Heartfelt integrity

It’s the driving force behind Seal’s music, including “Soul,” his latest album of classic R&B covers.

By Naila Francis

For many musicians, the secret to commercial success can be elusive.

Seal certainly hasn’t figured it out. But the British singer-songwriter is simply content to know that his most recent album, “Soul,” is one of his most successful in years, having sold more than two million copies worldwide since its November release. A collection of 12 classic soul songs produced by the legendary David Foster (Celine Dion, Whitney Houston), the album is a vast departure from 2007’s “System,” which marked a return to his dance club roots. Despite being fairly well received by critics — and Seal’s own admission that it was his best album since his 1991 self-titled debut — “System,” with its club-oriented pop and electronica tracks, sold poorly in the U.S.

The sales slump had some calling his relevancy on these shores into question, but “Soul” seems to point, reassuringly, to the contrary.

“It’s ended up being the most commercially successful album since my second with ‘Kiss from a Rose,’ ” says Seal. “It just goes to show you never really know. You do things because you’re inspired by them. You get caught up in the moment, and good things happen.”

And it was indeed a moment that sparked the idea for “Soul.” Seal was driving through California’s Napa Valley with his wife, supermodel Heidi Klum, one night when he heard Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” on the car stereo, a song he had heard hundreds of times before but that suddenly resonated in a new way.

“I felt that I was pretty much listening to the voice of a generation. I felt that people were going through, like, a paradigm shift. People were sort of ready to bear responsibility and be proactive and I felt that people had instigated and were therefore on the precipice of change,” he says. “And if there was a song that would represent this feeling, it would be ‘A Change is Gonna Come.’ ”

He called Foster and told him he wanted to cover the song. The response to the track, recorded in just a few hours in Foster’s Santa Monica studio — and to an accompanying video inexpensively made by a young filmmaker commissioned by Seal — was so enthusiastic, the two were convinced to do an entire album.

The resulting lushly arranged trip back in time includes such ’60s and ’70s R&B staples as James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” and “It’s Alright,” the lesser-known “Free” by Deniece Williams and Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” The songs, says Seal, were all chosen with a single guiding principle.

“These are some of the greatest songs ever written. And I think my main priority, and I think I can speak for David, too, was basically just to respect the songs — and then to offer some kind of justification for doing them in the first place, and what I mean is adding something new to them without just unnecessarily changing them,” he says. “Then we narrowed it down by … what we felt enabled my voice to shine and David’s arrangements to really come through.”

For the Grammy-winning artist, working with Foster on “Soul,” his sixth studio album, was a career pinnacle.

“When you have an opportunity to be around somebody like that, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience and on top of that, he’s such a great person, a great motivator, a great teacher and somebody who just inspires by example,” says Seal, who comes to the Tower Theater in Upper Darby on Wednesday and The Borgata in Atlantic City on Saturday. “Since then, we’ve become really good friends. I’m a huge fan of his and I can’t wait for the opportunity to work with him again.”

Yet Seal, who makes his home in Los Angeles with Klum and their three children, Leni, Henry and Johan, doesn’t think much beyond the moment when it comes to his craft.

While he is gratified that his songs have affected so many, he knows he cannot always expect such a response. And so he works from the drive that first propelled him toward a career in music.

“I’ve never really made music to be relevant. It’s not something I really spend any amount of time thinking about. I started making music because I had to. I made music because it was a form of expression for me, because it inspired me, because it was my voice; it allowed me to express myself in ways I otherwise wouldn’t be able to do,” he says. “So whether I’ve been singing to one person or to 100,000 people, it’s really no different for me. I do music first and foremost for myself and then to communicate.”

He has been open about his troubled childhood — and how music became a balm for his emotional pain. Born Sealhenry Olusegun Olumide Samuel to immigrant parents in London, he was placed in foster care after his parents split when he was a baby. Although happy with his foster family, he spent his youth shuttled between their care and that of both of his parents and endured violent beatings at the hands of his dad, whom he’s described as a bitter man who loved him but was incapable of showing it. He left home at 16, got his degree in architecture and pursued several jobs, including a stint in electrical engineering. But it wasn’t until he began singing in local pubs — eventually joining the English funk band Push before his vocal and songwriting collaboration with British dance producer Adamski on 1990’s “Killer” thrust him into the spotlight — that he connected with a deeper purpose for his life.

“The degree of passion and intensity that is needed for any justification in those (other) fields, I didn’t have. It was waning,” says Seal. “Music was the one thing or one of the few things where my intensity and passion and desire never really waned. It’s ever-changing, always full of surprises, and the feeling of writing a song is such a cathartic experience. I really feel I would suffer without it.”

Once a survival mechanism, his art is also now a great joy, one that family life has only heightened. While many artists are at their creative best feeding on sorrow and turmoil, Seal posits that the everyday can make for equally rich material.

“Having a family — it just provides you with so many gifts if you’re open to seeing them. There’s a wealth of lessons that come along with those gifts, a wealth of life lessons and the key is trying to find a way to articulate that through your music,” he says. “I do feel that there has to be a certain amount of solidarity and there needs to be a kind of connection in order to write music. I don’t necessarily feel one has to go through an agonizing period. You just have to be open. And I think, particularly with children, one of the things they do is make you more open.”

He may not understand what it takes to ensure career longevity, but he does have his own standard for success.

“Will it be ‘Soul II’ or will it be an album full of original material? Who knows,” says Seal of his next project. “Whatever it’s going to be will be something heartfelt, driven by passion and desire and something that hopefully will have integrity. That’s pretty much all I can ask of myself.”

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