Sting: Exclusive interview
At 59, Sting is only too aware that you can't please all of the people all of the time. In fact, he says, he can't even please himself...
He's also been very kind to me. When my father was in a nursing home with Alzheimer's, my mother wanted to put up family pictures, but there were none of me because I hate having my picture taken. She found one of me and Sting from an old newspaper article. My father thought that Sting was a relative, maybe a son.
When my mother and I went to see Sting perform in Durham Cathedral last year, as soon as he heard the story he insisted on doing a full set of pictures with my mother so my father would not think his 'son' was neglecting his mother. And when my mother went to see Symphonicities earlier this year it was the only few hours of happiness she has had since my father's death. For me the Symphonicities show is kind of magical. I sang along. Danced even.
Rome is its last date with the Royal Philharmonic. 'I'm a little sad,' Sting says. As sad as is possible after the endorphin rush of the yoga, which he does every day before the show. Isn't he at least a little bit relieved to be getting back to normal life?
'I'm not sure what normal life is. I'll see Trudie [Styler, his wife] tomorrow and that will be great, but I could tour this way forever with this orchestra,' he says. 'The people are exceptional musicians but they are also very nice and we are completely integrated. I can't imagine when I've been happier on tour.'
Is he bothered by the extreme opinions that people have had of the tour? 'It does sound a bit of a cliché, Sting with a symphony orchestra, but anyone who has listened will see the arrangements are out of the ordinary. And the musicians are playing with precision, passion and love. I'm very relaxed in front of an orchestra, I don't even sweat. I sing for three hours. I could do another three hours every night. I have learnt I'm in the public domain, you can't please everyone. Some people can't stand me. Some people think I'm God's gift. Maybe I'm somewhere in the middle.'
Actually, Sting is never the middle ground. He's always extreme in every possible sense of the word. The kind of man who will cry at a soppy film but not at his parents' death. His songs are emotional, quite female, and yet physically he's very masculine, strong. In some ways hard, in some ways soft. Emotionally articulate when song writing, but probably not great at expressing feelings.
His chef brings in a plate of plain rice and steamed fish. 'I eat no sugar, no salt, no potatoes, no bread - but I like a bar of chocolate now and then and a bottle of wine.' Even his eating embraces extremes. 'I sin once a day, that's important.' With chocolate or wine? 'Or both,' he says with a wink.
Of course some people think that it's a sin that he ever opens his mouth. They find the whole 'pop star wants to save the world's rainforests' odiously hypocritical. He has campaigned against deforestation for more than 20 years and planted over 100,000 trees to offset his carbon footprint.
I'm not sure what he was trying to achieve by agreeing to be quizzed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight late last year. Paxman mauled him with charges of hypocrisy and naivety. At one point Paxman, seizing on the fact that Sting and his wife own seven homes across Britain, Italy and the United States, asked him: 'Do you ever feel uncomfortable travelling between various homes in various continents at enormous carbon costs?'
Does he wish he'd never done it? 'I wasn't prepared for it. I was told by the producers I was going to speak about one thing and then I was ambushed. It was just cheap pop-star hypocrite bulls--t instead of what I wanted to talk about. I saw the film they made before the interview [of Sting, rock-star fabulous with the indigenous Indians of the Amazon rainforest, making a trip back there to coincide with his album release and being accused of cashing in] and I thought I can take this earpiece out and they can have an empty chair, but I'm a good soldier. I knew Paxman was going to have a go at me, it's what he does.'
Would you do it again? 'No. Not Newsnight. It wasn't fair.' There's no bravado here; he accepts that it was a debacle. 'It was naive of me. I was talked into it but I didn't prepare myself.' He shakes his head. 'But I didn't lose my temper. That would have been the wrong thing to do.' Does he often lose his temper? 'No, I don't actually.'
Indeed, all the discomfort is going on in the inside. It's released on stage and in songs. 'I feel very much myself when I'm on stage. I feel in the moment, not thinking about the past or the future or anything apart from singing those notes. It's very freeing. I feel I was made to do this job. I do it well and people go away happy.'
Has he revised his ideas about loathing The X Factor since Joe McElderry, a fellow Geordie, won it last year? 'I still think it's exploitation. These kids are fodder for the tabloids. I'm not a fan. These kids are vaulted into a situation where they are national figures overnight. They are conditioned to want it. The fame was slow enough for me to navigate it a bit better.' How does he navigate fame? 'I don't think of myself as a celebrity. I hope I don't behave like a famous person.'
Sting has been a famous person for such a long time he can hardly remember any other life. Born in Wallsend near Newcastle, his father was a milkman but always talked of the time he was a soldier doing National Service in Germany. His mother was a romantic who he once said 'needed a much wider life to be who she was'. Perhaps yearning and discontent was in his DNA. He's now 59 and feels he's had many different lives.
There was the life in Newcastle where he was a teacher and then there was 'becoming a rock star and surviving that. Becoming an older person in the music business and trying to figure out a way of doing that.'
What will he do after the tour? 'No idea.' Is that liberating or worrying? 'Both. It makes me anxious of course. At the same time it's a good place for creativity. It's only out of anxiety that I ever produce anything worthwhile. The music industry is shrinking and no one is quite sure what the future model is, so for me to go out with a rock band would have been counterproductive.'
