BILLBOARDNovember 01, 2001
The following interview appeared in a November 2001 issue of Billboard magazine.
Sting On The Fragile Art Of 'All This Time'
I looked out across the river ...and saw a city and an old church tower ...priests came 'round tonight ...to offer prayers for the dying, to serve the final rite - Sting, 'All This Time'.
Like echoing fragments of a familiar song, the sights at dusk on a recent September day at the Certosa del Galluzzo priory and church near Tuscany's Arno River seemed stirring and sadly symbolic in their comforting agelessness-as if life's deepest sensations have all been known and felt before. Minutes before sundown, a portly Italian monk of the Cisterian order met Sting; his wife, Trudie Styler; and their few guests at the massive gate of the castle-like monastery overlooking Florence. After bows and cordial hand clasps were exchanged, he led us down into the cloister's cavernous, 14th-century corridors.
It was Sept. 13, the feast of St. Amatus (a cave-dwelling, seventh-century ascetic whose food was filched by crows), and only two tense days since terrorists active in the United States had committed the mass murder of several thousand civilians of numerous nationalities, including an estimated 38 Italians. The visit at twilight to the medieval hilltop retreat was Sting and his spouse's first outing to Florence since Sept. 11. The tragedy in America had coincided with a long-planned live concert taping on the night of Sept. 11 in the courtyard of Sting and Trudie's villa in the Arno Valley - a unique project originally intended to revisit the 'Brand New Day' album first developed in 1998 at their Tuscany residence-and Sting's sense of responsibility toward his audience was transformed into something far more reflective. Days later, the pangs of the moment and its still-unfolding aftermath remained potent, and the visit to the Certosa-where prominent Christian painters once sought refuge during the plague of 1522-seemed somehow apt.
"At first I didn't want to sing," Sting recalls of the remarkably intimate document that is '...All This Time' (A&M/Universal, due Nov. 20), a 15-track set performed for the 250 invited fans and friends who suddenly found themselves at a program dedicated to those who died. Shivering slightly under the starry autumn canopy, Sting had told the distraught spectators, "This was supposed to be a very joyous occasion tonight. Because of the horrific events of today, it simply can't be a joyous occasion. We have three choices: One is the show must go on, the other is not to do anything at all. The band and I came up with a compromise: We'd like to have one number on the Webcast for the rest of the world to see and then shut it off as a token of respect to those who've lost their lives and those who have lost loved ones from this terrible event. And then it's up to you and how you feel. I'd like a minute's silence after that song. I don't want any applause-I just want us to stand there and think about what's happened today."
Sting and his band began to play 'Fragile': "If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one / Drying in the color of the evening sun / Tomorrow's rain will wash the stains away / But something in our minds will always stay." After more than 60 seconds of silence, during which many onlookers wept, the crowd began to stand and applaud. Visibly moved, Sting suggested the band play 'A Thousand Years'. An impromptu set slowly emerged, Sting asking the crowd to name appropriate songs from his repertoire. He introduced 'All This Time' by saying he wrote it about his father's death and that he wanted to play it for him.
"I thought, 'Why am I choosing a set list when this cataclysm has happened?' " Sting now recalls of his poignant dilemma in Italy. "It just seemed crazy. But then as the evening wore on, although we began in a very somber and tentative way, it became sort of defiant, it became a celebration of feeling, which I suppose is anti-terrorist. That's what I feel-that these people want to kill our mode of expression, our joy, and we can't let them do that."
Thus did '...All This Time' come to its own pathos-refracted fruition, complete with a sensitive palette of impassioned new arrangements. Offered without interruption, the ultimate song choices (including 'Perfect Love...Gone Wrong', 'The Hounds of Winter', 'Don't Stand So Close to Me', 'When We Dance', 'Dienda' - Sting lending evocative lyrics to the former instrumental dedicated to his late keyboardist, Kenny Kirkland - 'Roxanne', '(If You Love Someone) Set Them Free', 'Brand New Day', 'Fields of Gold', 'Moon Over Bourbon Street', 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You', and 'Every Breath You Take') build upon the other to create one of the most lean, fervent, and warmly satisfying live albums imaginable.
"The songs all seemed to recalibrate themselves within the brand-new context," Sting says, "and that knocked me sideways a couple of times. 'A Thousand Years', I just put in because it was the right kind of mood, but some of the lyrics were almost too close to the images we had just seen on CNN and BBC television, [such as] 'towers of souls.' But I think the band [which featured such dramatic new additions as Christian McBride on upright bass and Brazilian cellist Jaques Morelenbaum] played out of their skins that night. Everybody did. I sang in a way I never sang before. I don't normally get involved emotionally in the singing. If you've written the melody and the lyrics, they will transmit the emotions that you mean them to. But that night, it was impossible not to get swept up in this feeling."
Sting says the pilgrimage to the monastery two days later was a personal emotional coda to '...All This Time' that "meant a great deal." As he and his fellow guests entered the rough-hewn stone passageways, plainsong chanting could be heard reverberating from a tiny room in the belly of the complex. Guiding us into a faintly lit chamber, the head monk took his place opposite three other members of his order in one of the pews flanking a small altar. Hymnals were passed as an African friar beside the altar intoned a verse. Then all present continued with vespers, the solemn Latin evening service celebrated with hymns and canticles, as nightfall enveloped the Certosa del Galluzzo.
"It was strange in that enormous place to have just four ancient monks there," Sting says, "but I'm grateful they carry on the ritual and the liturgy. I actually believe in the power of prayer, and I think that when people are praying it helps the world-not just the individuals who are praying. I think it balances out all the other crap that's going on. I've been looking for symbols of stillness, because of all the turmoil in the world and how everything is moving toward more and more mischief and mayhem. And while I would have preferred not to have had that kind of context [in which] to perform '...All This Time., as it was and is, I'm proud of it as a memento and a memorial of that day."