The following article by Stuart Coupe appeared in an October 1996 issue of the Australian magazine The Drum Media
"I never watch anything I'm on, I'm too embarrassed, " smiles Sting, sitting backstage before an appearance at a venue two hours outside of New York in August, after he's asked about the recent documentary on his career screened on SBS.
It's easy to assume that Sting is a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual pain-in-the-arse, but in person in an exclusive interview conducted for upcoming ABC music documentary series Access All Areas, he appears remarkably candid, relaxed and calm. He's happy obviously to be asked about his lifelong passion of playing music, first with the Police and then as a solo artist, as opposed to the usual tabloid fodder of interviews he increasingly avoids.
If I did (watch interviews) I'd never do anything again. Everyone seemed to like it but I'm still not going to watch it.' Sting is in the middle of a lengthy world-wide jaunt to promote his most recent album, 'Mercury Falling', a tour that brings him to Australia for what's been promoted as an 'intimate evening' .
A seasoned international traveller, Sting is possibly getting to the stage where he's thinking seriously about the pros and cons of the lifestyle of the itinerant musician, no matter what the level of style in which he travels.
Sting has reached a stage in his song writing career where musicians, often jazz players, are covering his material. A recent album on legendary jazz label Blue Note was made up of Sting's material in an attempt to link it in to a long tradition of popular song.
I think jazz musicians know a good tune when they hear one, and they know a good springboard from which they can extrapolate, but it's an honour I suppose that jazz players would hear something in my tune that they could use, and I'm very happy about that," Sting says.
Being a bass player, lead singer and band focal point, becoming more evident in contemporary rock'n'roll, is still far from the most conventional approaches, but Sting insists that it's a situation which works well for him.
It's a good place to lead a band from, the bass, because you con control the harmonic of a band," he says. "A keyboard player con play a C chord and its not a C until I play a C. I can play something else and completely change the texture of the chord. Also, dynamically you can control the band much better than you can with a white stick, and I also hold the top because I'm a singer so in a way I create the perimeters within which the band can create their own colours."
In between his Police and solo activities Sting has never been a musician to stand still, continually exploring various artistic endeavours. He's acted in more than a dozen movies, from 'Quadrophenia' to 'The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen' and created a CDROM, 'Sting: All This Time'. He's hit Broadway with Brecht/Weill's 'Three Penny Opera' and forayed into classic music with duets with Pavarotti and an appearance as part of a performance of Stravinsky's 'The Soldier's Tale'.
In addition to this Sting's social conscience is in league with his creative consciousness. He's crusaded for the Brazilian rainforest, starred at Live Aid and championed Amnesty International. One driving force, however, remains consistent. "Music is my passion," he says.
That passion pervades 'Mercury Falling'. The first song Sting penned for the album, 'Hounds Of Winter', leads into a general theme of acceptance. "A lot of these songs feature protagonists in situations that can't be helped," he explains. "They have to summon the courage it takes to face that. In my younger days I tended to fight against everything. Now I understand better the cycles of life."
So in terms of personal creative process when does Sting feel like he's arrived at a very good song?
"For me a song has to begin with an idea that almost encompasses the whole song before you've written it, in other words it has to have an integrity from the title, a hook if you like, and then I write backwards from that; he says.
Sting's songs and arrangements often sound deceptively simple. On one level many of them appear to be little more than extremely memorable pop songs, but a closer examination reveals that they're the work of one of the more inventive minds working in popular music. And to perform that material live requires Sting to associate himself with some of the finest musicians available.
"The musicians in my band are, I think, some of the best musicians in the world, and they like to be challenged," he says, as the players in question sound check in the background.
"That's one of tasks as a band leader, to challenge them. I don't want them to be bored. I want them to be constantly playing at their limit or maybe beyond their limit. A crucial influence on Sting, but one that's usually forgotten as people talk about his jazz, reggae and rock styles, is English folk music of the type kept alive by the likes of Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, the Watersons and countless others.
"Martin Carthy was a big influence on me in my early life as a musician," Sting agrees. "In fact I had all his albums. He's a fantastic guitarist. I like English folk music. The first music I performed was folk music."
As with Dylan and the Beatles before him, the power a song has over an audience is a very mysterious thing. With Sting soon to step onstage it was interesting to reflect on being up there in front of 20,000 adoring fans and his feeling about the actual power he has over those people with his music.
I tend to try and forget what the song's about when I sing it. If it's an emotional issue that made me write the song, the last thing I want to think about is what made me write the song because I can't sing, I simply crack up, so I tend to be thinking about other things like sex or football - or both - and the words carry it. I shouldn't really say this - everyone's going to go 'he's thinking about sex isn't he?' The words carry and you can see it working - or not working. Some songs don't work. Some songs work beautifully in the studio and you take them out to the audience and they don't.
So there's a mysterious point where Sting's life and the audience's lives intersect?
"This is a deeply philosophical question about the nature of music and why we need music in the first place. l think it speaks to the soul. I think there's something deeply religious about music, whether we know it or not and whether we care to say it or not. For me anyway, I'm a devout musician. I have no other religion, and musicians are probably the lowest of the low in a sense. We're not great role models for society. Of all the philanderers and drug addicts and alcoholics and wife beaters, musicians are at the top of the league, and yet there's something in our job that's at the core of our spirituality and I think you have to take that very seriously, so I suppose audiences respond to that. It's a simple tonal chord into the world of the spirit."
© The Drum Media (Australia)