Title: Itís a bitch
Author: Mark Cooper
Itís a Bitch
Panic attacks, double pneumonia, feeling ďworthlessĒ, driving off a cliff in CaliforniaÖ For Seal, the three-year journey from be-dreaded, billboard-bound statuette-magnet to sensitive slap-headed singer-songwriter has been one fraught with self-doubt. Mark Cooper mops the poor soulís troubled brow.
WHEN SEAL FIRST APPEARED ON billboards all around Britain in 1991, he cut a vast, almost monumental figure. Hands on hips like a fashion model, staring out with an Ancient Egyptian arrogance from behind his dreadlocks, he seemed to look down upon the world from a great height.
Heíd already provided the voice for Adamskiís pop-dance smash, Killer, and then introduced himself with Crazy, one of those rare, heartfelt anthems that strikes a universal chord. Sealís self-titled debut album went on to sell over three million copies worldwide. He toured in leathers, casting himself as a bit of a rock god and collected the Q Award for Best New Act in 1991 and three Brit Awards in 1992 ó Best Album, Best Male Artist, Best Video.
But then Seal disappeared, finally popping up some two years later at this yearís Brit Awards, where he appeared on the podium with a shaven head. Had he been doing penance? Where had he been? The spiritual answer to those questions is to be found within the symphonic scope of his self-titled second album, which reveals what he refers to as ďthe essence of SealĒ and which documents his sojourn of the last few years.
This second outing may not exactly be a party album but the man himself seems happy enough, striding around Warnersí Kensington offices greeting all and sundry and accompanied by a friendís dog, a beautiful white husky called Liaka. He is delighted that Trevor Horn has finally helped him deliver the album that he ďknew he had in himĒ but is cautiously apprehensive of its reception.
Q: Itís three and a half years since your debut album. What took you so long?
I moved to Los Angeles after Iíd finished the tour and the whole campaign for the first record. Iíd learned that I like great musicians, so I went in pursuit of all these people that have played on great records that I like. I moved my whole house there and I started working with a new producer.
Q: What about Trevor Horn?
I didnít want to do the second album with Trevor because I thought, Well, I want a new style. I try not to repeat myself in things that I do. Iím a typical Aquarian in that respect, always striving for something new. So I tried a couple of other producers but they just didnít work out at all. And a lot of money was spentÖ
Q: Your money?
Absolutely. All of my money and a lot of time. The first producer found it really difficult to harness me and I kept disappearing on trips to Mexico with my girlfriend of the time. She had a house in Mexico and weíd go there virtually every weekend. That was another thing ó I needed to experience a romance. Love. I realise now that I started recording too early because I needed to experience things first. I didnít really have anything to write about. I had the fame thing and how I was dealing with it but all. I could do then was document it. I wasnít having a particularly great time then and I couldnít really write an analysis of what I was going through or come up with a positive happy ending, which is important in my songs. I wasnít ready to be objective. Then lots of things started happening to me. I had a really heavy duty car crash in California. I nearly flew off a canyon on to a freeway a hundred feet below at peak hour. The car was completely written off and, miraculously, I walked away virtually unscathed. Then I got double pneumonia. The doctors said it was touch and go at one stage but I came out of that unscathed too, with no scarring on my lungs or anything. Then there was a shooting right in front of me on Sunset BoulevardÖ
Q: Sounds like you were too busy to write.
Most of the basic ideas on this new album were written or documented during this time but I couldnít finish them. Itís like Why People on the album. That song existed about a year and a half ago but the third and final verse was written about two months ago. And the third verse is the most conclusive. When I look at it in retrospect, the song doesnít exist without that third verse ó itís unresolved.
Q: When did you finally decide to reunite with Trevor Horn?
About a year ago. The album took about eight months. I was still singing on this album right up to the cut; I was still trying to perfect it or put on a new harmony. One time, I was going to the airport and I just turned round and came back to do more vocals. I was dragged screaming from this record and so was Trevor. It was probably the most important thing about the whole record.
Q: What was the problem with the other producers?
I am a difficult gig for a producer. Extremely difficult. As I write my own songs, I have an overall picture of how they should sound and that means youíre going to be in almost constant conflict with whichever producer you work with. Also, itís quite easy for me to sound bad because I maintain that Iím only as good as the things that are underneath me. If I have a good bed to sleep on, I sleep very well. I havenít mastered that art of just being brilliant every time. I could never be a session singer because I sink if the setting isnít right. Trevor is brilliant in lots of different ways. He knows how to manipulate me in order to get the best out of me.
Q: When and why did you shave your head?
It was in California just over a year ago. California was really hot ó too hot. I hadnít had a haircut in five years because of the dreadlocks. I was being liberated from all kinds of things and I thought that shaving my head would be part of that process.
Q: Did it work?
Yes. It made me feel that Iím not hiding behind the dreadlocks, I guess.
Q: Youíre naked on the cover of the new album. Why?
My whole approach to this record was one of openness. I thought the cover shot should be representative of the album, which is basically me being quite exposed and quite vulnerable but, in an ironic kind of way, stronger. About 80 to 90 per cent of the shoot was done nude and it was a liberating experience. That kind of extreme vulnerability has a reverse effect: it makes you strong.
