WORLD CAFENovember 01, 1999
The following transcript is of a Radio interview Sting did on World Cafe with Michaela Majourn in November 1999...
Michaela Majoun: We're here today with Sting at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia after his soundcheck. He's performing here tonight as part of the tour for his new album, 'Brand New Day'. Welcome Sting.
Sting: Nice to be here after so many years.
MM: After so many years?
S: After almost twenty years. I haven't been in this dressing room in twenty years.
MM: And it is great to anticipate a show in this small a venue. It's a delightful surprise.
S: It's a very nice way to begin a tour; to begin in a kind of nurturing human-scale environment and not a huge stadium that dictates the music. A theater is somewhere where you can be musical and that's my intention.
MM: Since you started releasing solo records back in 1985, you've been known for bringing many different kinds of musical influences into the pop matrix of your songs... jazz, world rhythms, even classical music. What new directions have you explored in making 'Brand New Day'.
S: Nothing terribly self-consciously, or even consciously. The album was made in a sense of fun and joy. Mainly to amuse myself and to amuse the people I work with. To surprise myself and entertain. There are, perhaps, elements of things that people haven't heard before. There's an element of Rai music which is a North African based music. It's very popular in France, mainly with Algerian singers. But it's a great hybrid of North African, pop, reggae, flamenco, French cabaret. It's a very good milieu that I feel very comfortable in. It's not a pure music form so I enjoy it very much.
MM: And it seems like your process was a little bit different this time around in terms of jamming with people, extracting...
S: I always try to change the process. It's, you know, there's no one way of cutting this cake. There's so many different varieties of angle you can take to the work. And this time, I just made music. I didn't think about lyrics or song titles, or even an agenda or plan. It was just to have fun. It was only after six or seven months that I admitted that maybe I had a record there and that I'd better write some lyrics. So this was a slower process, but an interesting one.
MM: And that record is 'Brand New Day'. The first two songs on the album seem related in a way. The first one is called A Thousand Years. Let's listen to it and then I'll tell you what I'm referring to.
MM: This song speaks of the many lives of a soul over eternity and through it all, the soul keeps saying "I still love you, I love you still". It seems to me that the "you" implied there is the same ambiguous "you" that Rumi, the Suphi poet from the fifteenth century, writes about and also his Christian contemporary, St. John of the Cross. And, that is to say, the "you" could be another person but it could also be the Divine. Either the Divine within or a larger...
S: Yeah. I think romantic love is often an analogue for more philosophical longing. Something greater than ourselves even. And so, yeah, I'm not a stranger to that idea: romantic love and Ontology. laughs) Can I use that word?
MM: Yes. Only with our listeners. (laughs) So you believe in reincarnation?
S: No. Not logically, not rationally. I don't think it can be defended. I think it's a beautiful poetic idea and, therefore, has a truth. And to live one's life as if it is true would do one no harm at all. In fact, if anything, it would make you live better, in my opinion. But I certainly wouldn't get into defending it logically or saying that that is actually what happens. I can't do that but, you know, for me, faith exists in the creative imagination. Therefore, there is a truth there, and logic and rationalism have nothing whatever (laughs) to do with it.
MM: The second song, Desert Rose, shares the same kind of longing, the same kind of ambiguous love that could be...
S: Yeah, I agree. I mean I'm talking about earthly love, if you like, or romantic love, but also the Garden of Eden rears it's head at some point. A sense of philosophical longing in the story.
MM: I love the last line of 'Desert Ros': "this rare perfume is the sweet intoxication of the fall". And, of course, that brings to mind Adam and Eve, especially since you've mentioned Eden.
S: Yeah. I think we do have a kind of recollection, almost of perfection, of a time when there was happiness. I don't know whether it's an illusion or not, but it's certainly in everyone's head. We have this idea of perfection. Whether we can realise it or not, I don't know.
MM: On the album, you have not only your wonderful standby musicians like Dominic Miller on guitar and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, but also some great guest artists.
S: Well, we have Branford Marsalis, who's a very old friend of mine. He's been on every album so far, I think. And Stevie Wonder played harmonica on one of the tracks, which is really an homage to him. That song, 'Brand New Day', reminded me very much of him and I thought it would be a great idea to have him play what I consider to be the happiest sound in the universe. That harmonica is such a signature. He very kindly agreed to come and play, and it was a great honour for me. James Taylor, who was also one of my teachers, if you like, just as Stevie was, agreed to sing on the album; but not as James Taylor. I wanted him to sing as a character. As a very arrogant big shot with a big car and a fancy diamond ring. Not like James Taylor at all. So a lot of people haven't recognised him on the record. He doesn't sound like him, but he was directed not to. (laughs)
MM: That's an interesting song. It's called 'Fill Her Up' and it starts out as a very country song about a kind of loser and a thief, but then you bring in a church choir and it ends up being an ode to marriage.
S: Well, it was actually inspired by a painting by Hopper. It was a famous painting of his of one gas station in a pine forest. I think it's a Mobil gas station with a guy holding a gas pump. And I just sort of climbed into the picture and invented this story about the guy. You know, he doesn't seem to have much going for him. (laughs) And he's tempted to steal the cashbox and take his girlfriend to Vegas and have a good time. But something happens to him in the woods as he walks back home.
MM: You started the record in Tuscany at your house there. I was recently in Italy and so many people said, "Sting has a house here". They were so happy that you're a, at least a part-time, resident there. How has Italy affected the process of your work?
