“Most people see a shrink when something weighs heavily. I write an album…” hmv.com talks to Seal
When Seal’s new album, 7, drops today (November 6th, you can preview and purchase it on the right-hand side of the page), people will once again be talking about the British soul/pop singer’s astonishing voice and powerful music rather than his high-wattage personal life. The new album makes the wait worthwhile.
As Seal tells it, 7 is about love in all its messy, marvellous and peculiar glory. He would know; his seemingly left-field split from model and TV presenter Heidi Klum in 2012 clearly devastated him. Those seeking clues about that relationship and Seal’s state of mind need look no further than album opener ‘Daylight Saving’ (which recalls smash hit ‘Kiss from a Rose’) or the unambiguously titled ‘The Big Love Has Died.’
Still, there is light amid the carnage. By Seal’s own estimation, longtime producer Trevor Horn coaxed career-best performances from the singer and his backing band, augmented by full orchestration on several tracks, including the above-mentioned ‘The Big Love Has Died,’ has never been more vibrant or cohesive.
In Toronto recently for a day of press, the disarmingly charming 52-year-old musician spoke at length with hmv.com about the advent of personal playlists and why creating a story arc is the key to crafting exceptional albums.
Any rituals before a new record comes out?
“Nah. I am glad to see the back of it to be honest (laughs). But I guess the first time you hear it on the radio, that’s always a nice moment. Not a ritual but something that always sticks in my head. It sounds like a record at that point.”
Can you give me an example of a song on this record that wrote itself versus one that was really hard to finish?
“To be honest, none of them wrote themselves. All of them required work, massaging. ‘Love’ and ‘Padded Cell’ were both tough. We went through a lot of different versions of ‘Padded Cell’ before we settled on the one that’s on the record.”
Sounds like it was fairly tough going…
“Yes. Take the song, ‘Love’ (the album’s spare, final track featuring Seal’s voice and piano). That song drove me nuts. It started off as a rock power ballad with screaming guitars. At one point it morphed into this Kate Bush thing a la ‘Running Up That Hill.’ Then there was a beatbox version of it. We had the song but couldn’t make the record. Trevor sent ‘Love’ over to keyboard player Jamie Muhoberac who’s worked with me since the first album to see what he could come up with. He and I managed to hammer that out doing downtime. And that was it! Piano and voice. But getting there took forever.”
One thing that really struck me about this record was the range of moods, from vintage Seal (‘Daylight Saving’) to vaguely industrial (‘Padded Cell’). Was there an attempt to present these songs in a way that could be consumed piecemeal?
“Mmm. It’s interesting you say ‘Daylight Saving’ is a classic vintage Seal sound. Before you can start a record, you need a cornerstone song. Trevor said that when he heard that song he felt like we had a record. I have always viewed records like a book or a movie: there has to be an arc, some kind of event at the beginning of a record that draws people in and justifies their time investment. In the middle you can be more diverse because you began with that hook. But then there has to be a very specific finale that will leave people wanting to listen to the songs again.
“So making this record, did I take into consideration this new paradigm of people making their own playlists and not necessarily listening to entire albums? The short answer is no. Albums like Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, Joni Mitchell's Hejira, CSNY I consumed in their entirety. That’s what switched me from wanting to be just a singer to wanting to be a recording artist. And they provided relief from my reality. Whenever I wanted to escape, I’d put on this phenomenal, tactile, visceral 60-minute thing. And the arc of those albums is what allowed them to transport me. That’s what I am going for – always - in every record Trevor and I have made.”
So I am guessing the song sequencing process for your albums is pretty involved?
“It drives me absolutely nuts! We experimented starting the album with different songs but it just didn’t work. It just didn’t tell the story or achieve the arc the same way ‘Daylight Saving’ did. And what was is it about that song? It’s like when I used to go into listening booths in record stores and try out albums based on a hunch or maybe the album artwork. If the first song didn’t get me, I might go to the second or third song – I was a cheap date who used to drop hundreds on albums – but that first song was essential to grabbing my attention. That acapella intro on ‘Daylight Saving’ is familiar to those who already know me, and interesting enough to hook those who don’t.”
If you had to put something from your catalogue in a time capsule to show people 200 years from now what this Seal fellow was all about, which would it be?
“So difficult to answer. My best-known song, ‘Kiss from a Rose’ is on my second album. But I have fondest memories of making the first album and making this one. But if I had to pick one, I’d pick this one. As a recording artist - and as a dad and an ex-husband and a friend – I feel that this record has all of that DNA in it. Look at a song like ‘The Big Love Has Died.’ And it’s some of Trevor’s finest work. He poured blood and sweat and two years into this. My voice is better showcased. You’ve got me speaking like a fan but I am such a fan of the musicianship on this record. My name is on the record but it belongs to many, many people. From start to finish. And I know how committed I was to this.”
Sales notwithstanding, it sounds like this record is already a success for you.
“From your mouth to God’s ears. People ask me if I am nervous before new records. The answer is sometimes but only when I haven’t achieved the following: telling the truth to the best of my ability; committing until there was nothing left; and not compromising. I have compromised in the past – not whole records, but there have been bits where I said ‘That’s good enough.’ There have been degrees of truth. Writing music is the cathartic. Most people who see a shrink when something weighs heavily. I write an album.
“The caveat is: the weight only lifts when you tell the truth. Otherwise you will forever be tethered to that pain. Is this my best record? Well that’s subjective. But I do feel it’s the most consistent record I’ve made. And I do feel that in years to come, I’ll be able to hold my head up. I sang my ass off. And it’s the first record I’ve been able to listen to immediately after finishing. So yes, artistically it’s a success. There is a real sense of achievement.