When he arrives in Florida this week, Seal hopes to hit the courts.
"I hope I can get some tennis in while I'm there," said the Grammy-winning singer, who's jetting in to headline a pair of galas in St. Petersburg and Sarasota. "I'm a tennis fanatic, so I'll have my rackets down there. I'm sure I'll find someone to hit with."
Perhaps someone with the Florida Orchestra, whose gala he will headline on Feb. 9 at the Mahaffey Theater. Unlike his Feb. 16 date at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, this one is a full symphony show, featuring Seal backed by the Orchestra on songs like Crazy, Kiss From a Rose and selections from his latest album Standards.
An album of mostly American standards by the likes of Porter, Ellington and the Gershwins was probably inevitable, given the honeyed husk of Seal's voice. Like one of his heroes, Sting — who helped raise $1.5 million as the headliner of last season's Orchestra gala — Seal is unafraid to span pop and classical genres, as long as the song suits his style.
"If it's a great song, and I get the opportunity to sing it or to write one, that's really my priority," he said. "The reason I still keep making music is on the off chance that I may either (A) write or (B) come across a great song to sing. It's really that simple."
Calling from his home in Los Angeles, Seal, 55, talked about performing with a symphony, the art of singing standards and more.
Is this rare for you, performing with a full orchestra?
No, I love it. I always liken it to being behind the wheel of a Ferrari. You have all these hearts and souls of these brilliant musicians who have dedicated their lives to mastering this instrument, and they all come together to perform with you, and you get to sing with them. It's amazing.
How does it enrich or enhance your voice?
It's almost like laying on the most comfortable bed. They move with you. They're organic. They're about as dynamic as you can get. And I never see it as "myself and an orchestra." It's almost like we're one huge band, living, breathing together, but in total harmony.
Are you locked into your vocals? Or do you hear what individual musicians are doing behind you?
That depends on how good the orchestra is, and the arrangement. If it's a great arrangement, great orchestra, then yes, the objective is to try and lose yourself. And to become one with the orchestra.
For a show like this, what's the back-and-forth like between you and the conductor, in terms of preparation?
I will at some point talk with the conductor or whoever the arranger is for the show. But then after that, classical musicians, they're very disciplined. In the words of Sinatra, "If it ain't on the paper, they don't play it." So there are no surprises in terms of somebody playing where they shouldn't be playing. Everything's charted out. There's a certain comfort that comes with that discipline.
When you sing standards, because they're "standards" — they've been sung by so many other artists — how conscious are you of not trying to sound too much like anybody else?
I have a slightly different attitude to this. By definition, the fact that they're standards means that they have withstood the test of time. As Smokey once said, "We're not the first, and we won't be the last." Those songs have been here way before me, and I suspect will be here way after me. That generally tells you that a great deal of care and meticulous attention was paid to the melody, the lyric, and the delivery of that song.
So when I took on the Standards album, I spent a fair amount of time learning the definitive versions of those songs. I listened to Nat King Cole's Autumn Leaves, and Ella Fitzgerald's The Nearness of You, and Sinatra's It Was a Very Good Year. I learned them inside and out. And then I went to Australia to work and spent about a month and a half to two months not listening to a lick. And then came back and sung them.
My reason for doing that is to honor the melody, to honor the song, and to stay true to the song. I don't believe in changing something to make it sound like me, or to put my own "spin" on it, just for the sake of it. But then, I'm lucky, in that I don't really have to mess with the melody, because my DNA is in my voice. Whilst I'm not the greatest singer on the planet, my voice is very distinctive — if I'm singing, you know it's me.
Can we call Kiss From a Rose a standard at this point?
I really don't know the answer to that question. You know, maybe not. Because the one thing about all of these standards that I sang on this album, honestly, you don't really have to do much but just make sure you're in shape. They sing you. They're carefully arranged for the work. I don't know if I did that with Kiss From a Rose. I did whatever was in my head.
Are there songs that you think of as modern standards?
Hmm. (long pause) You mean, in the last 40 years? Imagine is probably a modern standard.
You've put a very nice spin on that one, yourself.
Are you talking about the one I did with Herbie Hancock? Well, thank you, but then I had no control over the arrangement. I just sang it.
This concert is happening the night before the Grammys, where you're nominated for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. Do you care at this point? Or are you over the Grammys?
I care. I care for the people who worked so hard on the album. And I'm happy for them. Because I guess it does represent some sort of validation. But then, my reward for doing the album was, I got the opportunity to sing at Capitol Records, in the room where the greats like Sinatra and Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald and all of those icons had sang. I got to sing in the room with the orchestra, like they used to record back then. I got to play with and for musicians that had actually played with Sinatra.
There was one point where the orchestra was doing part of Smile without me, and I locked eyes with the first violinist, and it was just such a magical moment. I was in tears realizing how significant that moment was. That's really all the accolades I need. I always said that the record would sound like the time you had making it. And I had the most wonderful time making that record. Therein was my reward. Anything after that is gravy.
IF YOU GO
An Intimate Evening with Seal
7 p.m. Feb. 9. Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S, St. Petersburg. $75 and up. (727) 892-5767. themahaffey.com.