We’ve Got A File On You: Seal

We’ve Got A File On You: Seal

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

Madonna. Sting. Adele. Beyoncé. Seal. Sealhenry Olusegun Olumide Adeola Samuel is one in a rarified class of musicians who became a household name minus a surname. In fact, it’s a little jarring to see “S. Samuel” pop up in the Zoom window where we are here to discuss the forthcoming deluxe edition of his 1991 self-titled debut album, arriving on Friday. Because Seal, to most of the world, is not so much a person as he is a pop cultural entity; he ought to exist in a dimension beyond mundane things like last names. Next you’ll be telling me that Seal has an EIN number and files his taxes.

Seal was not always such a mythical, mononym’d creature. More than 30 years ago, the London-born “Sealhenry” was milling around his hometown, singing in local clubs and bars. He performed in a funk project called Push and traveled around India and Asia, at times with bands and other times by himself. Upon his return to England, Seal began to collaborate with house DJ Adamski, and together they released Seal’s breakthrough song, “Killer,” which promptly went #1 in the UK. It also appeared on his self-titled debut, released via ZTT, the label of ’80s superproducer Trevor Horn, who produced it along with Seal’s next three albums.

Seal’s initial success in the UK soon crossed over to the US, where his 1994 sophomore album — also self-titled but casually referred to as Seal II — peaked at #15 and earned a Grammy nod for Album Of The Year. Though early singles like “Crazy,” “Killer,” and “Prayer For The Dying” all charted in America, nothing hit quite like the loins-stirring monster ballad “Kiss From A Rose.”

Catapulted to fame on the strength of the Batman Forever soundtrack (director Joel Schumacher placed it over the movie’s end credits), “Kiss From A Rose” topped the Hot 100 and won its singer three Grammys: Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance. It also gave us the immortal lyrics, “My power, my pleasure, my pain!!”

To date, Seal has released 10 albums, including 2017’s standards record (appropriately called Standards). He has also made countless TV and movie cameos; he recently appeared on The Masked Singer, among many other reality shows. Ahead of his anniversary deluxe edition, I sat down with the man, the myth, the legend, the Seal to look back at some of his career highlights, including befriending Joni Mitchell, kids thinking he was Batman in the ’90s, and eating an entire loaf of bread in front of Carly Rae Jepsen.

Seal Anniversary Deluxe Edition (2022)

What led to the decision to rework your debut, and what did you want to bring to it this time around?

SEAL: Well, that’s a great question. What led to it? A combination of things really. From a personal perspective, a reminder of where it was that I came from, of what it was about those records that I loved so much.

When I think of those records, I think less about how they sound because I don’t spend a lot of time listening to them. In fact, I could probably count the times on two hands that I’ve listened to those albums in their entirety. When you are recording a record, by the time you get to the end of it, the last thing I want to hear is that record. And then, of course, you go out and tour it.

What sticks in my mind is the collaborative process of making said records. Where was I? What was I going through at that period of my life? What did I value? Who did I value? Who were the wonderful people I was fortunate enough to meet? What impressions did they have on my life? What relationships was I in?

I am more in love and nostalgic about the process of making those records. Because I see that process as an allegory for life, the trials and tribulations alone, even when at times we think we’re so alone. We’re not. It’s a collaborative process. And so wanting to reissue those albums was to remind myself and to celebrate in that collaborative process.

Performing In Early Band Funk Band Push (1990)

Speaking of the collaborative process, I’d love to actually ask you about an early band that I saw you performed in.

SEAL: Uh-oh.

I read that you once performed in a funk band called Push.

SEAL: Oh yes. Very much so. I’d deny it in court though. So outside of this conversation, I will deny all … oh, I’m joking.

What did that early experience teach you at the time about musicianship and collaboration?

SEAL: It taught me a lot. It showed me that I love collaborating. I love being in front of the stage as opposed to 30 feet back from center stage. Even though it was scary, I loved being the focal point. It also gave me a lot of valuable experience. But also the importance of finding out who I was as an artist, finding my own signature, realizing that establishing oneself as an artist is a journey and not so much a destination. But a journey that we have to take nonetheless. If you are to really find your identity, you have to embark on that journey. And more often than not, it’s not something that happens overnight. You have to pretend to be other people to realize that what’s needed is that you have to find yourself.

Singing on Adamski’s Breakthrough Single “Killer” (1989)

What do you recall about your time working with Adamski and coming up in London’s late ’80s/early ’90s rave scene? How did that set you on your path to become the artist you are today?

SEAL: Well, it did a lot for me — as a person and also as an artist. It was a very experimental period, both musically and spiritually. It was a very exciting period. And it was just a fantastic time to be young and alive in Britain and in Europe, but particularly in Britain. It was full of great British “neck,” as I like to call it. Everyone was willing to have a go creatively, and most of us were so off our heads to allow barriers to get in the way of that.