S: Well, I've been going to Italy for twenty years now and, like a lot of Englishmen, have fallen in love with the diametric opposition to England in many ways. You know, it's weather, it's outlook, it's philosophy. I've been looking for some place to buy there for many years and I never quite found the right place. But I think I've found the place now. It's near Florence and it's very beautiful. And can you recognise it on the record? I wouldn't say so. I think all you could recognise would be a spirit of joy and good living (laughs) that Italy engenders. It was nice to spend a year there. All the seasons with my colleagues and my family.
MM: Your website says that 'Brand New Day' is devoted to the theme that lover conquers all, but a lot of the songs are about the break-up, the loss of love.
S: The loss of love or... I'm not so sure about that. I think there's an optimism in just about all the songs... That love actually transcends not only lifetimes, it also transcends break-ups. There is meaning in a relationship even if it doesn't last. It's been a profound and useful part of living. Even the song about the transsexual. There's a pride in the way he/she sings about his/her life that I found very engaging. I like that it's a song about saying, "don't judge me".
MM: That song is called 'Tomorrow We'll See' and it is from a transsexual hooker's point of view. Where did that come from?
S: (laughs) Well, it's pretty far removed from my experience, I'll have to admit. My wife made a documentary for the BBC about transsexuals in Paris and how they made a living and why they did what they did. What came through in the documentary was that it wasn't just commerce. They actually were, themselves, in a branch of showbusiness and they cared passionately about the way they looked and how they presented themselves. They are very proud and exotic and, as far as I'm concerned, the world would be a duller place without them. You know, the story is essentially tragic. A lot of them end up in a very bad way, but they've chosen to live that way and I think they should be respected.
MM: The song, 'Perfect Love Gone Wrong', features a French rapper named Ste', and you've written in French before...
S: Well, French rap interests me a lot because it's very political. It's also been taken by French culture in a very big way. It's not ghettoised like it is here. They're very proud of their rap music. For me, I didn't use it entirely gratuitously. I'm singing from the point of view of a dog.
S: Literally. And she is my mistress and I'm very unhappy that this relationship we have is being broken up by a man. And so, I'm complaining and she's complaining about me, but I wanted it so that we didn't speak the same language. I'm speaking dog and she speaks in French, so we don't quite meet. That was the intention anyway.
MM: I wasn't sure if it was literal of figurative, but that's...
S: No, I'm definitely a dog.
MM: Well, you certainly have a different point of view in 'Big Lie Small World', in which is the protagonist... There's a very lively samba beat that contrasts with the singer's sense of doom, but still it's a very funny song.
S: This character has turned up in my songs a number of times. He's the same character in 'Seven Days'. A sort of hapless romantic. He can't quite get relationships right. He's always saying the wrong thing or he's never on time. It's the sort of tragic/comic story of a letter that was sent of bravado, but then he tries to get it back from the postman. It was meant to amuse.
MM: It's amusing and very cool at the same time, with Chris Botti's trumpet and your vocals...
S: Well, Chris is imitating Miles Davis... nother of our avatars.
MM: How has new technology affected your process of composing?
S: I would imagine that I was one of the first people to begin to use digital systems, like computers, about fifteen years ago. I've used it as part of my process in all of that time but never so you would notice. There is an electronic undercurrent in all the music that I've done, but it's usually played against good musicians. So it's layered over by real musicianship. I find that very interesting. It's not entirely organic but there's a tension between the real musician and the mechanical nature of computer generated sound.
MM: Are you sorry that you did that article in Yoga Journal a few years back talking about Tantric Yoga?
S: No, I didn't talk about Tantric Yoga in that journal. I talked about it in a drunken session with Q Magazine. And why would I be sorry? (laughs)
MM: I don't know. It comes up a lot, so to speak.
S: It comes up a lot. It's hilarious.
MM: Does 'Ghost Story' tap into something that's essentially male?
S: Male? It's about my father actually. That song is very much about my relationship with my father...now. (laughs)
MM: Now that he's passed away?
S: Now that he's left his body.
MM: You were recently profiled on '60 Minutes'. There's a reference to you going to the Amazon in the current House and Garden. What is it like being a cultural icon and trying to have a normal family life?
S: Oh, I have a very normal family life. I don't bring the celebrity home. My kids wouldn't tolerate it. Nor would my wife. I try to be as normal a father as I can be. The only difference being that I travel a lot and I'm away from home a lot. When I come home, I do monitor that celebrity guy. He stays outside. (laughs)
MM: It's a good trick if you can do it. How did you discover and develop your vocal style?
S: Ah, selling newspapers. I used to sell the Evening Chronicle in my home town in Newcastle. I developed a singing style to get over traffic. Wanna hear it?
S: (yodels) Evening Chronicle.
MM: I can hear that in your music.
S: You can hear it, can't you?... And I had a milk run in the mornings. I was always very hardworking.
MM: Is there anything that you haven't done yet and wish to accomplish in your life?
S: Well, the only regret I have is my athletic career. I never played soccer for England. I was a runner as a young man but, you know, ...the next lifetime. If such a thing exists, I'll be an athlete.
MM: That thing that you don't believe in, the next lifetime.
S: (laughs) It's not that I don't believe it. I can't defend it.
MM: Sting, it's been such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you for being with us on the World Cafe.
S: So nice to talk to you, too. Thank you, Michaela.
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