‘What is the cost of basically being allowed to sing your biography?’ asks Seal in the press notes that accompany his new album. ‘Well, you have to tell the truth.’
And the truth, it seems, is as painful as you’d expect from a record written in the aftermath of the singer’s divorce from the model Heidi Klum after seven years of marriage. ‘It’s cold at night when I lie in bed,’ he sings on the Peter Gabriel-ish opener, Daylight Saving. ‘I’m not big enough to warm the space beside that you left me.’ On Half a Heart, he states, ‘You took a piece of me when you left,’ while another track is called, simply, The Big Love Has Died.
You could be forgiven for thinking, then, that 7 (as he has, somewhat confusingly, titled his ninth long-player) is Seal’s ‘break-up album’, in the fine tradition of such heartsick classics as Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear and Adele’s 21. But when Weekend meets him in a Soho hotel, the 52-year-old is – initially, at least – at pains to distance himself from such notions.
‘There is this kind of misconception that every album one makes is autobiographical,’ he says. ‘And that may be partially true, but this record is also biographical.’ He talks about Trevor Horn, the album’s producer and Seal’s long-time mentor, whose wife Jill died last year, having spent eight years in a near-coma after a shooting accident. ‘Trevor and I are very, very close, and both of our lives have been very eventful over the last few years, so there’s probably as much of him in the record. And not just us: as a writer, you write about things that you see, that other people are going through, and life in general.’
So it’s not a break-up album?
‘No, it’s not a break-up album. It’s an album that addresses the oldest muse in history, which is love.
‘If anyone’s vaguely interested in what’s actually going on inside my heart and my head, they can listen to the music and draw their own conclusions,’ he adds. ‘But in terms of my personal life… I’m quite a private person, and also I have responsibility because I’m a parent, you know?’
All of which Weekend takes to mean: these songs may well be about my life, but I’d rather sing about it than talk about it.
Born in London to a Nigerian mother and Brazilian father, Seal Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel was placed with foster parents for the first four years of his life, before being returned to his family. Aged 17, he left home to escape his physically abusive father, sleeping rough and living in squats while studying architecture. He fronted various blues and funk bands before meeting the dance producer Adamski, who invited him to sing on his huge 1990 hit Killer. His distinctive vocals caught the attention of Trevor Horn, who signed him to his ZTT label and produced his self-titled debut album, which spawned the worldwide hit Crazy and earned Seal a record-breaking hat-trick of BRITS.
Follow-up Seal II was also well received, but when A Kiss From a Rose, the album’s modestly successful third single, was remixed for the soundtrack to the film Batman Forever, Seal suddenly found himself a major star in America, netting Grammy Awards for Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Best Vocal Performance. By his mid-40s, with 30 million album sales, a supermodel wife and a Beverly Hills mansion – not to mention performing for Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House – he’d gone from sleeping on the streets of London to living the American dream: not a bad result on the back of a track he’d put off recording because he didn’t think it was up to scratch.
‘I never thought it was a great song,’ he admits. ‘Trevor was the one who turned it into a great record. I can’t overestimate how brilliant he is when it comes to, not just producing, but shaping someone’s career. He’s got this amazing ability to just kind of find it.’
Given Seal’s own difficult start, it’s tempting to see Horn as a father figure. ‘I’d say he’s been more of an elder brother – he’s not that much older than me,’ he smiles. ‘He’s amazing, very special. But I guess so, yes,’ he adds, as if suddenly struck by the thought. ‘A little bit of a father figure, especially early on in my career.’
Seal met Klum in 2004, when she was pregnant from her recent relationship with Formula One team boss Flavio Briatore. When she gave birth to a daughter, Leni, Seal was at her side. He later adopted Leni, and he and Klum went on to have three more children, Henry, Johan and Lou.
On Love, 7’s sparse, emotionally raw closing track, Seal – who is currently dating model Erica Packer – sings how ‘love picks you up, love sets you free’. Its redemptive message appears to be that, while love will break you, only love will remake you. When Weekend points this out, it appears to trigger something of a change of heart for the singer.
‘You’ve obviously listened to the album,’ he says. ‘You know, I don’t mean to sound closed off or avoid your answers, but… It’s a funny one, this record. Because the true answer is that every record you’ve made is personal. Of course it’s personal. There’s that old adage, to sing the blues you have to pay your dues. Well I sing about things that I’ve been through, things that have happened to me, and to others. But it’s not about “woe is me”, because what I’ve been going through is the same as what everyone else goes through.
‘So yes, it’s always personal, and it’s always an insight into what’s going on in my life, but we all go through this rollercoaster of emotions with this crazy thing called love that we still don’t understand. We know that trying to trap it is like trying to hold water in your hand – it’s impossible. But you try to do all the right things and make the right bed and, with a little bit of luck, it hangs around.
‘So this is me saying that, in spite of all the stuff that we all go through: the highs, the lows, the anger, the regrets, the forgiveness, the neurosis of it all – and you can come out the other end of it feeling pretty beat up, as perhaps I was – in spite of all that, my feeling and faith in love is stronger than it’s ever been. Because I believe at the very core of who we are, is love.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, January 21, 2016
(c) Waitrose Weekend