuing to split his focus between songwriting and composition, Sheik wrote the film score for the 2004 romantic drama A Home at the End of the World as well as music for the 2005 documentary Through the Fire. He offered up his fifth studio LP, While Limousine, on the Zoë label in 2006. Its insightful lyrics didn't shy away from sociopolitical territory. In the meantime, he had collaborated with Sater on a rock musical based on the 19th century German play Spring Awakening, a story concerned with teenaged sexuality. With a book and lyrics by Sater and music by Sheik, Spring Awakening opened off-Broadway in May 2006 before moving to Broadway's Eugene O'Neill Theatre in December of that year. The show ran for over two years and took home eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score. The Decca-issued cast album won a Grammy for Sheik and Sater.

Sheik composed the scores for projects including the Mary Stuart Masterson-directed film The Cake Eaters (2007) and the animated TV movie Little Spirit: Christmas in New York (2008) before presenting his next pop album, 2009's Whisper House. Featuring several duets with Holly Brook (Skylar Grey), the RCA Victor release spent a week at the number 181 spot on the Billboard 200. He scored the movie dramas Dare (2009) and Harvest (2010), then returned in 2011 with the covers album Covers 80s, which included backing vocals by Rachael Yamagata and Brook. Covers 80s Remixed appeared in 2012.

Next up for Sheik was a musical adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho featuring a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and music, lyrics, and orchestrations all by Sheik. It opened in London in 2013. He released another solo album, a song cycle titled Legerdemain (2015), and premiered the musical thriller Noir (2015) at Vassar College before American Psycho had its Broadway premiere in March 2016. The original London cast recording arrived on Concord Records the same month. Based on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, another Sheik-Sater musical collaboration, Alice by Heart, opened off-Broadway in early 2019. The original cast recording was released by Ghostlight later in the year. 2019 also saw the off-Broadway opening of the musical The Secret Life of Bees, featuring music by Sheik and lyrics by Tony nominee Susan Birkenhead (Working, Jelly's Last Jam).

His first concert album, Live at the Cafe Carlyle, followed on Sneaky Studios/Missing Piece in late 2020. Compiled from a week of shows in October 2017, its set list spanned "Barely Breathing," songs from Spring Awakening, and previously unreleased covers of Radiohead and Tom Petty. An HBO documentary about the 15th anniversary concert of the hit musical, Spring Awakening: Those You've Known, premiered in May 2022 and was followed in June by Claptrap, Sheik's first solo studio album in seven years. It arrived on the New York-based Antifragile Music label.

Biography by Marcy Donelson User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.