Eclectic British pop artist Seal told Rolling Stone's David Thigpen, "All my
songs are therapy. I~m giving therapy to myself." After a splashy 1991
debut--including a Number One U.K. single and a top-selling album--he
experienced several tumultuous and difficult years that caused him to confront
the meaning of his sudden fame and, more importantly, his life.
Seal returned wiser and more assured with his 1994 sophomore effort, though in
certain fundamental respects he was back where he began: with the same
influential and supportive producer and the same title. Yet the variety of
styles he enlisted--building on the already rich mixture of rock, soul, folk,
and dance music that fills his first album--was, if anything, even greater. The
journey to this achievement, as he told Q, necessitated a self-acceptance with
which he struggled all his life. "You have to work out why you feel so
undeserving," he insisted, adding "you have to start healing and you have to
start saying to yourself, OK, I am worth it, I do deserve this."
Seal was born Sealhenry Olumide Samuel in London, England; his parents had moved
there from Nigeria and divorced when he was still an infant. Raised first by
foster parents and then by his own father, he had what he described to Rob
Tannenbaum of Rolling Stone as "a rough childhood." In an interview with Mark
Cooper of Q he called his father "a bitter person who~d missed a lot of
opportunities in life. I think he loved me but was just incapable of showing
it." Seal earned a degree in architecture and worked a variety of jobs, from
electrical engineering to posting ads for London prostitutes; the latter
occupation resulted in an arrest.
After trying to build a music career in London, Seal hooked up with a band
called Push, playing funk music on tour in Japan. It was important more for
geographical than for musical reaons: "I~d never been to that part of the
equator before," he noted to Tannenbaum. "It was right up my alley. Every day
was a new experience." After a jaunt with a Thailand blues group, he made his
way to India and there had what he called "a few spiritual experiences." The
happiness he felt there, he insisted, bestowed a calm and contentment about his
future and allowed him to stop wanting a record deal so fervently. He believes
this is why he soon got one.
Seal also became convinced that the half-moon scars under his eyes left by a
skin ailment were a kind of omen of stardom. "I got really depressed about [the
scars] at first, as you can understand," he recalled. "Now I really like them."
The scars, he ultimately reasoned, would serve as a kind of insignia. "If I
could design something, I don~t think I could do it better." He did design the
rest of his distinctive look: head-to-toe leather clothes and long dreadlocks,
adding even more flash to his 6~4" frame.
Seal met producer Trevor Horn--who had made a fortune making records for the Art
of Noise and Yes, among others, and had his own label, ZTT. "I thought he looked
a bit frightening," Horn remembered to Tannenbaum. "I thought he was gonna like
all kinds of music I wasn~t gonna like. Then he told me he liked [folk-rockers]
Crosby, Stills and Nash and Joni Mitchell. It was quite refreshing." Even so, he
was disinclined to sign the fledgling artist.
In 1990, however, Seal took his fate into his hands, achieving immediate success
that would grab the attention of Horn and much of the pop world. He wrote a song
called "Killer" with British keyboardist Adamski, and its mix of dance and
rock--helped by heartfelt singing and lyrics--took it to the top of the U.K.
charts. "I remember the first time we got to No. 1," he recollected in an
interview with Giles Smith of The Independent, "Adamski and myself were in one
of those family inn restaurants on a Sunday near Cambridge, [and] the week
before we were No. 4 and [pop diva] Madonna was No. 1." When they realized that
"Killer" had gained the top position, "I let out this huge roar. Honestly,
families around us were going for their children--there was this six-foot-four
black man gone wild in Cambridgeshire."
Seal was unprepared for what would follow. "I guess I was the epitome of the
phrase "meteoric success,~' he told Cooper of Q." "My kind of success was
different because I had a hit record with something which wasn~t immediately
commercial in the pop sense. I took [my song] Crazy round to lots of record
companies before Killer and although everybody really liked it, they wouldn~t
touch it. But if you manage to get a hit with a record like that, it~s like
you~ve broken through with something which allows you so much room." Soon ZTT
found itself in competition with other labels that wanted to sign Seal; Horn~s
company recruited the young artist by offering him artistic freedom and, as Seal
himself told Tannenbaum of Rolling Stone, "quite a bit of money, too."
Though Seal initially brought in various friends from the dance music world to
help him produce the album, he eventually surrendered the reins to Horn. The
producer told Tannenbaum that the singer~s crowd"were very interested in Chicago
house music. I thought that was absurd, when you have that much talent. It~s
limited--you don~t sit and listen to it. You can~t go to concerts and things
like that." The resulting album, Seal, appeared on ZTT/Sire in 1991 and
complemented the dance-floor grooves with acoustic guitars and an overall
emphasis on melody and song structure.
Rolling Stone writer Thigpen called the Seal~s debut album "a startlingly
original synthesis that seemed to come from some undiscovered place along the
axis of rock and soul." Seal~s lyrics on this first album reflected what he
later referred to in the Independent interview as a "very young, very
idealistic" point of view: "if we only stick together we can save the world."
His travels in the east had made him "unstoppable in that respect."
Seal was an international smash, thanks to "Killer" and "Crazy," an idealistic
slice of pop-funk that was soon co-opted for a television commercial. And Seal
himself was overwhelmed by fame. "You live one way for 26 years, and then
suddenly there~s a dramatic change," he reflected to Thigpen. "Five years ago I
would get annoyed when my dole [unemployment] check arrived a day late. The next
thing I know, I~m getting pissed off if my limo didn~t turn up."
