Seal: KCRW Guest DJ set

Written by Marion Hodges

Infinitely better than a kiss from a rose is an in depth chat with ‘90s pop icon Seal. Pictured (L to R) Anthony Valadez, Seal, Novena Carmel. Photo by Malorie McCall

Commemorating the 30th anniversary of his landmark debut albums — 1991’s Seal and 1994’s Seal (“Seal II”) — pop icon Seal embarks on a world tour under the musical direction of longtime friend and creative collaborator Trevor Horn (Art of Noise, The Buggles). Before he hits the road, the artist checks off another milestone with a visit to KCRW HQ to spin a guest DJ set and talk five songs that have helped define his life and work.  

“It’s quite historical, ‘cause KCRW, and specifically Morning Becomes Eclectic are synonymous with my whole California experience,” Seal says. “I remember years ago, coming here, and I’d be driving in the car. KCRW would always be on, and I’d always listen to Morning Becomes Eclectic, so this is the fruition of a dream … I think back on all my days of listening to Morning Becomes Eclectic. It was the coolest show, on the coolest station for the people who knew… only if you knew.”  

Seal first stopped by KCRW in 2003 for a performance and interview on New Ground, featuring selections from Seal IV and talking to host Chris Douridas about how he developed his trademark style of acoustic-R&B pop. 

Two decades later, the singer remains as fastidious and reflective about his work and process, from his trademark vocal register to his potent lyrics and enveloping arrangements. In preparation for tour, Seal says that he’s re-examined each of his songs, remembering who he was when he wrote them and re-assessing them as the person he is now. He continues to parse them for new meaning and find new shades and textures to convey. 

Critical to that process has been post-punk/New Wave legend Horn, whom Seal describes as both “my mentor, my brother” and a consummate pro at intricately crafting a dynamic stage show to bring the studio fidelity of his works to pristine life (with a few surprises tucked in along the way).

The tour hits LA on Jun. 7 at the Greek Theater, with tickets on sale now. Want in? We’re currently giving away five pairs of tickets.  

Below, Seal breaks down the first song he performed live, the track he sings in the car with his kids, “the greatest song ever written,” and more. 

Johnny Nash – “I Can See Clearly Now”

“I had this teacher that I idolized called Mr. Wren. He was really cool, he dressed cool, he had real swag about him. And he was the teacher that saw me — he was the one person that really saw me. I was the kid in the back of the class staring out the window, and daydreaming. 

I was never going to amount to anything, but Mr. Wren never subscribed to that notion. He championed me, and he was the person who got me to sing for my first live performance. He put me on stage in front of all the parents and teachers at a PTA meeting to sing this song acapella. 

I remember that experience being quite pivotal. It felt like the scariest place to be, and I closed my eyes, sang the song, and afterwards everyone clapped. I never forgot that feeling. It felt like home to me. So this one is dedicated to Mr. Wren.

While I wouldn’t say I knew that I was good, I knew that it had this kind of arresting effect on people. Later on in life, when I’d be out with friends who knew that I could sing, and also new people, I’d invariably hear my friends saying ‘get Seal to sing, get Seal to sing.’ So it was kind of like a party trick.”

The Beatles – “She’s Leaving Home”

“It’s the lyrics in this song that particularly had an effect on me, because I think the mark of great songs — what determines whether they’re great songs — is if we as listeners can find ourselves in that song. If the singer presents the ability for us to get lost and find a part of ourselves in that song, that’s pretty much what makes a song great… or at least have relevance.

I can find myself in this song. Although the principle character is female, I found a lot of my childhood in this song.”

Big Shaq – “Man’s Not Hot”

“When you have kids, you revel at the chance to all engage in a piece of music. Whenever this one comes on in the car, we act the whole thing out. It’s so much fun.”

Joni Mitchell – “Both Sides Now”

“A few years ago, I had the opportunity to sing this song in front of Joni Mitchell on her 75th birthday. We were talking about Joni Mitchell’s greatest hits, and I mentioned thinking that this was one of the greatest songs ever written, and she said, ‘You should sing that song.’ So I ended up singing what I think is the greatest song ever written in front of the woman who wrote it.

She did a version of this song and some of her other great songs with an orchestra [that same night]. She sang that song, those same lyrics, from a different perspective: ‘I’ve looked at life from both sides now,’ but from the point of view of somebody who has. 

It was all the more pertinent, and I highly recommend listening to the orchestral version of that one after you’ve listened to the original. It’s on an album called Both Sides Now. It’s quite magical, listening to the information in her voice gathered over those years.” 

Zia Victoria – “Crazy”

(Track not currently available on DSPs)

“I think what particularly impressed me was her ability to take a song and make it her own. As far as I’m concerned, this is the only time when I’ve heard a cover of one of my songs where it has ceased to become my song. So that gives me the opportunity to find new meaning in it, and to see it from another perspective.

I think it’s so difficult when covering a song to maintain the integrity of the song — meaning, staying true to the basic melody — but bring something in that’s completely your own.

I actually asked this young artist why she covered this song, and she said something really interesting that blew me away. She told me that when she first heard the song, she didn’t realize how deep it was until she looked up the lyrics, but that’s why she wanted to record a ballad version. There’s a lyric in the second verse which I think is what she was talking about when she talked about finding new meaning in the lyrics: 

‘… people walking through my head

One of them's got a gun, to shoot the other one

And yet together they were friends at school…’

What actually inspired me when I was writing that was Tiananmen Square — there’s that famous image of a student standing in front of a tank. But I assume that she [Zia Victoria] is applying that line to all of the gun violence that unfortunately has plagued our schools. So she has found new meaning in it, she’s delivering it, and she’s owned the song in her unique way. It’s breathtaking, her delivery.” 





Anna Chang