Seal: Still crazy after all these years

After 13 years of exile in Los Angeles, the Nineties pop superstar Seal is back in Britain. He ushers Fiona Sturges into his bedroom to talk about scars (physical and emotional), his wild past, and how he's planning to hit the big time again
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I'm in bed with Seal. Seriously, I am. OK, we're fully dressed and lying at least two feet apart, but our shoes are off and we're definitely horizontal. I should point out that this is how Seal does interviews these days. It's less formal, he says. It makes for a more honest and relaxing atmosphere. When I suggest that there might be easier ways of softening up journalists, he simply digs me in the ribs and says, "Oh c'mon. We're having fun, aren't we?" Well, I suppose we are, although I'm beginning to wonder whether this informal approach has relaxed him a little too much.

I'm in bed with Seal. Seriously, I am. OK, we're fully dressed and lying at least two feet apart, but our shoes are off and we're definitely horizontal. I should point out that this is how Seal does interviews these days. It's less formal, he says. It makes for a more honest and relaxing atmosphere. When I suggest that there might be easier ways of softening up journalists, he simply digs me in the ribs and says, "Oh c'mon. We're having fun, aren't we?" Well, I suppose we are, although I'm beginning to wonder whether this informal approach has relaxed him a little too much.

The problem with Seal is that he likes to talk. Endlessly. Ask him the most mundane question and he'll take a good 10 minutes to answer it. He doesn't so much wander off the point as embark on a lengthy hike in the opposite direction. This has to be the first time that I've ever wished an interviewee would shut the hell up and let me get a word in.

Seal, for the uninitiated, is the huskily resonant voice behind a fistful of Nineties hits such as "Killer", "Crazy" and the Grammy-winning "Kiss From A Rose". For the past 13 years he's been living in Los Angeles and capitalising on his huge US fan base, but earlier this year he sold up and moved back to London. "In LA there's no real social interaction, no community," he explains. "I never really felt like I belonged. Where I live in Chelsea, I can take my dog for a walk and, before I get to the top of my road, I've said hello to two neighbours. I'll have a chat with the bloke in the newsagents and the two brothers in the Italian deli. Even the scaffolder over the road shouted out to me the other day, 'Oi, Seal! When are you gonna make another record?'"

Ah yes, the new record. Seal IV is his first album in five years and comes with the customary big choruses, knee-trembling ballads and, of course, those glorious golden vocals. Seal is clearly very excited about it. "I can't wait to go out and play these songs to people. There's nothing better than going out there and performing and making that connection with audiences. Even after all this time I get the biggest buzz from that." Shaven-headed, broad-shouldered and 6ft 3in, Seal has a physicality that is nearly as overwhelming as his personality. His face has a constantly excitable, wide-eyed expression that makes him look far younger than his 40 years.

The scars below his cheekbones are caused by lupus, a condition that he contracted as a child, which causes blistering under the skin, though over the years he's read some far-fetched stories as to their origins. "I've heard everything," he states. "That they were the result of ancient ritual induction into childhood that involved wrestling a wild boar, that I was viciously attacked by a gang. Someone even wrote that I was abducted by aliens who left me with a mark. You know, I really don't care. People can believe whatever they want to believe."

Despite his garrulousness, there's something distinctly likeable about Seal. Earlier on we had lunch with his publicist and stylist. He was warm and funny, and went to great lengths to draw everyone into the conversation. While he can be pompous and self-regarding, he also strikes you as utterly sincere. So much so, that when he calls me "sweetheart" during our interview - twice - I refrain from picking up the vase of flowers on the bedside table and pouring the contents over his head.

I wonder if he's thought about settling down and having a family. In the early Nineties Seal was known for dating models, driving fast cars and generally living the high life. At this he clasps his hands behind the back of his head and lets out a big sigh. "Well, let's just say that a family is something I'd welcome, but it's not something that I'm going out of my way to find. I've been lucky, I've had an incredible life. I've had the privilege to experience some crazy things." Such as? "Well, I couldn't possibly say." Give me a clue. "You're so naughty," he chides. "You think just because you're lying in bed with me you can pull my pants down. I'm saying nothing. I'm pretty well behaved, I think."

Before becoming a musician, Seal lived a hand-to-mouth existence in London. After a few months spent flipping burgers at McDonald's, he got a job putting up prostitutes' cards in central London telephone boxes. The latter was comparatively well paid, though getting arrested and fined was an occupational hazard. He began his singing career in a band called Push. In 1990 he met the techno boffin Adamski and the pair recorded a track together called "Killer". To everyone's surprise it went to No 1, and suddenly Seal was the name on everyone's lips. A few months later he signed a deal as a solo artist with the former Frankie Goes To Hollywood producer Trevor Horn's ZTT label, and recorded another single, "Crazy", which went to No 2 in the charts. In 1992 he won three Brit awards, and his self-titled debut album sold three million copies worldwide. In the space of 18 months Seal had become a major star.

