11.01.09 THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH
Sting and his Tale... For more than 30 years, every little thing this singer/ songwriter does has been magic, and he's not done yet...
REWIND Chatting to Sting is like talking to a wise old owl, albeit one that's morphed from a proud cockerel who once strutted his colourful plumage and ruffled feathers around the globe. Heaven knows how he manages to sound casually philosophical and self-deprecating at the same time; it's quite a feat considering he made his name as the spiky haired, egocentric British frontman of The Police (alongside Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers) - one of the biggest bands of the early '80s. Add a string of hugely successful solo albums after the trio's tumultuous split in 1984, at the peak of their popularity, and his celebrity was cemented. But it was his habit of rubbing shoulders with the likes of Sir Bob Geldof and Bono, and entree into environmentalism long before the rest of us jumped on the green bandwagon, that sold us the idea he was more than some flash-in-the-pan rock god.
More than 20 years on, album sales topping 100 million and membership in both the Rock and Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame have placed Sting (born Gordon Sumner) in that elite league of megastars granted meetings with some of the world's best political minds. "One of the great privileges of my life is that you end up meeting just about everyone you respect," says the former English teacher. But the quiet confidence he now oozes is a long way from the angsty young lad yearning to escape his lowly beginnings in England's North East.
"I sort of dreamt my future and allowed a lot of time for fantasy. My uncle left me an old guitar with five rusty strings and it became a friend for life. I taught myself to play and saved for the extra string.
"Basically, I had this vague idea that it would be a great way to make a living. I didn't have any fantasies about fame; the idea of making music was attractive, especially when the alternative was working in a shipyard or a coalmine.
"It was fun to sell a lot of records and be the biggest group in the world for a certain period - filling football stadiums and all that. But my intention all along was to get better at making music. That's still the case.
"One of the greatest lessons I learnt was that at the most successful time of my life, I was the most unhappy - a good lesson to learn early on. Some people strive for that and end up miserable. We've just seen the classic case of Michael Jackson - the biggest popstar in the world - who was desperately disconnected from himself and the world. So unhappy.
"Yeah, I was full of myself, but maybe it was part of the process. I look back and think, what on earth was I saying or thinking? I wasn't really an angry young man, not most of the time. I just had my moments - I still do.
"I only get angry now when people don't respect my sense of self or when they march into my life and demand something. That's generally not the case, but occasionally you come across people who have had too many beers. And I've got a mouth on me, don't you worry. I still have my [Geordie] accent and it's very good to threaten somebody with."
PAUSE These days, Sting's life looks pretty good. He splits his time between the various residences he shares with his wife and partner of 27 years, actor and film producer Trudie Styler, whom he married in a lavish countryside ceremony in 1992. It's not all been a fairytale, though. Over the years, he's copped a beating from the media over his self-indulgence. Comments he made in the '90s about his and Styler's tantric sex sessions did nothing to help.
But just when fans thought their hero had been lost to pompous affectation, in 2007 Sting reunited with Copeland and Summers for a phenomenal sell-out world tour, proving there was life in the old dogs yet. But what next for such a modern musical genius? An album of baroque ditties, of course. So he picked up his lute and recorded 'Songs From the Labyrinth'.
Perhaps Sting has earned the right to such eccentricities. He reckons it's all an extension of what he's always been doing ("I don't name what I'm doing - it's just music"), and his current obsession, 'If On a Winter's Night', is an album that takes him back to the snowy winters of his childhood. One can only imagine what goes through the minds of the record executives when Sting gives them a buzz to say he has a brilliant new idea.
"I've made enough royalties for everybody to be able to say, 'I know it's weird, but trust me on this one.' I'm still curious about music, and I still want to be better as a musician, a better band leader, a better songwriter, arranger, producer and person. But I also get bored easily.
"When I asked myself, 'What shall I do next?' I thought, not a Christmas album. I'll do something a bit more than that - some songs about winter. I'll research sacred songs, secular songs, folk songs, from classical songs to a few of my own, and let's see what we come up with.
"'If On a Winter's Night' is an attempt to create a mood, rather than a collection of songs about different emotions.
"As for fame? It amused me back [in the Police days], but did I take it seriously? No. I reached that level of fame late in life. I'd already held down a job, it wasn't as if I came out of school and became a teenage popstar. I wouldn't have survived that.
"I get recognised and people talk to me and ask for my autograph, but I don't mind. I don't have an entourage or a bodyguard, and I demand my citizen's right to walk around unmolested. People are generally respectful of that. At the end of the day, I have a woman who loves me, amazing kids and a career that's largely coincided with popular tastes."
FAST-FORWARD Even at this stage of his illustrious career, it's hard to see Sting hanging up his bass. He says there are loads of exploits to be ticked off his to-do list. ("There are many things I'd like to be good at, like cricket - but we won't talk about the Ashes.") Although, with new albums coming out every few years and his six children, he may be hard-pressed to find the time. (Joseph, 32, and Fuchsia, 27, are products of his first marriage to Frances Tomelty, which ended when Sting got to know Styler, their neighbour. Then came Bridget, 25, Jake, 24, Eliot, 19, and Giacomo, 13.)
With such an eclectic mix of talents in his quiver, one wonders if there's anything he can't get away with. An album of whale sounds and woodwinds? The score for an environmentally friendly Tap Dogs-style performance featuring bin lids? We're just going to have to trust him.
"I like to surprise people with whatever I'm doing. I'm constantly asking myself, 'What is it I do? Do I have anything coherent and useful to say?' Hopefully, if I don't I'll shut up. But I have an anxiety about needing to work.
"I take getting older seriously. I'm 58, which I never imagined I'd reach - I thought I'd die young. I look in the mirror and see my dad - 'I thought you were dead,' I say - and that's nice. This has been my favourite decade. I've had more fun at this age than any other. For the first time, I can taste my life, and it tastes sweet. I like to think the next decade will be even sweeter.
"Being a grandparent, now that's something I'm not ready for. I've warned all my progeny. I've also told them I've spent all the money, so they're not waiting for me to pop off to inherit some estate.
"I was brought up in an industrial part of England, so I never imagined myself in green fields, with sheep grazing, but that's what we have. I could enjoy another 50 years in my garden."
If On a Winter's Night (Universal) is out now.
© Sunday Telegraph Magazine (Australia) by Claire Bradley