THE DAILY TELEGRAPHSeptember 01, 1999
The following interview with Chris Salewicz appeared in a September 1999 issue of the Daily Telegraph magazine...
Sting's global superstardom ha brought him many benefits; his fortune (£85 million); his friends (Madonna, the Stones); his property (in London, Wiltshire, Manhattan and Malibu Beach). But the one thing he was lacking was peace of mind. Now he has found it in a 600-acre estate in Tuscany where, with his family around him, he has found the inspiration for his new album.
Like a land baron in a western, Sting stands, his feet firmly planted apart, in front of his new house in Tuscany. Shading his eyes with a hand and surveying the picture-postcard view, he shows how it is all his land, almost as far as the eye can see. "It's like an entire country, and it's all mine. I got it for a song. Well, maybe two," he cracks.
We are on a hill overlooking a valley, stroked by a feathery breeze. The fruits of Sting's 23-year recording and songwriting career amount to a reported ¬£85 million, which could well be an underestimate. He is one of the few British artists to attain true global superstar status (the others - the Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin and Elton John - are all his close friends). What is, you wonder, the air like at the heady metaphorical altitude at which Sting lives?
Until a couple of years ago Sting owned four properties around the world: a townhouse in Highgate, north London, bought from Yehudi Menuhin; Lake House, his landscaped estate near Stonehenge in Wiltshire; a Manhattan apartment; and Barbara Streisand's former house in the Malibu Beach colony. The last is in the process of being sold, for Sting is trading up to a $6 million one nearby, formerly owned by Larry 'JR' Hagman.
Sting first came to Tuscany in 1990 to make 'The Soul Cages', an album about the death of his father. He was taken with the serene, undulating folds of the beautiful region, but couldn't find the right home. It wasn't until last summer that he and his wife, Trudie Styler. the actress and film producer, returned to Tuscany for more house-hunting.
Again, they found nothing. On the last day, the estate agent told them of a property that had just come on the market. Weary, Trudie had to be persuaded by Sting to go and see it. 'Come on, I've just got a feeling about this,' he urged her.
What they found was Il Palagio, a rundown 600-acre estate, complete with a pair of lakes and a few forests, which for the past 400 years had been owned by a single aristocratic family. "I noticed straight away that the house itself was quite funky," says Sting. "There was nothing intimidating about the size of the rooms." They fell immediately in love with this substantial but homely residence, only 30 minutes south of Florence.
Due to its elevation, the area enjoys a temperate climate, cool breezes moderating the heat of the plains below. With a 20-room main house and its own chapel, the estate is self-sufficient. Although they had returned almost to seed. the house has its own vineyards and olive groves (the label on Il Palagio's olive oil bottles now reads Famiglia Sumner, (Sting's real name), as well as fields of sunflowers, which provide seeds and oil. Did he have to learn about the various crop yields? "I knew about sunflowers. I know I'm from Newcastle, but I'm not congenitally stupid."
The family moved in in time for last summer's school holidays. As befits the new lord of the manor, Sting threw a party to which everyone in the neighbourhood was invited. 'I've tried to suggest that I should also be allowed to enact droit de seigneur" he jokes, "but no one seems interested."
It quickly becomes apparent that this is a very productive household - the hours seem compacted by the creative buzz that is getting things done all the time, at all levels. Although much removed from the pop process. Sting - now 47 - has keen antennae that keep him in touch with the zeitgeist. It is 10 years, for example, since he first embarked on the journey that astanga yoga has become for him. Partially due to his proselytising - all that talk of the positive effects on his sex life can't have hindered - it is a form now widely practised in the West. Madonna had left Il Palagio the day before I arrived, after a week's assiduous yoga six hours a day - with two leading practitioners.
"She came round to my place in New York once," Sting explains. 'Whaddyadoin?" she said, when I started doing yoga. Now after two years, her practice is better than mine after 10. She's quite remarkable. So focused. She ate me out of house and home while she was here."
Does the former teacher see himself as something of a pioneering educationalist? "I'm very sponge-like. I can receive a lot of information without necessarily steeping myself in it. I have always been good at doing that. Even when I was at school, although I didn't study that much, I had a very enlarged sense of the world. My general knowledge has always been good. And I'm privileged to not have to worry about how I'm going to pay the mortgage."
It's a rainy weekday morning in Tuscany and, rather as if Il Palagio has become an English seaside boarding-house, the children are playing board games and cards. The last time I saw him, in Los Angeles two years ago, Sting had enthused about a trip to Brazil he had recently taken: he had seen how the family structure in the Amazon basin knitted together tribes and their cultures; and he expressed a desire to develop this more acutely in his own life.
