Seal says singing is like his other love, tennis: ‘Has one led me to understand the other better? Yes.’

The ‘Kiss from a Rose’ singer performs at Detroit’s Fox Theatre on Sunday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his first two albums

May 17, 2023 at 8:00 am
click to enlarge Seal says singing is like his other love, tennis: ‘Has one led me to understand the other better? Yes.’
Courtesy of Seal

Legendary British singer Seal, whose 1994 song “Kiss From A Rose” off the Batman Forever soundtrack has endured as one of the most unique hits over the last several decades, is on tour to celebrate the 30th anniversaries of his first two albums, Seal I and Seal II. Metro Times was lucky enough to chat with him about a variety of topics ranging from singing to tennis. He performs at Detroit’s Fox Theater on Sunday, May 21.

Metro Times: I’d like to talk a bit about performance. I know that that you are a huge tennis aficionado—

Seal: Oh! Love it! Now we’re talking! I’m not an aficionado, no — I talk a good game. I play every day. Why do you bring that up, c’mon?

MT: I feel that athletes and musicians have a lot more in common than people realize—

Seal: It would seem so, yes.

MT: They’re both using skills that they spend a lifetime mastering as kind of a doorway to live in the moment more fully. Have you noticed any change in the way that you engage in music since you started playing tennis?

Seal: Yes. That’s a great question. God bless you. Have I noticed any parallels? Has one led me to understand the other better? Yes. Singing is a game of efficiency, achieving more with less. And tennis is very similar. You watch somebody like Andrey Rublev, who is one of the hardest hitters of the ball. It’s because he’s relaxed, he’s loose, and it’s kinetic, it’s actually really efficient, it’s nothing to do with muscle or straining. Nadal the same, if you went up to Rafael Nadal and took the racket out of his hand it would almost fall out. So you can draw those parallels with music and tennis for sure. There’s a saying we have in music which is technique is only there to prevent the body from interfering with the soul’s free expression. I will work with a coach and will figure out certain technical sides of singing the song, throat positioning, breathing, technique, the change in certain vowel shapes relative to which note you are singing, [but when I] get to the microphone to perform, the last thing that I want to think about is technique. At that point I’m trying to achieve one thing and one thing only: to surrender, let go and not control, and trust that all of that technique that I have done before will just happen by itself. And if you can achieve that, singing becomes effortless, it becomes efficient. Tennis players, I guarantee you the last thing they’re thinking of when they are playing is technique. All of that stuff’s in there. They are trying to be as lucid and as loose as possible. They are trying to surrender, they’re trying to let go, and therein lies my fascination with tennis and why I play so much. It’s not to become by any stretch of the imagination a great tennis player, no, it is the thing that is extremely conducive to my career and to my life. I am constantly trying to surrender when I perform. I’m trying to let go, I’m trying to trust and let it happen. Tennis is perhaps the single most counter-intuitive thing I’ve ever done in my life because it goes against everything that my body wants to do naturally. Old tools that I have used to get through life that tennis says, well they actually will not serve you here. It doesn’t work. And it’s this process that I’m in love with because it’s an allegory for life. You could draw direct parallels to things that happen in your daily life.

MT: Have you felt that it’s a quicker process to fully surrender?

Seal: Yes. I’ve found, again through tennis, the quicker you can get in rhythm with things, the quicker you are on your way. It’s understanding that there is a universal rhythm that has different rhythms within it and you just need to get in sync with things. That’s the way, that’s my method, my chosen way.

MT: Do you prefer performing in smaller theaters or large stadiums? People always talk about the intimacy of the smaller rooms but [is it] actually easier to perform with the anonymity of a stadium? With that separation [from the crowd] is it easier to surrender or do you feed off the personal connection with the crowd that you get [in a smaller room]?

Seal: The latter. I do feed off. See, here’s the thing: I do understand what you’re saying — is it harder up close, where you can actually see the faces of the people and there’s seemingly nowhere to hide. Once upon a time I may perhaps have found that more difficult but the more I realize how I function, the more I’ve naturally seen that as a wonderful opportunity to get to where we’re really trying to get to: for me to look at you and start conversation. That’s when it’s beautiful, performance, when it’s conversation. And that can happen in a stadium or a large venue [too]. I see it as I am a kind of facilitator and then we all perform together. The performance for me is the energy. The performance is nothing without the energy. And if you look at what energy is, that’s not just my energy, that’s everyone’s energy. That’s energy total.

