IF THERE'S A MUSICAL category for "the kind of record you might put on late at night with the lights low," then Duncan Sheik has found his format. That's the way the 26 year old singer/musician describes his self-titled debut on Atlantic Records. Others have described his music as sensitive, romantic, intelligent and haunting. It's a sound that some say defies categorization. But that doesn't seem to bother radio programmers, who have firmly embraced Sheik's first single, "Barely Breathing."
The success didn't come overnight though. Sheik's career has been a slow build. "Barely Breathing" was first released to radio a year ago and crawled up the charts until it hit No. 1 at AAA and reached top 20 in the pop format. And it appears the second single, "She Runs Away," is headed in the same direction.
Sheik told POLLSTAR the slow build of his career means a lot. "It's actually very important because you get much less burn-out factor from your audiences. People, I think, are more real fans as opposed to just jumping on a bandwagon."
Besides, a big hit single isn't all Sheik is going for. He's much more interested in how people react to the album in its entirety. He said the story behind "Barely Breathing" is a typical fluke situation, being that the song was written as the last "throwaway" track for the album. Then, of course, it became his first big hit. "There is, for me, much more interesting music on the record," Sheik said. But he said he's aware that "Barely Breathing" is the easiest single to slot into a radio format.
Radio has actually turned out to be quite a critical aspect of Sheik's career. "Radio has been, oddly enough, kind of the key element in this whole situation," he said. "The fact that radio embraced 'Barely Breathing' so whole heartedly, that is what has driven this project from the beginning."
At this point in his career, Sheik said radio has outweighed touring. "I [have been] on tour for the past eight months and I've probably played in front of a total of 60-, 70-, 80-thousand people, which is great and that has a huge impact. But on the radio, 'Barely Breathing' gets played 6,000 times a week right now. That means it has a really massive cumulative audience of like 50 million people every week. So as much as I hope that touring is the mainstay of what I do, I do realize that radio is just a very powerful medium.".
Still, Sheik cannot deny the importance of touring. "You need to do it," he said. "That's what makes people understand that you're a real artist as opposed to a record company creation. And I know with me, there's a risk of that because I'm kind of coming out of nowhere and I made this record that's, in some ways ... very kind of slick, just because that's my aesthetic.
And even though it's this very organic record, it seems like there's probably a lot more people involved in it then there actually was. So it's important for me to get out there to show people that this stuff is really coming from me and not from a bunch of songwriters and a bunch of producers.""
In fact, the album is very much a solo project. Sheik wrote all the songs, sang lead and nearly all the back-up vocals, played several guitars, keyboards, an accordion and even did some drum programming.
In a way, the release of this album was something Sheik had been working for all his life. The self-taught musician discovered music banging on his grandmother's piano as a young child growing up in South Carolina. He started playing guitar seriously at age five. By 12, he was playing guitar in a rock band with a group of teenagers.
After that first band experience, Sheik quit performing for quite a while. "Maybe that experience scared me," he chuckled. Instead, he took to the more technical side of making music. "I got a four-track recorder when I was 14 and my first synthesizer and drum machine," Sheik said. "I really got into the more production and songwriting side of it and I kind of became a hermit in my little room, just turning knobs and making instrumental compositions mostly."
Part of that vision meant performing the songs he had written. But he didn't start singing until his college years. "And then I only did it in the privacy of the recording studio there at Brown [University]." After graduation, Sheik moved to Los Angeles and started working with a vocal coach. "She helped me get it together technique wise and psychologically so that I had the confidence to get up on stage in front of people and sing."
That was a good thing because Sheik scored a record deal right out of college. He was signed to Immortal Records for two years. Unfortunately, Immortal was not the right label for him. "They were more of a rap label, so therefore, maybe not the most appropriate place for me," Sheik said. "Nothing ever really came of it besides the fact that they helped me to get a publishing deal with BMG and through that, I was able to keep making recordings and demoing stuff up. And then Atlantic kind of bought me off Immortal, listening to the songs that I was writing during that two-year period."
Sheik chose to move over to Atlantic because label GM Ron Shapiro was super passionate about his music. "And still, to this day, [Shapiro] is 100 percent behind it and just does everything to support the project," Sheik said. "So it had to do with that sense of commitment that I was getting from him.".
Rounding out Sheik's team of committed players are manager David Leinheardt, who's been working with the performer since the very beginning, and CAA agent Rick Roskin.
Roskin has Sheik touring clubs and theatres in the U.S. until May. Sheik said he is then planning to play some shows in Mexico and Brazil, hit Europe, and then make his way back to the States for another tour.