The following article by Shonagh Walker appeared in a December 2000 issue of The Australian
King Sting - A career that spans 25 years, 14 Grammys and countless hits has left the former Policeman lost for ambition. All he really wants now is to go home.
The bottle blond sitting in the empty dress circle of Sydney's Capitol Theatre wears a mocking expression on his weathered yet still boyish face. Third row, centre, he looks up at the stage and jeers, "Come on, Sting! Entertain me!" as though he doesn't believe it could possibly happen.
This is pre-show Sting, four hours before he takes to the stage for his two-hour performance. He is posing for photographs - one of his least favourite things - and has jumped into the dress circle, draping himself across three of its plush velvet seats. "It's quite surreal looking at it from this angle," he laughs, relaxing into another pose.
Pre-show Sting would really rather not have to perform. Less stage fright and more a case of do I really have to, he confides that he'd "sooner go home and watch the telly".
"Before I go on stage, I don't really feel like doing it, to be honest with you, but there is something about crossing the line," he says. "There's a chemical change that happens in your brain. I think that's why you do it - to get that thing, you know? There are 2000 people there who are very pleased to see you. Immediately! It's great. That carries you for two hours and you feel very, very uplifted. It's great fun and then the next night you don't want to do it again. But that's me. I'm not an extrovert. I'm really not. I'm really quite shy."
Gordon Matthew Sumner, milkman's son turned trench digger, former schoolteacher and latter-day rock god originally from Wallsend, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is growing old gracefully in a business that doesn't really want, or allow, his like to mature. Sting has just received a letter, on the day of this interview, informing him of his induction to the Songwriters' Hall of Fame. You'd have thought he had been knighted, which one day he may very well be. Arise, Sir Gordon.
"I got a letter from [Burt Bacharach lyricist] Hal David, personally," he says with wonder. "It's quite significant when you get a letter from someone as auspicious as Hal David, saying that you're part of a continuum of all those songwriters who've been inducted. My mother would be proud."
At 49, Sting is indeed one of the world's pre-eminent singer/songwriters. The older he gets the more questions he asks about life, and he uses his music to search for answers. For example, in the haunting melodies of 'A Thousand Years', the first track of his most recent album, 'Brand New Day', he speaks of a love that spans several centuries and various incarnations.
"I'm interested in the process of trying to find out what we are," he elaborates. "In other words, we have this life and there is an eternity before it and after it, and they seem to be the same. Why are we afraid of this one and not afraid of that one?
"I'm trying in my own way to work out what this whole religious experience is, in kind of an objective way. I think it [reincarnation] is a nice idea. I can't sit here and defend it rationally, because there really is no rational defence of it. It is a poetic idea. I don't think it would do you any harm to live as though it is true."
'A Thousand Years' is followed on the album by the stunningly beautiful 'Desert Rose'. A collaboration with Algerian rai musician Cheb Mami, the story behind this composition underlines Sting's close links with music and the human condition - even if he can't quite articulate it right now.
"I wrote this arabesque melody and came up with these lyrics, kind of about longing. I suppose, longing for some sort of philosophical, romantic longing. They're basically the same thing," he decides, struggling for the right words as he shifts uncomfortably.
"I didn't tell him [Mami] that. I just played him the melody and said I'd like some Arabic lyrics. He doesn't speak English. He only speaks French. He went away and came back and he sang and it sounded great to me. I didn't know what he was singing about. I asked him and he said, 'Oh, I'm singing about longing'. It was interesting because the music was telling me the same thing, so in a way it bore out a theory that I was working on - that the music was telling me a story, that the music suggested the words."
Sting worked in much the same way for the entire 'Brand New Day' album, which was written and recorded at his villa in Tuscany. He wrote melodies and music and waited to "hear" the story within them before penning the lyrics that were to be threaded through each musical tale. Often he came up with characters and indulged in roleplaying in order get the point of the story across.
"I'd go away with all the music in my head, in my headphones. I'd take long walks and hopefully the music would tell me some story, or introduce some character or some mood. Like in 'Tomorrow We'll See', [there's] this character who couldn't really be further removed from my experience, this transsexual character who just demanded to be born.
"It was rather surprising," he laughs. "The music is kind of cinema noir, dark, rainy streets. I thought, 'Well, who occupies dark, rainy streets?' And there she is, you know? [At first] I thought, 'I can't sing this song, people will laugh.' Then I thought, 'F. it, I'm gonna do it!' It was quite fun, putting oneself in high-heeled shoes. I ended up asking, 'What kind of person am I and what do I feel?' I felt compassion, and I thought there was a lot of pride in that character - about who she is and the scene, and how she makes a living."
While Sting is happy to role-play within his music, it is less likely we'll see him on the big screen again in the foreseeable future. After 14 films and a brief Broadway appearance, his forays into acting have been met with less than favourable notices. One critic commented that "as an actor, Sting makes a great musician", and the man himself couldn't agree more.