That scene, that culture, I often liken it to standing at a bus stop and waiting for your bus to come around. You’re waiting for a while. Waiting, waiting. If you’re [having a] hard day’s work, you might be dozing off and not really paying attention — your bus might come around and you could miss it. Or you could be waiting, waiting, waiting patiently or impatiently, and you can see your bus in the distance and you’re not quite sure whether it’s your bus because you can’t see the numbers. But as it gets closer, you start to see, “Oh yeah, that’s it.” Then it finally arrives and you have the courage to hop on it and you’re off. The dance culture [of] summer of ’88 and ’89 – that’s what it meant to me.

I was right in the middle of this incredible explosion of creativity that had happened in England. It was amazing for many reasons, but it was still a vehicle for a songwriter to shine. Because it wasn’t mainstream, it was underground. And it was ours, created by us. We set the rules. There certainly were no corporate rules, but the rules were that there were almost no rules. There were a couple of things you had to abide by. But it was all about letting go. So you can imagine as a songwriter, the freedom that that afforded you.

Winning Big At The 1992 Brit Awards

When your career started to go mainstream, and you’re winning all of these awards, how did that sit with you as an artist, to go from such an anything-goes underground scene to a place that was probably more business and numbers-oriented?

SEAL: Really well. I loved it. One minute I was broke. The next minute I had money. What was there not to love? One minute, I was a nobody — except to the friends and close-knit people that I rolled with. The next minute, I was loved and revered by people all over Europe. What’s not to love? It was fantastic.

Now, of course there were trappings that came along with that, but that’s perhaps another conversation for another time. But really, the transition for me was a welcomed one, because I had always regarded myself as a recording artist and as a songwriter. And now I was able to fulfill my dream.

I’d always thought big as a kid. I’d always dreamt about my life that I have now. This was an opportunity to be seized, and now I could get on with it. My bus had finally come along. The bus that I knew would come along at one point, and now I was able to jump on it and boy, I was not going to let it go. I was in.

It was an interesting journey. Of course, all that glitters is not gold. And you get there and you realize there were certain things that you didn’t account for. I often compare it to getting on a skateboard for the first time that’s on a slight hill. And you’re on this scary thing, you’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t keep my balance. How am I going to stay upright?” And you’re hanging on for dear life. But then you realize, “If I just stay centered; if I look to my left and lean to my left, then the skateboard turns left. If I look to my right, oh, I know how this works.” And now you begin to roll with it.

I want to go back to something you said about the Brit Awards. You’ve got to look at it from the perspective of a kid that always dreamed about “success.” I always dreamed about how it would be and how I would prove all the doubters wrong. All the doubters at school that said I would be useless. And the voices that you hear, the doctrines of those voices that tell you that you are no good, and that you will amount to nothing, and you would just end up either in jail or dead. Because you had difficulty academically. All those naysayers. There was one teacher, Mr. Ren, who I idolized and loved, and he believed in me, and he saw me, and he was my biggest shepherd that set me on my path. But: another conversation for another time.

Having now received five Brit Awards, more than any solo artist ever in British music since they started issuing those awards, I was so excited. This took place I think on a Sunday. On Monday, I was so excited to go and buy the newspapers. I got all of the papers, and nowhere were there any pictures of me. There were mentions that I’d won this many [awards], but I remember Lisa Stansfield won that year and she got two. There were big pictures of her everywhere. And the Evening Standard was the one paper that had a picture of me holding my five Brit Awards. Everyone else had written an article, but there were no pictures. It was all of Lisa Stansfield.

And I remember that was one of the best things that ever happened to me, because I made a very conscious decision that day. It’s as clear to me today as it was then. I realized that in England, we build you up to knock you down — or we used to. It’s short lived. I said to myself, “Seal, if you have any chance whatsoever of longevity in this profession, if you’ve any chance whatsoever of staying on this bus, you have to do one thing and one thing only. You have to crack America. You have to go to America and you have to be successful there. Because there, they will love you forever.” And that was the difference.

Performing With Queen At The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert (1992)

What were your impressions of performing with Queen one year after Freddie Mercury’s passing? What did that mean to you?

SEAL: [It was] one of the highlights of my career. So many good memories from that. Brian [May] asked me to do it. He said he was a fan and he asked me to do it. I’d been a huge fan of Queen’s. I said, “Yeah, I’d love to do it, Brian. And I’m honored that you’re asking me. Can I pick a song?” And he said, “Yeah, anything.” I said, “Can I sing “Who Wants To Live Forever”? He said, “I couldn’t think of [a more] perfect song.” And so I loved that song. I loved the movie [Highlander], but I loved that song. It just touched me unlike anything I’d heard before.

