10.04.03 THE INDEPENDENT
The following interview by Craig Mclean appeared in an October 2003 issue of The Independent newspaper...
The man who would be Sting...
He's handsome. He's talented. He's rich. Perhaps it's no wonder so many people love to hate him. Is it time to think again?
Because I asked him to, Sting is talking me through his jewellery. The wide silver cuff on his right wrist was a gift from a yogi. It features an inscription in Sanskrit: "I bow to thee Lord Shiva" - Shiva being the deity of yoga. The thinner bracelet on his left wrist was given to him on a recent trip to Tibet. "Actually I was in a part of Nepal," he clarifies, "so politically it wasn't Tibet, but culturally it was."
He rattles off its inscription in Sanskrit. He can't remember what it means, something to do with the lotus. I'm not sure if he means the fruit, flower or the position. I keep schtum. I don't wish to appear like an ignoramus in his company: Sting - wildly successful artist, former teacher and pan-cultural egghead - practically oozes learning.
Sanskrit, he continues, is onomatopoeic. When spoken it has meaning, whether you understand the words or not, "vibrations-wise". Sting enjoys speaking Sanskrit.
And the pendant round his neck, nestling amidst the greying chest hairs revealed by the shirt that is open to his nipples? "This is quite something," Sting says proudly, fingering the shiny grey stone. "It has nine circles, which I'm told is a great protecting force. The legend is that some Bodhisattva rained these on Tibet. You only find them there. I've been wearing it for a couple of months now. It protects me." The dictionary tells me later that Bodhisattva is, in Buddhism, "a divine being worthy of nirvana who remains behind to help men to salvation".
Is the stone doing its job?
"Well, I don't have to wear a condom," Sting replies, quicksmart. "It's fantastic!"
Fancy jewellery, New Age mantras, bare chests and ribald quips are not normally becoming on a man, far less a 51-year-old father of six. But, of course, Sting is no normal man. To some - and some would say, to himself - he is a divine being worthy of nirvana who remains behind to help people to salvation via periodic flashes of pop brilliance and lovely ballads. He is Sting, a member of rock's ruling élite, recipient this year of an OBE, up there with Rod and Elton, a pal of Madonna, always been here, always will be. This autumn, and this is the reason for our meeting in this central-London private-members' club, sees the release of Sting's 10th studio album, Sacred Love, which was partly written at his Tuscan estate.
Others marvel at this seasoned globetrotter's dabblings with jazz, north African rai, classical and other musics of the world. The same observers would acknowledge his mastery of the craft of songwriting, and point out the limber, dextrous and lasting qualities of some of his creations. 'Every Breath You Take' is a 20-year-young, worldwide standard that, by one calculation, earns its writer $1,000 every day from plays on American radio alone.
'Every Breath You Take' was one of 14 hits he wrote for The Police. His 18-year-long solo career has also thrown up its fair share of classics. 'Fields Of Gold', from the sharp, pop-flavoured (ie not much jazzy adventurism here) 'Ten Summoner's Tales', gave the late Eva Cassidy one of her signature tunes. This year, both Sugababes and Craig David built different hit singles from the same album's 'Shape Of My Heart'. Along the way, they introduced Sting to another generation and yet another audience. He's particularly proud of this big little song (it's only 138 seconds long). "Because the thing that you created evolves into something different," he smiles. "Particularly with Craig. He made a fantastic song. Then he invited me to sing on his record, in a style that matched his. So I had to learn. And you know, he's a young lad and he directed me, very confidently."
Sting pauses for a moment, and possibly for effect. "Put one of my kids through school with the money so I'm really not gonna complain!"
This, if you like, fiscal name-dropping is one of the reasons still other people think Sting is a knob. Too much money, too liberally "conscious", too many houses, an awful lot of yoga, and one overachieving and therefore annoying wife (sometime actress, film producer, philanthropist, matchmaker for Madonna and Guy and mother-of-four, Trudie Styler). Even the fact that he looks, frankly, astonishing for his age is suspect. Sting's achievements are but nothing next to his aura of confident, moneyed, luxury, up-his-bum smugness.
Whose idea of a joke was it then that we meet the world's most famous Geordie in the luxurious suite known as The Duke Of Newcastle? Whoever it was, Sting finds it dead funny too.
For today, Sting is in residence at Home House, a swanky gaff in Marylebone. He had been filming some TV interviews here that morning; this afternoon he was talking to me; this evening he was performing songs from 'Sacred Love' at the tiny Mermaid Theatre, in a concert to be later broadcast by Radio 2.
Sting is slim, toned and tanned. He wears a pale blue shirt, grey flannels and beige slip-ons. His hair is still mostly there. He has a bit of a beard, and is proud of the grey in it. His eyes sparkle, but are flinty as well. He looks like Terence Stamp, dignified and hard. For all the yoga and serenity, you wouldn't mess with him.
