Sunday Times interview: Sting and his tale - He is returning to his home of North Tyneside to face up to his difficult childhood, but will the musician ever find peace?
Sting and his tale - He is returning to his home of North Tyneside to face up to his difficult childhood, but will the musician ever find peace?
We are inside Durham Cathedral. It's like being inside a great Gothic wedding cake, pale and cold. Sting's voice - deeper, sadder, more robust - soars amid the incense and the notes from fiddles, harps and Northumbrian pipes. He has come to the northeast of England to perform songs from his new winter-themed album, because he equates the season with coming home. "It's a time for coming out of the cold for comfort, for reflection, for dealing with ghosts, perhaps even rebirth," he says. "It's a wonderful coming home for me. I don't come home often."
It is interesting that of the many places Sting can call home - a pile in Wiltshire, a palazzo in Tuscany, a mansion in Malibu and something state of the art in New York - he still calls the northeast home. Having grown up in the working-class town of Wallsend, North Tyneside, the oldest of four children of a milkman, he has seldom returned since leaving in the 1970s.
The week before, during a break from rehearsals, we sat in the grounds of Durham Cathedral. "Winter is the season where there's almost a gravitational pull towards your roots," he says. "It's like a homing instinct. You look for somewhere warm and cosy. Winter's an uncomfortable season. People are cold and miserable, but at the same time it's an important one for our psychological make-up. It's a time of reflection, imagination, telling stories. Whether the songs are sacred or secular, they have an idea of magic in them."
Sting likes to talk in metaphors, and sometimes complex ones. You often find that there is more than one hidden line in what he is saying. When we meet, his 58th birthday is one week away. He likes to be prepared. He likes to take risks. Lots of elements of his psychological make-up seem to cancel each other out. Is he embracing the winter of his life? What has happened to Sting, Rock-Star Fabulous? Loud, excessive, served champagne by liveried servants. What happens when you are a rock star and you get old: are you supposed to die, retire, shut up, or dye your hair maroon?
Not that Sting's hair is ever going to be maroon. It's no longer egg-yolk yellow. It's a pale, straw-brown, but it's fullish. The blond made it look more transparent, more receding. There's also a beard. Is that part of his winter look?
"I grew a beard last November when I did an opera in Paris with Elvis Costello. I played Dionysus, the Greek god, and they wanted me to look Greek. I rather liked it, so I kept it around, much to my wife's chagrin," he says stroking it.
Does Trudie dislike it because she has permanent face rash? "Shhh," says Sting, tantric sex master, embarrassed when I mention him kissing his wife, the film producer Trudie Styler, whom he has been with for nearly 30 years. "It's a very soft beard. It's not one of those prickly beards." He invites me to feel. I tell him that it's more like a terrier than a silky Afghan hound. "You know Trudie breeds Irish wolfhounds, so she's used to that kind of affection."
As we talk, and on the CD, I notice that his voice, as well as sounding gravellier, also sounds more Geordie. He looks a bit offended when I mention it. "It's not as if I'm putting it on. This is my accent." So, this is more your true voice, and the voice that's without the northeast influence is the one that has been affected? "Yes," he says, but looks slightly disconcerted. It's as if it's not just the Geordie voice, it's the whole Geordie persona that's come back. The Geordie persona as I have known it - because I was born there too - is someone who is not at ease with oneself, who is a little defensive, and who can express sentiment but not emotion. If the northeast had a season it would be winter, many layers and wrappings, because we would rather cover things up. Is all of that you?
"It's certainly me. I feel natural in that garb. I look forward to putting on my sweaters and my boots. I like reflection. It's useful. You have to deal with the ghosts of your past, and there are plenty of ghosts here for me. A lot of friends who are musicians have passed on. I lost my parents here. So when I flew into the airport the other day it was a very bittersweet return. I'm 58 and I seem to have lived three lifetimes since I left."
He defines those lifetimes as "becoming a rock star, and surviving that, and becoming an older person in the music business and trying to figure out a way of doing that. To return home to your roots is important because it injects into you something real. You see your old friends, what they have done and how they relate to you".
Is that frightening, to see that you have grown apart? "I didn't find it frightening. I found it interesting how much it actually stayed the same. When I sing here next week the front row will be people who know exactly where I came from. My dad delivered their milk. I have no mystique here. I am just Gordon from Wallsend."
One of the musicians in his band is the keyboard player Gerry Richardson, a former flatmate who played with him in Last Exit, the band he was in before the Police. Gerry is still a professional musician and teaches at Newcastle College. Sting, who early on worked as a bus conductor, a construction labourer and a tax officer, qualified as a teacher in 1974. Even though he is a kind and patient man and was probably good at teaching, he hated the stability, the no-risk element, the lack of adrenaline. I ask Gerry if he thinks Sting has changed.
