Sting talks new LP '57th & 9th' and reveals why he's swimming in an ocean with no end...
November 04, 2016 

You could say Grammy-winning musician Sting has finally made his way back home.

After a lute album (2006's Songs From the Labyrinth), reunion with the Police, a Christmas album (2009’s If on a Winter’s Night...), an orchestral record and tour (Symphonicities), a Broadway show (2014’s The Last Ship) and tours with Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, the 65-year-old is back with a rock record – 57th and 9th – his first since 2003’s Sacred Love.

“You know for me, the most important element in music has been surprise,” he says down the line from New York. “When I listen to music I want to be surprised. When I compose music, I want to surprise people.”

On the advice of his new manager, Martin Kierszenbaum, Sting entered the studio earlier this year with a group of musicians he has used for various solo projects over the years, including touring drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and guitarist Dominic Miller.

“I got my musicians in the studio in Hell’s Kitchen in New York and said, ‘I have no idea what we’re doing. Let’s play musical ping pong.’”

The result? Ten short stories, all done under the pressure of needing to finish the record in time to get it released by Nov. 11.

“I needed to make decisions very hard and fast and very quickly and stick by those decisions,” he says. “But it gave the record a character that it wouldn’t have otherwise had.”

During a wide-ranging conversation, Sting reflected on his rock ‘n’ roll return, told us why he’ll never retire and revealed what his proudest achievement as an artist has been.

How did you wind your way to the more guitar-driven 57th and 9th?

For the last decade or so, I’ve been making what you might call esoteric records where I was only following my curiosity. There was no commercial agenda. Then I thought, ‘What should I surprise people with now?’ And it came to me, a rock ’n’ roll record, or at least the thrust of it being rock ’n’ roll. That could get people saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect that.’ And that’s what the reaction has been. I think it’s already successful in that regard.

Did the tours with the Police or your Back to Bass trek influence the sound?

Everything you do influences what you do. It’s not as if I’d given up rock ’n’ roll. I play rock ’n’ roll every night of my working life. I still do those old songs from the Police whenever I tour, so it’s not as if I said I wasn’t going to do rock ever again. I just hadn’t presented a rock album in a long time. So it was a surprise. You got to keep people guessing and I have no idea what’s going to be next. I really don’t.

57th and 9th is going to seem very familiar to a lot of your longtime fans. But there’s a whole new audience out there who might not be that familiar with you. So, is this hello again, or pleased to meet you?

It may be hello to some new people, I’d be happy about that. But also people can recognize my entire music DNA on this record – from the beginning until now. It’s all me. I’m a gadfly. I want to do as many different things as I can. Some people have one furrow and they dig deep and I respect them for that, but I like to mulch around.

The subject of mortality surfaces on the record, what kind of stories did you want to tell on the new record?

There was no overriding concept to this album. In fact it was made without any pre-planning at all. I went into the studio with literally no ideas of what it would be except that it would take a short amount of time... Every day, I took something home with me on the walk back to my house. I would ask the song to tell me a story and the next day I’d turn up with a song. Day by day this grew. But there’s no overarching theme or concept.

Have you scratched every musical itch? Is the circle complete?

Of course I haven’t. No, no, no. I’m still a student of music. I’m swimming in an ocean that has no end. It just keeps going. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know anything. So I’m going to keep searching. I’m fascinated by this world. I’m fascinated by the world of music... This is my journey, this is my path. I’m very serious about that.

You left the Police at the height of the band’s fame. Looking back on that do you think that was a crazy decision?

I think a lot of the decisions I made may at the time have seemed counter-intuitive. You leave the biggest band in the world to form a jazz band, what the hell are you doing? But, I think in the long term, people realize your strategy, if you had a strategy, was smarter than they thought. Having the courage to be counter-intuitive is a way of tricking the creative spark. It doesn’t do well just to keep pushing the same button every time. You get diminishing returns and the muse leaves you. So you have to take the risk. Risk is extremely important. You have to take the risk in order to surprise. I’ve always had the courage to do that up to now. I hope I still do. Wherever that curiosity leads me next, I hope I have the courage to take that step.

Have you tried something that didn’t work?

Not really. I just follow it until its logical conclusion. Most of my meanderings have coincided, by accident, with popular taste. Even that lute album, which everyone thought was total madness, sold a million copies. It was pretty successful (laughs).

Your memoir Broken Music ends with you joining the Police. Will we see a sequel?

I’m living it now. I’m living my second act. I wanted to write in that first book about a part of my life that people didn’t know about. The formative years, where I come from, why I think the way I do. Fame and all that celebrity stuff doesn’t interest me that much. But now, I’m 65. It’s an interesting time. I’m becoming very reflective, so maybe it’s time to start thinking about writing again.

What has been your most memorable experience in Toronto?

People ask me this and they always expect me to say the biggest gigs, the Police Picnics and those types of shows. I remember those first dates where hardly anyone was there. We played the Edge and the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto and I think there were about five people there. I remember those dates and I remember thinking we played really well. I remember those shows going down really well with that small group of people. Growing from there, playing Massey Hall, playing Maple Leaf Gardens. The early part of the career is the most memorable and the most exciting in many ways for me.

What is your proudest achievement?

My kids. I have six extraordinary children who despite me being their father have grown up to be incredibly well-balanced human beings. I’m more proud of them than anything else.

What about as an artist?

That’s an interesting question. I was given an award last week for 13 million plays of Every Breath You Take, which I think adds up to a hundred years of continuous airplay... But I’m telling you, that’s not the best compliment you could pay me. Someone will come up to me and say, ‘Sting, I fell in love to one of your songs,’ or ‘We got married and your song was our wedding song,’ or ‘When we brought our first kid home from the hospital, your song was on the radio,’ or ‘When we buried uncle Charlie, we played one of your songs.’ That means so much to me. You realize by accident, you’ve created the soundtrack to people’s emotional lives. That their emotional landscape and their memory is linked to your songs. I think that’s incredibly important work. Even though I didn’t set out to do that, I was just amusing myself or amusing the cat in the room I was playing in. You realize you do this by accident. That’s the greatest achievement; doing this for ordinary working people. The songs mean something to them and it’s very nurturing to hear that. It happens every day.

I skipped school to see you.

There you go. I wouldn’t have approved that as a school teacher, you know.

Do you have a favourite song or album?

That’s a difficult thing to ask me – it’s like asking which of my children is my favourite. I don’t have a favourite. In many ways, it’s all one song. It’s the song of my life. But on this album, I’m enjoying playing Pretty Young Soldier at the moment because it has a nice story. It’s a romantic, sweet story. I also like Petrol Head because it’s so different to what I’ve been doing lately. But it changes. For me it’s all one song.

What’s the future of music?

I still think there’s great music around. We need music like we need oxygen as human beings... I had the great experience about two weeks ago to go to Abby Road and listen to my new vinyl box set... I realized that it was almost a religious ritual that I had been doing almost all of my young life and I hadn’t done it in 25 years. I got quite teary-eyed. It’s such a magical thing to do and I think I’m going to go back to vinyl. I really do.

Are there any mountains left to climb?

I hope so. I’m always curious and looking for new challenges. As I said, I’m swimming in an ocean that doesn’t have an end and there’s no bottom to it. So I’ll keep swimming because it’s always going to be a surprise.

(c) The London Free Press by Mark Daniell

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