It was with a view to finding an even greater audience that Seal moved to Los Angeles. "I wanted to be global," he explains matter-of-factly. "The prospect of being a local hero was not interesting at all. I don't believe that you can ever be considered a part of music history without breaking America. I think all the greatest acts from Britain - we're talking about people who have changed the world, like The Who, The Beatles, The Police, Queen, Elton John, The Bee Gees - they all had to break America."

But there's another reason why Seal wasn't keen to stay in London. "I'll be frank with you," he sighs, his brow furrowing earnestly. "There were signs in England that the only way for me was down. The media turned against me. I was given a hard time because my outlook wasn't one of pure debauchery. I was a sensitive male and I was singing about spirituality; I didn't choose the loutish Oasis approach to my profession. Britpop was just building up at the time and my attitude somehow counted against me."

Hard as it is to imagine, Seal says that he was intimidated by America when he first arrived. "It was the bigness of it all," he recalls. "It seemed so impenetrable. I felt that it was this massive place where you could get lost. But the one thing that became apparent after a few weeks of getting there was how big the world was, and how small I had been thinking. Sure, I was already successful, but I realised I could achieve a lot more as long as I was prepared to work hard."

When I ask if he's worried, after such a long absence from home, that his British fans might have forgotten him, there's a long pause. Eventually he answers, adopting the tone of a seasoned politician. "I will say this. If you were to ask me in a different way, if you were to say, 'Is it important to me that I have commercial success here in England?', I would say absolutely, yes. It's not like I can really make any money over here, not compared to the commercial success that I've enjoyed in America. It would be nice, but trust me, if I didn't have another commercial record over here I'd still sleep at night. The reason I want to do well here is that this is where I come from. This country played an integral part in forming the person that I am today. It's important for me to feel welcome." By now, I'm wondering if I'm needed any more as Seal seems to be interviewing himself. But listening to his many monologues about the differences between Britain and the US, it becomes clear that the issue of race played a part in his decision to return home.

"There are serious issues that exist in America that I feel are less of a problem in England. America, even to this day, is extremely segregated. All the Latinos stick together, all the blacks stick together, all the whites stick together. I'm not comfortable with that, it wasn't how I was brought up. In England it's not totally peaceful, but it's a lot better evolved. Of course there are isolated incidents of racism, but the reason that they become so high profile is because it's regarded as totally unacceptable. In America it's not like that. People go with it. That it's not tolerated here makes me absolutely proud to be English, and it makes it important for me to have some sort of success over here."

Seal (christened Sealhenry Samuel) spent the first four years of his life with his foster parents Frank and Barbara in Romford, Essex until his biological mother came to take him away. Sitting with her on the bus, he remembers screaming all the way to her house in Brixton. Two years later, his mother and her boyfriend decided to move back to Nigeria, so Seal went to live with his father, a violent man who worked as a plumber in Paddington. When Seal was still small his father flogged him with a whip; as his son grew up, he switched to using his fists.

"Despite being quite young, I understood why he was like that. He was at war with himself, with all his lost opportunities. The reason he would take all that frustration out on me was because he saw a younger version of himself who had a chance to right all his wrongs."

These are smart observations for a young child to have made, I say. "Well, I was very perceptive and intuitive," Seal says. "I could read situations, even if I didn't have the tools to recognise the subtleties. But there were also the stories that my father would tell me about his own father beating him. I could see that he was repeating the cycle of abuse. He died 23 years ago, but I still feel he's with me in a more conciliatory and forgiving way. I'm pretty much at peace with it all."

Has he ever had therapy? "Yes, though I've never depended on it. I believe good therapy is there to show you things you already know. But I still suffer from the same insecurities that other people do. I need people to tell me I'm on the right path, I still need a pat on the back from time to time." Really? "Yes, really," he laughs, digging me in the ribs again. "Now why would you find that so hard to believe?"

Seal feels that he wouldn't be the driven person he is today if it weren't for the cruelty he suffered at the hands of his father. "He instilled an ability to survive and a will to do well," he maintains. "Strange as it may seem, I'm actually quite grateful to him for that." This ferocious sense of ambition is something that has never left him and, he concedes, probably never will. Seal's been making music for nearly 20 years, but has retained the hunger and eagerness to please of an artist half his age and experience. "Working in this business, it's all a bit of a game, isn't it?" he reflects with a grin. "I guess it's in my nature. I'm the kind of guy that likes to win."

'Seal IV' is out on WEA on Monday

Comments