Interview: GRAMMY (2004)

February 05, 2004

The following interview by Anthony DeCurtis appeared in GRAMMY magazine...

Sting will be honored as the MusiCares 2004 Person Of The Year on February 6 at a special tribute performance and dinner in Los Angeles, recognizing his accomplishments as an artist and humanitarian. MusiCares' mission is to ensure that music people have a compassionate place to turn in times of need while focusing the resources and attention of the music industry on human service issues that directly impact the health and welfare of the music community.

"You know, this is our world, we all have a stake in it," Sting said while he was finishing up the recording of his latest album, 'Sacred Love', in Paris. "So that's the only way peace will be achieved: if we're given our rights, as human beings, all of us. I have a great deal of privilege in my life, a great deal of good fortune, but I'm a rare exception. Most people don't. And until most people do have those freedoms, the world will continue to be in this turmoil. We need to figure out a new way. So the peace is more important than the war. And harder. Harder than the war."

Those words have a strong contemporary resonance, needless to say, but helping to find a way for people to live together in peace has been a consistent theme of Sting's since his career began with the Police 25 years ago. "One world is enough for all of us," he sang with that band, and on 'Sacred Love' he articulates a vision of love - spiritual, personal, erotic, communal - as a force that can triumph over the greatest evils and most destructive ills. For these reasons, and many others, Sting is an inspiring choice as MusiCares' 2004 Person Of The Year.

Of course, Sting has done a great deal more than simply sing about a better world, as important and uplifting as it is to articulate such a vision. He has in fact worked hard to help make the world we live in now a healthier, more nurturing, more naturally beautiful place. Amnesty International awakened his social consciousness in the '80s, and made him aware that the loss of essential human freedoms anywhere in the world diminishes the lives of all people. From that understanding grew his commitment to the rain forest, an environmental issue that relates directly to the human rights of indigenous people - and, more broadly, to the very survival of our planet. Sting and his wife Trudie Styler have helped make rain forest preservation and restoration a cause that people who live nowhere near primeval jungles can understand and support.

Then there is the music itself. In the course of earning 10 solo GRAMMY Awards (as well as five with the Police, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year) and selling tens of millions of records around the world, Sting has woven new wave, jazz, Anglo-Celtic folk, world music and Tin Pan Alley into a sound that remains immediately identifiable as his own. He has starred in movies and acted on Broadway. In his latest artistic leap, he has written a memoir, titled 'Broken Music', that is a reminiscence of his childhood and young adulthood, before the success of the Police. 'Broken Music', too, became a best-seller.

Some years ago, the New Yorker ran a cartoon in which two businessmen are shown chatting in a bar. "Oh, I'm pretty happy," one says wearily to the other. "I just wish my life were more like Sting's." It's an understandable desire, but Sting's talent, idealism, commitment and drive ensure that it's the rare person, indeed, that will rise to his level of achievement - and have as much fun doing it.

As you've built an audience over the years, many people have taken a good part of the journey with you. What do you think those people expect and want from you?

I'd like people to recognize a certain progress being made in the work in that my desire is to get better. To be a better singer, be a better songwriter, a better musician, arranger, producer. Person, even. That's a grand ambition but it's nonetheless the intention, and each record should reflect this progress. I don't think people would come to the concerts and buy the records if they weren't enjoying the process, and they are very much part of the process. The people who listen to the music and respond to it feed my ability to do it and I take that very seriously. I'd never want to put something out that was un-thought-about just for the sake of filling the marketplace. There's enough noise out there. I don't need to be making any more noise. It's having a good signal-to-noise ratio; when you put something out, you have to mean something. I hope it does.

You once said - and it came through also in your memoir - that while it looks like the Police were instantly successful, you had a long period of slogging it out with other bands before you broke through. How does that make you feel about the success you now enjoy?

I served a long apprenticeship as a musician before I became celebrated. I was 26 before I had a hit record. I'd spent the previous 16 years learning how to be a musician, teaching myself to play an instrument, finding a band, playing in bands, learning to play different kinds of music - jazz, cabaret, being able to read dots, playing in various rock groups, dragging gear up and down stairs - Hammond organs in the cellar up to the third floor, driving for hundreds of miles to the next gig in a van, sleeping in the van, sleeping in fleapits. That apprenticeship is something I value greatly because it makes me appreciate my lifestyle now. I can fly in a private plane if I want to after a show, go to a five-star hotel anywhere in the world. But I remember where I came from and I don't consider it a given. It's not something I'm blasé about. I appreciate the fact that I have this sense of luxury. I'm rewarded beyond any expectation for what I do, what I would do for nothing, really. But I'm glad that I had that life before that makes this one meaningful because if this were all I'd ever had in my life it wouldn't mean so much to me. It would be very shallow. So I'm grateful for those years. They made me who I am. I'm proud of who I am. And I wouldn't change anything in my all.

