September 16, 2002 12:00 PM

To write pretty music like his 1997 hit “Barely Breathing,” Duncan Sheik needed a muse: his grandmother Joanne Barr Tracy. “She would make Duncan come and play the piano, and then she would listen to him and let him sort of be inspired by her,” recalls Sheik’s mother, Zonnie Sheik, 55, a Hilton Head, S.C., jewelry designer. When she died in July, “it was really hard,” Sheik says. “This is the first time in my life that somebody very close to me has passed away.” He sang his song, the 2001 lament “Requiescat,” at her funeral, he says, “but I barely made it through it.”

Sheik, 32, has regrouped with a new CD, Daylight, a sunnier collection. On his previous albums, 2001’s Phantom Moon, “I was dwelling too much in those darker places,” says Sheik, who grew up in Hilton Head (Zonnie and his dad, Jack, a retired county government employee, split when Duncan was 1). A practicing Buddhist who chants daily in his New York City loft, Sheik also takes in the odd fashion show: “Buddhism encompasses the vastness of life, including silly, surface-oriented things.” He is dating a fellow Buddhist whom he won’t identify, but says jokingly, “I’m waiting for Penélope Cruz to break up with that other guy.”

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