Sting's sailing toward something new - Sting's new album, If on a Winter's Night ..., was inspired by the singer's upbringing in Northern England.
A few weeks ago when walking through Green Park, a genteel oasis in the middle of London, Sting encountered a middle-aged couple on the path. The woman approached him and said, "Do you think we could have a photograph?" Absolutely, the singer said graciously - and then the woman handed him her camera. Clearly, she had no idea who he was, and merely needed someone to take a picture of her with the husband.
Ouch! But perhaps it didn't hurt so much. If you have an ego so legendary that it makes Fort Knox seem like a ramshackle hut, it would take a stronger blow to rattle your timbers. And the woman who relates this story is Sting's PR assistant, who is very fond of him and tells it with a laugh, so it must not be a sore spot.
We're in the production offices of Xingu Films, which belongs to Sting's wife Trudie Styler, located on several floors of a beautiful old mews house. The couple live five minutes away, the assistant says, "just across the park." Also just across the park is Buckingham Palace, though I'm pretty sure this is not the residence she's referring to.
When Sting enters, he looks like a man who's had a brisk walk through the autumn leaves. He's dressed in motley that only a rich hippie could carry off - a brightly coloured cardigan over a shirt open to expose his tanned chest, tuxedo pants tucked into calf-high leather boots. A grizzled beard covers his jaw; it's like finding that Captain Ahab has had a yoga studio built in the ship's hold.
The first thing he does is to suggest I sit in a particular chair, because it is the same shade of blue as my boots. This attention to detail is charming but would probably drive you insane, if, say, you were in a band with him: Later in the interview, he will say, about his time with the Police, "A lot of bands when they start out have a semblance of democracy. Democracy doesn't work in a band. You have to have one guy driving the ship. And, uh ... that's me."
His former bandmate Stewart Copeland has said a few things about the captain, and they're not "Sir, yes sir." But more on that later. First, there's quite a poignant story to tell about a man and his past, about spectres and hauntings and the season that is generally acknowledged to be the end of things. Sting's new record is called If on a Winter's Night ... and it's a collection of songs, both new and traditional, about the coldest, darkest season. But if you're a man who grew up in a northern place, in a home that was cold in all senses, and you're the exact age that your father was when he died ... well, it's going to be about other things, isn't it?
Going home, for example. Sting recently returned to Newcastle, in the north of England, for two weeks - the longest time he's spent there since he left 40 years ago, at the age of 18.
"The city's changed a lot, but the ghosts are still there," he says, after he's settled into a low sofa and wrapped his arms wrapped across his chest. "More than I imagined."
Which ghosts would those be?
"Well, I've lost a lot of people - I've lost my parents, lovers, friends, colleagues. And they all came to pay their respects." He laughs, though it's a before-the-axe-falls kind of laugh. "In a nice way, in a sweet way, but I hadn't quite expected it."
Perhaps it's not surprising that ghosts refuse to rest, considering that he didn't attend either of his parents' funerals (a subject he returns to repeatedly in his 2003 memoir, Broken Music .) Decades worth of ambivalence informs If on a Winter's Night ... . For example, there's the memory of being dragged out of bed before dawn in winter, when he was a little boy called Gordon Sumner, to help his father on his milk rounds.
"Most of my school friends would be tucked up in bed. My feet would be frozen, blue," Sting says. "At the same time I was aware how magical it was, to own the streets before anyone did. This grey, industrial landscape became this enchanted, clean, beautiful fairy tale."
There was another, gift, too, at the heart of a troubled relationship with his father: "My dad and I didn't talk very much, ever, but he allowed me to imagine. He used to call me 'the dreamer.' To him it was an insult, but to me ...," he bursts into laughter. "I was a mystery to him."
There's no bitterness in that famous voice, which is oddly both rumbling and nasal. Why would there be? Living well has provided a potent revenge. His wife's offices are stylish in a deliberately low-key fashion; the note cards on her desk say "the Sumners" (vastly preferable to "the Stings.") Two of his children have followed in his musical footsteps. When he wants to act - which is not very often these days - Trudie the film producer coaxes him on screen, though "she still hasn't paid me for Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels ."
Last February, tucked away from the howling winds in a Tuscan farmhouse, Sting gathered with seven musicians - many of them long-time collaborators, most playing traditional instruments - to record his album about winter, which has a suitably antique, firelight feel (the title is taken from Italo Calvino's novel If on a Winter's Night a Traveler , one of his favourite books). Originally, the record company suggested a Christmas album; sitting on the sofa now, Sting records his reaction to that particular suggestion by pretending to stick a finger down his throat. Perhaps he didn't know that the Christmas record has been given new respectability this year with Bob Dylan's seasonal offering. What he wanted was to explore the conflicting emotions that arise from Christmas, and winter as a whole.
His old friend ambivalence again.
"My Christmases as a child were hardly ecstatic times. They were supposed to be happy, but they never were. There was always a family row. The feeling of having got the present you'd begged your parents for, and then feeling jaundiced by it, bored with it.
"There's something deeper, though, that I tried to capture on this record, a light in the centre of darkness, which is part of the Christian story, but it's also something older. It's less to do with salvation than the cycle of the season."
He rubs his bearded jaw - one of the things he likes about winter is that it demands more stylish clothing than summer, and the season allows him to get all hairy. Speaking of cycles, what about the Police, the band that broke up in the eighties and reunited in 2007 for a hugely successful tour? Would the captain take the bridge again? Afraid not, mateys.
Once again, he turns to mime, crisply knotting a bow in the air. "We tied up loose ends, we closed the circle, and we don't have to do it again," he says. "We made a lot of money, made a lot of people happy and still remained friends."
Well, it seems that Sting is not the only one suffering a bout of ambivalence. In Stewart Copeland's recently released memoir, Strange Things Happen , the Police drummer talks about his old bandmate with alternating fondness and rage. "His obsessive creativity has evolved into a monster," Copeland writes. "He hasn't heard the umpire's whistle in 30 years." And, memorably: "Sometimes the back of his head is better than the front."
So, has Sting read the memoir? He responds with a feline smile.
"Yeah. It's sweet."
Ooh, there's a loaded word. "I think he's been pretty fair about me." Then he sighs, acknowledging 30 years of water roiling under the bridge. "You know, I'm not the easiest person to be in a band with."
© The Globe & Mail by Elizabeth Renzetti