Here’s a funny story in keeping with the tone of this interview. It was sort of funny and sort of funny-sad at the same time. A few years ago, I was watching a video online of the late George Michael. It was just after he had died. We were watching the video of him singing “Somebody To Love,” the Queen song. And I went, “Hang on a second. This was familiar to me.” And then sure enough, as the video went on, I see these two figures in the background watching this rehearsal performance of George Michael. These two figures smoking a cigarette, watching, and nodding their heads, talking to each other about how great this performance was — it’s Bowie and I, in the background, just smoking a fag, looking at George do his thing. Singing the pants off that song.

I remember showing it to someone and they said, “Well, two out of three recognizable people in this video are no longer with us. That’s Bowie and George Michael. Maybe don’t get on a plane or do anything like that for the next few weeks.” So it was kind of a bittersweet memory. I also idolized George, who I had a tremendous amount of respect for, especially when he covered “Killer.” I thought that was a real courageous thing to do.

Accepting A Grammy From Joni Mitchell (1996)

You did eventually crack America. What did it mean to you to receive a Grammy from Joni Mitchell in the mid-’90s, who you’ve said is a musical hero of yours? You also played at her 75th birthday celebration in 2019. I take it you’ve stayed in touch?

SEAL: First of all, it meant everything to me. If it had all stopped at that point, I probably would’ve been satisfied at the time. The fact that somebody who I thought so much of as a teacher, as a songwriter, as a poet, as a human being, to have her presenting the award for me as a songwriter was validation. It was acceptance, it was relief, it was joy. It was everything.

Yes, we are still friends to this day. Yes. I worship the ground she walks on. She will always be it for me. I’ve had many great memories sitting with her and going over songs and listening to her stories, telling me about the day that she and Graham Nash were an item. The time when he bought her a vase and she went and put flowers in it, and that was the basis of [Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s] “Our House.” She showed me the cupboard in her house and showed me the vase that he bought her that time. She still has it.

Placing “Kiss From A Rose” On The Batman Forever Soundtrack (1995)

My first Seal memories, given my age, are extremely tied to “Kiss From A Rose” and the Batman Forever soundtrack. No joke, my favorite U2 song to this day is “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me.” What do you remember about how your song ended up in the film, and when you filmed its second music video, were you actually standing in front of the Bat-Signal prop? Or was it a green screen?

SEAL: One of my favorite questions. “Kiss From A Rose” was the fourth single from the second album. It wasn’t written for the movie, unfortunately. And I say unfortunately, because that made it ineligible for an Oscar. Because it has to be written specifically for the soundtrack. I think they changed the rules now.

But in any case, it was the fourth single from that album. It was released as a single, went into the charts at #63, dropped to 80-something the next week. It was out, done, over. I was already in the studio making the third album. Got a phone call from Joel Schumacher, the director of Batman Forever. He said, “Listen, I’m making this movie. I need a song for a love theme between Nicole Kidman and Val Kilmer. Do you have anything?” I said, “No, I don’t,” because I’d finished promoting my second album. I’m in the studio making my third. Bob Cavallo, who was my manager at the time, sent Joel Schumacher a copy of my second album with an asterisk next to “Kiss From A Rose.” And he said, “Joel, listen to this song.” Joel Schumacher calls back the next day: “Oh, I temped the song in the scene. It’s completely wrong. It doesn’t fit. But you know what, I just love this song so much. I’m going to stick it on the end credits.”

Four Grammys and eight million albums later, we always knew. We didn’t remix the song. We didn’t recut it. The only difference was, however big the promotional vehicle of a record is compared to a juggernaut of a movie, the millions spent promoting a movie, they pale by comparison. What was the difference? The last thing that people heard when they went to see that movie, Batman Forever. As they were leaving the theater, they heard, [sings]: “Baby!”

Then Joel Schumacher, God rest his soul, says, “You know what? MTV wouldn’t play the first video.” There were two videos for “Kiss From A Rose.” The first video was me releasing it as a solo artist. And it was a terrible video. Actually, that’s unfair. It wasn’t that terrible. But it wasn’t that great. MTV wouldn’t play it because they didn’t like the song [because it didn’t chart well]. Usual corporate bullshit. God rest Joel’s soul. Love that man. So much of my career, I owe to Joel Schumacher. He said, “Look, I’ll make a video for you. Come down to the Paramount lot. I’m not going to charge you anything. It’s all in the spirit of the movie. It’s all for the greater good.” I don’t have any fee. This is a big-time director who sticks me in front of the Bat light — the Bat-Signal. Shoots me, has me performing the song, puts a wind machine on me. And he intercuts it with scenes from the movie. And now MTV has to play it. They have to play the song.

Meanwhile, the movie’s doing okay. [But the] song is going through the roof. Same song! Didn’t re-edit the song, didn’t remix it, didn’t recut it, didn’t sing the vocals again. The same song that went into the charts at # 63, died, and dropped to # 80 the first time ‘round. It would’ve been long forgotten. Joel Schumacher is the one that brought that song to the world.

