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America falls for Seals kiss

A triple-platinum album, three Grammy awards—now hes the best-selling British pop artist in the world. David Gritten meets our hottest musical export in his LA eyrie

FROM THE wooden deck of his house, perched high on a mountainside above Los Angeles, the singer-song-writer Seal can gaze upon the leafy glens and canyons below. It is quiet up here and the air is clean; on a hot, fiercely bright day like this, such a view can make a man feel the master of all he surveys.

Yet Seal might be forgiven for feeling this way for reasons quite unrelated to the location of high-priced real estate. In the last two years he has become Britains most successful pop music export; his second album has remained in the US charts all that time, and spawned a succession of hit singles, notably Kiss From a Rose. Last week he was named the worlds best-selling British artist at the World Music Awards in Monte Carlo.

Any doubts that he has become a major player in the eyes of the American music industry were brushed aside in February when he lifted three of its Grammy awards; Kiss From a Rose was voted both record and song of the year, and best male pop vocal performance.

He prevailed in these three categories over music industry titans such as Michael Jackson, Sting, Elton John and Mariah Carey. Seal is not just a new flavour of the month: he has arrived in America in a big way.

“It was a good feeling to win those Grammys,” he told me. “Everyone wants to crack the US nut, but its hard to make it in America, because theyve seen it all so many times over. So many things have to be in your favour.”

As it happens, Seal has many things in his favour, starting with a technically impeccable singing voice and the ability to write original, compelling songs in a wide stylistic range. Killer, the co-authored record which first brought him to fame in Britain in 1990, was aimed squarely at the dance music market; Crazy, his next big hit, was a swirling, high-sheen pop epic; Kiss From a Rose is a stately piece of English baroque in waltz time.

But he has also hooked up with a veteran American manager widely regarded as an industry heavyweight. Bob Cavello has been around for three decades, and is known as the man who groomed and managed Prince (until the star derailed his career, replacing his name with a symbol).

It also does not hurt that Seal is signed to the multi-national record company Warner Music: When its sister company, the film studio Warner Bros., was hunting down a title song for its blockbuster movie of last summer, Batman Forever, it was deemed a felicitous fit that one of its “own” artists could offer Kiss From a Rose. True, both Seal and the song received a huge boost from the association with the movie; but then only trusted, highly-regarded artists are ever the beneficiaries of such high-level corporate symbiosis.

Rebecca Mostow, a Cavello aide who handles Seals day-today affairs, drove me up the snaking sun-dappled canyon to his house in her black Jaguar XJS (yes, the American music biz is simply awash with money). She said Seals second album has already “shipped triple platinum” (sold three million copies, that is) and estimated his one night of exposure on national television when he received his Grammys, sang Kiss From a Rose and duetted with Annie Lennox on Marvin Gayes Whats Going On, will add 500,000 sales.

When you meet Seal you see why; he cuts a truly imposing figure. He is slim, 6ft 5ins tall, and he moves calmly with lithe grace. He has long forsaken the formidable dreadlocks from the early days of his fame and his head is shaved.

“The single most disorientating thing, is that its all happened so quickly,” he reflected. “It wasnt that I couldnt deal with change, just the rate at which it was occurring. I was a relative nobody one day—then I was the quintessential example of meteoric success. And it hasnt stopped yet.”

He has also known the problems of uprooting to a new country. He has visited Los Angeles on and off for five years, and now lives there almost permanently. “But Im very much English and Im reminded of it by living here,” he insisted. Indeed; Seal, who speaks volubly, can lapse into a mid-Atlantic drawl but betrays his London roots by dropping the “g” in words that end in “ing”, in the style of Trevor Brooking.

He finds America more foreign and different than he expected; “The thing is, they like a winner here. Sometimes thats tough to come to terms with, because I possess a certain English cynicism. Its my heritage, I cant get around it. But I wonder if that attitude to success isnt self-destructive.

“Look at their television ads in America: ‘Just do it. ‘Coke is it. ‘The real thing. Its all about presentation and success.” He sighed. “Having said that, its a great place to be, especially if youre trying to stoke the star-making machinery.”

Of course, he is stoking it to great effect. When I arrived at his eyrie, he was rehearsing with a guitarist for his own Unplugged show on MTV.

“Its hard to stay centred sometimes,” he admitted. “So I surround myself with people who constantly remind you of the truth. Bob Cavello does that. My best friend for 14 years, hes English, extremely cynical, and tells it like it is.

“And then I travel a lot. I think nothing of driving down to Mexico or up to the Canadian mountains. I find them humbling and I dont have to think about music or the industry.”

Given his childhood, it would be astonishing if Seal had taken fame in his stride. His parents separated when he was an infant and he lived with white foster parents in Romford. When he was four his mother, a Nigerian hospital worker, came and dragged him screaming to Brixton where she lived with her boyfriend. She fell ill and left for Nigeria; he moved in with his father, a Brazilian doctor who routinely whipped and punched him. Seal left home at 15, never to return.

For all this, he had visualised being a success since going on stage at his west London school to sing a Johnny Nash song at the age of 11. Yet fame eluded him; he could sing and write songs, but his music was hard to pigeonhole.

Brooding on his inability to land a record contract, he fell back on temporary jobs; for a spell he was a bike messenger.

“Then when I was 26 I went to Japan for what was supposed to be four days, with an acid-jazz band,” he recalled. “I ended up staying in Asia for a year, lived on a beach in Thailand which was paradise and came back to London feeling rejuvenated. Id stopped worrying about being successful—I liked myself for the first time.”

And wouldnt you know it, he bumped into this guy named Adamski, they recorded a song called Killer basically for fun, and-it-went, to number-one, becoming a big European hit.

Yet after Killer and Crazy, he could not handle fame: “I went through anxiety attacks and therapy. I was terribly lonely and afraid my life was changing. I was losing my privacy, my sense of self, just getting lost in this thing Id started.” Trouble seemed to dog him; he drove his car off a cliff in an accident, then contracted double pneumonia.

On turning 30 he resolved to relax and enjoy his career; now 33; he is grateful he attained celebrity only relatively late: “I know why young pop stars do drugs or go on spending sprees its to fill a void caused by a cancer called fame. I think of how I was eight or 10 years ago, and I couldnt have handled it. Id have lost myself. I almost lost myself as it was.”

But hes lost no longer. Not only is he a huge British success in America, he is one of the few black artists in the US music industry to appeal to a broad audience spectrum.

“True,” he said. “That part of my musical character, which initially prevented me from landing a contract, has turned out to be my salvation. At first, no one knew what to do with me—after all, how could you put a song like Crazy next to Kiss From a Rose? Yet now that ability to write different songs means I can cross a number of categories.”

He remembers composing Kiss From a Rose eight years ago: “I was living in a squat in Kensal Green, London, I didnt have a care in the world, I had no pressure on me. I wrote it as an experiment, out of boredom.”

Theres a lesson there, he thinks; he has formed a regular band and says his next album, to be recorded in London later this year, will be more raw and less calculating: “I found Id started to stand in my own way, editing my music before it has a chance to breathe. Now my focus has to be more directed at capturing the magic of it.”