switched on pop

Kiss From a Rose’ Wasn’t Made to Be a Classic

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

“Kiss From a Rose” has to be one of the most unusual No. 1 hits of all time. The 1994 song can’t decide if it’s in minor or major, uses an old-fashioned waltz rhythm, and features lush orchestration and elaborate vocal harmonies that support mysterious lyrics about a “graying tower alone on the sea.”

Seal himself wasn’t sure about the song and needed some convincing to include it on his 1994 album, Seal II. But once director Joel Schumacher decided to use the track for the end credits on Batman Forever, it went global and has remained a cultural phenomenon ever since.

Ahead of his upcoming 30th-anniversary tour for the albums Seal and Seal II, we spoke with the singer-songwriter about the enduring appeal of “Kiss From a Rose.” Read on for a transcript of the conversation or listen to the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

Switched on Pop

Nate: You’re about to embark on a world tour backed by an orchestra, directed by your original collaborator on your first two albums, legendary producer Trevor Horn. One of the songs you’ll be performing is “Kiss From a Rose.” What do you think has kept people engaged with this song for so long?

Seal: If I knew the answer to that, I’d write a lot more of them. I think it’s a decent song, obviously. A fair amount of it is luck, and also it’s an unusual song, in that there isn’t anything else that sounds quite like it. First of all, it’s a waltz — and up until “Kiss From a Rose,” there weren’t many waltzes that made it into popular music. I once heard someone describe it as this kind of strange medieval-type madrigal with R&B stops in it.

It shouldn’t really work, if you start to get analytical about it. But somehow it does. It’s kind of against all odds. So if an artist is lucky enough to break through, so to speak, with a song like that, it tends to have legs. And because nothing sounds like it, it tends to not get old.

Nate: Do you remember the act of putting the song — those melodies, those lyrics — together?

Seal: I received a four-track recorder — a Portastudio. Four-track Portastudios were these things that we used to do demos on back in the day, where you would take a cassette tape, which, generally speaking, had two sides, and you were able to split a standard cassette tape up into four tracks.

So I had this machine, and I couldn’t play an instrument at the time, so I was trying to figure out how it worked, to no end. I think I decided to do about 16 tracks of vocals, and I ended up recording on the Portastudio to try and figure out how it worked.

I imagined what an orchestra would do. So you have the oboe or the string part. And then you’d have the pizzicato strings there [sings opening riff]. Essentially, I ended up recording multiple tracks of vocals — as I said, around 16 — and they were all meant to emulate an orchestra.

And that is why there’s this elaborate vocal arrangement on “Kiss From a Rose,” which I guess later on became a trademark. In working with my producer and mentor, Trevor, that was always something that we focused on: lots and lots of backing vocals and harmonic layering.

Nate: Is that a method of composition that you have replicated since then?

Seal: If you don’t play an instrument, I think it’s just a sort of natural progression — you try to emulate certain instruments or what you would want instruments to do. It’s a habit that I adopted early, and I continued with that approach to creating a harmonic structure and writing songs.

One of my big influences when I was getting my songwriting career together was Crosby, Stills & Nash. They have really beautiful harmonic melodies, but also they’re quite rhythmic. If you take something like “Carry On” or “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” there’s a lot of the vocals that are not only beautiful harmonies, but they’re quite percussive and rhythmic.

Thinking about it now, “Kiss From a Rose” was probably influenced by Crosby, Stills & Nash. Maybe that’s where that love of, or certainly the attraction to, that style of layering came from.

Nate: The arrangement that you mentioned of this song is a big part of the song’s success and recognizability. I wonder if you remember your reaction when you first heard Trevor Horn’s orchestral arrangement of the song.

Seal: Everything that Trevor does, the first reaction is one of He’s such a genius that it’s almost impossible not to be bowled over when you first hear something. He’s a mad alchemist; you give him a load of ingredients and he somehow just puts them together in this way that’s really rather magical.

My issue was with the song itself. I didn’t particularly care for the song that much, and that was more to do with how I saw myself at the time. I was listening to lots of Hendrix and Zeppelin and dance music. I was very much involved in that wave of dance music that happened in the late ’80s in England. I liked [“Kiss From a Rose”], but it wasn’t one of my favorites, and it wasn’t how I felt that I wanted to be portrayed as an artist.

I didn’t want that to be my debut offering. I wasn’t particularly fond of the song, but I was bowled over by what Trevor had done with it — his production and his arrangement.

Nate: As you point out, this is an unusual time signature to encounter in recent popular music.

Seal: I’ve always loved kind of uncommon time signatures. Not to say that 3/4 is uncommon, but as it pertains to pop music or popular music, I’ve always loved the lesser used time signatures. I think “Dreaming in Metaphors” is 7/8.

I enjoy singing across an odd time signature because I find it quite freeing when you are not being anchored by the one [beat] across 4/4. With “Kiss From a Rose,” it just seemed normal to come up with something like that.

Nate: These insights are really helping me understand the song — the intricacy of it, the waltz meter, the Baroque vocal textures. It doesn’t sound the way that other songs from that era do. It exists a little bit out of time. It’s unmoored. Perhaps that’s what allows it to survive and speak to people at different moments in time and have them draw their own meaning from it.

Seal: Well, that’s also an ethic that Trevor instilled in me. He was always very conscious of not putting things, whether it be sounds or chronological references, in music that dated it. He avoided sonic time stamps, melodic time stamps, production time stamps. And he always said, “Why make a record when you can make a timeless record?” That was his attitude. He steered me away from ever trying to do anything that was fashionable at the time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

‘Kiss From a Rose’ Wasn’t Made to Be a Classic