Seal: ‘I don’t really see myself as a celebrity. My job is very simple’
The singer’s belief in creative thought challenges the laws of quantum physics, but he is powerless against an Irish accent
Aching sincerity: Seal was “always a pretty confident person” Photograph: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty
Seal at the Brit Awards in 1991. Photograph: Terry O’Neill/Getty Images
‘You’ve got Seal on the line for the next 20 minutes.”
“Brilliant,” I say.
“Brilliant,” says a familiar honeyed voice doing a bad Irish accent.
“Ha, I heard that. Seal?” (I feel a bit unsure about calling him Seal in real life. His name is Henry.)
“Brilliant,” he says again.
“Aw, now. You’re not allowed mock me,” I say.
“It’s a sign of affection,” he says.
Straight in with the charm.
Next month Seal’s new album, 7, will be released. It reunites him with Trevor Horn, the producer famous for his work with Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Grace Jones. Horn applied his golden touch to Seal’s first two albums, which featured the global hits Crazy and the Grammy Award-winning Kiss from a Rose. “Trevor and I are very close, and we’ve both in recent years had a lot of events happen. I think that the album, from a lyrical standpoint alone, is a reflection of both of us.”
The events have been well reported. Seal split from Heidi Klum, his supermodel wife, in 2012, after a high-profile seven-year marriage. (They regularly spoke about how they renewed their vows annually.) Klum sang on Seal’s last album, Commitment. The couple have four children and are often photographed together as a family.
In 2006 Horn’s wife, Jill, was accidentally shot by her son, who was target-shooting with an air rifle at the family home. A pellet hit her in the neck and severed an artery, causing irreversible brain damage. She spent more than three years in a coma, and was left without the ability to move or communicate. She died from cancer in 2014.
The new album was three years in the making. Writing it required “a kind of digestion period,” Seal says. “In order to write about things objectively I always feel there has to be a period of time between the events themselves and when you put pen to paper.”
Seal’s responses, although heartfelt, can be a little lofty and ambiguous, and at times they leave you feeling like Alice standing in front of the caterpillar. This album, for example, is an attempt “to capture all the dynamics of this incredible muse that has been sung about and written about historically: love. An album is like a chapter from a book,” he says. “Parts of that book are biographical and some are autobiographical. It’s not just about your life; it’s also about those close to you.”
“Seal’s not your normal, formula kind of songwriter,” Trevor Horn told the Guardian last year. “He doesn’t write the same old shit all the time. I can tell what’s going on in his life from what he writes.” I tell Seal this. “That’s nice of him to say that,” he says, sounding a little delighted.
Seal says it’s a misconception that he and Horn had fallen out. “Even when we haven’t been making records together we’re still very much in contact. He’s like an elder brother to me.”
Seal allows himself to be vulnerable in music, seeing it as a “kind of free therapy . . . sharing or offloading this burden”. Certainly, the songs on this album do not hide that intent, with titles such as The Big Love Has Died and Half a Heart. “It’s the only way I know how. It would be the same as if you and I were having a conversation. If we were going to get anywhere I would have to speak from the heart and not from some other place.”
He is dating Erica Packer, who was married to the Australian billionaire James Packer. Even when Seal is quieter musically, he frequently features in the tabloids. He says the attention has harmed his creativity; the focus is in the wrong place.
“There are very few words that I actually detest. One is ‘celebrity’ whenever it is applied to me, because I don’t really see myself as a celebrity. My job is very simple, or my life is simple. I am a musician and I make music, and one of two things happens: either people like it or they don’t.”
How does he reconcile that with his work as a judge on the Australian version of The Voice, in 2012 and 2013; it’s the type of show that musicians often deride as an exploitative, commercial machine?
“I liked this concept they had of blind auditions. This hearkens back to the days of the music industry when the A&R person would be sitting in an office listening to a bunch of tapes and actually not seeing anything.”
He did not take his role as mentor lightly. “I had this thing that I did during the blind auditions when I first addressed [the contestants]. I would hand out a piece of paper to each of them. Then I asked each of them, ‘Why are you here?’ Only two people gave me the answer I was looking for. When I opened up the piece of paper, I had written on the inside, ‘There can be nothing else.’ ”
Seal can speak with an aching sincerity that few people would allow themselves. “I think in order to succeed at anything you have to commit, you have to surrender to it. There can’t be a Plan B. It’s something I knew from the outset but nothing to do with music. It was to do with other things in my life when I was growing up; I realised the power of creative thought and manifestation. I realised that on a quantum level, that you could actually, if you believed something to be so strong enough, you would somehow blur the lines between what was real and what was not real.”
“And bring it about?” I ask.
“Yes – or maybe it already was about and you just let it happen.”
No sooner have we wandered into the realm of quantum physics than the record-company rep tells me my time is up.
Seal turns on the charm. “I’ll let you have a couple more questions: the sexy Irish accent gets us every time.”
He has a striking confidence in his musical ability given that his later work has not always been as well received as his early albums. “I was always a pretty confident person. I guess that comes from a real stiff upbringing,” he says.
He has spoken before about his strict, physically abusive father. “If you were picked on or ridiculed at school . . . there is that old adage that you can be backed into a corner so much that the only way out is through that which is backing you in.”
Now that we’ve navigated the interview without mentioning Klum, Seal relaxes and chats about another woman from his past.
“I used to have an Irish girlfriend at one time. She was a nutcase, gloriously so, but she was really good fun, but man, oh man, oh man.” He tells a story about her running drunk and barefoot through Chelsea after they’d had a disagreement. “I was afraid that she would hurt herself, so I got out of the car and tried to run after, and then I suddenly realised what it would look like. I got back in that car so quickly. Put it this way: our relationship was fun while it lasted.”
He roars with laughter at the memory as the rep makes it clear that it’s time for him to move on to the next interview. “I’ve never told anyone that story. Can you not put any female Irish journalists on the phone to me? See this is what you guys do: it’s the accent.”
7 will be released by Warner Bros on November 6th