"Not fundamentally at all. I still see Gordon in there, as well as Sting. But we are all different personalities to different people, and he is just the same with me. We've been in touch throughout the years. He gets me out of my box whenever he needs me. We used to play some folk songs in the Last Exit sets, and some of the songs we did as Last Exit got reworked as Police songs. He was prolific then, and I don't think he's changed radically in his music either.
"Sting has always been into songs that were not in 4/4 timing. And he still likes to do things with an odd time signature." Winter is a collection of traditional songs and some of his own reworked, but they all have an unmistakable Stingness; the odd timing is haunting and makes happy notes sound sad, and sad notes happy.
Rehearsals break again, and I walk with Sting in those big, stone, echoey corridors. He feels the resonance of the old souls, the old spirits. He thinks he might have been a monk in another life. And I tell him, well he's certainly made up for it in this one. "I've had my moments, I suppose." He doesn't look like a 58-year-old. When his old woolly jumper is removed, a skimpy T-shirt reveals a hard, flat stomach and beautiful yoga arms. "I feel about 14?, actually, but I have 58-year-old memories. I think I have the spirit of a younger man and hopefully the body. I still work out every day."
Does he think about mortality?
"Well, yes, I'm about to enter the wintry part of life, but I also look forward to another spring." Nostalgic and hopeful. Does yoga maintain that mentality? "Yoga seems to maintain me. It's partly vanity, partly discipline, partly just because I'm used to it. I couldn't enjoy being out of shape. I couldn't do my job for a start. It helps me psychologically. I am so prone to depression, or at least melancholy, and being active helps me create the right endorphins to deal with it."
But isn't melancholy good for songwriting? "It's essential. Happy songs, what are they? I love you and you love me. That's pretty banal. Whereas I love you but you love someone else, that's interesting. That's a three-dimensional problem. That's a song."
He can still write songs with yearning, even though sometimes the people who are missing are in fact his parents who have been dead for 20 years. He feels that he still communicates with them most days, and this collection of songs from the northeast certainly carries their spirit.
"Some of these songs relate directly to my parents, and when I'm singing I have to filter that out otherwise I can't really sing them. This album is full of ghost stories. I don't think that ghosts are necessarily unpleasant, I think you need to deal with them. And one song that we sing, Ghost Story, is about my father specifically. It was a very tough relationship, not an easy one. And at the same time I see him every morning in the mirror. 'Oh, I thought you were dead? Oh... it's me.' " Perhaps that's why he had to grow the beard, to differentiate himself.
His father was a milkman, but used to talk of the time that he was a soldier doing National Service in Germany with the Royal Engineers. He worked all his life, not because he was fulfilled but because work defined his manliness. Does Sting feel fulfilled? Is that restlessness why he feels the need to keep on working?
"A certain amount of my personality was in that DNA, a sort of hunger for something that is never really fed - although I'm certainly more fulfilled than my father was. Like most people of his generation, his talent and his brain were not accommodated in the work that he did."
But Sting has every reason to be fulfilled. He has success, acclaim, money, houses; a happy, healthy marriage he is always saying completes him. But you get the feeling he is never satisfied. "There is always going to be hunger, and that's not a bad thing. I can't imagine life without it."
What do you think you have found by coming back here? "Going back to your roots, realising what gifts you have been given from your culture. Honouring that is important for me at this stage in my life. I am not going to become a traditional folk singer, but there has always been that strain in my music. That's where I am at the moment, it's not really an end result. It's just what I'm doing now. I take risks because I get bored easily. I don't like doing the same thing; even though on paper that would seem the most successful thing to do, my instinct tells me otherwise."
These few weeks have been the longest time Sting has been in the northeast since he left. "My brother and sister still live here. My brother delivers the milk like my dad did, and my sister runs Newcastle airport."
Of all of his many homes, which does he feel the most connected to? "I have lived in Italy largely for the last decade, but I am travelling all the time. It's hard to say, but next year we are heading to New York for a couple of years because our youngest son, Giacomo , is going to school there." Their other children are Coco, 19, a singer and model, Jake, 24, a film student and Bridget Michael, 25, a film-maker.
Is he a good parent? Sting moves away slightly, his voice becoming distant. "It's not easy. I am travelling all the time and I don't have a normal parent-child relationship. But my kids have had advantages. They have seen the world and have a sophisticated sense of the geopolitics of the globe, and they go to the finest schools. At the same time they complain, and I say, somehow you chose me as your parent, so figure that out - which is better than being a victim. And I actually believe we choose our parents. That's what makes us."
