Like most overnight sensations, Duncan Sheik (his real name) didn't actually pop out of thin air and onto the radio. The 27-year-old singer of the Top 20 hit "Barely Breathing" was signed to an indy label shortly after graduating from Brown University in 1992 with a degree in semiotics—the study of "how culture affects society and vice versa," he explains. That deal yielded as little as, say, a degree in semiotics might, but Sheik was picked up by Atlantic, which released his moody, introspective, eponymous first hit last June. It took nine months, but "Barely Breathing," an upbeat, infectious tune about destructive love, has made an unlikely pop star of Sheik, who grew up on Hilton Head Island, S.C., attended prep school at Andover in Massachusetts and lives in New York City. Now completing the first leg of a tour, he spoke with Alan Paul from his Providence hotel room.
Did yon always see. "Barely Breathing" as a potential hit?
Not at all. I was ambivalent about even including it on the album. It's a simple expression of frustration with my then girlfriend. So I didn't think much of it, but my Atlantic rep immediately knew what it was. I guess that I can write 'em, but I can't pick 'em.
Your lyrics make you sound self-conscious. Is performing difficult?
That's been my major struggle. I've always been happier in my studio than on a stage. But making music shouldn't be a totally self-centered thing. It should move people, which is very hard to do when you're alone.
You don't share the punk-inspired viewpoint now dominating music. The whole record is out-of-step. Alternative music's turned into an aggressive, heavy-guitar thing. I'm trying to forge a new path by saying you can be subtle and still be powerful.