Can Seal handle fame?
Or will success drive the British singer “Crazy”?
I am finding it difficult to be the kind of person I want to be,” says Seal, peering over a pair of wire-frame reading glasses. “I’ve been constantly surrounded by people from the record company saying ‘Hey, man! Your record’s fucking brilliant!’ It get me really annoyed. It’s not brilliant. It’s a good record. I’ll know when I’ve done something brilliant.”
Until now, everything about the day had been thoroughly mellow. A September rain shower blew away the Sealhenry Samuel—Henry to his friends—slept late, then rose in the early afternoon for an English breakfast of runny eggs and soggy beans. There’s little to do in bucolic Box, ninety minutes west of London, where Peter Gabriel has built Real World, a modern studio-complex-cum-spiritual-retreat on the site of an eighteenth-century water mill. Ducks and geese wander across cobblestone paths, brooks roll down meadows that disappear into the Wiltshire countryside. There are worse professions than being a pop star.
But Seal is discovering that the myth-making process of stardom twists personal relations. The video for “Crazy,” his breakthrough single, presents him as some kind of mysterious divinity, dramatically clothed in a white robe and black leather, shyly turning away from the camera and coddling a dove. Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that a fan recently confronted him in a restaurant and “basically lost her fucking mind” over the meaning of “Crazy.”
“That really freaked me out,” Seal says. “I wanted the money. I wanted to be a millionaire. But fame can be a pain in the ass. I can’t walk down the street with-out anybody giving me a second look. Mind you, that used to happen before,” he says, referring to the distinguishing scars on his face, as well as his six-foot-four-inch frame.
We’re sitting in the stone-walled attic bedroom of a cottage he’s sharing with his girlfriend, who resembles actress Uma Thurman. He’s lit a few sticks of jasmine incense, and as he picks at an acoustic guitar, he turns distractedly to stare at MTV, offering derisive opinions of Sisters of Mercy and Poison (“the worst band in the world”). Nearby, in a mobile studio, producer Trevor Horn is completing an EP of new Seal recordings. Seal’s best friend and personal assistant, Paul Ingh, brings him a cup of tea and a new pack of Embassy cigarettes. From his gaptoothed smile to his black-leather wardrobe, Ingh is like Seal’s white twin.
It’s this kind of mellow vibe that Seal finds difficult to maintain. Indeed, he understands why some rock stars turn into raging idiots. “Totally, man!” he says, raising his normally gentle voice. “I can really understand how people turn into assholes, because they’re constantly surrounded by people who are doing things for them. They learn to expect those things.” By his own admission, Seal sometimes falters in his struggle not to be an asshole: Once, he threw a tantrum in front of a reporter when the wrong type of sandwich was delivered to him (“I asked for smoked salmon, not smoked salmon and cream cheese”); another time, he answered an interviewer’s questions mostly with glares. Today, he’s been scrupulously polite, as though by saying “please” and “thank you” he could ward off any outbursts of moodiness.
As Seal strums his guitar, I ask whether he ever considered making an acoustic singer-songwriter record. “I did think of doing that at first,” he says. “But Trevor asked me how big my picture was. Did I wanna be a major recording star? Yeah, I wanted to. He said, ‘Well, this is what you have to do.’ You can’t come out with an acoustic album straightaway, because you won’t reach that many people.”
Horn is notorious for producing elaborate mechanical opuses like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” and Yes’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” He stopped doing interviews because his celebrity was upstaging that of his artists, but he’s agreed to talk about Seal.
“At the time,” says Horn, whose horned rims, charcoal wool jacket and neat, graying hair give him a professorial air, “Seal and the people around him were very interested in Chicago house music. I thought that was absurd, when you have that much talent. It’s limited—
So Seal’s album tempers the booming electronic of house with the sincere strum of a folk guitar. Seal sees “Crazy” as “just a standard song—
Horn took control of the album only after Seal tried—
Back in his cottage, Seal takes out a cassette of his new EP, which has been recorded in a rehearsal room during the last few days. “If you like heavy metal, you’ll like this,” he says proudly. He turns away and stares out a window as he debuts a song that owes a clear debt to another left-handed guitarist, Jimi Hendrix. In rehearsal, with a young four-piece band, Seal’s music has strayed from its electronic roots—
“I thought he looked a bit frightening,” says Horn, recalling his first meeting with Seal. “I thought he was gonna like all kinds of music I wasn’t gonna like. Then he told me he liked Crosby, Stills and Nash and Joni Mitchell. It was quite refreshing.” Nonetheless, he says, “we weren’t incredibly interested” in signing Seal to ZTT, Horn’s record label.
A few weeks later, “Killer”—
Most people in the U.S. didn’t hear Seal until “Crazy,” which he describes as “a summary of events in the latter part of 1989,” including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the squelched uprising in Tiananmen Square. “It was saying that things are changing all over the world, and we’ll never survive unless we are a little crazy, unless we trust our instincts,” Seal says.
Seal had little musical experience before “Killer.” His parents, who moved to London from Nigeria, split up soon after he was born. “In many ways, I had a rough childhood, which I don’t want to get into,” Seal says evenly. He lived with foster parents for a while and later with his father, who worked as a plumber and an interior decorator. Seal got a degree in architecture, designed leather clothes and also worked in electrical engineering. When times were tough, he put up advertisements for whores in London phone booths. That got him arrested.
“Man, I’ve been in some fucked-up situations before, heavy-duty, life-or-death situations where I’ve needed cash,” Seal says when explaining how he and Ingh became friends. For example? “Loads of things. Not really drugs or anything like that. What do the stockbrokers call it? ‘Transferring money.’ I found myself owing lots of money, and Paul stuck by me.”
He’d done only a few pub gigs with a band when a funk group called Push invited him to tour Japan as its singer. “I’d never been to that part of the equator before; Seal says. “It was right up my alley. Every day was a new experience.” He sang for his keep with a blues band in Thailand, then went to India and had “a few spiritual experiences.” The trip, he says, “made me realize that I could be happy with nothing. I could relax more. I’d been trying to get a record deal before I left. I stopped wanting so much, and then it all came.”
Seal doesn’t believe in accidents: Even the dark scars that first appeared under his eyes and on his nose about five years ago, the remnants of an allergic reaction, have a larger purpose. “I got really depressed about it at first, as you can understand,” he says. “Now I really like them.” He understands that fledgling pop stars need some type of visual trademark—
At this point, it’s impossible to foresee whether Seal will be a chapter or just a footnote in pop history. But recently, he found a role model for his career. “People have been saying that I sound like Peter Gabriel,” Seal says. “I’ve since looked into what he’s done, and I met him the other day. Yeah, he’s a little strange, but a really wonderful human being. It gave me a tremendous lift of hope. If I can still be nice when I’m his age, and manage to get through this whole thing without turning into an asshole, without being unnecessarily nasty to people, I will consider my life and my career a success.”