During a string of performances in Switzerland last year, pop star Seal sang his greatest hits -- grand, free-flowing tunes such as "Kiss From a Rose" and "Prayer for the Dying" -- as professional ice skaters twirled around him.
He swears it wasn't as cheesy as it sounds. "You have to see it. It felt like one complete band with the skaters," he says. "They were skating in such a poetic way. I didn't think I would enjoy it as much. I wanted to do it again."
So Tuesday night, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter will bring the same concept -- only bigger and better -- to Washington's Verizon Center. Called the Music of Seal on Ice, the show features the artist performing his '90s smashes and cuts from System, his latest CD.
A cast of figure skaters, including Olympic gold-medal winners Kristi Yamaguchi and Brian Boitano, will spin, leap and glide on ice to Seal's lush music. The program benefits Autism Speaks and will be televised nationwide on NBC on New Year's Day.
"For a performer, any time you can look at somebody at harmony with what you're producing, it's a wonderful feeling," says Seal, who was in London last week. "Plus, this is a worthy cause. I grew up with someone who was autistic. I do believe in giving back as much as you can."
The Los Angeles-based English star also is in the middle of promoting System, his fifth studio album, the first since 2003's Seal IV. The CD is a smooth, pop-coated return to the dance-club sounds that launched his career 17 years ago. But for the past decade, Seal has been known primarily as a balladeer, his husky, sandy vocals cushioned in soaring, almost cinematic arrangements.
Since the mammoth success of 1996's "Kiss From a Rose," the performer has more or less been a mainstay on adult contemporary radio -- a peg he resents. "It was time to get out of that pigeonhole," Seal says, groaning. "I avoided that early in the early part of my career. That's the only thing I don't like about the pop musical structure in America -- this compartmentalizing. ... There are only two types of music to me: good and bad."
To help usher in a musical change, Seal decided not to work with longtime producer Trevor Horn, who had overseen all of Seal's previous albums. Instead, the singer hooked up with Stuart Price, who produced Madonna's last album, the metallic disco opus Confessions on a Dance Floor.
Working on System was "more organic and fluid; we were more committed to a plan," Seal says. "It went much faster than the other albums."
His happy personal life provided much of the lyrical inspiration this time. In 2005, he married supermodel Heidi Klum, with whom he has two sons: Henry, 2 and Johan, 1. Seal also is the adoptive father of Klum's 3-year-old daughter, Helene.
"Whenever you have something so emotional going on in you life -- I'm married to my soul mate; we have three wonderful children -- it puts you in a state of being open and receptive," says Seal, 44. "You become more emotionally available, and therefore your songs reflect that. My family has made me not stand so much in my own way."
System teems with stuttering, throbbing beats awash with atmospheric synths and layered vocals as Seal sings mostly of spiritual and romantic love. The latter is crystallized in "Wedding Day," a pleasant, if glossy, duet with Klum. Although her singing voice is thin, the Project Runway host doesn't embarrass herself. "When I was working on it, Heidi would sing it around the house," Seal says. "Eventually, I convinced her to do it in the studio. I wasn't easy."
With System and the ice show, Seals says he feels more open to trying new things in his career. The singer doesn't want to become stagnant or too predictable.
"I see more of a kind of progression, progressing to a more rhythmic music," he says. "But I don't know what's next. I may do a standards album, a duets album. I feel like I have the freedom to do anything. But whatever I do, it will be song-based. There will be melody, good lyrics. That remains the same."
See The Music of Seal on Ice at the Verizon Center, 601 F St. N.W., Washington at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Tickets are $40-$150 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.