TRACKSNovember 11, 2003
The following interview by Alan Light appeared in a May 2004 issue of Tracks magazine...
After a period of depression and soul-searching, Sting returns with a new album, a new book and new faith in timeless truth.
If the wise men of Spinal Tap are to be believed, Stonehenge is "a magic place/Where the moon doth rise with a dragon's face." But from a grassy ridge outside Salisbury, England, that overlooks the monument, Stonehenge is actually both more and less strange than that. A motorway runs close by, so it's not as isolated as photos often suggest, and it covers a smaller area than you might expect. Still, the massive stones towering over the visitors circling their bases are a mind-blowing sight.
A short hike, 30 minutes or so, down from this ridge takes you over crop circles and Bronze Age burial mounds, past grazing horses and thatched-roof cottages that look like housing for hobbits. The solitary, quintessentially English trail seems not to have changed for generations. The conclusion of this walk is a breathtaking sixteenth-century manor known as Lake House, which is bustling with activity that couldn't be more modern.
Lake House is Sting's home (one of his homes, anyway, along with residences in New York City,London, Tuscany and Malibu), and on this breezy late-summer day, it is the site of hectic preparations for the launch of both his ninth solo album, Sacred Love, and his first book, an intensely personal memoir titled 'Broken Music'. Sting and his band - five musicians plus two backup singers - are holed up in one of the sitting rooms, blasting through one of several all-day rehearsals prior to a series of promotional concerts. Meanwhile, wives, babies, TV crews, yoga instructors and pets of all sizes scurry around the zigzagging staircases and picture-perfect grounds of the estate.
"That was a festival of mistakes, not the least of them mine," Sting mutters after a first pass at 'The Book of My Life', a lovely, gently rolling song that's central to the new album. "So we have to do it again." He wastes few words in rehearsal - songs are played through; problem spots are isolated, then repeated as necessary. There's hardly a wisecrack between takes.
Sting, 52, has spent the past few years wrestling with grand issues: dredging up painful childhood memories for the book; agonizing over global politics; and reuniting, for the first time in more than a decade, with his old band mates from the Police for one feverishly anticipated, ultimately unsatisfying performance. "I was in a depression for a year or two," he says matter-of-factly. So as he directs this session, he seems relieved to be in a situation he can control. And for Sting, qualities like control, focus and structure are essential to his ability to create his distinctive, ever evolving sounds.
Sting's discipline is one reason he is such a musician's musician, versatile enough to have collaborated, over the years, with the likes of Miles Davis, Tammy Wynette and,on the new album's knockout duet 'Whenever I Say Your Name', Mary J. Blige. Throughout 'Broken Music', any time Sting wants to praise a musician or a song, he uses words like "craftsmanship" and "sophistication." Whereas many people of his generation might recall their life-changing reaction to the early Beatles in terms of the band?s energy, style or humor, Sting writes, "It wasn't the confident primitivism of the "yeah yeah yeah" chorus that excited me so much as the G chord with an added sixth that colored it at the end of the coda."
Poking a fire in a ground-floor office, he confirms that this cerebral approach still guides his listening. "My appreciation of music is invariably technical," he says. "I'm deeply moved by music, to tears, but very quickly behind that is 'How do they do that?' I will not listen to music to relax. I'll analyze the elevator music or jingles on TV. I've always been that way, from being a child and hearing my mother play piano - how does this magic happen?
"My good angel and my bad angel have been fighting through the whole of my career. I can rock out absolutely. But I want to know why I'm doing it. So I'm not a genuine rock & roller, never have been. I appreciate rock & roll, I appreciate people that go out there and they're completely instinctive in what they do. It's fabulous. But that's not my job."
Indeed, getting a handle on his job is the struggle that lies at the heart of 'Sacred Love'. The project began after Sting played a show at his home in Italy - released as the 'All This Time' CD and DVD - on the fateful date of September 11, 2001. "The next day," he says, "I started thinking, 'What is my function as an artist in this new world?' It took a few months to start work again, but it was gestating at that point, this feeling of anger - the feeling that there was something fundamentally wrong with the world - and looking for a solution."
The album's title provides a clue as to what conclusion he reached. Perhaps surprisingly for a man so well known for his political engagement,the tragedies of 9/11 steered his writing to an exploration of the intensely personal. "Very simply I'm saying that we have to go back to that basic thing - love," he explains. "Mother love, father love, husband love, wife love, child love. Because when you don't have that, all hell breaks loose, and that's what we've got. I'm as idealistic as you can get - I do believe in love. I do believe that the problems of the world are basically about its lack, and the solutions are all about saying, 'People, love each other, understand we are family.' And politics needs to serve that."
Sting strides briskly around the grounds of Lake House, behind which the waters of the river Avon run quietly. "This is one of the most famous trout-fishing rivers in the world," he says. "I don't fish, though - I don't see the fun of having something dead at the end of my line. So I'll sit here and cast, but there's no hook on it."
In conversation, Sting is clear and precise. He speaks in full sentences and paragraphs, and when he finishes an answer, he feels no obligation to fill the silence until the next question. But when he discusses the environment, the longtime rain-forest activist gets louder, more fired up - and scanning the beauty of this landscape, it isn't hard to see why.
"When I say, 'Send your love into the future'" - on the new album's first single, 'Send Your Love' - "it isn't just about love," he says, "it's about the need to appreciate that the earth isn't here just for us but that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren would probably like for there to be woods they can walk in or water they can drink. This seems like common sense to me, but the current political dispensation is that these things are to be used for our generation, that our way of life is not negotiable - and, of course, it has to be."
