Seal of Approval
His velvety baritone and chart-topping hits made him a don of the Nineties dance scene. Now, as he prepares to perform at Pacha Ibiza, Seal reflects on his early rave days and a career that spans 20 years.
IN the late 1980s the dance music phenomenon known as the Second Summer of Love swept the UK amid a sea of smiley acid house faces. The sounds that resonated from Chicago’s underground brought dance music to the public consciousness, and by the early ‘90s Ibiza and Britain had witnessed a music revolution.
From this era an exciting singer-songwriter emerged out of London with Killer, a song that conquered the UK charts in 1990 with its distinctive opening bassline and stirring lyrics: Racism in among future kings can only lead to no good / Besides, all our sons and daughters already know how that feels.
Heavily influenced by the rave scene, Seal Henry Samuel’s eponymous debut album, Seal (1991), catapulted him into the musical stratosphere. He followed his aforementioned breakthrough hit with Crazy, Future Love Paradise and his Batman Forever film contribution Kiss From A Rose, which earned him one of the three Grammys he now keeps in his office. “It’s always nice to be recognised for your work,” he says. “Especially by your fans and peers.”
Seal’s sound has matured into a soul-pop groove, and with his present celebrity status as Mr Heidi Klum and devoted family man, it’s easy to forget his early dance roots and the part he played in breaking dance music in the British mainstream; all at a time when he was couching surfing or sleeping rough.
Since then Seal has sold more than 20 million albums worldwide. He’s still writing and recording new songs and touring, and he’s currently making two albums with “a whole load of new original material”. This follows the success of his sixth studio album, Soul, in which he channels the greats; Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield, and a duet, Wedding Day, which he sings with his wife, German model Klum. This summer Seal’s coming, for the first time, to Ibiza for a one-off performance at Pure Pacha: It’s All Gone Pete Tong, and he says “we’re going to get down and dirty!”.
You came into the public consciousness soon after the UK height of acid house. How did dance music inspire your songwriting and sound?
“Well, to be honest, those times were all a little bit of a blur! It literally changed everything for me. The whole scene was so incredibly exciting and adventurous, and as a youngish bloke at the time growing up in west London, I just couldn’t help but be taken in by it.
“It was all about the music of course, but it really was also a way of life. Every Wednesday you’d start thinking about which parties we were going to hunt down at the weekend and by Thursday night you were up and running! By the time you finished on a Tuesday morning, you’d have about a day before thinking ahead to the next weekend! So, did it inspire my songwriting? Absolutely. It couldn’t do anything but!”
Who influenced you musically during that time?
“Really, the whole scene. You know what it was like back then, so much music being made but such a wide range of different people that had all been influenced in one way or another by raves.”
Killer and Crazy stand the test of time – can we expect a return to the dance sound that first made you famous?
“Absolutely. Dance music is something that becomes part of you. When you have the kind of experiences that we all did back in those days – almost religious experiences in some ways – it doesn’t go away.”
How did your collaboration with Adamski on Killer come about?
“Just through friends. Adam had recently had a hit with a track called N-R-G, and he was doing some really interesting stuff at the time. I’d written this melody and lyric called Killer but not really done anything with it, and when some friends hooked us up, it just so happened that my melody worked perfectly over an instrumental track Adam had done. I recorded the vocal, and we put it out. Simple as that!”
Your voice is one of the most distinctive in music. When did you realise you had singing talent?
“Thank you for saying that, and it’s an interesting question to ask. I wasn’t really hugely confident about my voice as such, although I knew it made an interesting sound. I’d had a couple of bands that had done, well, not much, but nonetheless, music was becoming more and more important to me. It was actually a girlfriend of mine at the time who bought me a guitar and gave me the impetus to really focus on my music, and quite quickly from that point everything started falling in to place.”
How did the phenomenal international success of your debut album change your life and further shape your career?
“It was a very exciting time. After what seemed like a long time getting through those first steps as a musician, when it moved, it moved quickly. I spent a huge amount of time in LA – basically writing and recording what became my second album – and had to work hard promoting and touring the album. So it really did change everything. But frankly, it was always something I’d dreamt of, or perhaps more accurately, visualised. So while it all changed very quickly, somehow I felt prepared for it.”
Can you feel the heat of the dance music explosion in America?
“I do certainly sense it, but it’s funny, it’s very different to back when the scene first evolved in the UK. The way the genres of dance and hip-hop have combined in the US has created a different sound to what we’re used to in the UK. If anything the closest comparison you can make is to that of dubstep.”
What themes most engage you when you’re writing songs?
“You pull from everything when you write. Everything around you: friends, family, memories, fantasies, concerns, issues, happiness. I have to admit though that my default is always towards the more melancholy. I simply prefer the feeling of chords that are in a minor key, with nice crunchy suspensions and stuff.”
You’ve talked in the past about sleeping rough in London before you found success. Do you believe in the notion of the tortured artist – needing to experience pain to write poetry? Or are you as creative today, the happy family man, as you were back then?
“Well, that’s a big question. I hope I am as creative now as I was at the beginning of my career, but I couldn’t be happier in my private life. So if we were to posit that pain is directly related to creativity, then the argument breaks down. That said, yes, I do believe it is important to have experienced everything life has to offer, and in my case, I’ve got a lot to pull from. It wasn’t by design, and hell, I’d had rather have had a more privileged and ‘normal’ upbringing. But I didn’t, and I don’t begrudge it at all. I met some amazing people along the way, and it made me
who I am.”
Your hits have spawned numerous remixes – do you listen to them?
“Well, the ones I loved most recently are Jimpster’s remixes. He’s done two for me, mainly because I loved the first one he did so much [Here I Am] that I asked him to do another one! Remixes are great. I always listen to them, and we’ll be getting a lot more done soon.”
Looking back on a career that spans over two decades, what moments would you define as career highlights?
“I feel very fortunate to say there have been many great moments. Just thinking about recent times, I sang for President Obama and the First Lady in the White House for a Motown tribute concert. That really was a very special occasion!”
Have you been to Ibiza before?
“Unbelievably, I haven’t ever been before, and I can’t wait!”
So what expectations do you have of the island?
“Obviously I know a lot about it, and I’ve been told about all the places I need to go and see, so I’m just going to go with the flow and see what happens!”
We’re looking forward to your performance at Pete Tong’s party. Do you know the man himself?
“Only in as much as he has been a fantastic supporter of mine through the years, and we’ve actually been trying to find the time to work together for a few years now. I’m really looking forward to an amazing night at Pacha!”
First published in Pacha Magazine, Ibiza, August 2011.
© Abbey Stirling