Grammy-, Brit- and Ivor Novello Award-winning singer-songwriter Seal talks to Paul Toogood about his creative process and performs “Killer,” “Crazy,” “Kiss from a Rose” and “Prayer for the Dying.”
From the late 1980s through the mid-‘90s, Britain was in a soul music upswing. A diverse wave of acts such as Sade, Loose Ends, Soul II Soul, Lisa Stansfield, Simply Red and George Michael all came into prominence, coining past soul music influences with sleek touches of pop currency.
Seal debuted as a solo artist in 1990 with his hit single, “Crazy,” which pinned world-weary angst against dense techno-pop bombast. The song set a bold step for the young London-born singer-songwriter, destined to break into the music business on his own terms. As he explains to interviewer Paul Toogood in this revealing 40-minute profile from “The Great Songwriters” series, a tape made for him by a friend that contained music from Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Joni Mitchell proved revelatory.
The music from an earlier era ‘rocked my body, stopped me in my tracks,’ Seal says.
The music from an earlier era “rocked my body, stopped me in my tracks,” he says. “I realized why I couldn’t get signed. I realized that [my music] just wasn’t good enough...like, I realized I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know what I was, and so, how could they?”
While not as virtuosic or daring as his two closest peers, George Michael and Terence Trent D’Arby, Seal sought to widen the margins of contemporary soul as an adult pop anomaly and traditionalist. The hallmarks of his sound, though not entirely inventive, are instantly gripping: a gravelly, muscular baritone; piercing emotion that quietly lingers; and an idiosyncratic melding of dance-pop, folk, soul, funk and rock.
With deeper listens, his towering asset, particularly in his early career, has been writing soul-baring songs that echo the heady musical climate of the 1960s and ‘70s, a period where songs with serious intent abounded. From the classically elegant 1994 ballad “Kiss from a Rose” to the way social-change mantras ride atop Adamski’s funky house beats on the 1990 track “Killer,” Seal’s early songs ring with truth.
Stripped of their ornate productions, the four songs Seal performs in acoustic arrangements on “The Great Songwriters” — “Crazy,” “Prayer for the Dying,” “Killer” and “Kiss from a Rose” (all pulled from his first two self-titled albums) — underline that sense of personal intimacy. On the originals, producer Trevor Horn wrapped an invigorating sonic world around the songs’ musical framework.
Seal’s crystal, emotive voice ensures that the updated versions are faithful to the intent behind the originals: leaner, but no less meditative. His guttural cries on the earnest “Prayer for the Dying” resonate with greater urgency. Melodic sections of “Killer” are toned down to reassure a timely message on social disparities toward Black people. And while the absence of Horn’s cinematic production for “Crazy” and “Kiss from a Rose” is felt, Seal’s breathy restraint and poetic lyrics more than make up for it.
Though Seal’s skills as a singer remain undiminished, his travels as a singer-songwriter have hit a creative standstill 30 years later. He acknowledges that he’s a veteran artist in an ever-evolving pop market, which may explain why he’s been alternating albums of covers and originals since 2008. He clearly suited the pop template of the ‘90s, but the popularity of even the most respected singer-songwriters can wane in a business beholden to shifting trends.
Yet Seal remains resolute. “All of the value is in the [recording] process,” he says. “I don’t know what the future holds, but right here, right now, it’s pretty great.”
Music writer and editor Brandon Ousley has written acclaimed pieces for Albumism and Medium. A Chicago native, he received his Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Roosevelt University. He specializes in classic soul, funk, jazz, pop, rock, avant-pop and other genres that pique his interest. He’s also a music lover and collector, examining the subject’s artistic, historic and cultural flashpoints.