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#RSFlashback: Duncan Sheik – ‘Barely Breathing’ (A One-Hit Wonder Like No Other)

The American singer-songwriter may have released his most successful song back in 1996 but he’s had the last laugh since then

Amit Vaidya Nov 26, 2021

Duncan Sheik. Photo: Shervin Lainez

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25 years ago this week, Duncan Sheik hit the charts for the very first time with his debut single “Barely Breathing.” The song would end up becoming a staple on the charts, staying on the Billboard Hot 100 for 55 weeks, peaking at #16. The song garnered Sheik a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance (they still awarded gender-specific Grammys back then – he lost to Elton John for his Lady Diana tribute single “Candle In The Wind 1997”).

At the time, Sheik was a breath of fresh air. Very few pop/rock male artists were getting airplay on Top 40 radio and “Barely Breathing” somehow perfectly fit between the diva hits of the time by Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Toni Braxton and the Lilith Fair ladies – Sarah McLachlan, Jewel, Sheryl Crow, Paula Cole etc. While there was great hope that Sheik’s breakthrough single would parlay into a regular stint at the top of the charts, that wasn’t the case. Sheik sadly had the “one-hit wonder” tag added to his career, mind you with a huge asterisk. As most know, Sheik went on to have the last laugh. He would go on to win a Grammy award (Best Musical Theater Album) and a Tony award (Best Original Score and Best Orchestrations) for his work on Broadway’s Spring Awakening. The musical was a resounding success winning eight Tonys and launching the careers of young talents including Jonathan Groff, Skylar Astin and Lea Michele. Sheik would continue on to score additional shows like Alice by Heart and American Psycho to further acclaim.

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Sheik has released numerous critically acclaimed albums throughout the past 25 years alongside his theater work. His 2002 single “On A High” from his Daylight album became an unexpected #1 hit on the Dance charts (thanks in great part to an excellent remix by Gabriel & Dresden).


2011, he released Cover 80s, a genuine heartfelt covers album of some of his favorite songs from the Eighties. The album was a personal favorite of mine as his reinterpretations of iconic Top 10 hits like Thompson Twin’s “Hold Me Now,” Love & Rockets’“So Alive” and Howard Jones’“What Is Love?” were meaningful and each song became all the more timeless without feeling dated.

While Sheik’s music may not reach the heights of his biggest runaway hit, that doesn’t mean the music is any less relevant or enjoyable. Sheik in fact redid his own debut hit single last year, bringing out “Barely Breathing 2020” to a whole new audience.

And most recently, the artist previewed his latest single “Experience” on his website. While many in the business expected the name Duncan Sheik to become a Top 40 mainstay, he actually ended up becoming an award-winning multi-hyphenated cross-genre success story. “Barely Breathing” may have made him a star, but it was just the beginning of an incredibly amazing career.

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