The jewellery conversation came at the end of the interview, but we began by discussing the current world political situation. As interviews with musical megastars go - normally bland, wearying, heavy on hyperbolic adjectives concerning their new album - it's a trip. Sting will talk about anything. Even sex with his wife.
He is, as it happens, an Independent man. He's a big fan of the reporting of Robert Fisk. He appreciates the correspondent's coverage of what is occurring in the Middle East.
"The intelligence community, so-called, has shied away from speaking languages," he says in his familiar, vaguely hoarse rasp, settling into the corner of a sofa. There are occasional lapses into transatlanticisms, which is fair enough considering he has two houses in the US, and the length of time he spends over there, touring, picking up Grammys, recording for Hollywood, that sort of thing. But generally, his accent retains an undertow of a Geordie burr, and, like a good son of the North East, he stills emphasises many random words.
Of spooks and spies, Sting laments, "they used to sit in coffee bars and listen to what was happening on the street". He knows this for a fact. Miles Copeland Snr, father of The Police's manager and of their drummer, Stuart, was a founder member of the CIA. "The OSS [Office Of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA] were intellectuals. They could speak the language. Then in the Vietnam War the whole intelligence community was taken over by the military. They got rid of all the people who could speak a foreign language. They became dependant on electronic surveillance. They knew nothing about al-Qa'ida."
So was he for or against the war in Iraq? "I didn't think it was a good idea. I mean, I never for a minute thought there were weapons of mass destruction," he says, frowning. "I've no doubt Saddam wanted them but it never rang true. I'm very happy he's gone, he was a fascist pig. But at the same time, look what they've put in its place. It's just chaos. One of the good things about fascism is that the trains ran on time! Now people are living in 130 degrees fahrenheit at night. That's a disaster. I'm not crowing. I'm just saying, let's deal with the problem. Be real. It's not a success at all."
He thinks Tony Blair has come out of it "badly. I'm disappointed. I've met him, actually like him as a person, he's a decent man. I like his family, I have a rapport with him. I just think he's been unfortunate in his choice of bedfellows," he laughs, lightly. "I think he's been sold down the river. Yeah, I think he's a fine politician. But I'm not sure how he can regain our respect as someone who tells the truth.
"But you know, he's trying his best. Even George Bush is trying his best. But the world's vastly more complicated than they like to think. Instead of reducing the world to us and them, good and evil, black and white, we should see that there are shades here. It involves complex thinking, complex negotiation. Complex philosophy. Not reducing it."
As to whether America is a harder place to love now, Sting says: "Well, I've had a love affair with America, like most of my generation, since Elvis Presley. Since the blues, since jazz. It's a cultural powerhouse. But there is an edge of paranoia in the country now which I hope is temporary. All that goodwill after September 11 is being whittled away. That needs to be restored. America is a great country - fantastic. We just need to have our faith restored in it."
On September 11 2001, Sting was preparing to play a concert in the grounds of his villa in Tuscany when news came in of the attacks in America. Friends, colleagues and competition winners from around the world had gathered for the show, which was also to be recorded for a live album and video. Against his better judgment and "coerced by my band", he says, they went on with the performance.
"By the end of it, it seemed like an act of defiance in the face of what terrorists want us to do, which is just to be afraid. But, um, it wasn't a great noble stand for freedom!" he chuckles. "I was just doing my job. But the next day everybody left - the crew, the audience, my f family. And I was on my own in the house. And I was thinking, well, what's my, em, role in this new world that has landed on our doorstep? I'm a singer/songwriter. An entertainer. Do I have a function? I didn't come up with an easy answer."
But he eventually did come up with an answer, and album. Sacred Love is his response to September 11. He began thinking that it seems easier to declare war than it is to declare love. "It must be that we're afraid of this idea of love. So I began to try and redefine how love was treated in my walk of life. Love is flowers and sunshine and butterflies. So I thought I'd start treating love as if it was a devastating, frightening force ... and that was 'Inside'."
'Inside' is the keening, questioning first song on 'Sacred Love'. It has a trademark head-tilted-back, hollered Sting chorus. The single 'Send Your Love' is whirling and tempestuous, complete with flamenco and Arabic flavours. 'Whenever I Say Your Name' is a scorching, sexy duet with Mary J Blige. 'Forget About the Future' makes comparisons between domestic and geopolitical bickering. 'This War' is an occasionally cacophonic rant against the mess we're in before, finally, the closing title track finds hope and spiritual salvation in the heart.
Sting and his wife lost a good friend who worked for their Rainforest Foundation in the attacks on the World Trade Centre. But, he insists, it's not a maudlin record. Like Bruce Springsteen's stunning 'The Rising', it's a record seeking to uplift.
"Oh I love that record," says Sting eagerly. "Bruce is a very close friend of mine and I was very inspired by his record. So no, it's a joyous record, it arrives at an... idealistic conclusion if you like. But it's my truth."