I learned so much from that experience. Anyone who tells you they know what a hit record is, is full of it. No one knows otherwise. We’d be making them all day, every day.

And you did actually get to stand in front of the Bat-Signal.

SEAL: Oh, yeah. Well, I wasn’t going to do it otherwise. Check this out: When I would see mothers with their kids, they used to think I was Batman. In fact, people wouldn’t even say “Kiss From A Rose,” they would say “The Batman Song.”

Shelving The Unreleased Fourth Album Togetherland (1999)

Your fourth album Togetherland was famously never released, and in 2010 you tweeted that it “will NEVER see the light of day whilst there’s blood in my veins.” What about that project never felt right to release?

SEAL: It just wasn’t very good. I mean, I could come up with a million excuses, but it just amounts to the same. It’s not a record. It’s a collection of interesting ideas, but it’s not a record. A record is, as I’ve said many times, something completely different. The art of record-making is almost a forgotten one. A record has to, in my opinion, be like a good book or a good movie with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning being essential in that it has to justify your attention for the duration, for the next 45 minutes, for the next hour and 20 minutes. There has to be a reason for you to invest your valuable time and attention.

There has to be acts of a play. There has to be tragedy. There has to be triumph, there has to be the unknown, there has to be curiosity. All of those things go into making great records. I at least aspire to make really good ones. They have to be. And Togetherland was never a good record. It was barely a good collection of songs. They were just interesting ideas, which for the most part, were unfocused.

Getting Mauled By A Wolf In Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

There are a few comedies where you play yourself with a dose of self-deprecating humor. What’s your view on poking fun at yourself?

SEAL: I think that any opportunity that we get to make fools of ourselves, to not take ourselves so seriously, to be childlike — those are opportunities that I’ve learned to treasure. They’re really valuable opportunities if we can recognize them and take them. I think it’s really important to laugh at yourself to not take yourself too seriously. And so that’s why I do them: because I just think it’s funny.

Look, we make music. We’re not saving lives. Yeah, we’re contributing to the world. But we’re not performing open-heart surgery. We’re not treating cancer. We’re not trying to come up with a cure for that. We make music. Smokey [Robinson] once said to me, “We’re not the first person. We won’t be the last. It’s entertainment. So don’t take it too seriously.” Yes, it’s beautiful. And yes, it’s given me so much joy. But whenever the opportunity presents itself, laugh at yourself. And laugh from your guts. Laugh from your belly. And do stupid things.

Singing “Crazy” With Kevin Hart In Me Time (2022)

On a similar note, you very recently sang “Crazy” with Kevin Hart in Me Time, which also starred Mark Wahlberg. Had you met them before, and is Kevin a big fan of yours?

SEAL: I hadn’t met Kevin Hart before, but I’d met Mark Wahlberg before. But I got the chance to hang out with Kevin — he’s always making fun of me. In his standup, he tells these colorful stories of how we were on this vacation in Aspen, and how I took the place of his [ski] instructor. It’s all bullshit. That’s actually not what happened at all. He was with his family, and I was trying to get his attention, and he was ignoring me. But he’s funny. And then he says how I swooped down on my snowboard and saved his kid. It’s so funny, but that is not what happened. Oh, dear.

Anyway, I got to hang out with him. Yeah, he’s great. I love him. I love all the success he’s having. It couldn’t happen to a nice and more hardworking person.

Well, you do have a larger-than-life quality to you. I can see you as a superhero.

SEAL: Maybe it’s because when you were a child you thought I was Batman.

Eating An Entire Loaf Of Bread In Front Of Carly Rae Jepsen (2019)

Carly Rae Jepsen has a great story about taking a private jet with you and Michael Bolton and watching you eat an entire loaf of gluten-free bread one slice at a time. Any comments on the matter? Can I get your overall take on carbs?

SEAL: Yes. I do recall that happening. And [Jepsen] was so sweet and so lovely. And first of all, I was even amazed that she knew who I was. That was the first thing. And secondly, with carbs, I love carbs. Love them. Here’s the key, so I’d eat the bulk of them before 12 o’clock. Eat plenty of them and eat them early. Do not go anywhere near them, certainly not after three.

Can I ask… Is plain bread a go-to snack of yours? A Seal Snack?

SEAL: Oh, are you kidding? Listen, if you take me out for dinner, promise me a gourmet meal, and put a loaf of bread and a stick of butter in front of me, that will constitute as one of the best meals I’ve ever had. I’m cheap. Well, I’m not cheap actually. That’s a complete and utter lie. I’m a cheap date. But I come from very modest backgrounds. It doesn’t take a lot to keep me happy. As long as the company’s great.

Seal (Deluxe Edition) is out 11/4 on Rhino.

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