Was this merely a passing mood? Hardly, Sting insists, sitting at the rough-hewn breakfast table with a bowl of fruit and a coffee: his properties are just add-ons to what is already there; it is his family, he motions around him, who are his number-one priority. With him in Tuscany are all of his children except for 22-year-old Joe - the eldest child of his marriage to the actor Frances Tomelty - who is teaching music at a Boston summer school. Kate, Joe's sister, who is 17, is at the house. As are the four children Sting has had with Trudie Styler: Mickey, 15, Jake, 14, Coco, eight, and Giacomo, three - all blond giants, seemingly growing at about a foot a year, taking after their statuesque mother.
Sting and Trudie seem genuinely happy together, kissing and cuddling, very tactile, a powerful double-act. So aware of the importance for him of this family structure, Sting claims he is equally aware of its fragility. "That's why it's so wonderful. That's why it should never be taken for granted."
The pool and the pad not withstanding, great efforts have been made to ensure that the children remain as normal as possible. Sting seems to make space for them: there is a perfect moment when he and Coco play the theme from 'Mission: Impossible' on guitars, sitting framed in the archway that leads to the chapel. And he has normal parental preoccupations: should the children watch South Park? Should they listen to gangsta rap, a particular favourite of Jake's? (Suge Knight, the imprisoned founder of Death Row records, the genre's principal exponent, owns a house four doors from their new Malibu property.)
In a scene that could have come from 'Absolutely Fabulous', Jake warns his father, by now cavorting nude in the pool, with world-weary tolerance that Trudie, Mickey, Kate and their two friends have just arrived. "Dad, you'd better put some clothes on if you don't want to terrify them all." Sting leaps into a pair of Levis. "I try and keep Sting the celebrity out of the house," he says. "The kids know very well that there are two characters: the public and the private me. But I try and live as normal a life as possible, one that is pretty objective and well-balanced." But Sting does have other complex family responsibilities. Like his father before him, his younger brother is a milkman. That hasn't always been his job. He did have a bar in Whitley Bay, but the police busted the place for having four underage drinkers. "They wanted a high-profile bust and used my name to get it into the papers," says Sting with some anger. "So they took away his licence and now he can't get rid of the property."
Sting has always risen early - at his house in Wiltshire, by 7.30am he would be giving piano lessons to the children. Now. however, he finds he is awake for much of each night, reading for hours before he eventually falls briefly back to sleep, finally clambering out of bed shattered. "I think it's an age thing," he concludes.
His life in Tuscany - where he recorded his new album, Brand New Day, which will be released at the end of this month - seems ordered. Anxious to catch every breath of creative wind, he has his studio switched on and ready to go 24 hours a day. In recent weeks, he's been practising an hour before lunch for his upcoming world tour, playing and singing with the latest CD. Otherwise he does yoga of a mindboggling level of expertise for up to 90 minutes at a time, at around nine each morning in the chapel. He talks of taking short cuts to creativity and yoga is certainly one of those routes - in similar vein Sting went hiking with Vikram Seth's brother in the Himalayas in the midst of making 'Brand New Day'. And he plays chess for at least an hour a day, often on the Internet - "I came about 1600th out of 2,000 the other day. Life in the Tuscan wilds seems to only enhance the creative mood: writing the lyrics for the album, he would traipse across his land, playing and replaying the music on a Walkman.
5o this pastoral idyll seems about as close to perfection as it could he. Yet it wasn't always so easy. Unashamedly ambitious from the off, Sting's former band, the Police, were stars almost before they even had a hit record, with all the inevitable pitfalls: there was cocaine, me-me-me ego and rock-star petulance, although, in a Sting-like way, even this was very balanced, and almost acceptable.
There were dark days at the beginning of the Eighties, around the break-up of his marriage to Frances Tomelty. He retired to Goldeneye, Ian Fleming's former home in Jamaica, for almost a year, suffering the black time before the dawn. In the middle of that decade he immersed himself in therapy. The person who emerged was a different human being, all the nonsense having fallen away. Here again, Sting had locked into a new trend of thought just before it happened, the one that said that going into therapy did not reveal horrible weakness and that it was all right for Englishmen to do so.
"I think coming to the music business a little later than normal - I was 25 - and having real relationships is what has sustained me through the most difficult times. And seeing it for what it is: one big game. Sometimes before I go onstage, there are 20,000 people in the audience waiting for me, the bloke in the dressing-room. And it can just seem completely stupid. But I have to go out and do the business and be that person that they expect, and entertain them. I get the sense of ludicrousness about it, and yet I do it. Because it's fun - it's actually fun. And I'm not an extrovert person - I'm the opposite. I'm much happier in the corner, observing things, than I am being in the spotlight."
