"Kiss From A Rose" Started as a 4-Track Portastudio Demo

How a 1987 DIY recording that Seal hated turned into the biggest song of his career.

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"Kiss From A Rose" Started as a 4-Track Portastudio Demo

Though Seal first appeared on many people’s radar with his 1991 breakthrough single “Crazy,” he found his initial voice as a singer in London clubs and pubs during the 1980s after earning a degree in architecture and working as an electrical engineer and fashion designer.

Despite showcasing an impressive range and unique voice, Seal was adrift in 1987 and looking for any musical opportunity he could find while living in a self-described “squat.” He had a strong interest in making records but lacked the tools and the technical know-how.

After picking a 4-track TASCAM Portastudio, the same piece of equipment Bruce Springsteen famously used to record Nebraska, Seal began working on his first single. There was just one slight problem—he had no proper musical training and no band to back him.

Not to be deterred, he gave it his best effort and recorded something anyway. “I couldn't play an instrument at the time, so I tried to emulate all the different instruments on a little 4-track [tape recorder],” he told Angus Batey in a 2010 Guardian interview.  

Seal took on a rather ambitious arrangement for one of his first demos, incorporating elements of the waltz and madrigal despite his limited instrumentation skills. Though millions of people would come to love “Kiss From a Rose” almost a decade after he first captured it on tape, Seal despised it initially. “I threw the tape in the corner,” he said in a verified Genius comment from 2015.

Regardless of Seal’s dissatisfaction with his early Portastudio demo, his career started to take off not long he recorded it. First he connected with the British rare groove pioneers Push and joined them on a 1989 Japanese tour. Then he sang vocals on their minor hit “Lay It On The Line” before moving on to other endeavors.

The experience with Push was likely valuable, but Seal’s performance and songwriting on Adamski’s single “Killer” proved to be the first major turning point of his career. The song become an international hit and reached #1 on the UK charts, eventually landing Seal a deal with ZTT Records and a self-titled solo album.

After releasing his platinum 1991 debut Seal to generally positive reviews, the singer/songwriter took a brief hiatus. When he returned to the studio in 1993 to work on his sophomore album, his producer Trevor Horn insisted on hearing the unconventional 4-track demo he’d thrown in the corner in 1987. “Trevor kept asking me about this ‘rose’ song he’d heard about,” Seal told Genius “My friend had told him about it. I finally played it to him on the second album, because he kept brow beating me into it.”

Horn loved the record, but he struggled with how to compose the music needed to accompany Seal’s voice. “It wasn’t the kind of song you could put drum loops over because it’s in 6/8, and there are hardly any drum loops in 6/8,” Horn told Alex Niven in a 2014 Quietus interview. “Also, it’s not in a dance tempo. So I did it in what I thought was a timeless fashion.”

In spite of Horn’s positive feelings about the song once they’d finalized a proper studio recording, it seemed likely the tune might fall flat with most listeners. Channeling musical elements from the Renaissance and Baroque eras—though an admirable creative risk—wasn’t necessarily a surefire path to commercial success. “When it was finished I loved it, but the market research people said it was too old fashioned, which freaked me a bit at the time,” Horn told The Quietus.

When Seal’s second self-titled album came out in May of 1994, it appeared that Horn’s anxieties about “Kiss From a Rose” missing the mark were valid. The song fizzled out quickly once it was released as a single and seemed destined to live on in semi-obscurity. “When it was initially released, it failed,” Seal told Jimmy Geurts in a 2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune interview. “It went in and out of the charts and did nothing and I was already in the studio making my third album.”

The song, however, would not be denied. When Joel Schumacher started looking for music to fit a Batman Forever love scene months after “Kiss From a Rose” flopped, Seal’s manager sensed an opportunity and submitted the track for consideration. Though it was initially rejected, something the music it resonated with Schumacher. He ultimately decided to stick it a the end of his film instead of using it for the love scene.

Schumacher’s decision to include “Kiss From a Rose” in his blockbuster film kick-started a monumental shift in the song’s popularity. “At the end of that movie, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world when they were leaving the theater, the last thing they heard was (singing) ‘Baaaaby!’ And then people started to go, ‘That’s actually an interesting song,’” Seal told the Herald Tribune.

Despite taking several iterations to gain acceptance, Seal’s former bedroom demo found its audience and then some. After Batman Returns helped catapult the song into a new sphere of popularity it took home a grand total of three Grammy awards—Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

In the end, though he “thought it was crap” initially, Seal now appreciates “Kiss From a Rose” and the fact that it resonated with so many people. Born 32 years ago out of very modest circumstances, the record now holds a special place in his heart. “I realized it just wasn’t a song from a tape in the corner when I was picking up Grammys for it,” he told Genius. “Of course I love it now and I am just so appreciative of the fact that I have a song like that, that most people love.”

Thanks for reading, see you on Friday!