I ask him to explain this. Does he mean that when we are being formed as a soul we magically decide which foetus to inhabit? "Yes, you choose your parents because they are what you need. I am speaking in metaphors. I think it is important never to think of yourself as a victim of your parents. Your parents were there for a reason and they created who you are. You have a choice. You have to think that."
Are his children like him? "If you have got me and Trudie as parents you are going to be very driven, very ambitious and very disciplined, and also a lot of fun." He doesn't say how much of Frances Tomelty, his first wife, is in Joe, 32, now in the band Fiction Plane, who opened for the Police, and Fuschia, 27. You feel a disconnect there, although he once talked of his guilt for not being present when Joe was born and how that sowed the seeds for the end of that marriage. Its failure is something he has never got over.
"I don't think I'm a natural parent. I don't have those skills I see other people demonstrate as a parent. For me it's not a terribly natural thing."
Is that because you were not parented, you were unnurtured? "I was. I was unnurtured. It is not natural for me to go and read a story at night, but I thought I'd better do it all the same."
You were never read a story? "No." Were you hugged? "No. My parents were just kids. My parents certainly loved me. I never had any doubt about that, but they just didn't express it very well. Music became my saviour, my best friend. Music is an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I would sit playing scales for hours on end, obsessively. It channelled my energy, and it still does. I don't know where I'd be without music." It is as if music is the mother he has to nurture and the father he has to be disciplined by. It is striking that when we asked for photographs of him with his parents, or for early snaps of either of them by themselves, he couldn't find any.
We are now sitting under a shady tree having lunch. He is having a beanburger, cooked by the caterers he uses on every tour. Did they do the Police tour? He shakes his head, "Nope." Did you have separate caterers on that tour? "Yes, and that's the last question I'm going to answer about that." I had no idea that the Police reunion could be a source of potential indigestion.
Prior to their world tour in 2007-8, the Police played their last gig in 1983. They didn't know it was their last gig at the time, although they certainly knew things weren't going well. Fights about Sting's songwriting supremacy, and a tabloid headline that said Stewart Copeland had punched Sting and cracked a rib meant the rows were public knowledge. But Sting never told the band it was over; he just ran away - something that used to be a trait of his and which, in his later years, he is addressing. He is running back. He said at the time the Police reformed: "You can abandon something, you can never finish it. Relationships are never finished."
At their peak, the Police were one of the most successful rock bands of all time. For Sting it was a painful seven years. "Everything you thought would make you happy was given to you - and then it did not make you happy. It's a wonderful lesson, to learn where real happiness comes from. I escaped that band..." And one day his instincts told him he had to go back to it.
The band itself spun him into a different orbit, away from everything he knew. "That was one of the sadnesses of my life, that I never made the circle back." Now he is completing that circle. That's why his songs are "a composite of ghosts in my possession. My dad is just one of those".
When his parents died, both in 1987 of cancer, he didn't go to their funerals, stating it was to avoid the media hype. Does he think he should have gone? "Yes, I do regret that. I didn't mourn in the proper way and I was emotionally paralysed. I couldn't cry and it was a feeling of relief and I was guilty about that. So I spent a long protracted period of mourning in much more extravagant ways, mostly through music."
You do get the impression he thinks about death. "We are all faced with the dichotomy of living in the present and looking towards the inevitable, which is death. And how do you deal with that?" A pause. "None of us know. We are struggling to find out. My way is through songs and through my children as opposed to my parents. They are dealing with me getting older."
I remind him that when we met in Los Angeles a couple of years ago when the Police were reforming he said it was all about tying up loose ends. In what other ways is he doing that? And what is he still running away from? "With the Police I think we did tie it up. And now it's done."
You ran away from your first marriage and the guilt haunted you, and your songs. Is that one of your patterns that you can't escape? "I am settled now. I am with a good woman who loves me and I love her. That's what's kept me sane. I am not running away from anything at the moment."
He looks at me. "You are challenging," he says at last. He might have wanted to say, can we stop this interview because it's uncomfortable. But in a funny way Sting enjoys discomfort. He enjoys things that aren't easy. He says he still talks to his Police bandmates, but only on a social level. Doing it again would be "dreadful and gratuitous, and it wouldn't work".
He still travels excessively, has a huge carbon footprint, but has planted 100,000 trees. Deforestation has been his campaign for 20 years. He is often mocked and criticised for being self-indulgent and worthy. Does he mind? "It's part and parcel of being in this position. People are going to have a go at you. Either that or they ignore you." Is it better to be attacked than ignored? "Yes... Because I also get positive attention and feel nurtured by it."
As we walk back through the stone corridors to another rehearsal, dusk is falling and bats are flying about. Sting winds me up saying they like my hair. He is very teenage. He says: "My fifties have been my favourite decade. I've had more fun than any other. There's no reason why my sixties won't be the same. I'm fit, I'm healthy and as long as I have that I'll be happy. Both my parents died before they were 60 of cancer."
