When Seal was a teenager in England, a new wave of American soul turned his head.
“I remember songs like ‘Love T.K.O.’ and ‘Wishing on a Star’ and ‘Love Don’t Live Here Anymore’ — I just remember those songs being so unique-sounding when they came on the radio,” he says. “They had a big impact on me, because they were just very different from a lot of R&B that we were hearing. They were huge influences on my life and my outlook on writing music when I was growing up.”
Seal pays loving homage to that vibrant time in his own musical life with Soul 2, his eighth studio album, bringing his immense talents and deep sensibilities to songs that were coming out of Detroit, Memphis and especially Philadelphia, a sound that in England became known as Northern Soul. Working with producer Trevor Horn (who launched Seal’s career and produced his first four albums) and on four songs David Foster (who produced Seal’s first foray into the classics catalog, the international hit 2008 album Soul, and 2010‘s Commitment), Seal at once internalizes and evokes the spirit of such musical giants as Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, Smokey Robinson, Bill Withers, the Spinners and the O’Jays.
Recording was done in settings ranging from elaborate orchestra sessions to a few vocals performed in Horn’s garage. The result is a variety of inventive textures, maximizing the spirit of both the songs and the singer. Support came from a wealth of all-star musicians, including Horn on bass and guitar, Foster on keyboards, with orchestral and brass arrangements by Pete Murray, Julian Hinton and Foster.
Seal’s first Soul album captured, by-and-large, the spirit of the ‘60s, with songs of Sam Cooke (a glorious version of “A Change Is Gonna Come”), Otis Redding among others, selling 3 million copies worldwide and standing as the top-selling album of the decade in France. Soul 2 leans more to the ‘70s, digging deep into a time in which artists explored new heights of personal expression and cultural openness with equal measures of inventive creativity and populist immediacy. As a set it features love songs (the Chi-Lites’ “Oh Girl,” Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby”), out-of-love songs (Pendergrass’ “Love T.K.O.,” Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”) and some that are both (the Spinners’ “I’ll Be Around”).
And threading through it there are songs born of the shifting mores and cultural contours of the times that, in turn, helped define the era (Gaye’s iconic “What’s Going On,” the O’Jays’ angry “Backstabbers”). Where Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” was the emotional center of the first Soul set, a bridge between the civil rights movement and the surge of social consciousness in the U.S. in the late ‘00s, such Soul 2 songs as Gaye’s indelible “What’s Going On” and Withers’ “Lean on Me” bridge their era with today’s uncertainties.
“It was something that we felt we wanted to do, but not in the typical way, so we went more for sort of connoisseurs’ choices rather than the obvious hits,” he says. “Essentially it’s an album of love songs. However it’s such as my habit that there has to be something that inspires me on a social-comment level and there has to be something that inspires me on a — it’s such an overused term, but on a spiritual level.”
As a set, they show a time that defies capsulizing and cliches, a time of complex emotions and issues. And it allows Seal to expand the range and talents he’s shown throughout his career, on such hits as his international Top 10 1990 debut “Crazy” and the 1995 U.S. No. 1 “A Kiss From a Rose,” which earned him Grammy Awards for song of the year, record of the year and best male pop vocal performance.
“When it came to making Soul 2 I decided not to go for the obvious hits, if you like, or more songs of that earlier period. Instead we went for songs that were popular in England when I was growing up and take a slightly different approach in terms of the actual sound, hence Trevor Horn’s involvement.”
Horn, also born and raised in England, shared Seal’s great affection for this material and brought in his sense for engaging musical tapestries that have fueled not just Seal but Yes (as both producer and member), Robbie Williams, Jeff Beck, Pet Shop Boys, Paul McCartney and many others.
“I started my career with Trevor and we have an unspoken communication,” Seal says. “And we had the most amazing time on this record because we talked a lot — we talked very little about music, actually. We talked about the old times. We talked about our friendship and life in general and how much we’d kind of missed each other. When it came to making the music, there was this kind of unspoken communication that we have.”
The challenges were great. With Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Seal and Horn transformed an era-defining song into a personal statement.
“Marvin Gaye is one of the greatest male voices of all time,” Seal says. “So covering a Marvin Gaye song, especially one as quintessential as ‘What’s Going On,’ I was a little hesitant in doing so. But I felt that it was one of those songs which spoke to a whole generation.”
On “Ooo Baby, Baby” he didn’t just take on a song associated with icons, but with a friend in Smokey Robinson.
“He’s one of the most gracious human beings I’ve ever met — and he’s not shy to give me advice,” Seal says. “I’m fortunate in that he really likes me, so it’ll be interesting to hear what he says.”
But the bottom line is that while these songs helped define an era, they very much helped define and inspire the artist that is Seal.
“These songs have a definite sound to them,” he says. “Of course, I can say this because I didn’t write them, but they were great songs. And I had such a good time singing them because they mean something to me. They’ve kind of chronicled my childhood and my adolescence.”