In 2008, he did go on tour with a rock band - the Police, whose reunion raked in about £180million, making it the third most profitable tour ever; far from counterproductive. None the less, Sting has since said he never wants to repeat the experience, calling it a 'dreadful' idea. But would he do any other type of rock tour again? 'Yes, if I want to. If my instinct tells me.' Right now he's thinking about new songs. 'I need the blank page and I need the panic. I'm not hungry to be adored or have approval. I don't need that. I'm curious to see what I can produce at my age.'
And will curiosity grow into panic? 'Ha, ha, or panic will grow into curiosity. I'm intrigued what I'll be able to do. It gets harder and at the same time it's a wonderful challenge.'
I notice a few times he adds the caveat 'at my age'. Does he think of his age as being a limit? 'Not until recently. I've just turned 59 and it's a long time to have lived through.' He pauses. 'I don't feel like I'm 59.'
Both his parents died of cancer before they were 60. Does that weigh heavily on him? 'Yes, of course. Mortality.' At this point a tofu chocolate pudding arrives and seems to punctuate the moment. He's clearly doing his best to stay alive.
'I am quite old though. Most of the orchestra could be my kids. It's an interesting dichotomy between what people think of as being old and how I feel, which is not old at all. I feel I've got a lot still to learn. I'd like to be smarter, I'd like to be a better husband, a better father, a better band leader, a better friend. I'm a pretty lousy friend because I'm away so much and I'm not good on the phone, and I can't bear the Skype thing.'
This comes all the way from his North East roots. Geordie men in particular are not good on the phone. It's far too spontaneous for them. 'I like lettery sorts of emails. I don't just say, "What's up". I like the old-fashioned, "Dear".' Is that what he writes to Trudie? 'No, I call Trudie every day.' You couldn't get away with not... 'No, but it's nice. We have a laugh. She's in Colorado today doing another yoga DVD.'
Do they do yoga together? 'No. She's far too fit for me. Very occasionally we will do it together. We are a bit competitive but she wins all the time. I just take my hat off to a superior form. I'm very comfortable with the idea of women being superior in many different fields. The way they navigate the world is something I admire.
'I'll say the standard misogynist thing. I don't like women drivers very much, but I prefer to live in a world run by women. All this striving for machismo power, it's f---ed up. We'd be better off if it was run as a family. I'd be happy being a sex slave in that kind of society and write the odd song.'
He really does have a romantic idea of women. 'All the women in my life have satisfied the various archetypes of my mother - the wife, the lover, the mistress, the unattainable female mystery.' This makes him feel he can't take anything for granted with Trudie. 'We've been together 30 years and luckily we've evolved in a compatible way. We're both different to what we were. I want that to continue and pray every day that it does. She might get sick of me. If she sees more of me she gets sick of me.' Does he get sick of her? 'No, I don't. I love her. She's great.'
So how could he be a better husband? Looking in, he seems quite devoted, always talking about how Trudie completes him. 'It's hard to strike a balance between having a career and being a family man.'
Ah, family. He's said before he didn't find parenthood easy. 'I don't have normal parent-child relationships. But they all seem to have survived that, whatever they went through.'
What could he have done to have been a better father? 'The problems they face now as adults are getting more interesting and they do come to me at times and say, "What do I do?" so I need to be wise and available.' He relates to them more as adults? 'Yeah. I'm not really a kid person to be honest with you.' But you've had so many, five of them? 'Yeah.' He dissolves into giggles. 'In all honesty I wasn't a hands-on daddy but I'll be a good dad.'
Coco, 20, had a record out this year under the name I Blame Coco. It was well received but there were inevitable comparisons to her father. 'I recognise the DNA, but if people say she sounds like her dad that writes her off. She didn't ask for my advice, she doesn't need it. I was in Paris with her the other night. She was doing a TV show and I was the stage dad. We went to dinner and we got calls to say that on Amazon they were number four, then number three, then two. She's very sanguine about it, not full of herself.'
So who are Sting's friends that he writes 'yours sincerely' emails to? 'Just people that I've had a lot in common with and have fun with.' What do you need to qualify as a Sting friend? 'You have to be deeply flawed like me. In fact it helps if they're slightly more flawed, then I can give good advice.'
After the tour finishes he will be forced to settle in one place - New York, where his 14-year-old son Giacomo is starting school. His dog Compass, a pointer, always travels with him. He even has his own air miles. 'He's a lovely boy. He's a very soulful dog. Without communicating verbally he'll reflect your mood back to you, he cheers me up though. When I'm miserable I just take him for a run.'
Sting seems like he enjoys misery. Or at least he enjoys hunger and discontent. 'Contentment is a bovine concept. Cows are content eating grass. Human beings are not. We are always searching for something. I'm not smugly content, no, but at the same time there's nothing I really need except more knowledge.
'The universe is a very uncertain place. So living with that comfortably is what I seek rather than finding some system I can believe in. We have to embrace uncertainty. And mortality, too. You've got to embrace that in a macabre sort of way.'
With that he embraces his chocolate pudding. He takes a mouthful and says he'll finish it later, after the show. He's all about deferred gratification, except it gets stolen. Someone else ate Sting's chocolate pudding! The poor man just can't win.
© The Daily Telegraph by Chrissi Iley