Traveling The High Road
by Tom Lanham

Most of the philosophies and ideals on which Seal bases his songs were gained from travelling.

"Have you ever been to Vancouver?" wonders pop-soul stylist Seal. Taken the trek from the British Columbia city to nearby Whistler, high in the snowy mountains? The trip only takes 45 minutes, but the drive -- he says with a dreamy sigh -- is one of the most beautiful experiences he's ever had. Pulling his car over to watch the afternoon sun glint off icy rock formations, the singer was actually moved to tears. "I knew I would never look at this scenery in the same way again," he explains. "May never even see the sight again in my life, because we're here on Earth for such a short time and you never know . . ." Seal's voice trails off. He's not a dour, gloomy fellow; just an artist who lives for aesthetic pleasures.

That concept is communicated quite clearly on Seal, his platinum sophomore set for Sire. The smooth synth-based textures -- like his polished, swooping vocals themselves -- are gorgeous, ethereal, and awash in a torrent of subtle moods. To hear sonnets like "I'm Alive," "Prayer For The Dying" or the medieval minuet "Kiss From A Rose" is to sense raw emotion, billowing up from the mix like a wall of diaphanous curtains. Where did the Seal sound come from? It's no great secret, says the London-born, Los Angeles-based, full-blooded Nigerian." Most of the philosophies and ideals on which I base my songs were gained from travelling."

By his own admission, Seal "barely graduated" from school at 16. But that's when he set out to see the world; that's when he really started learning. "Even when I couldn't afford to travel, I would take long bus rides or train rides into Europe and travel on a shoestring, just to gain the experience," he recalls. "Travelling is just something I've always done, because I thought it was important to be subjected to different cultures to understand how people think in different parts of the world. I also have a love for change, change of environment, change of circumstance, so I tend to always be throwing myself into situations which will provoke some kind of reaction."

These days, the vagabond always travels with a small guitar and a microcassette recorder, since there's no telling when, say, a Guatemalan sunset or a Parisian sunrise will affect him creatively. "Most of the songs on this record were inspired by beautiful situations," he says. "I guess I try to find beauty in everything, or at least some positivity. So these numbers are based on either a beautiful encounter, or something which I found beauty in." And here's where the irony creeps in. Flush with vocal layering and swaying acoustic guitars, "Kiss From A Rose" -- probably the most delicate composition in the Seal catalog -- is now, thanks to its inclusion in the Batman Forever soundtrack, forever linked with a mythical masked avenger who violently fights crime. Sure, the single sped straight to number one, but now, by default, it's become "the Batman song."

Seal chuckles over the odd juxtaposition. "Kiss" was penned eight years ago, when he was living in a London council flat and just beginning to discover his striking Sam Cooke-sleek style. Which came first, the music or the metaphorical lyrics? Might as well ask the old chicken-or-the-egg question, Seal sighs. "When you're writing, one of two things happens. You come up with the music first through a melody you have in your head, and that will, in turn, suggest the emotion of the song. And then the emotion will suggest the melody, and the melody will suggest the lyrical content. Or vice-versa. Sometimes you come up with the lyrics and then you have to find something that is emotionally suitable to carry those lyrics.

"So in the case of `Kiss From A Rose,' I remember starting out to write something that would be vocally challenging. And the way I recorded it was on a home portastudio. I came up with the melody first and then dressed it with all the instrumentation. But I did the instrumentation with vocals, because at the time, I couldn't really play any instruments. So I must've done like 16, 20 tracks of vocals, which I kept bouncing across the tape, since it was only a 4-track portastudio. I'd sing the melody of the guitar, make up chords with my vocals, and it was fun constructing all this." Seal pauses, then adds a little confession: "Actually, I possibly did it all out of boredom, a case of having too much time on my hands."

A producer friend called "Kiss" an old English madrigal. Seal's manager thinks of it as an "English baroque with r&b stops." But the songsmith himself is a tad puzzled. "It's really interesting how it turned out -- I can't think of any other quite like it, or one piece of music that would've inspired me. And I haven't written anything like it since."

Since outdoorsy pulchritude had nothing to do with, where did the inspiration lie? Seal believes in "getting in sync with the cosmic forces."

"Songwriting is peculiar sometimes because you can set out to write something, and you can account for the different stages and the reasons why you wrote that piece of music," he says. "But sometimes you find that when you're least expecting it, you kind of open up and serve as a conduit for whatever it is out there in the universe, and songs can just come through in a heartbeat." Meaning? "There are songs that already exist," Seal murmurs, mysteriously. "You just have to open up and let them flow through."

For example, his "I'm Alive" shot through him like lightning as he emerged from the crumpled wreckage of his automobile, unscathed by a near head-on car collision. "So I wrote it as a celebration of life," he says. "Because I've seen how you can be so full of life in one instant and in the next, if you're not paying attention or respecting that, it can be snatched from you in a split second. No condition is permanent."

Perhaps that's why the 6'4" Seal constantly tests himself, via sports like tennis and snowboarding or simply traveling to exotic new locales, where he'll have to struggle to overcome an outsider profile. Have any of his intrepid journeys ever backfired? Has Seal ever wished -- at least for a minute -- that he hadn't travelled that particular day? "Once I was in Thailand, and there was a big military thing going on," he shudders. "No foreigners were allowed to leave Bangkok because these two visitors from England had tried to smuggle some drugs out of the country. It was quite big news, and I think they faced execution . . ."

No doubt about it. Sometimes Seal is better right where he is, in California with his girlfriend, new puppy, and a bunch of football-crazed friends over to watch Monday's big game. Then again, how will Seal album number three ever get written if he just stays home?

© Tom Lanham. Reproduced without permission.

Tom Lanham is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.