He's on the brink of mega-stardom, has a Hollywood home and a new Mercedes. But he still gets teary-eyed over gloomy London skies; the interview SEAL, SINGER, TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON
Sunday 17 December 1995
Hang on a minute. As a child I remember grazing my knee quite badly and time has put no gloss on that. Seal's upbringing was, by all accounts, replete with trauma of a much more serious stamp. Settled with white foster-parents in Romford, Essex, he was suddenly reclaimed by his natural mother at the age of four, and dragged kicking and screaming across London. After she became ill and went to Nigeria, Seal was brought up in Kilburn by a dad, now dead, whose enthusiasm for corporal punishment drove him to leave home in his mid-teens.
Surviving the trials of his youth must have entailed a thickening of the hide. Though his life is now "fantastic", Seal is reluctant to shed a protective layer of reticence. An imposing figure in strange satiny trousers and expensive black T-shirt, he is affable but guarded; happy to admit to having played tennis for five hours the previous day and then eaten quite a lot of biscuits afterwards, but reluctant to be drawn on more serious issues. What kind of biscuits were they? (Suspiciously) "I don't know ... ginger nuts, custard creams."
Seal's current home is in Los Angeles - just near Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills - which he describes as "nice". Does he have any famous neighbours? "There's only three houses on my street and I don't know who lives in them." Living the strange, rootless life of an international pop star, he is not immune to the odd nostalgic moment. "The other day I was doing some writing in my hotel room and I ordered some tea and sat by the window with a cigarette. It was miserable outside - just overcast, grey and totally depressing - and I did get quite emotional and teary-eyed because it was something I was used to: it was London as I remember it from a few years ago when I used to be a bike messenger, cycling down the same road I was looking out over."
Bike messenger work always looks dangerous. "It was. I got knocked off five times a day on average for the first week." Seal worked in McDonald's too for a while, but his main pre-fame employment was in the fashion industry. He spent five years making clothes for a King's Road designer before deciding that his future lay in music. Two years on, in May 1990, Seal's stately guest vocal swept acid house maverick Adamski's "Killer" to number one in the UK singles charts. A solo career followed, with the epic pop swirl of "Crazy" establishing him as a worldwide star. At the 1992 Brit Awards, Seal won everything except best turned out horse.
He is just outlining his philosophy of songwriting - "I've got this theory that they're all already existing out there, and all you have to do is tap into them" - when two hotel staff arrive with the stereo equipment he asked for. Seal puts on a Talk Talk CD. What initially seems a gross breach of interview etiquette (the pop star equivalent of burping before a meal) turns out to be a spur to loquacity. With his third album looming, he confesses to being "a bit hesitant" about putting himself - as he usually does - "in a series of the sort of adverse situations that will inspire lyric writing". So he deliberately sets a course for choppy emotional waters in order to write songs about them? "Yes, well, subconsciously at least."
Does it make it hard for people to deal with him on an emotional level if they suspect that he is going to use their feelings for his own creative ends? "I don't think so." A pause and a laugh. "Well, I don't think so, but one or two of my ex-girlfriends might beg to differ." Surely it's hard to concentrate your attention on an unhappy situation if you're thinking this is going to work really well in a song later? "I guess there is a little bit of that," Seal's monolithic face cracks into a grin. "I'd be lying if I said there wasn't."
The photographer makes his entrance and Seal exclaims at the high calibre of his camera, launching into an animated discussion of rival lens specifications. His reputation as a gadget fiend seems to be well earned. "It's becoming less," Seal insists, before pulling himself up. "Actually, that's a lie." Among the luxury items that have caught Seal's eye recently are a recording studio the size of a suitcase and a fancy new Mercedes. It would be wrong to claim that money has changed him, though. "Even when I didn't have any," he remembers ruefully, "I always lived above my means. If it was a choice between a pounds 500 suit or having somewhere to live, I'd always go for the suit."
When Seal wrote "Kiss From A Rose'' - the exquisite baroque ballad which made him not only the first British topper of the US singles charts in two years, but also the author of the most frequently played song ever on American radio - he was living in a squat in Kensal Green. "It was about eight years ago," he remembers "way before I even dreamt of making an album ... I couldn't even really play any instruments at that time." How did he go about composing the song then? "It was pretty much conceived from beginning to end in my head: I hummed all the instruments into a Portastudio - 16 tracks of vocals with all the harmonies and the orchestral movements." That's a pretty extraordinary way of working. "It is really," he smiles "I wish I could still do it."
The extraordinary American success of "Kiss From A Rose'' - "even people who like me are saying: 'God, won't it ever go away', and I have to agree with them: enough already" - is not going to lure Seal into a change of citizenship. "I regard myself as British or English and always will," he insists, "even though America has embraced me in a very nice way, I'm constantly reminded of not being American." It's possible that it's Seal's very foreignness which has enabled such a broad spectrum of American disc- buyers to accept him. He nods his head: "Especially taking into consideration the fact that I'm black, they're less likely to be preoccupied with 'well, if he's black, how come he isn't singing straight R'n'B?' ''
Ironically, the same broad appeal that makes Seal a potential breaker of boundaries in America has made his new, sensual slap-head persona slightly less of a sensation in his home country than his old dreadlocked space alien. "In England the critical consensus seems to be that I came from the club or dance" - he pauses till the right word comes along - "epidemic," he laughs, "and now I've gone all wishy-washy and American."
His printed explanation for not including a lyric sheet with his second album should go some way toward allaying these fears. "How many times have you fallen in love with a lyric that you thought went: 'Show me a day with Hilda Ogden and I'll despair', only to to find that it [actually] went 'show me a way to solve your problems and I'll be there'." Seal gets up from his chair and looks out of the window at the vanishing snowclouds. "This weather's incredible isn't it? A minute ago it looked like the end of the world."
9 Seal appears on 'Jack Dee's Saturday Night' on 30 December.
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