Brian Hiatt
April 23, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Gary Jules is on the roof of a Hoboken, N.J., middle school on an icy, late-winter day, staring at the sidewalk below. ”What’s my motivation?” he jokes, shivering between takes on a video shoot. ”Am I getting ready to leap?”

There was a time when he might have entertained the thought. The now-35-year-old singer-songwriter released a solo debut in 1998 — after he’d logged more than a decade with two never-signed bands — only to see it languish when a merger devoured his label. ”I spent a year losing my mind,” he recalls.

But these are happier times — thanks to a sad song. Three years after Jules’ pal, composer Michael Andrews, recruited him to cover Tears for Fears’ ”Mad World” for his Donnie Darko score, the whispery, elegiac single is an unlikely phenomenon. Fueled by MP3 traders and Darko’s cult popularity, ”Mad World” hit No. 1 in the U.K. last December. That feat turned heads at Universal, which signed on to distribute Jules’ home-recorded second album, Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets, a delicately crafted folk-rock set built around his nimble, fingerpicked guitar and restrained, Michael Stipe-like vocals. ”It’s an anti-epic about life in L.A.,” explains the tattooed San Diego native.

The new CD includes his Darko smash, which sent Jules to that roof to shoot a video by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Says a still-stunned Jules: ”Songs with no drums, no bass, no guitars — and suicidal lyrics — don’t become hits.” Except, perhaps, in a mad, mad world.

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