On His Latest Album, Pop Singer Seal Taps Into His Love of Big Band Music

click to enlarge On His Latest Album, Pop Singer Seal Taps Into His Love of Big Band Music
Jooney Woodward
Best known as a singer-songwriter with a tender, soulful voice, Seal shows off his sense of humor in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, the satirical comedy from the comedy troupe the Lonely Island. Angry wolves chase after him in one scene, and one even grabs hold of his arm as he struggles to escape.

“It was fun,” he says of the experience as he speaks via phone from Aspen, where he is vacationing. “It’s not something you do every day. Those guys are great fun to work with. Any opportunity you get to laugh at yourself is one that you treasure. When I was wrestling with the wolf, I’m not sure what it was. It was a beast of some sort. I had to wear a protective body suit underneath the suit that I was wearing. It wasn’t easy, but it was good fun.”

Still touring behind last year’s 7, Seal, who plays Hard Rock Live at the Hard Rock Rocksino Northfield Park on Aug. 30, began playing clubs in the '80s. He even played in a blues band for a short time before he had his first “Pan-European” hit with “Killer,” a tune by DJ Adamski.

“To be honest, I didn’t do a tremendous amount of [playing clubs], but I learned that it was something I loved to do,” he says. “You familiarize yourself with playing in front of different audiences. You can’t describe what it’s like to perform in front of people. It’s not something you can learn from a textbook. By failing and by performing in front of an audience that’s maybe not so impressed by what you’re doing, you learn so much. You learn to appreciate it. You get a sense for what you like. I like intimate audiences a lot more. I describe my shows as being conversational. It’s like being on a date. You’re checking each other out and finding out about the person and what makes them tick. You’re constantly trying to establish common ground or a point of empathy. You try to find an emotional access point.”

After “Killer” became a hit, Seal teamed up with shit-hot producer Trevor Horn (Yes, Frankie Goes to Hollywood), who produced his 1991 self-titled debut, an album that delivered pop hits such as “Crazy” and “Future Love Paradise.” Seal’s follow-up album, Seal II, also became a success as the moody single “Kiss from a Rose” topped charts in both the UK and the U.S.

“I was an unsigned artist, and I didn’t have a record deal,” he says when asked about how he first met Horn. “He sought me out. I was courted by half a dozen record labels. He was the most keen to sign me. I was a huge fan of his without knowing I was a huge fan of his. A lot of the records he produced over the years were ones that I owned. Everything from Yes’ 90125 to Grace Jones’ Slave to the Rhythm and ABC’s Lexicon of Love. I was a big fan of all those records. I hadn’t made the connection that it was Trevor Horn producing them. When we met, we had an unspoken communication. We were fans of one another.”

The two worked together again on 7. The album opens with the shimmering “Daylight Saving,” a song that features ornate string arrangements and puts Seal’s soulful voice up front in the mix. The album's an eclectic affair as Seal even embraces his funky side with the mid-tempo "Monascow." With its Chicago-inspired horns, the song sounds like it could have been cut in the '70s.  

“We were never really apart,” he says. “Yeah, sure, I’ve done records with other people. He started being my A&R man and publisher and my producer. Even when I made records with David Foster and things like that, I was always very close to him on a social level, completely outside of music. Making this record seemed like a natural progression. We just thought it’s time to make a ‘Trevor Horn [album].’ The care and attention he puts into making records is just phenomenal. I consider myself very fortunate to be working with him. He has been my mentor for the past 20 years. I cannot tell you how much I value that man’s presence in my life. He’s taught me so much.”

The credits for 7 include everything from orchestral and brass arrangements to programming and backing vocals. At a time when many artists record in their basements, Seal took a go-big-or-go-home approach on the album.

“I’m a huge Sinatra fan and a huge fan of the big band era,” he says. “When you hear great musicians play, it’s so different than when you hear a computer play, even though the technology is so advanced. The power – I wouldn’t change it. But when you hear a great horn player or great classic musician playing, there’s a soul in that. You’re not just hearing great playing. When you have a 62-piece orchestra, you’re not just hearing the years and years of commitment and dedication to the instrument, but you’re hearing the DNA [of the musicans]. Unfortunately, making that kind of record is becoming more and more difficult. We live in an age of copyright violation and thereby diminished returns. It’s not practical to make those kinds of records. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in the scheme of things. One just has to be more creative with technology.”

For the live show, Seal says he’ll include material from throughout his 20-year career.

“What’s happened is that the songs as you hear them on the record aren’t done in the same way live,” he says. “Technology has allowed us to, in essence, reproduce those songs and remix them live. I have someone working with me who’s been my studio engineer, Tim Weidner. We’re using technology tin such a way that we’re remixing in real time on stage. It’s like stripping things out and putting them back together again. Each night is different. There’s an acoustic segment, which I love because I play more. We mix in the old songs, and it’s all very cool.”

Seal, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30, Hard Rock Live, 10777 Northfield Rd., Northfield, 330-908-7625. Tickets: $75-$125, hrrocksinonorthfieldpark.com.
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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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