The Meaning Behind “Barely Breathing” by Duncan Sheik and Why He Segued into Musical Theater

For fans of popular music, it would be easy to dismiss Duncan Sheik as a one-hit wonder. The lead single from his self-titled debut album in 1996, “Barely Breathing,” hit No. 16 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. That was his one time cracking the Hot 100, although pop stardom was never really his end game. In fact, he wound up translating his pension for songwriting into the musical theater realm. You may have heard of a little show called Spring Awakening that has been on Broadway twice and won eight Tony Awards during its first run, including Best Musical, Best Original Score, and Best Orchestrations.

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Carving His Niche

When Sheik emerged with his self-titled Atlantic Records debut in 1996, it was past the grunge apex of the first half of the decade, near the end of the alt-rock peak, and just before the multi-genre boom of the late-’90s that included swing, electronica, nu-metal, and the next wave of slick teen pop. The singer-songwriter vibe was happening again—Tori Amos was paving a new path for women, Sarah McLachlan and Joan Osborne were thriving, Alanis Morissette was mega, and Jewel was gradually making her way down a path to selling 12 million copies of her debut album.

Sheik’s first single “Barely Breathing,” a band number driven by his voice and acoustic guitar, was more stripped down in the way that Jewel’s music was. It was a heartfelt look at a relationship in which he was uncovering the emotional deception of a partner, also spurned by his own emotional blinders, which is why he must end things.

Cause I am barely breathing / And I can’t find the air / Don’t know who I’m kidding / Imagining you care / And I could stand here waiting / A fool for another day / I don’t suppose it’s worth the price / You’re worth the price, the price that I would pay.

The video featured Sheik and an actress portraying his lover shot in tight angles in both domestic and industrial spaces. The visual style matched the sense of emotional suffocation the song portrayed.

A Long-Lasting Hit

“Barely Breathing” arrived on November 30, 1996, and it peaked at No. 16 on the Hot 100 on May 10, 1997, lasting 55 weeks on the chart. It also went to No. 2 on the Adult Top 40 radio chart and No. 12 on the Canadian singles chart. It was an unabashed success. The song was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 1997. It currently has 15 million YouTube view and 58 million Spotify plays.

“Barely Breathing” was the one song that Sheik broke into the Hot 100, although a couple of other tracks garnered substantial airplay. “Reasons for Living” from his debut, and later “On a High” from 2002’s Daylight album, would reach No. 3 and No. 1 on the Dance Club Songs chart, respectively.

Speaking with the Los Angeles Times in April 1997, Sheik reported that he had been touring for eight months and would likely be on the road through the rest of the year. He was overwhelmed with all of work that came with promoting a hit song and album. He preferred the idea of recording new music.

“It’s not really in my personality to say, ‘Hey, I’m up on stage; it’s great,’” Sheik told the Times. “I’m very uncomfortable in that situation—so much so that it sometimes gets in the way of my performance. With all the variables that exist with playing a live show, a lot of times things just don’t sound the way I want them to. That’s very frustrating to me because you can’t really do anything about it because you’re in the middle of performing a show. But it’s a process I’m going through. I’m trying to become the best performer I can be.”

Translating Success to a Different Stage

Sheik’s sophomore album Humming did not chart as high as his debut, but between 1996 and 2000 he had at least eight different songs (album and non-album cuts) placed in films and TV series, including Party of Five, Friends, and Three to Tango. (Many more have followed since.)

After the release of his third album Phantom Moon, Sheik got involved with writing music (and lyrics) for musical theater, including The Nightingale (productions between 2003 and 2006), the Tony-feted and Grammy Award-winning Spring Awakening, and also Alice By Heart (with writer Steven Sater, in 2006 and 2012, respectively), Whisper House (2010), and The Secret Life of Bees (2019). His love for electronic music came through in the pulsating soundtrack for American Psycho on Broadway in 2013. He has also composed music for numerous films and TV series.

Sheik fluidly translated his musical passions from the pop realm onto the stage and screen, and that yielded some great dividends. He balances two different careers. His latest solo album, Claptrap, came out in 2022.

Looking back on the runaway success of “Barely Breathing,” Sheik told Songfacts in 2016 that while the song was good for business, he was ready to get back in the studio and record new music. “That was a weird time in the music business, just as now is a weird time,” Sheik explained. “Because that was the moment in 1998, 1999 when we shifted from a post-grunge, organic music-making process and we went into that time of Britney [Spears] and Christina [Aguilera] and NSYNC and Backstreet Boys—really bubblegum, engineered pop music. I was also like, ‘What am I doing in this universe?’ Because it wasn’t music I felt a lot of kinship with. So the theater in some ways was a bit of a savior for me.”

If Duncan Sheik is barely breathing these days, it is from juggling a multitude of artistic endeavors.

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