GRAMMYNovember 01, 1999
The following interview with Gary Graff appeared in the Winter 1999 issue of Grammy magazine...
Sting finds love...
Sting's home in Italy is a handsome hilltop villa in Tuscany with several buildings including a studio in a converted barn, a panoramic view to enjoy, and lush woods for strolling. Not surprisingly, he didn't encounter much resistance when he began summoning his musician friends there to do some playing for what became the multi-faceted artist's latest album, 'Brand New Day'.
"Yeah, no one complained about coming to Italy," Sting says with a chuckle. "They couldn't wait. People wouldn't leave; in fact, they're still here!"
Well, not really, but no one could blame the players for wanting to hang around. 'Brand New Day', you see, wasn't just a chance to work in a pleasurable location but also to work in equally enjoyable circumstances - specifically in the always challenging and ambitious realm of Sting, in which musical genres are mixed and matched, and where feel and technique are granted equal weight and few rules apply.
Even though he's often labelled a stickler for craft, Sting reports that 'Brand New Day' - which features guest performances by Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Branford Marsalis, French-Algerian singer Cheb Mami and French rapper Ste Strausz - was a particularly relaxed effort.
"The record was begun on a lark," he explains, "on a spirit of 'Let's just mess around and jam and roll tape and see what happens' and that stuff. I didn't really admit that I was making a record until very late in the process. If anybody said the word 'record', I'd fine them."
Six months in to the process, however, Sting found he had an hour's album. But he had no lyrics - "unusual for me," he says, "because I normally write lyrics and music in just about the same period, sometimes the lyrics first. But this one was odd, 'cause I had this hour of music and I didn't know what it was about."
To figure it out, he did some real woodshedding.
"I would take it away every day and walk in the woods and hope that the tunes would tell me what they were about - a mood would appear or a character or a line or a story or something," he recalls. "Some days I got something, and some days I got nothing. It was kind of a mysterious process for me, a mysterious journey. And gradually, stories started to emerge, little characters started to be apparent. But it took me awhile."
In fact, Sting even discovered a thread that unified all the pieces - and it was as disarming as the way they were created. They became love songs, he found, ranging from romantic declarations of devotion such as 'A Thousand Years' and the buoyant 'After the Rain Has Fallen' to mournful tales of regret ('Ghost Story') and something as winsome as 'Perfect Love¬ÖGone Wrong', in which a dog - voiced by Sting - expresses resentment of his master's new relationship with another human being.
This is different emotional terrain for Sting, who once dubbed himself 'The King of Pain' and was more likely to write about relationships in the more ambivalent and sometimes sinister terms of 'Every Breath You Take', 'Wrapped Around Your Finger' and 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free'. And while, after more than 15 years with actress/producer Trudie Styler, who he married during 1992, there's a contentment that's bound to have an effect on his work, Sting still sounds a bit surprised by his creation.
"I'm usually not so romance-oriented," says the father of six, adding that "I think love is fantastic, almost a prism for anything, any kind of human situation, whether it's political or social or whatever. Love is a wonderful metaphor. You break a love affair apart and you find everything in there - politics, religion, philosophy, the works. It's all there if you just scratch the surface. I think I've learned that I don't have to be singing about social issues; I can sing about love, and all of those issues are below the surface, anyway."
New musical adventures are part and parcel of Sting's wandering muse, which has also taken him into acting and social activism. Once a schoolteacher named Gordon Sumner in Newcastle, England,
Sting, 48, came from jazz but embraced punk during the late '70s, when he co-founded the Police and turned into a peroxided king of the pop charts.
But while the Police's popularity was based on its hit singles, the trio actually offered a much more advanced sensibility, employing nimble musicianship along with flavours and textures from a variety of sources, ranging from reggae to jazz.
"There were layers there, and all that stuff was inherent in the music, but you didn't have to respond to it 'cause it was loud and raucous and fun," Sting explains. "I was trying to veil something underneath that; I wanted some substance to it that would intrigue me, and maybe a few other people. And I just kept doing that."
Indeed, as the Police broke up during 1984 Sting quickly found himself hung with the mantle of artiste. By this time he had also forayed into films, staking his claim with a cameo in the big screen adaptation of the Who's 'Quadrophenia' and with more substantive roles in 'Radio On', 'Brimstone and Treacle' and 'Dune'.
Moreover, his first solo album - 1985's 'The Dream Of The Blue Turtles' - found him dropping his bass for guitar and playing with hot young jazzmen such as Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Omar Hakim and Darryl Jones. It wasn't jazz, per se, but it was a clear pronouncement that Sting's ambitions, across the board, were on a higher plane.
"He is not someone who is rewarded by writing a three-minute pop hit," says the percussionist Vinx, who recorded for Sting's Pangaea label. "I think he could sit down for ten minutes and knock off a No1 single... but he sincerely wants to do more than that."
And Sting offers no apologies for it.
"I do like intellectualism," he says. "I do find it stimulating. I like reading involved books, I like complex music, even though I'm a pop musician. My idea was to allow all my interests - my esoteric interests - with a pop sensibility, with a common touch. I'm not happy just making simple music; I need some kind of acerbic, difficult quality to it somewhere. That was always fun for me. And it's never been po faced. It might have been painted that way, but I have a ball. I always have. I'm not as serious as people think."
Sting is certainly capable of having a laugh - even when he's the butt of the joke, as he was on a Saturday Night Live appearance that left him with an assortment of new nicknames (Stingerooni, Sting-O, Sting-a-ding-ding, the Stingatollah), or in an episode of the Simpsons where he played off his caricature of a bleeding-hearted pop singer to appear at a benefit to help rescue Bart from a well.
And then there's the famous Tantric Sex story, an off-handed remark about how yoga has given him a marathoner's endurance in the sack that "flew around the world faster than anything I've ever said. But I thought [the furore] was a lot of fun. People would look at my wife and say 'When do you sleep?!'"
But Sting is more often associated with his more sober pursuits, such as acting in a Broadway revival of Threepenny Opera or narrating recordings of Stravinsky's 'The Soldier's Tale' and Prokofiev's 'Peter and the Wolf' or singing on former Policemate Andy Summers's recent album of Thelonious Monk songs and producing a new classical piece by Astor Piazzolla.
He's also been an avid supporter of Amnesty International, appearing on both the 1986 Conspiracy of Hope and 1988 Human Rights Now tours. And Sting and Styler both champion the preservation of the Brazilian rainforest via foundation for which they put on an annual all-star concert in New York City. Each year's theme has been different, such as Motown - for which Sting, Elton John and James Taylor pulled on long white gloves to be Diana Ross's Supremes - and this year's tribute to Frank Sinatra.
Sting is not one to dwell on what comes next, either. He'll tour at length to promote the new album, he says, before turning his attention to his next musical project. And when it comes along, he hopes to maintain the casual spirit that marked 'Brand New Day'.
"I think it's a strategy to trick yourself into creativity," he says. "If you say 'Okay, I have to make an album now, and it has to be a hit and pay the rent and a lot of people are depending on this for their livelihood and so are you,' then that can be very, very restrictive, and the creative muscle will not take kindly to that kind of pressure, that kind of strain. So I think to trick yourself, you say 'Let's just have some fun,' which is really the reason you made music in the first place. You didn't make music to sell 10 million copies, though that's nice. You made music 'cause you wanted to have fun with your friends. To begin that way I think, is a very good strategy."
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