Sting: The X Factor kids are going nowhere...
"I was an altar boy and considered being a priest," says Sting, with a twinkle in his eye.
"But I already had a strong interest in the female sex so my vocation lasted five minutes. I quite like dressing up, wearing a dress ... just not permanently," he says, laughing at the idea of Father Sting.
But even though this Catholic boy from Newcastle ruled himself out of a church career, some of its music rubbed off. His new CD, 'If On a Winter's Night', is a collection of carols, lullabies and ancient songs and his upcoming concert venues include a cathedral or two. One song is by the 16th-century Jesuit martyr Robert Southwell, with a vision of a burning baby Jesus suspended in darkness. "I always want to do something different. My contemporaries keep doing the same thing but people who have followed my career expect the unexpected."
One hundred million records have created a fame that reaches from Chelsea to China, and he says he is still excited to sing and compose, and has never been happier. "I sometimes pinch myself and think someone is going to say, Wake up and get on your bike back to Newcastle'." His life, however, remains full-on rock star. Singing with Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Gardens on Thursday, then a concert in São Paulo on Saturday. A week later Lucian Freud comes round to dinner at his house in London. He pops into Guy Ritchie's pub the night before with his wife Trudie. He juggles seeing his four lively children, homes in New York, Tuscany and Wiltshire as well as, after three years, a newly restored townhouse in London.
His happiness took a major jolt earlier this year with "the worst telephone call of my life". Coco, his 19-year-old daughter, had fallen and been rushed to A&E in California. "I was luckily also in LA and Trudie in London rang to say You have to go to the hospital. Coco is alive but she is in trouble.' It was the longest drive of my life, I was just imagining the worst.
"I got there and Coco was fighting tooth and nail with medics and refusing to co-operate. The doctors said this was highly dangerous: Unless we know now whether or not she has a clot she may die. You have to convince her.'
"I had my little girl's head in my hands and I tried cajoling, begging, bullying. You will die. I am your daddy. I am telling you this,' I said. Eventually she agreed and she is now fine but my life flashed in front of me. I had assumed once your kids get to about 20 you don't have to worry, they live their own lives. No, it is a life sentence and the problems they bring are more and more complex and interesting. You never stop worrying about your kids. It is a wonderful responsibility to have."
Sting never planned to have a family. "It was never my ambition to have any children. I just wanted to be a musician. But I loved women. I like sex. So my children arrived, usually at the most inopportune moment. I can hear myself: 'Oh God, I'm going to be a dad now!' Having said that, my children are the most fortunate accidents I have ever been involved with. Against all the odds they are extraordinarily creative, well-behaved, sensitive and smart. I put it down to my wife, me having been on tour most of the last 20 years. Their mother gets the credit."
And Trudie, campaigner, keep-fit guru, film producer and soulmate, is, he says, his anchor. "We both come from the same generation, the North of England, and the same class. We share the same nostalgia. She understands my jokes and will laugh at them. She makes me laugh the whole time and keeps my spirits up and knows me intimately and yet still loves me. And that is huge because I can't be that easy to live with. I can be quite difficult." Not that he is sentimental about marriage. "Marriage is a navigation, a negotiation. It is not a natural state at all. At the same time I am taking it day-to-day. At the end of the day I want the woman still to love me no matter what, and she does."
Just two years shy of 60, Sting admits he is not far off the winter of his own life as his new album explores the moods of the season and regeneration through ancient lyrics and melodies.
There is a contemplative and serious side. "What we need to do in winter is to reflect on what has happened in the past year. You can run off to the Caribbean but you are not really dealing with the issues right here and now and looking back on how the year has gone."
Hard slog, a golden voice and finding his own luck made Sting successful, which is why he deplores the instant, fame-obsessed public spectacle of the X Factor. "I am sorry but none of those kids are going to go anywhere, and I say that sadly. They are humiliated when they get sent off. How appalling for a young person to feel that rejection. It is a soap opera which has nothing to do with music. In fact, it has put music back decades. Television is very cynical."
Sting says he really tried to give the talent show a chance when he watched it. "I tried to keep an open mind, but basically I was looking at televised karaoke where they conform to stereo-types. They are either Mariah Carey or Whitney Houston or Boyzone and are not encouraged to create any real unique signature or fingerprint. That cannot come from TV. The X Factor is a preposterous show and you have judges who have no recognisable talent apart from self-promotion, advising them what to wear and how to look. It is appalling.
"The real shop floor for musical talent is pubs and clubs, that is where the original work is. But they are being closed down on a daily basis. It is impossible to put an act on in a pub. It has become too expensive through excessive regulations. The music industry has been hugely important to England, bringing in millions. If anyone thinks the X Factor is going to do that, they are wrong."
Sting did not find fame until he was 27. He had spent time as a tax collector and teacher, but abandoned dull jobs and the North to go to London with just one phone number and no cash. The number was for Stewart Copeland, fellow member of Police, and the rest became rock history.
"There were no real clues in my upbringing except I was allowed a lot of time to daydream. My father was a milkman and would get me up at five o'clock in the morning to deliver the milk. My feet were freezing a lot of the time, and I thought, Why the hell am I out here?' At the same time, because it was a very interesting time to be awake, owning the streets, it allowed my imagination to run riot and unbelievably I dreamed about one day being a successful musician with an international life and reputation. Where it came from I don't know. I had this vague idea that somehow I would achieve glory in my life. I sometimes wonder if I'm still dreaming.
"I always navigate myself back to who I am, no matter how far I go out on a limb. I am surrounded by people who are not afraid to tell me I am a complete twat." He jokingly points towards Trudie. "That one mainly! The people who work with me are blunt to the point of rudeness and I appreciate that and welcome it because I can get a bit out of hand."
Sting has long been an advocate of a more liberal drugs policy and despairs at the Government's scientific advice being ignored and its adviser Professor David Nutt being sacked. He has memorably written about taking hallucinatory drugs in South America in his autobiography.
"Both political parties are counterproductive with their drugs policy. It has failed time and again. The idea that a plant can be made illegal has always seemed bizarre to me. Let us educate people and not put people in jail. Drugs are tools. Of course there are dangers but you have to be educated so you don't hurt yourself. Ignorance is not a helpful way to frame a drugs policy.
"I have been lucky with my own experiments with drugs. But remember, essentially I had to buy drugs off criminals and was lucky it didn't kill me. My premise, and I have got into a lot of trouble over this, is that drugs should be decriminalised. They should be made safer by regulating them, so you know what you are getting. If you want to take ecstasy, make sure it is ecstasy, not laced with something dangerous."
Sting sees the whole issue as complex and with inherent dangers. "I learned the hard way that taking drugs 'to get out of it' or fucked up is stupid and dangerous. If you have a vague idea of just 'getting out of it' I have no sympathy with that. I have absolutely no truck with that and you may well die."
A donnish side attracts him to philosophy, spiritual tracts and literature. Picasso, politics and climate change are typical concerns.
His 2003 autobiography, Broken Music, was hailed as the most literary rock-star memoir ever written. "I can't live without books and I live for words as well as music," he says. His current bedside book is Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, and in each of his houses are thousands of books. "I never ever throw away even a dog-eared paperback and I can never sleep without reading a few pages of something." As for himself: "I want to live and to keep performing and evolving. Keeping the surprises coming. People like me are described as ageing rock stars. Well, you either die or you get old. I want to get old. Roll on 85."
© London Evening Standard by Geordie Greig