"Occasionally I get offered a role. It's not something I'm burning to do, to be honest with you. I don't particularly think it's my vocation. When I sing, I really feel like this is what I do, this is what I feel very natural doing. There are so many great actors in the world; I don't want to get in the way. If someone offers me something and I think, 'Okay, I can do that, that's me; it'll be fun and I'll learn something', then I'll say yes, but generally I'm not interested."
Sting, the musician, is just one of the hats Gordon Sumner wears so well. Others include passionate activist, organic farmer, yoga and Tantric sex practitioner, husband to actor-producer Trudie Styler, and proud father of six children ranging in age from four to 24. But certain clarifications must be made. Sting is no tree-hugging hippie, nor is he out to showcase himself with his humanitarian and environmental ventures. When he and Styler set up the Rainforest Foundation in 1988 they came under much fire for grandstanding, and there were suggestions they were using the cause to further their own celebrity. Others accused them of acting purely out of their own guilt for having so much themselves. On the contrary, it seems, on all accounts. The Rainforest Foundation was not set up as a specific tree-saving exercise. Its philosophy is about empowering people to look after and protect their own land communities from external exploitation.
"Empowering. that's a good word. Pretend I said that," quips an initially cheeky Sting before delving into the more serious issue. "We were formed to demarcate a piece of land in the Amazon about the size of Belgium, or I guess in Australia, the size of NSW," he explains. "What I mean by that is to legally protect it so the locals have a right to prevent people from exploiting it, like loggers or miners. We did it after five years. We raised enough money to create a legal infrastructure for these indigenous communities. Otherwise they are defenceless. So that's really what it's about. Not saving trees, particularly - just giving people the right to govern themselves and protect the land they have owned for thousands of years. They're small projects, but they're effective I can't see any other way of doing it."
The foundation's initial success on behalf of the Kayapo tribe of the lower Xingu in the Amazon is the model for other communities throughout the world, and projects are under way in Thailand, Madagascar and other areas of the Amazon. Running parallel to Sting's environmental passion is his deep regard for the home environment, his personal health and that of his family. One of the Sumner-Stylers' many homes is Lake House on an estate in Wiltshire, England, where they graze free range cattle and sheep and farm organic vegetables for their own consumption. According to Sting, it was the only sensible option. "When agriculture became big business, it all became about profit," he says. "If you can feed the offal of an old cow to baby cows, then you make a profit. But the results are disastrous to both the cows and to society. No-one knows how long [Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or mad cow disease] takes to gestate.
"I try to [eat only organic foods] as much as possible. It makes sense. The food tastes better. I am mostly vegetarian but, if you slaughter a sheep or a cow, I feel I have to eat it. It's interesting to live with animals and to eat them but [we try] to treat them as kindly as possible and make sure they have a good life," he adds, with no implied sense of irony.
"Most of the meat people eat is treated appallingly in slaughterhouses and I don't think there is any defence for that. If that was my only option, I think I would be [totally] vegetarian. The fact is that we can monitor what we do."
Two hours of Astanga yoga each day is a part of how Sting monitors what he does. Sitting on the brown leather sofa in his backstage dressing room, he looks super-fit, healthy and, well, glowing, really. He doesn't need to sing the praises of this ancient practice - its benefits are obvious just by looking at him - but after 11 years of Astanga, even he is still amazed at how effective it is. "It's difficult, but that is part of the charm of it. It is a bit like music - there is no end to it. You are always pushing the envelope - how far you can stretch. I am finding now that I can do things with my body that I couldn't do when I was an athlete at 18, so that's exciting," he says, pausing to eye the clear floor space across the room as if considering whether to physically demonstrate his point.
Instead, he continues: "It looks silly, but it actually works. It treats the body as one muscle, one thing. It has given me an energy and a focus in my life that I wouldn't have had in the last ten years. It has helped my career. It has helped every aspect of my life."
Of course, the topic of Tantric sex must be raised in this context, particularly in light of Sting's now famous remark about being able to make love to his wife for five hours, thanks to such yoga practices. "It was a flippant comment. I was drunk with Bob Geldof and we were just bullshitting," he laughs, "but there is a seriousness behind it. "Part of yoga practice is breath control and control of every aspect of your body, so it really is a function of yoga. The whole Tantric philosophy is that the mechanism of sex is a way of giving thanks. It is an act of devotion: to the person you're with, to yourself and to creation. You can create life with this mechanism and therefore it is sacred.
"It is also a hell of a lot of fun. It makes life and I think that can be taken into consideration without taking away from the fun of it. The sex is good," he states, pausing to add with a grin, "but it's not essential. Frantic sex can be just as good."
Sting has been saying repeatedly since 1986 that he lacks ambition. He says it again in this interview. All he wants, he protests, is to be sane, happy and at peace. "I look forward to next year, to actually just settling down. I'm not terribly ambitious, you know. I have been ambitious. I was very driven when I was younger. I think now, though, it is more about enjoying life. Being with family and friends. I'm looking forward to getting home - just sitting in my garden, seeing my kids, being with my wife."
© The Australian