I ask him if would call himself religious, and Sting thinks for a second. "I believe in God," he says slowly. "But I don't think I could describe God in any coherent way. It's an unembraceable concept. I don't think God looks like me."
A lot of people think you do.
He laughs sheepishly. "I scored an own goal there! No, I think a lot of people do think God looks like them. I'm sure bin Laden thinks God looks like him, that He's a Muslim. Presbyterians or Catholics might see Him as Presbyterian or Catholic. But He can't be any of those things. The concept is vastly above our intelligence.
"Am I religious?" he ponders further. "In my own way. I say in 'Send Your Love': 'there's no religion but sex and music'. That's a polemic statement. But if you look at it, 'religion' means to reconnect in the Latin. What reconnects us with the world of spirit are two things: sex and music. Generally, this is my church. My idea of a spirit realm is not something outside the cosmos, it is the cosmos."
I nod. "Hmm," says Sting, reflecting, "That's a bit pretentious."
For most of last year, having been previously engaged in the 300-plus shows of a two-year world tour, Sting was living in Tuscany. His routine consisted of an early rise and, before breakfast, a couple of hours in his "nice room with a nice echo". There, his "passion" is to play Bach's violin partitas or his solo cello suites.
"They sound great on guitar," he insists. "I mean, you wouldn't want to pay money to hear me play! Listening to music is one thing; actually seeing the notes on the page and responding to them is another thing. It's a lot like having a conversation with a master - and Bach is the god as far as I'm concerned. I suppose you're learning by osmosis."
He does this daily as almost a kind of "religious devotion". One of the songs on 'Sacred Love', he says with a glint, was stolen wholesale from Bach. Which one? "Not telling you! It's a secret." If he's writing songs, he'll "put the hours in", starting around 11, breaking for lunch, then resuming in the afternoon. If not, the rest of his day involves a bit of yoga and a walk with the dogs. "Inspect my vineyards!" he declaims. The family has eight dogs. His personal dog is a flat-coat retriever called Roux. Trudie has Irish wolfhounds, and they also have Labradors and a couple of Anatolian sheepdogs.
While in Italy, Sting also busied himself writing his autobiography, 'Broken Music: A Memoir'. He dotted the final "i" on the final draft last night, he tells me, ahead of deadline. Broken Music covers the period of his life up until the point where he formed The Police. Why write a book? Partly because he was fed up reading various unofficial biographies.
"They're tedious 'cause they're just tabloid stories that are revved up into bodice-ripping, drug-fuelled yarns. It's crap. It's not a particularly noble reason to write a book, I admit. But then it became a sort of exploratory self-therapy. Trying to remember your life and the people that were important to you and how you ended up here. It's kind of an unlikely story and one people don't really know. I think they assume that my life was always blessed and I was just suddenly given this fantastic opportunity. But you know, I struggled - and that's a more interesting story than a celeb thing - 'I had dinner with Elton and Madonna and Guy', you know, all that stuff. It's all in Hello! why would you want to read that in a book?"
He enjoyed writing about Newcastle in the Fifties and Sixties, about his grandparents. He didn't need to make field-research trips back to Tyneside, he says, because he kept thorough journals back then and his memory is good. He's non-committal as to whether there will be further volumes. "The nearer I got to the present time the more cloudy it became, paradoxically. I can remember crystal-clear my first 10 years. I knew exactly what the salient points of my life were. I'm not so sure about the last 25 ... "
The trips to the rainforest? The tantric sex? The environmental and human rights activism? The Lifetime Achievement award at The Brits? These might loom large in the public consciousness, but it seems that in the scheme of things, they're not how Sting defines himself.
When he finished writing the book, he says he was "depressed, to be honest with you. You're forced to bring stuff up that had maybe lain in a sediment. That had been suppressed for a good reason. But putting it on the page was good therapy and I feel better now than I did last year. I really got into a dark space."
Was he hard to live with?
A pause and the first hint of a squirm. "You'd have to ask them," he says of his family. "I'm not the most comfortable person anyway so ... "
You are multimillionaire superdad artist Sting, and what is there left to achieve? Easy: he still wants to improve, to "evolve" musically.
"I'm 51, I might be tempted to become complacent," he says, draining the cup of camomile into which, in preparation for tonight's singing engagement, he had ladled oodles of throat-soothing honey. "I've done enough, I'll just tread water. Well, I don't think you can tread water, I think you go back. Consequently, I'm the eternal student. I'm earnest and I get a lot of criticism for that. That I'm far too serious.
"But that's me," he says with a shrug, eyes set midway between challenge and entreaty. "Love me or not, that's me: serious about what I do. I'm genuine, I'm honest, I... " A pause. " ... I want to get better. Simple!"
He's multimillionaire superdad artist Sting, and he's alright, you know?
© The Independent