Title: A hard journey home
Author: Art McCulloch
A HARD JOURNEY HOME
Three years ago Seal was the name on every DJ’s lips — he was scarred, dreadlocked, streetwise and ultra-cool. Then, as quickly as the singer had arrived, he vanished. But why?
Art McCulloch reports.
Photographs by Nick Knight
You will remember Seal. He was the 6ft 5in, dreadlocked, tightly leather-clad Nigerian who, from virtually nowhere (or more precisely a squat in north London) hijacked the British pop charts three years ago. His two number ones, Killer and Crazy, had more radio play than almost any other records in the last five years. He also received more critical acclaim than even the most vain pop star could handle. “The British Prince” was, to quote one example, the kind of adulation that helped Seal sell over three million albums worldwide.
The tabloids fell over themselves, too. They were besotted by his looks — his face, even in the publicity shots, was heavily scarred, the remnants of Lupus disease, caused by an imbalance in hormones. He was spotted dining in the Upper West Side of New York with Madonna. George Michael, the Marco Pierre White of pop, borrowed Killer for his last tour, and even recorded it. Seal, it seemed, had more than arrived. He possessed a crucial combination of the credible and the commercial — something which seemed to promise him artistic longevity in the most fickle industry in the world. And, then, overnight, he disappeared. Just like that. One minute he was here, the next he was gone.
Was he unable to cope with stardom, or was he just suffering from Second Album Syndrome, unable to complete any new material? The answer is neither. The man sitting opposite me, pouring limbs out of a vast opera couch in the west London barn-style mews house where he has lived for the past three years, offers his own explanation as to why he removed himself from the limelight.
“The first album was a collection of songs which were an account of my first 26 years in the world,” he says. “So they were real. At least, they were real to me and, from what I gather, they sort of touched other people, too. But I have only had two years to write this album and it becomes more difficult to maintain the depth and honesty you need. I guess that’s why a lot of people have trouble with their second record.” He would guess right.
That record - casually and rather pretentiously entitled Seal, just like his first album - is released tomorrow and will surprise many, being far folkier than you expect most modern chart pop to be. The singer acknowledges that he has not delivered what many of his die-hard fans might have expected, but is arrogant enough not to care. “I know there are a lot of people out there who just want to hear some material from me, any material. But there is also a section of my fans who will judge the album on the basis of the first single I put out. That’s my dilemma. There are 10 tracks on the album and they are all potential second singles. There are also three or four cracking first singles on the album but I still don’t know what they are. And a lot of people are tired of waiting. They just want to hear my voice.”
But it is not just Seal’s music that has changed, gone are the dreadlocks that were his calling card. This Samson-like moment came in Los Angeles last year. “It was a liberating experience at a place called Razor’s Edge in Hollywood. Five years to grow it, 15 minutes to shed it. The end of a phase in my career,” he says.
The crucial phase of his new career is his new single, A Prayer For The Dying. Already getting radio play, it is destined by the sheer momentum of Seal’s fame to be a hit. Certainly, it allows his remarkable voice to shine. What it is not, however, is another Killer. But why not?
“I didn’t want to release a Killer or a Crazy for my return single. Quite simply, I haven’t got one - but whatever I release from now on will be good enough to compete with anything out there, Take That, whatever.”
Part of Seal’s charm — and he does have charm — is his sense of confidence, coupled with an eagerness to be accepted. He bridles at comparisons with Terence Trent D’Arby and Lenny Kravitz, who could both be said to be operating in the same area.
“Neither one of them mean anything to me. I give them due respect, especially Lenny, because he sells records and I think he’s talented. But what he stands for doesn’t really excite me. I’m just not convinced that he means what he does, and the same applies to Terence.” He stops, and thinks for a moment. It is not a subject he particularly wishes to address. But Seal ends with one final, shrugging verdict: “I don’t believe they are for real and I just don’t get any of it. That’s the first time I’ve been as blunt as that, but it’s the way I feel and I’m sick and tired of skating around the answers.” So there.
Seal is enormously proud of his success, of having come so far. His father, who died a few years ago, was a Brazilian doctor; his mother is a Nigerian former hospital worker. His parents separated when he was very young and, like many in that situation, Seal lost contact with his father. He is honest enough to admit that, however much he may have felt bitter towards the man who left him and his mother behind, one of his greatest and most enduring regrets, he says, is that his father did not live long enough to witness his ascent to the top.
The process of creating the second album sounds typically arduous. He went through two producers in America, but suffered the angst and frustration of not believing they understood what he wanted Seal faced one of the most difficult decisions of his career: he had the songs, he knew what he wanted to do, but he had yet to choose the man, or woman, who could help make that vision real. The clock was ticking.
In the end he returned to Britain, and into the arms of Trevor Horn, the record producer who worked on Seal’s first album and who is also noted for creating the monumental sound of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. “Working with Trevor again makes it all worthwhile,” says Seal. “He’s a brilliant man and a brilliant producer.” The two men are more than close: he calls Horn “Uncle Trevor”, while Horn’s wife is “Aunt Jill”.
Though this record will undoubtedly be a hit in Britain, the plan this time round is to conquer North America, a country he only nibbled at with the last album. He is being managed there by Bob Cuvallo, the man who runs Prince, while his public relations agent is the grande dame of West Coast PRs, the formidable Liz Rosenberg, who is almost as famous as Madonna, one of her other clients.
Again, Seal is honest about his ambitions. “The reason there are more ballads on this album than the last is because I want some of the Simply Red market. That is where I see myself making a mark this time round I know what I need to do to break America. It was very flattering to sell three million copies last time, but I’m talking more than that now, nearer to ten million.” So there.
He has the requisite pop-star confidence, though he has managed not to flaunt the perks and the vanities of stardom. A clue to this refusal to turn into a cliché lies in the years he spent in London trying to make it. His home was a terraced squat in Kensal Rise, north London, and his friends were a drinking gang called The Chaps particularly appealing to Seal because of the number of women who were part of the group. The Chaps still know him as Henri, a shortened version of his real name, Sealhenri Samuels.
But the question remains: can he return to the commercial high ground? Is the arrogance really enough? “It’s a waiting game,” he says, not altogether convincingly. There has been a lot of a waiting in Seal’s career, both by him and, more recently, his fans. What just might tip the balance in his favour is his belief that this new record is almost like an old friend returning from a long trip abroad. His one problem is to make sure that home hasn’t changed too much.