Q: The pose on the cover looks like Atlas with the world on his shoulders and the songs sound like youíve really been through something. How much of that was your almost overnight success?
I guess I was the epitome of the phrase ďmeteoric successĒ. My kind of success was different because I had a hit record with something which wasnít immediately commercial in the pop sense. I took Crazy round to lots of record companies before Killer and although everybody really liked it, they wouldnít touch it. But if you manage to get a hit with a record like that, itís like youíve broken through with something which allows you so much room. You canít put it in a category. Seal wasnít the highest selling first album of any artist by any means, but people did suddenly know who I was.
Q: Did people start treating you very differently?
Yes. You basically get two types of people: people who are overtly nice and make all kinds of excuses to talk to you, and people who go out of their way to be nasty to you. Theyíd be, like, he obviously has lots of people hanging round him, so Iím not going to be one of them. In their striving not to be like that, theyíd be in complete denial of my existence. Thatís the most destabilising and most disorientating part of this whole fame trick. Thatís the thing that isolates you the most to begin with.
Q: So other people attitudes all seem to shift around you?
Thatís the thing that makes you judgemental and dismissive at first.
Q: Was there an actual low point when you felt absolutely lost?
There were lots of times like that, especially when I was on tour. There were times in that first year when I almost hit rock bottom, when I felt so isolated and so alone. Iíd always wanted to be successful because of the adoration I thought it would bring. I thought that success would help me find my partner, the woman I would end up with and live with happily ever after, because I would be loved by so many people that eventually Iíd find that person. I thought that the adoration would replace the attention that I sought from my father. I thought success or fame would bring me all these things.
Q: What did success actually bring?
It was completely the opposite of what Iíd imagined. If youíre a sensitive person, like myself, you very quickly realise that not everybodyís intentions are genuine. And, yes, you have more people around you, lots more people around you, but your space becomes much smaller. People come up to you constantly in the street and they treat you like youíre an alien. Success brings up all these insecurities and you find that you can get really lonely. Really lonely. Itís difficult to have a relationship. The very thing that you thought would bring you the woman of your dreams just loads you up with confusion. You find yourself paranoid, questioning everybodyís motives. It brought on a very bad period when I had lots of panic attacks.
Q: Is this physical panic?
Physical, full on, Oh my God Iím going to have a heart attack and Iím going to die. Hallucinations, complete and utter destabilisation. At one point I was rushed to hospitalÖ
Q: You said that one of the worst experiences was on tour. Why did the tour push you over the edge?
Touring is a very strange thing. Itís wonderful in the sense that you get to play to lots of different people but itís bad in the sense that youíre in a bubble. If you sneeze on tour, somebody is there with a handkerchief. Thatís bullshit. That will not happen to me this time around. This time Iím going to drive myself to a lot of the gigs. I will spend more time by myself. I donít want to be in that bubble because when you come off tour, you have to humanise yourself again.
Q: At Hammersmith Odeon on that tour, it seemed like youíd almost become a parody of a rock star.
It was like that. As far as I was concerned, Iíd just seen this skateboard, got on it, and then someone pushed me from behind and I was just hanging on for dear life. There were some unsolved equations that were in front of me at the beginning of my career. I knew lots of people like myself who have really good voices and wrote good songs ó how come they didnít have the chance; how come they hadnít been signed?
Q: It sounds like you felt worthless.
You do feel worthless because you canít trust it. But then, itís a chance. Itís a chance to address or confront things that you will ultimately have to confront somewhere along the line. You have to work out why you feel so undeserving. You have to start digging in the dirt and you have to start healing and you have to start saying to yourself, OK, I am worth it, I do deserve this. You donít have to feel worthless; you donít have to be too hard on yourself.
Q: You said earlier that your father never said ďwell doneĒ to you as a child. Why not?
He was a bitter person whoíd missed a lot of opportunities in life. I think he loved me but he was just incapable of showing it. He died 14 years ago and thatís the shame of it, really. We could never really work it out. I think his father before him was pretty much the same. Itís like a chain reaction and you can either follow in the footsteps of your parents or learn from it.
Q: Who helped you?
I had a therapist when I started having my anxiety attacks and my GP helped and other musicians and also I have a woman who does hands-on healing. She puts her hands on my chest and on the back of my neck and I go into a state of semi-consciousness where Iím completely aware of whatís happening but I feel weightless. When youíre successful people and things are constantly pulling you out of alignment and you have to constantly do things to keep yourself centred.
Q: How did you feel when you heard about Kurt Cobainís suicide?
Total anger. I found it very difficult to be compassionate. I realise he must have been in a lot of pain and he was younger than I was and his fame was much greater, but I canít condone suicide. But then, itís very dangerous for me to think otherwise. I have a huge problem with rejection and with abandonment because I was abandoned so many times as a child. I just feel sorry for their daughter. No matter how hard things are, thatís not part of the gig as far as Iím concerned.
Q: Did you ever think of walking away from it all?
Absolutely. But the way I see it is that Iíve been given an opportunity ó an extremely rare opportunity ó to voice both my problems and other peopleís problems. I just have a knack of doing it. Iím supposed to be making music, the type of music that acts as a kind of therapy to both myself and whoever listens or whoever gets touched by it. I finally realised thatís what my vocation is right now. Itís a gig like everybody else has their gig.