Still a little crazy after all these years...
by Giles Smith

It's like he's never been away: first there was Seal with Seal, now there is Seal with Seal. And the new album, like the old, is produced by Trevor Horn. But look: no hair!
By Giles Smith

You'll remember Seal from the 1991 single "Crazy" and the impressive debut album, Seal, which probably could have fought its way into the public consciousness, even without the mighty billboard poster campaign which thumped home his image, giant black letters on a white background reading SEAL, with the man himself in a long leather coat, feet apart, arms crossed, formidably forming the "A" in his own name. With a smooth, clear voice somewhere between soul and rock, and looks and charisma to spare, he was hailed, instantly and loudly, as a new British pop sensation.

That's normally the cue for a disaster of one kind or another, but there were good omens. Interviewed back then, Seal seemed level-headed, personable, gadget-mad (portable phones, personal stereos) and altogether less likely to implode after an orgy of drug-fueled waywardness than following a major shopping blow-out in Dixon's. Still, pop being what it is, if he had never made another record, we would have been sad but not surprised. Here he is though, back again, but not before a period of biding his time, thinking things over, steadying himself. (And shaving his hair off: Seal is bald for '94.)

"Looking back," he says, "That first album was very young, very idealistic: if we only stick together we can save the world. I'd just come back from a long trip to Asia and I was unstoppable in that respect. The new one (and again called Seal, just to be confusing) contains," he suggests, "a hint of realism" and finds him working the lower range of his voice, where his early tendency was to hit the high registers straight away and stay there. "Trevor always said my voice had a nice quality down there."

That's Trevor Horn, the prodigiously gifted record producer who worked with Seal on his first album and again on the new one, and who said he found Seal "frightening at first" ("he was so big") and wasn't sure whether they would get on. The snazzy single, "Prayer For The Dying," released now, shows how close they are, all fidgeting guitars, muffled drums and little touches of keyboard, quiet and incidental yet somehow suggesting enormous, airy space. Few pop producers have Horn's control of dynamics and few singers sound quite so well-cast for the resulting drama as Seal.

He knew a little about success after "Killer",a dance record made with Adamski in 1990. "I remember the first time we got to No 1, Adamski and myself were in one of those family inn restaurants on a Sunday near Cambridge, The week before we were No 4 and Madonna was No 1. We'd borrowed a 7.99 (British pounds) combat radio, like you order from the papers, so we could hear the chart rundown, and we had it on really low. Madonna was No 4 so there was obviously a new No 1. Then they played No 3 and it wasn't us. It was between us and the Adventures of Stevie V. and they said, 'This week's NO 2...the Adventures of Stevie V.' And 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 then removed himself to the quiet of the Gents for a think. "I'd spent all this time trying to prove myself to family and friends. I'd never held down a nine-to-five job, my family was saying: 'You're wasting your time. What are you going to do with your life?' The usual stuff."

Some scenes from the subsequent solo career of Seal, then aged 27. At the Brit Awards in 1992, he picked up trophies in almost every category and was "overcome to the point where I couldn't talk." At the Grammys in New York that same year, he won nothing, but performed live for the telecast: "So nervous. There was something like a 17ft drop in front of the stage which didn't help. Back-stage, in the tumult of the press-pen where few knew who he was, Seal was cautious, humble, unerringly polite ("I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you. Would you mind repeating the question?"). Someone asked him if he knew that Madonna had announced publicly that she wanted to meet him, and a look of panic and amazement froze his face.

"The best thing that came out of the Grammys was that I did an interview for the LA 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". Two months after that, in France doing a gig, he received some flowers with a note reading: "Thanks for appreciating the work, love Joni". Mutual admiration now flows. Mitchell sings on a track on the new album called "If I Could". Seal may be the only person in London with a tape of her new, as yet unreleased album.

In the first period of success, people would stop Seal at random to tell him avidly how his voice worked for them. A woman sent him a sculpture inspired by his music and made with her feet. He worked out that being recognised or not in the street was, to some extent, up to him. "The days I wanted to be noticed, wanted some feedback, I could go out there and kind of exude and I'd get recognised". A sufferer in the past from anxiety attacks, he realised he could now be, if he wished, "Seal, pop star, impervious to everything. Nice to own a spanking black Porsche and a house in west London, especially when you've been on the dole and living in a squat". But for a while, people who had known him as calm and softly spoken suddenly found him chippy, hard to reach, prone to moods.

"People around me helped me through it, my best friend Paul and my manager and a couple of romances. Surrounded by sycophants, you become more judgemental. Anyone I met, I was thinking: ' What does this person want from me? ' About a year ago I made a conscious decision: do you like this, do you like the gig? How much of yourself are you prepared to give away? Either become comfortable with it, or get out". He chose comfort and stayed in.

"Somebody played the single on the radio the other day. I was speaking to my friend Oswald on the carphone. 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 back.'"

And then Seal did what any rookie would have done, but what a Brit-winning star, two albums into their career, might not: he pulled over to listen to his own record.

"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.' And I had this feeling. I've had it before, it's only momentary, it never lasts and I get it sometimes on stage and I've also got it when I've been on a snowboard...almost unquantifiable....just this rush".

©1994 Giles Smith. Reproduced without permission.