Indeed, as Seal told Cooper, the experience "was completely the opposite of what
I~d imagined. If you~re a sensitive person, like myself, you quickly realize
that not everybody~s intentions are genuine. And, yes, you have more people
around you, lots more people around you, but your space becomes much smaller.
People come up to you constantly in the street and they treat you like you~re an
alien." Most tragically, "I thought that the adoration would replace the
attention that I sought from my father. I thought success or fame would bring me
all these things." All of this led to "a very bad period when I had a lot of
panic attacks." As he complained to Rolling Stone, "I wanted the money. I wanted
to be a millionaire. But fame can be a pain in the ass."
Along with the anxiety, however, came laurels: the Q award for Best New Act of
1991, and three 1992 Brit Awards. Seal even performed at the Grammy Awards
ceremony, though he took home no trophies. "The best thing that came out of the
Grammys," he reflected to Smith of the Independent, "was that I did an interview
for the L.A. Times and for the umpteenth time I was asked about my musical
influences and for the umpteenth time I said I really like Joni Mitchell and
reeled off this whole piece on why." On tour in France two months afterward,
Seal received flowers and a note that said "Thanks for appreciating the work,
love Joni." Seal had another brush with greatness when he joined British guitar
legend Jeff Beck on a cover version of rock trailblazer Jimi Hendrix~s "Manic
Depression" for the Hendrix tribute album Stone Free.
After relocating to Los Angeles, Seal gradually began work on a follow-up album.
Intent on a stylistic departure rather than a recreation of his debut, he
selected a new producer. Steve Lillywhite, who~d worked with Irish rock
superstars U2, among others, was his choice. But he soon asked Horn to take
over. "Steve was wrong for all the reasons Trevor was the right producer," he
commented to Thigpen. "Trevor~s a musician first and foremost."
The resulting album--again called Seal--replaced the debut~s pounding rhythms
with slyer grooves, while Seal~s singing moved away from the anthemic shouts of
his earlier hits and became more nuanced and intimate. The first single, "Prayer
for the Dying," a sober, reflective tune with an insistent funk beat, became a
Top Ten hit. Jeff Beck played guitar on another track, "Bring It On," and Joni
Mitchell joined Seal for a duet in the song "If I Could." It was difficult for
Seal to stop working on the project. "One time, I was going to the airport and I
just turned round and came back to do more vocals," he confessed to Cooper. "I
was dragged screaming from this record and so was Trevor. It was probably the
most important thing about the whole record."
"You have to start healing and you have to start saying to yourself, OK, I am
worth it, I do deserve this." Seal~s new look--a shaved head--at once
represented a concession to California temperatures and a clean break from the
past. He~d lived through a number of losses and near catastrophes between the
two albums. "I had a really heavy duty car crash in California," he told Cooper.
"I nearly flew off a canyon on to a freeway a hundred feet below at peak hour.
The car was completely written off and, miraculously, I walked away virtually
unscathed. Then I got double pneumonia. The doctors said it was touch and go at
one stage but I came out of that unscathed too, with no scarring on my lungs or
anything. Then there was a shooting right in front of me on [Hollywood~s] Sunset
Seal claimed that a London healer helped him recover from his illness and
clarify his life; he appears on the cover of his second album in the nude, his
newly shorn pate adding to the overall image of strength through vulnerability.
"My whole approach to this record was one of openness," he told Cooper. He also
emphasized in various interviews that the "idealistic" world-saving stance of
his first album had neglected the necessity of healing oneself-- spiritually and
otherwise--before one could truly help others. Part of this healing meant
putting fame in perspective, and allowing his "celebrity" self to surface when
he needed to protect his private self. "The days I wanted to be noticed, wanted
some feedback," he informed Smith in the Independent,"I could go out there and
kind of exude and I~d get recognized," becoming "Seal, pop star, impervious to
Seal the second was generally greeted with critical raves. "This British
neo-soul singer~s gift flows from his ability to transform dance floor tracks
into spine-tingling, magical experiences," enthused James Bernard of
Entertainment Weekly, who gave the album an "A" grade. Reviewer Hobey Echlin of
the Detroit Metro Times labeled the effort "Brilliant, subtle, indulgent and
sentimental." Thigpen noted that "Seal~s husky, expressive voice sounds even
richer and more aged; the new record has an almost folky feel, with an
undercurrent of melancholy and introspection that wasn~t there before."
But it wasn~t so much good reviews as good old fashioned radio airplay that
helped the achievement sink in. "Somebody played the single on the radio the
other day," Seal related to Smith. "I was speaking to my friend Oswald on the
car phone. He said: "They seem to be playing your record a lot.' I said, rather
grumpily: `Really? Cos I haven~t heard it once.~ Ironically enough as I said
that, it came on the radio. I said: `Oswald: I~m going to have to call you
Pulling over to the side of the road, Seal finally appreciated the finished
product. "I~d been listening to it as a song and now I wanted to hear this thing
that Trevor had always talked about: I wanted to hear the record. It sounded
better on the radio than it did on the stereo at home. And the DJ said, "That
was the new one from Seal--well worth waiting for.~" The feeling, he noted, was
one he~d felt only occasionally: "almost unquantifiable... just this rush."