A singular songsmith - As he releases a 'winter album', the former frontman of The Police talks about Belfast, playing with Stevie Wonder, making olive oil - and seeing ghosts...
Sting wants my autograph. "Come on, just sign your name for me," he says shoving an expensive-looking pen my way. I tell him I don't usually do this sort of thing. "Just put a dedication," he insists. For reasons I still can't fathom, I scrawl "To Sting, from Brian XXX".
"That's great," he says. "Now I'll always have something to remember you by." Huh, I bet you say that to all the boys.
At the end of the interview in his cosy Mayfair office in London, a book had spilled out of my bag - Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem, the book that gave us the phrase "the banality of evil". He scans the book with interest for just that bit too long. "This looks really, really interesting," he says. Okay, go on, take it, it's yours. He refuses to receive ownership, though, until I have written a personal dedication on the cover page.
Good end, but bad start. Even with the number and street name of his office it's impossible to find. It's so discreet that someone has to stand at the end of the street and wave me in as if I'm an aircraft on a runway. I find the disgustingly fit and toned 58-year-old sitting on a couch wrestling with the Guardian cryptic crossword. He's dressed in traditional multi-millionaire rock-star-on-downtime garb - white T-shirt, light woollen jumper and moleskin trousers. We begin with a heated debate on the pressing subject of whether you should put hot milk or cold milk into coffee. He's staunchly for the former; I'm inflexibly in favour of the latter. As the jousting continues, we are shooed upstairs by people who have real work to do.
He wants to talk about Ireland. "I married a Belfast girl [Sting's first wife is the actor Frances Tomelty] and we'd be down by the Falls Road. This would have been in the very middle of the Troubles. I could never speak because I had an English accent and short hair - I looked like a squaddie - and the cabs around that area were run by Provos. Belfast [in which he has spent a lot of time] was always interesting for me as an English Catholic - I could see both sides of the coin. The best people in the world, Belfast people. I've always had strong Irish connections - my grandmother's family were Irish and when I was a teenager I used to hitch around the country every summer.
"And then I lived in Roundwood for three or four years in the 1980s - it was at the time of the hunger strikes, black flags everywhere. A very emotional time. I always felt at home in Ireland - and still do when I go back," he says. His "Belfast girl" also inspired perhaps his most famous song, Every Breath You Take - a dysfunctional love song written as the marriage was collapsing.
His Catholicism used to be important to him. "Being brought up in the Catholic faith, it's been part of my tradition, part of my birthright," he says. "I speak now as an agnostic but that doesn't take away from the stories that are hardwired into us. I can't take the Virgin birth as an article of faith, yet it's a beautiful, wonderful story. Now I believe that the only one true unassailable religion is the human propensity for telling stories. We tell myths - myths about how we came to be, why we are here and where we're going. We can't live without myths."
An incident a few years ago shocked him into looking again at his belief system - or lack of one. "Listen, I am a pretty hard-nosed pragmatist," he says. "I would intellectually tell you everything is as it is. But I've also had experiences which would be the opposite; experiences which have shaken my material foundation. I've seen a ghost and...".
He doesn't finish the sentence.
What happened? "I've lived in a lot of old houses for the past 30 years, places full of some sort of energy. One night I woke up in my bed at three in the morning, it was very dark, and I saw what I thought was Trudie [his wife] and the baby [his youngest child, Giacomo] standing in the corner staring at me rather eerily. I thought, "Why is Trudie standing over there?" Then I reached over in the bed and there was Trudie's arm - she was next to me. Then Trudie woke up." Had she seen anything? "Yes, she too had seen a woman and a child.
"When she woke up, she said to me, 'Who's that?', meaning the ghost. Then we had things flying around the house and we were hearing these voices. That incident totally shook me - I was incredibly freaked out.
"We did a lot of the research into this house and found out that it used to be a pub called the Three Ducks in the 17th century. God knows what happened back in those days. These things can't be quantified scientifically, it's our psychology. It's deep and dark and it's very ancient. The whole thing opened me up to potential possibilities that are more than just material. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy as they say.
"I'm not religious but at the same time I think there is a meaning in the universe of an order beyond my understanding. Don't ask me to try and quantify that - it's something which is far bigger than intellect".
He's coming over all Jungian here - no surprise given he's an avid reader of the great psychologist and writer. "Yes, I've studied Jungian psychology and I've been a patient," he says. "It's very creative, a lot to do with your dreams. The unconscious is a very dangerous thing if it isn't taken seriously. Once the unconscious takes over, terrible things happen in the world. With Jung, you realise the infinite potential of the human mind - we really are very fascinating monkeys."
