Seveteen years ago, before he became an internationally acclaimed, three-time Grammy-winning pop vocalist and songwriter who has sold more than 15 million albums worldwide, Seal was a hot property on Britain's house music/rave scene. He hooked up with legendary producer Trevor Horn and scored two hits, 1990's "Killer" (with techno artist Adamski) and 1991's U.S. Top Ten single "Crazy," from his eponymous debut album - a genre-defying fusion of soul, pop, rock, R&B, and propulsive grooves that announced the arrival of an innovative new talent.
Now the London-born Seal is preparing to release his fifth album, System, due in November from Warner Bros. Records. With its shimmering melodies, glistening layers of synths and acoustic guitar, and up-tempo electronic beats, System "is a return to my roots," Seal says. "My first album was upbeat music that you could dance to, and I kind of departed from that as time went by. I also wanted to return to the guitar, to the very first instrument I wrote 'Crazy' and 'Killer' on, and get back to the fundamentals of what I really love to do. What I really care about now is the same thing I cared about back in 1990, which is songs."
To help him deliver what he calls "a quintessential Seal album," Seal turned this time around to British musician and songwriter Stuart Price, who co-wrote and produced Madonna's Confessions on a Dancefloor, as well as Grammy-winning remixes for No Doubt and Coldplay. "It was quite evident from the first track that Stuart and I were on the same page," Seal says, "that I'd found someone who was able to elaborate on and execute my vision for this record. He loved the songs and I loved his production technique and we just took it from there. He's one of those rare people who plays instruments, understands music theory, and gets what a singer goes through when he's singing a song."
Indeed, Seal's one-of-a-kind soaring, husky baritone, combined with his desire to reconnect with the style of music he made early on his career, is what drew Price, who has recorded albums heavily influenced by British house music and Detroit techno under the names Les Rythmes Digitales and Jacques LuCont, to working with Seal. "First of all, Seal's voice is just phenomenal," Price says. "There's only one person in the world who's got that voice and it's him. And when I realized that he wanted to return to his roots, and incorporate elements from the kind of music I really like, that was what got me excited about the project."
Over the course of three weeks, the Los Angeles-based Seal and the London-based Price (who were put in touch by a mutual friend, record executive Guy Oseary) began working via the Internet, with Seal sending Price tracks he'd recorded on his guitar and Price sending them back after tinkering with the production. The first track they finished was System's first single, "Amazing," which came together within 24 hours. "It happened really quick," Price recalls. "After doing that track, we had a phone conversation and it just kind of clicked. So we said, 'Let's carry on,' and one song turned into two songs, which turned into three songs." Once they'd completed 10, the pair headed to L.A. to spend three weeks at the famed Record Plant cutting vocals and finessing the production.
Both Seal and Price agree that taking a modern rhythmic approach was the spark that ignited what System eventually became. Initially written on guitar, the songs were given energy and immediacy when electronic textures were applied as a sonic bed. In the process, tracks like "Swoosh," and "System" with their driving, high-energy beats and chiming guitar, "Amazing," with its multi-tracked vocals and washes of synths, and the clubby, Balearic-influenced "The Right Life" could sit comfortably on Seal's debut, which suits Seal just fine. As Price puts it, "It's a side of Seal's music that a lot of people really love."
Though System is primarily up-tempo, those who are drawn to Seal for his emotional, romantic love songs, such as "Prayer For the Dying," the Grammy-winning "Kiss From A Rose," and "Don't Cry" (all from 1994's Seal II), and "Love's Divine" (from 2003's Seal IV), will also be delighted. Married since 2005 to supermodel Heidi Klum, with whom he has three young children, Seal says his newfound domestic bliss has certainly influenced his music, as can be heard on two ballads, "Wedding Day," which he wrote the morning he wed Klum, and the searching acoustic guitar and string-driven "Rolling." "Family, my wife and children, that's my reason for being," Seal says. "Everything is done with them in mind, so perhaps that's the reason this new album is up-tempo. It does feel like a celebration of life. I am finally in a content and happy place to the point where I feel like I need to sing about it. It's made me want to address things that are close to home." It's also the reason Seal titled the album System. "I'm talking about the emotional system - how one functions in a relationship. I felt that I and people close to me were victims of a domestic system, and we were being conditioned to accept the status quo. But on this album I'm saying it's time for us to take charge. We can change it. We can take control of our emotional system and be happy."
"My point is," Seal says, warming to his theme, "don't just sit there and allow life to happen to you. Go out and take charge if you want change, but it begins by making a change within yourself."