It’s a bitch
Panic attacks, double pneumonia, feeling “worthless”, driving off a cliff in California … 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 soul’s 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.
He’d already provided the voice for Adamski’s pop-dance smash, Killer, and then introduced himself with Crazy, one of those rare, heartfelt anthems that strikes a universal chord. Seal’s 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 —
But then Seal disappeared, finally popping up some two years later at this year’s 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 “the essence of Seal” 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 Warners’ Kensington offices greeting all and sundry and accompanied by a friend’s dog, a beautiful white husky called Liaka. He is delighted that Trevor Horn has finally helped him deliver the album that he “knew he had in him” but is cautiously apprehensive of its reception.
Q: It’s three and a half years since your debut album. What took you so long?
I moved to Los Angeles after I’d finished the tour and the whole campaign for the first record. I’d 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 didn’t 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. I’m a typical Aquarian in that respect, always striving for something new. So I tried a couple of other producers but they just didn’t work out at all.
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 we’d go there virtually every weekend. That was another thing —
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 couldn’t finish them. It’s 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 doesn’t exist without that third verse —
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 you’re going to be in almost constant conflict with whichever producer you work with. Also, it’s quite easy for me to sound bad because I maintain that I’m only as good as the things that are underneath me. If I have a good bed to sleep on, I sleep very well. I haven’t mastered that art of just being brilliant every time. I could never be a session singer because I sink if the setting isn’t 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 —
Q: Did it work?
Yes. It made me feel that I’m not hiding behind the dreadlocks, I guess.
Q: You’re 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.Continue »
Q: The pose on the cover looks like Atlas with the world on his shoulders and the songs sound like you’ve really been through something. How much of that was your almost overnight success?
I guess I was the epitome of the phrase “meteoric success”. My kind of success was different because I had a hit record with something which wasn’t immediately commercial in the pop sense. I took Crazy round to lots of record companies before Killer and although everybody really liked it, they wouldn’t touch it. But if you manage to get a hit with a record like that, it’s like you’ve broken through with something which allows you so much room. You can’t put it in a category. Seal wasn’t 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. They’d be, like, he obviously has lots of people hanging round him, so I’m not going to be one of them. In their striving not to be like that, they’d be in complete denial of my existence. That’s the most destabilising and most disorientating part of this whole fame trick. That’s the thing that isolates you the most to begin with.
Q: So other people attitudes all seem to shift around you?
That’s 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. I’d 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 I’d 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 I’d imagined. If you’re a sensitive person, like myself, you very quickly realise that not everybody’s 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 you’re an alien. Success brings up all these insecurities and you find that you can get really lonely. Really lonely. It’s 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 everybody’s 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 I’m going to have a heart attack and I’m going to die. Hallucinations, complete and utter destabilisation. At one point I was rushed to hospital …
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. It’s wonderful in the sense that you get to play to lots of different people but it’s bad in the sense that you’re in a bubble. If you sneeze on tour, somebody is there with a handkerchief. That’s bullshit. That will not happen to me this time around. This time I’m going to drive myself to a lot of the gigs. I will spend more time by myself. I don’t 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 you’d almost become a parody of a rock star.
It was like that. Continue »
Q: It sounds like you felt worthless.
You do feel worthless because you can’t trust it. But then, it’s a chance. It’s 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 don’t have to feel worthless; you don’t have to be too hard on yourself.
Q: You said earlier that your father never said “well done” to you as a child. Why not?
He was a bitter person who’d 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 that’s the shame of it, really. We could never really work it out. I think his father before him was pretty much the same. It’s 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 I’m completely aware of what’s happening but I feel weightless. When you’re 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 Cobain’s 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 can’t condone suicide. But then, it’s 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, that’s not part of the gig as far as I’m concerned.
Q: Did you ever think of walking away from it all?
Absolutely. But the way I see it is that I’ve been given an opportunity —