That's all very well, but in order to arrive at the key Jungian concept of individuation, most rock stars simply reach for the LSD rather than wade through tracts about the collective unconscious. "Hold on, I'm not saying Jungian psychology is better than LSD," he laughs.
It has always been abundantly clear that Sting wasn't just another "I just do what I do and if anyone else likes it that's a bonus," clichéd rock star. The man born Gordon Sumner talks of a particular instinct that has governed everything he has done for the past 58 years. "It's this instinct to do something different," he says.
"I'm a working-class boy from Newcastle. My father was a milkman, and you find in working-class communities that your future can be laid out for you - you tend to repeat your parents. I too would be a milkman. I was always kicking out against that blueprint."
It was, he says, a testing childhood: "We weren't a happy family. We were a bit of a broken family." Both his parents died in 1987, and Sting didn't go to either funeral. At the time, he felt his presence back in Newcastle would turn the funerals into a media circus. It's something he now regrets.
"I think that coming from the background I had, I knew I was always going to be accused of being out of place and being pretentious for having this huge curiosity about the world and literature and music. My intention was always to be 'singular'."
He spent a lot of time alone practising on an old five-string Spanish guitar that an uncle had left in the house when emigrating, and as a teenager he was a regular in Newcastle music venues - standing awe-struck as he took in the musical exotica of Jimi Hendrix and Cream. Working as first a bus conductor, then on a building site, he had become proficient enough to join local jazz bands and play in dive venues. He got his nickname from those days - when he was a member of the local Phoenix Jazzman band, he would always wear a yellow jumper with hooped black stripes which made him look like a bumblebee.
After qualifying as a teacher, he moved to London to see whether the pavements were indeed paved with hip jazz joints. He found a city that was interested only in this new anarchic sound known as "punk rock".
Knowing the climate wasn't right for a jobbing jazz bass guitarist, he joined up with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland. They poured a bottle of bleach over their hair, got themselves some safety pins (de rigueur at the time) and as The Police, they contrived a New Wave sound - with just enough of a reggae inflection to distinguish them from the masses.
"I was never into rock 'n' roll," he says bluntly. "I wasn't into Led Zeppelin or any of those bands. I was obsessed by jazz musicians such as Miles Davis and Ray Brown and I loved the Big Band sound, the Dixieland jazz sound. I appreciated the energy of punk rock music, but it lacked sophistication. I adapted it - put in some complex harmonies and chord changes. Punk/New Wave was only ever a flag of convenience of us. We flew it and it worked."
In spades. Within a few years, The Police were one of the biggest groups in the world. And Sting was being as "singular" as ever. " The Ghost In The Machine album was named after an Arthur Koestler book and Synchronicity was named after the Jungian theory of the same name," he says. "What I remember from that time is a lot of people saying to me, 'What's a Nabokov?'. In a song [ Don't Stand So Close To Me ] I had used Nabokov as a rhyme -- I think I used it to rhyme with "cough"! People would say "What's a Nabokov" and I would explain that it wasn't a what, it was a who - he was a famous Russian writer. I hope all this piqued people's interest - had them asking 'Who is Koestler? Who is Jung?' These were not the typical subjects of pop music lyrics. It was different. Now you look at X Factor , which I steeled myself to watch last night and yes, it is televised karaoke, but also it's not about an 'X factor' at all. All the acts on it are conforming to a pre-existing musical stereotype - you have the Whitney Houston-style singer, or the boyband-type act."
The Police had run their course by 1984, and Sting was delighted to be able to get back to his jazz sound as a solo artist. He worked with jazz greats such as Kenny Kirkland and Branford Marsalis and looked on bemused as his solo career threatened to eclipse the commercial success of The Police. Two years ago, The Police re-formed for a very lucrative tour (box office receipts topped 2 million for the one-year jaunt), but he says any further Police work would be "dreadful and gratuitous".
The music world has been good to him - the Sunday Times Rich List (conservatively) estimated his wealth this year at £180 million. Once, when asked why it took him so long to take a former accountant to court for misappropriating £6 million of his (the accountant was jailed for six years), he airily told the media "I didn't notice it missing". He has various houses in England, an estate in Tuscany (Harrod's sells the olive oil he makes there), another place in New York, another in Malibu and a few dotted around the Caribbean. It's a working-class thing, he says: "Put your money into bricks and mortar".