Do you ever think about that? "Yes. It puts you in the front line. I know that. There are no guarantees. I just try to be as happy as I can be. None of us are going to get out of this alive."
His parents died within a year of each other. Would he want to die before Trudie? "Yes and no. I don't know. I think about it because there are issues that we all have to deal with."
Are you the one in the relationship who needs to be loved most, or love most? "I think it adjusts throughout the relationship. Sometimes you love more and sometimes you are loved more. How do I want it to end up? I want to end up with that woman still loving me. That's my ambition."
Then we return to the parents. "I wish I could have given my parents more of that happiness before they died, but they were proud of what I had done. Whether they could articulate that was another matter." The irony that his own life is based on self-expression is not lost on him.
"My mother was a romantic. I don't think her hunger for romance was ever satisfied, and that was her tragedy. She needed a much wilder life to be who she was." Perhaps that's why Sting lived it for her.
"I think all the women in my life have satisfied the various archetypes of my mother: the wife, the lover, the mistress, the unattainable female mystery. She encompassed a lot of it. I don't think you will ever get to the bottom of a woman. I don't think men are wired to understand, and I think that's fantastic - a constant mystery. I think I know what women want now though."
In what way? "I think women want to be asked what they want. One shouldn't just assume." Do you mean what shall we eat, what shall we do tonight? "Everything." Do you want to have sex now? "All those things." You actually ask do you want to have sex? "Of course. Do you think a man should just club you and drag you down into the cave?" No, but I think it's something you should already know. "Well, you need to read the signals, but they need to be asked. It's a question of manners."
I think that metaphor works better if you are talking about lunch. "Discourse is important as well as intercourse. Certainly there is an engine in my personality, the way I live my life is driven by that female obsession. I find them interesting to look at and to listen to. It's not just about sex. Certain parts of human psychology mean that we are all made up of male and female, and I have a pretty well-developed sense of the female in me."
His songs are emotional, romantic, female. His body is strong, fit, masculine, and a lot of the way he operates is extremely macho. We are back to those two extremes. "Yes, okay. I admit it."
What will he do after this? "There's a small tour. Various gigs. And I still keep my rock band. I'll think about a new record."
Isn't Mr Rock-Star Fabulous still in there?
"It doesn't take that much to get him out of the box. He's been quiet lately, but he's ready, like a jack-in-the-box." Sting, along with Bono and Elton John, was in Bruno, the Sacha Baron Cohen movie. They all looked ridiculous: poser rock stars, high on narcissism. Was it easy to send yourself up? "Easy. It was fun. I wouldn't mind acting again. I did this thing with Trudie where we play Robert and Clara Schumann. They had a tragic love affair and then he went mad." Is that really you and Trudie? He laughs. "We did this at the Royal Opera House. We read letters to each other, and then music played. It's sweet. Not a dry eye in the house."
Do you cry easily? "Music makes me cry. I watched Cinema Paradiso last week and I cried like a bairn. I'm quite ashamed." We talk about how emotions can get displaced. It's easier to cry at music or movies. "I have experienced that. When my parents were dying I didn't cry, but if I'd watched some sad movie I would have."
I return to Durham the following week for the performance proper. It is emotional and uplifting. Afterwards he tells me he has been visiting some landmarks of his past. "Last week we went to the Quayside market. My dad used to take us there on Sunday mornings after church. It was a big treat to go there, buy something small and see the ships docked. And I was there last Sunday and bought a secondhand book, The History of Newcastle United."
What's his favourite landmark? "Tynemouth Priory." It's just ruins looking over the beach.
"I lost my virginity there." Was that because it was romantic or because you were living at home and that was the only place you could go? "Of course. It wasn't a generation where you could shag in your own house. But it can be romantic there. It's a place famous for lovers' trysts."
So many things have changed. The house he grew up in doesn't exist any more, but it strikes me that much about Sting has stayed the same. Emotionally complicated. A shy man who takes masochistic pleasure in revealing himself, with a great Newcastle sense of humour. His voice is still recognisably his. "And so it should be. Success in music is to have a recognisable signature. If my voice comes on the radio you know it's me and will become more so. That's something I look forward to."
What else are you looking forward to? "The ride. The curiosity of what happens next. When I left teaching they said, 'If you leave now you will lose your pension,' and I could see myself at 58 as a deputy head with a pension in the offing, and that's why I left. I didn't want to see the future. I wanted to spin the wheel and I'm glad to have spun the wheel a few times. I would like to settle down at some point... It doesn't mean I will, though." There's a laugh in his eyes that tells me he is all for spinning the wheel.
© The Sunday Times by Chrissy Iley
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