THE CHICAGO TRIBUNEMarch 01, 1993
The following article by Greg Kot appeared in a March 1993 issue of The Chicago Tribune newspaper...
To go through life with a name like Sting takes a certain amount of swagger, and the erstwhile bassist for the Police can swagger with the best of them.
But he's also self-deprecating, literate and one of the more accomplished - and, no doubt, wealthiest - songwriters of the last decade.
Sting's a bit weary from jet lag, but hardly looks his 41 years as he sips hot tea in a mid-town Manhattan high-rise. On a brutally cold February day, he has the window cracked open six inches, presumably to keep himself alert after an overnight flight from his native England.
His new album, 'Ten Summoner's Tales', is due out Tuesday, and it's designed as an about-face from its dour, soul-searching predecessor, 'The Soul Cages'.
Its title refers to a medieval summoner, one of the more roguish characters in Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales'. Summoner also happens to be the genesis of Sting's surname, Sumner. (As a teenager, Gordon Sumner was dubbed "Sting" by the older musicians he was playing with in a traditional jazz band, and it stuck - "It's a stupid name, but I'm used to it," he says.) That punning reference is just the first in a series of sly jokes, both musical and lyrical, that make up the album.
"If you look over the work over an extended period you'll find there are plenty of ironic songs-it's not as though I've suddenly discovered humour," Sting says. "It was just important for me on this record to write just for fun. Because the last record was essentially therapeutic and confessional, and it worked. I've exorcised some ghosts and feel better because of it. People would be very suspicious if I made another record dredging up some personal wound or trauma. I just wanted to write as a songwriter and said, 'OK, I'm gonna amuse myself, I'm gonna amuse my band and I'm gonna amuse my family.' "
Which explains why 'Love is Stronger Than Justice' opens with a spaghetti-western guitar, slips into a country-western chorus and fades out with some serious be-bop piano by David Sancious. And in St. Augustine in Hell, lust turns to guilt with a visit from Satan, who reports that his turf is populated by "cardinals, archbishops, barristers, certified accountants, music critics..."
Sting in the past has committed the sin of not being rock'n'roll enough for some members of the rock press, especially in his post-Police solo career when he began playing with jazz musicians such as Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland. Even with the Police, Sting was already shifting between reggae and jazz. Although his reedy voice has been ubiquitous on pop radio for a good part of the 1980s, his sound isn't instantly identifiable the way, say, U2's or Springsteen's is.
"It's something I've tried to avoid, often to my commercial detriment," he says. "I think it's great if you have a signature sound, but it tends to trap you. One of the things that has been very helpful to me is that largely I've been critically marginalised. People are no longer sure of me at all and that's allowed me the freedom to do what I want.
"Besides, I'm not interested in pure musical form like a musicologist is. I don't care about rock 'n' roll. I don't care about the blues. I don't care about jazz. What interests me is a hybrid between all of those forms. Because I see music as being there for the taking. I've got musicians around me who play classical music, and can play jazz and rock. They just do not see the ghetto process. I like to mix, I'm a modular man."
On 'Ten Summoner's Tales', the genre-hopping has a playful tone, as when a string quartet comes out of nowhere to stick a pin in a hard-rocking cliché, 'She's Too Good For Me'.
"I wouldn't have just written a generic rock'n'roll song," Sting says. "There's nothing original about it. 'She's too good for me / She doesn't want to drive my car.' Please. The thing that makes it worthwhile is that it suddenly takes this musical twist. And the record company said, 'God, that was a great radio record and then suddenly you ruin it.' Well, yeah, but I wouldn't have written it otherwise."
The I-gotta-be-me attitude led to Sting's most reflective record in 1991, 'The Soul Cages', about growing up in working-class England and the death of Sting's father.
"'The Soul Cages' had a fairly limited constituency - the recently bereaved," Sting acknowledges with a chuckle. "I didn't expect it to be 'Thriller'. This album is more expansive and that's been the strategy all along, widen and contract. Because if you just keep widening all the time, you vanish as an artist. But if you keep focusing on the one person in the world who's gonna understand your work, you're left with yourself."
It's doubtful Sting could have written such an album with the Police, which is why the group broke up at the height of its success, after the 1983 'Synchronicity' album and stadium tour.
"The last two Police albums were about me wanting to write more personal songs and the framework the Police created wasn't exactly the right one," Sting says. "It was really a power struggle between three massive egos about who would do what, who'd be who. Yet the best record we made was the last one - if an idea was going to get through this process it had to be a good one."
At his wedding last year, Sting briefly reunited on stage with fellow Policemen, drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers.
"Ten years went like that (snaps fingers) and we found ourselves in those roles again," Sting says. "I was glaring at Stewart and he was glaring at me, and then we caught ourselves doing it and we laughed. But it was the Police all over again."
Even Sting acknowledges, "There was a tension in that band that paid off, that was right" and that as a solo artist, "It's much easier to make records because I don't have to fight tooth and nail for every idea."
Surround an artist with yes men, and pretty soon the artist turns into a parody. Who can tell Sting he's written a bad song these days?
"I'm fighting myself," he says. "I'm fighting, really, to stay relevant. I have to ask myself the question every time I come off tour and there's a blank page in front of me. 'What do I know?' 'Do I have any talent?' 'How do you write songs?' I've written 200, 300 of them, but I still don't know which button to press."
© The Chicago Tribune