But there's always a but. The UK press, in particular, delight in treating him as a coconut shy. He's routinely described as "smug and self-satisfied" and there are frequent mocking references to his yoga lifestyle and his "tantric sex" claim that he could sustain himself as a lover for seven hours.
"I am who I am," he says of the perceptions of him. "As I said, I'm a 'singular' person. I never wanted to conform to any particular stereotype. And I'm still like that. I get flak for it. But it doesn't matter, it won't change the way I am."
As for the tantric sex sessions, what happened was he was drunk in a bar with Bob Geldof, was idly boasting, and his comments were overheard by a nearby journalist.
His "singularity" resurfaced on his last album, Songs From The Labyrinth (2006), which featured the works of the 16th-century English lute player, James Dowland. His current release, If On A Winter's Night was prompted by a "ghostly return" to Newcastle.
"I hadn't been back in many a decade and last year I spent the longest time ever there - two weeks - since I had left in my twenties," he says. "Newcastle threw up all these ghosts for me - everyone I used to know.
"I was thinking about how I used to work the milk round with my dad. It'd be in the really early morning and freezing. We only had a fire downstairs and it was so cold in my bedroom I used to have to get dressed in bed. We would go out into the snow and we would be the first to disturb it. It had a magical effect on me. Here was this bleak, industrial, dull landscape and it would be completely transformed by a snowfall. My father never spoke to me much, so I used to make up stories about the snow. My imagination was sparked. I got to thinking about winter and what it means, how on the one hand it can be very bleak and alienating but also beautiful and comfortable. I think of home when I think of winter. Gathering around the fireplace. Winter has this gravitational pull to home".
At around the same time, his record company asked him if he would be interested in doing a Christmas album. He scorned the idea, but said he would love to do a winter album. "This is the season of spirits and haunting and imagination," he says. "Some people run away to the sun to avoid it, but I think it's a time of reflection, and always has been for mankind. It's a time for storytelling, which is the light of the centre of the darkness. Our ancestors observed this - they treated it as a ritual. It's as if by dealing with the ghosts of the past year we are allowed move into spring.
"I didn't want to do any frosty snowman or Rudolph-type songs, that's the commercial end of it, and when I asked around I found there weren't that many winter songs around. I would be saying to people, 'if you know of a song that mentions snow, ice and ghosts - please throw it at me'."
He excavated some very old folk songs, carols and lullabies (some pre-Christian) for the album and found a common theme: "They were all strange and spooky tales - all these songs are basically ghost stories," he says. "I tried to draw parallels between the older pagan observation of winter and the Christian story of winter. It was important to me to be reverent to both."
He deliberately discarded his Geordie accent the moment he left Newcastle - "I didn't want to be placed by my accent, I wanted to be different" - but on some of these songs he sings in an über-Geordie accent. He picks up on the weak psychological point being hinted at in the question and lies down on the couch in a pretend psychoanalytic pose. "What are you trying to do to me?" he laughs. "My accent is still there. It comes out when I'm angry."
I tell him the album reminds me of a 16th-century Nick Cave or Antony and The Johnsons in places, and he purrs away contentedly for a few minutes: "That's a thrilling thing to hear, thank you," he says.
"I love the oldness of music, which is why I may never write a new song again," he says. "It's that sense of sitting at the feet of the masters. That sense of being part of a legacy longer than rock 'n' roll, a legacy longer than Leiber and Stoller. To be part of an ancient tradition."
He has to walk home now to get ready for a show later on. "I'm doing a gig at the BBC tonight; last week I was playing live with Stevie Wonder - I have an amazing life, truly amazing," he says. I ask if he can just walk around central London without being hassled.
"Of course" he says. "The trick is that I demand citizen rights. I am going to walk home now through St James's Park. I'm not a celebrity, so I hold on to my citizen rights. Sometimes people stop and stare, but I'm an ex-schoolteacher so I can give that look. I can't complain, though. It's all been amazing".
Although I leave a good five minutes before him, it is not not long before he has overtaken me; I spot him on the other side of the street walking along at a brisk canter. I watch as the man who thought he was going to be a milkman in Newcastle but now has so many houses he sometimes forgets where they all are, and the man who can regard £6 million as loose change, approaches St James's Palace. At the exact moment he walks past, the guardsmen outside the palace do their changing of the guard salute. It looks like it's for him. Amazing.
© The Irish Times by Brian Boyd