The material his therapists got their teeth into still comes out in everyday life. Down by the pool Sting calls out to Giacomo, his three-year-old. The boy doesn't even look up. "Giacomo completely ignores me," laughs Sting. "He's like my dad, my dad come back." Though this is a flippant remark, it is the relationship with his father that seems especially to niggle. It was his death from cancer in the late Eighties, shortly after the death of his mother from the same disease, which brought Sting to Tuscany in the first place. Sting once wrote a song called 'Invisible Sun', a pun that gave away how he felt he had been regarded by his father. On at least three occasions he brings up the subject of what his father would make of his success.
"It was a little bewildering for him at first. He was always wondering when I was going to get a proper job. In a way I now understand him too, his resentment. He'd had no opportunities. Towards the very end we came a long way to understanding each other. I think by now my father would have come to have accepted my success and appreciated it."
Although he had a good singing voice and started playing guitar at the age of eight, the young Gordon Sumner at first considered these to be not seemly attributes to divulge to his peers in rough Wallsend. ("It would have been tantamount to asking for a kicking.") Although both parents were musical, his mother was more responsible for Sting's eventual career. "She was a piano-player and my dad had a very good voice: they would sing at parties, my mum playing the piano - she was very good at playing tangos. She was the one who encouraged me."
So why does he feel that compared with his father he has been allowed to have the lot?
"History. I grew up in an era when I was able to win a scholarship at 11 and go to a grammar school where I was told that I was in the top intelligence percentage in the country and the world was my oyster. Academically, it didn't pan out in the way that the priests had told me, but it did give me a sense of self-confidence, that I had a right to the world, the right to go out and have a try."
In Newcastle. Sting was brought up as a Roman Catholic, imparting him, he believes, with another beneficial edge. "I'm glad I was brought up as a Catholic. It's interesting because in Britain you're still perceived as being on the margins of society'. And then there's the guilt and the hellfire and the eternal damnation if you miss Mass. As a budding artist, what a wonderful way to be brought up. Whether I'd want to subject my own children to such an upbringing, I don't really know."
Sting's children have been brought up in the Church of England, Trudie's faith. From similarly reduced childhood circumstances as her husband, Trudie is often perceived as the power behind the throne, a view Sting seems to agree with - on several occasions he refers to his wife as 'the Boss' and twice says, 'If it wasn't for Trudie, I'd still be in a bedsit in Notting Hill Gate.'
It was Trudie who oversaw the purchases of Lake House and the new Malibu property - "She's a very good businesswoman, a very good entrepreneur. Sometimes she resents that, because she's actually a very creative person."
And although it was Sting and Trudie's joint film production company that, to great financial advantage, backed the hit movie 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels', the singer maintains, "I"m just the mascot. I do nothing. I do absolutely zero. It's Trudie's film company."
In a light evening dusk, a blue mist settling over the surrounding hilltops, we are sitting outside on the veranda. "Jake! Jake! Can you go and watch the telly upstairs, I'm trying to do an interview here." In a manner familiar to parents with teenage sons, Jake ignores this request, but compromises by shutting the doors of the downstairs television room. On a table in front of Sting sits a copy of the words he sings on 'Brand New Day' - much seems revealed when you see that the rather profound lyrics conceal a copy of the magazine Viz, another Newcastle connection.
At his Malibu Beach home two years ago, Sting had been going through what seemed a deep-seated fit of angst - what was he meant to be doing with his life? It had perhaps been triggered by his decision to embark on the handsomely paid project of writing the score for a forthcoming Disney cartoon. Now he admits that that state of mind is all part of the package.
"I'm starting to recognise the pattern, and so it makes it a little easier. I just go from one creative crisis to another - that's what the pattern is. I'm always in crisis because my whole way of living is predicated on this very fragile membrane of matching the ability to write songs to the popular taste. So I think it's necessary to be a little anxious about whether you can do it or not. Also, I don't know where else creativity comes from, except from that little nagging doubt that you have that you're useless. I think you've got to be a bit neurotic about whether you can do it in the first place, and whether it's sustainable. It would be nice to sustain this career for as long as possible. Because when it's not possible any more, it will be very apparent," he laughs. "There'll be no argument: you're out, mate. On the other hand, I've had a good innings - a very good life. It's very nice to be in the charts, and it's very nice to sell lots of records, but it isn't the be-all and end-all of everything."
That night I drive with Sting, Daniel Day-Lewis, his wife Rebecca Miller, Andrea Griminelli, the classical flautist, and a couple of other friends to Lucca, 70 miles away. James Taylor, a close friend of Sting's and a contributor to the new album, is playing in Lucca, and will be coming back to the house to stay for a couple of nights. After the show, Sting is introduced to a local music fan, Paolo Rossi, the Italian footballer who scored all three goals against Brazil on the way to winning the World Cup with his country in Spain in 1982. Sting is in awe. "Imagine that," he says afterwards. "Three minutes' work and you can go into any bar and never have to buy a drink for the rest of your life."
© The Daily Telegraph