MT: The shared room.

Seal: Yes, and we all contribute to that and that’s when we are all performing. Now, it’s up to me to somehow orchestrate or to allow that to happen. But then it spirals. It’s beautiful once it does its thing.

MT: Have you found that you have a favorite song or a few favorite songs from [Seal 1 and Seal 2] that you like to play?

Seal: I do like singing “Kiss From A Rose” only because it’s so bloody difficult to sing. It’s an odd song. But I love singing “Love Is Divine”.

MT: What makes “Kiss From A Rose” difficult to sing?

Seal: Dynamically it’s all over the place — you come in quiet, you come in in this lowered, mid-register. You have to be relaxed because a lot of it’s legato and even in the verse it jumps around. Then you’ve got the big “BABAYY” and it’s not just a huge jump in terms of the interval but a big jump in terms of its… I can’t think of a better word than genre but yes, you go from this kind of folky, almost medieval, madrigal kind of melody that wouldn’t sound out of place in Game Of Thrones and then it goes into “BABAYYY,” this weird R&B dynamic that’s different, and it’s almost like two different people.

MT: Do you have any performance memories that particularly stick out as… maybe life-affirming is too strong a word…

Seal: Oh absolutely, I can totally go with life-affirming. You know, there was one time a while back where I did my first TV performance as a solo artist. I remember we recorded it in these studios in the afternoon and went home at night to watch it on TV, it’s called Top of the Pops. I was at the recording studio at ZTT Records and the whole studio came down, the execs came down, and they watched the performance and everyone clapped afterwards. I followed the late Jill Sinclair down to the kitchen. She was Trevor [Horn, producer]’s wife and also a mentor, somebody that I connected with and looked up to, and I asked her what she thought. She went, “Oh, it was good. It was good.” And I go “Yeah, Jill, good but what?” And she goes, “Well, you haven’t connected yet.” And I said, “Connect, what do you mean connect, Jill? We’ve just been on Top of the Pops, it’s like two-third of the nation are watching, what do you mean connect?” And she said something to me that I never forgot, she goes, “Oh you’ll just know when you do.” And it wasn’t really what I wanted to hear but then I don’t know when it was, two, two and a half years later I was onstage somewhere [and] I had my eyes closed. I remember I was singing something, it could’ve been “Prayer for the Dying,” and I opened my eyes and locked eyes with somebody in the audience, and we were the only people at that moment and we were having that dialogue I spoke about and that’s when I understood that that was the point of this whole thing, it was connection. Simple but essential.

MT: I have a final question, I know we’re about to run out of time. Your album covers often involve the body creating a really interesting and powerful shape. What is the inspiration behind that?

Seal: Well, I had the most fun with the second album [Seal 2, and the third, Human Being]. Jill had a large input in that, she was always really good at how she wanted me to be seen. She always encouraged that side of me. Also, I was in the fashion industry before that so I always did have an aesthetic eye. But then I think aside from that second album Human Being was one that I was, to this day I’m really proud of. Extremely proud of that cover, because it’s a little uncomfortable, which is what I like about it. It was to reflect the daoism in us all, the light and dark. And because I felt that [the] second album, that pose was one of wanting to appear serene. I felt that with Human Being I wanted to show a darkness within a beauty. So I had the beauty of the form, and [Jean-Baptiste] Mondino, he was brilliant at doing it, I always wanted to work with him. I remember getting into insane shape. Then we went into the forest and I wanted to make myself almost beast-like, so he hunched my back a little bit and stretched the fingers just a little bit, not too obvious, and things that made me a little more reptilian, almost. When I look at that cover I like that. Because it reflects the turmoil in me a little bit more.

MT: It feels like the poses on the covers correspond really powerfully with music that’s in them. It’s quite a statement about the overall tone of the album. And they all fit really well.

Seal: I like that third record, you know. I wrestled with it for awhile. I don’t play a lot from it but I think one or two might find themselves in this performance.

MT: Oh that would be exciting! OK, well I know we’ve gone over time so I will let you get to your tennis practice.

Seal: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

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