There's a certain irony, then, that what reinvigorated Sting's career a few years ago was a luxury-car commercial. His 1996 album 'Mercury Falling' had disappointing sales, and it looked like 1999's 'Brand New Day' was headed the same way when Jaguar took a scene from his 'Desert Rose' video and developed it into a TV spot. Suddenly the song shot up the charts, and the album started climbing as well, eventually going double platinum and reasserting Sting's power as a pop force. But was he fully comfortable with this unconventional mode of promotion?
"There was reservation on my part because of my environmental concerns," he says. "But I drive a car, so I can't really say I'm anticar. I have planted about 100,000 trees, and I'm told that that probably matches up to my pollutants, since I pollute the planet, just as everybody who is reading this magazine does. And so I point out, have you planted a tree lately?
"Of course, there is some kind of conflict there. I'm not sure I've resolved it. But I thought my song had a positive message, and I wanted it to have as long and as healthy a life as possible. This was an opportunity, and I took it. I have no regrets."
One opportunity he hasn't pursued is the one that has hovered over him for almost two decades now - getting the Police back together. After a five-year run that saw them grow more popular with each album, 1983's 'Synchronicity' established them as the biggest band in the world - and then the trio stopped, abruptly, at the peak of their game. ("I wanted to make music that wasn't tied to the limitations of a three-piece band," Sting writes in 'Broken Music', "where I didn't have to compromise my own standards as a songwriter to maintain what was in truth only the semblance of a democracy within the band.") Despite the huge sums of money offered for a reunion, Sting has refused to go for that payday and kept the mythology of the band intact.
But when the Police were voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, there seemed no gracious way to refuse, and so last March - for the first time since Sting's wedding to Trudie Styler in 1992 - he, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland took the stage together for a three-song performance that fans had spent years dreaming of. Perhaps inevitably, the reaction was widespread disappointment. Sting maintains that he was skeptical from the outset. "It was too early for me," he says. "I wasn't ready to see it with that nostalgic glow yet. We were inducted with the Righteous Brothers - they opened the show and did 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin',' and it was like 'Wow, yeah.' And then we were the last on, and I just wished it were happening in ten years' time when I could really feel rosy about it - but I don't.
"It's an odd thing anyway," he says. "If someone is dead, you put them in a museum. I wasn't particularly keen to be stuffed. But it would have been churlish of me to turn it down, because the other two were thrilled, so I went along with it. We did a very good rehearsal, and then I don't know what happened in the night. It wasn't great. Stuff happened that - we could have done a better job. We got through it. But I wasn't a happy boy." For someone who plots his moves so deliberately, the motivation for 'Broken Music' (the title comes from the term young Gordon Sumner's grandmother used to describe his attempts at playing the piano) was atypically defensive. Frustrated by the unauthorized accounts of his life that had appeared over the years, Sting asked his manager, Kathy Schenker, if there was any way to stop them. She replied that the only sure way would be to write his own book.
Now, let's be clear:Broken Music is not in any way a conventional celebrity memoir, a tale of the good life and high times - there's no "So then Bono turns to me and Bruce and says..." In fact, the entirety of the Police's career after the recording and early promotion of their first album is addressed in exactly one paragraph.Instead, the book is a genuine portrait of the artist as a young man, a cleareyed account of Sting's first 25 years: his youth in the decaying seaside city of Newcastle, his early marriage and other romantic relationships and his apprenticeship with a series of jazz and fusion bands. At the core of the book is his complicated relationship with his "remote and tormented" father and his "beautiful, sad" mother. Equally complicated is the decades-long affair his mother had with one of his father's employees, an open secret that haunts the family.
"I came from a very odd environment and wanted to write about that, because people really have no idea where I come from," Sting says. "I think they have the impression that everything was just handed to me on a plate."
After writing a proposal - and making it clear that he was not going to use a ghostwriter - Sting sent it to the publishers he determined were the most literary. Susan Kamil, editorial director of the Dial Press, claims that she knew immediately that this was a book she wanted. "I read about ten pages," she says, "and it was clear that his talent was not specific to writing song lyrics, but that he was a natural and elegant narrative writer." In February, it was announced that Kamil had landed the book for a reported $1.5 million. Then Sting got down to work. "I clocked on at ten in the morning with coffee, and I would break for lunch. As the sun was going down, I'd be finishing off. Every day was an eight-hour day - and time just disappeared. Then when I had to get down to writing lyrics for the album, I didn't look at the book for six months. When the record was finished, I began again and reconfigured it."
Writing Broken Music wasn't always pleasant. "I was forced to bring up memories that had laid in the sediment and been suppressed," Sting says. "Those things don't really go away; they just gnaw at you. And there were moments when I regretted it¬ópotentially upsetting people or giving away secrets, digging up ghosts that some people would prefer unmoved. I obviously had doubts. I still do."
Which raises another doubt: do fans of a pop musician want to read an autobiography that doesn't address the persona they know? But for 25 years Sting has cultivated an audience that has proved willing to follow him in unpredictable directions. From the rock-reggae of the Police, through his early solo albums with top-flight jazz musicians, to his use of folk and Arabic music and - on 'Sacred Love' - R&B, he has almost obsessively striven not to repeat himself. For all the activism and soul-searching, it is this ability to construct a diverse, open-minded community with his music that satisfies Sting the most.
"If I look out into the audience at my shows," he says, "the demographic is extremely wide. From people older than me down to young kids who probably just heard 'Desert Rose' on the radio. Men, women, a racial mix. And I don't underestimate the audience - I don't pander to them by saying, "I can't do this music because you won't understand it." I think the older ones see that I'm on some kind of musical journey of discovery and that they're on it with me.
"If I shaved half of my head off and wore leather hot pants, I'd get an audience that was those people. And that would be fine. But I don't do that. I'm just a guy and I make music and people turn up from all different walks of life. And that's what I like."
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