The following article by Neville Farmer appeared in a March 1996 issue of Music Week
Sting has been a superstar for longer than some of his fans have been alive, yet his last album, 'Ten Summoners' Tales', was arguably the first of his solo offerings to show his lighter side.
On the back of the self mocking cowboy songs and the pure pop genius of 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You', the album out did its jazz-flavoured predecessors by going double platinum in the UK, earning him a Mercury Prize nomination and topping up his world-wide success on the way.
Next week, A&M releases his new album, 'Mercury Falling', which follows Sting's progress into a lighter vein. The virtuosity remains, as does the clever writing and the smoothness of Hugh Padgham's mixing. But the music makes you smile.
There is a bit of everything thrown into the musical blender: old English folk, bossa nova, country and western, jazz, soul, gospel and blues. The lyrics tell stories about manslaughter and hanging, troublesome daughters, the happiness of freedom, mankind's relationship with nature and getting old.
Mercury Falling draws on every influence but it is irrefutably a Sting album. "It's increasingly a perversion of mine to elasticate music until you can't recognise it as a style," he says. "The vulcanisation of music, which has been brought about largely by radio programming and having to put a label on things, is not something I want anything to do with. I'm playful with musical forms and I have been accused of being dilettante about it, but it's not that way at all. I'm not interested in pure music at all."
Sting denies the accusation that he was pre-occupied in the past with being seen as a jazz musician. "I refute that because, although I might have used jazz musicians in the past, I arrange music that is the antithesis of jazz, which is about improvisation," he says.
It is Sting's interest in experimenting that keeps him going through the writing and recording process - an aspect of his career he shows little love for. "I usually start worrying about an album as soon as I have finished touring. I worry for about six months, whether I can still write a song or not and then, slowly, fragments appear until suddenly you've got an album. You've got to be patient and I'm not a very patient person."
'Mercury Falling' was recorded over 10 weeks at his country home, Lake House, on his own mobile studio, Steerpike Studio. "It creates a sort of bedlam around the house which means the family really knows what I do for a living," says Sting.
Once again Dominic Miller, Kenny Kirkland and Vinny Colaiuta complete the core of the band with Sting "the old duffer" on bass, while Hugh Padgham again co-produced and mixed.
"He keeps me in the studio for longer than half an hour, which is all I would do if I had a choice," says Sting. "He is very meticulous. I tend to hear what I wrote in a song and he hears what is really there."
Additional musicians include Kathryn Tickell on Northumbrian pipes, BJ Cole on steel, Branford Marsalis on sax, The Memphis Horns and a large North London gospel choir.
Cole points out that, despite using his instrument on a country-type song, Sting made him point up the chords which were least country. "It's that perversion again," says Sting. "I don't like to make musicians feel too comfortable with what they are doing. Making the Memphis Horns play in 9/8 or 7/8 really threw them," he chuckles. "But, in the end, they got it and it sounded great."
The release of the album is, it seems, a relief for Sting. Now he can get on with touring, which he loves. "I've spent most of the past 18 years on the road so I'd better love it," he says.
Sting is an American signing, but A&M UK managing director Osman Eralp describes the relationship between the company's UK and US operations as the best of any two companies he has ever worked with. "Within PolyGram, Roger Ames gave us complete autonomy but we have made that autonomy subsidiary to our relationship with the Americans," says Eralp. "We have contacts with them way down deep into A&R and marketing."
This has allowed A&M UK unusual access to Sting. "When Al Cafaro came over here to hear the rough mixes of the album, he brought along myself and [UK head of promotion] Julian Spear as well as his head of A&R David Anderle. We had a frank discussion about singles and so on," says Eralp.
The UK's involvement had much to do with the upturn in Sting's career in the past two years. "The UK took the lead in suggesting that it was worth doing a greatest hits album, which gave him his first Top 10 solo hit and sold more than 800,000 copies," Eralp says.
Sting has had two tracks from the new album remixed and pushed through the clubs at A&M UK's behest, including the new single, 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot'. "Sting encourages us to reinterpret his work every now and then," says Eralp. "I've heard loads of Sting remixes that have been appalling but some tracks have a spiritual quality to them, such as Brothers In Rhythm's version of 'If You Love Somebody (Set Them Free)' and the AG Division's version of the current single. "It's a good idea because the original version still gets most of the play but the remixes show a different perception of Sting as a songwriter."
General manager Harry McGee adds, "We've certainly given him another string to his bow in a club and dance sense. When Radio One put the single up to the A-list they originally chose the remix version. Now they've gone back to the album version. The remix played its part in convincing Radio One what a great song it was."
Sting is impressed by the remixes. "These guys took the single and sped it up a bit and even had the audacity to change some of the chords. But I really liked what they did," he says.
Such comments give an insight into Sting's attitude these days. In the past, he had a reputation as a control freak. Yet he is comfortable with his record company to the extent that he is happy to let them get on with things.
"Singles choose themselves," he says. "You can tell when you are playing the record to the company from the oohs and aahs whether a track works or not. I used to know what a single would do 10 years ago but now I don't have any idea and tend to leave it to the record company." Clearly things have changed.
© Music Week magazine