With the Police you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year. What did that mean for you?

Personally I thought it was a little early to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The first act inducted in this particular ceremony were the Righteous Brothers, whom I love. And it was just the right time for them to enter this Hall of Fame. I thought it was absolutely correct. Twenty-five years doesn't seem that long to me. I'd have preferred to have waited another 10 so that I could have some perspective on it. I'm still too close to the Police to really be able to have perspective on it. Of course it was a great honor and it would be churlish to turn it down. I just wish it had happened a little later. Do I want to be in the museum? Not yet, but I'm there. I can only say I'm happy.

Let's talk about 'Sacred Love'. The duet with Mary J. Blige is reminiscent of a Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell duet. I was wondering if you thought about any of those songs, the energy that comes out of duets like that?

Mary J. Blige was the right singer to sing this duet. The song is about finding solace in the world through love, through finding that one person. "Whenever I say your name, I'm already praying." That's not just romantic gobbledygook, it's real. If you really love somebody, it's a religious experience when you're with them, when you think of them and when you speak to them. Certainly the only connection I have with religion apart from music is this sense of love with someone else. So Mary and I are playing these roles, a relationship that was codependent and necessary. And she is just so passionate that it brought passion out in me. I'm not the most passionate person - I'm English! We find it very difficult to express passion, so we need some help. [laughs]

'Send Your Love' addresses a lot of the issues you're talking about. When you sing a line like, "No religion but sex and music," it raises notions about what religion means in the West, what religion means in Islam, what people do in the name of religion and what could be done more productively in its name. At the same time the record is soaked in all kinds of religious imagery. So much of your writing is.

I've always been fascinated by religion. Although I don't belong to a denomination, I regard myself as highly religious. I just felt, in light of Sept. 11 and the subsequent struggle, that religion had a lot to answer for. And religion needed in the future to be redefined. I think it's been used in a very narrow political sense of closing down who we are. In other words, if you belong to my religion, then you are family, if you don't then you're not family - them and us, black and white, good and evil. People imagining that God looks like they do. Well I don't think God's an Episcopalian or a Catholic or Islamic or Jewish. I think He, She or It is bigger than all of that. And religion needs to address that. It shouldn't be so petty. There has to be a larger thought. So I had to redefine religion for myself. What are my religions? Music is one of my religions, where I can sense the infinite. And the other is love. Sexual love, romantic love. My relationship with my wife, for example, I regard as a devotional practice. It's a way of approaching eternity, infinity, the impossible things that we simply can't understand. Love gives us a window onto that. So the album is really about that - defining religion. I say a very polemic statement: "There's no religion but sex and music." This is my little polemic. It might embarrass some people, it might insult some people. I don't mean it to. I'm just saying for me this is what my religion is. God created both.

Along similar literary lines, you've got 'The Book Of Life', which is a track that I was particularly affected by. Its elements of introspection and self-examination encourage the listener - willingly or not - to come up against some of the events of their own life.

In the period before I started writing this record I was engaged in writing an autobiography about the early part of my life - from my childhood through young adulthood up to the eve of success. I didn't really want to write about success or fame or celebrity or having dinner with Elton and all sorts of celebrity nonsense. I wanted to write about a normal person who will become famous, but what happened to that person to allow this to happen. I'm writing about my parents who were very young when they had me - writing about my parents at the age of 20, 25, from my perspective as a 50-year-old man with a certain amount of wisdom, of life experience. And the process was that I was learning to forgive them for what I hadn't forgiven them before, and to love them again. It did bring up a lot of stuff I probably would have preferred to bury and leave in the sediment. I remember being very depressed at the end of writing that book, because all of this stuff was welling up. So I decided to write this song - 'The Book Of Life'. There's no secrets in the book - there's lots of stuff in here that needs to be examined and it's not all good, but it's good to be reflective. I get very reflective sitting in front of a fire. That's my favorite television program - sitting in front of a fire. The thoughts that come, the memories that come. The song is an attempt to bring that feeling into somebody else's life, to be reflective, to remember.

At this point in your career, where does your inspiration come from?

I'm not one of these guys who waits around for inspiration. I don't sit in the lotus position and meditate and hopefully I'll channel some God-given message. What I actually do is I put the hours in. I work. I actually practice music. I actually sit and plod through the piano. I'm a terrible piano player, but I plow through. I'm learning all the time. Learning as a guitarist. And I think that's what feeds my inspiration - I learn something from someone better than me and that sparks me into a different way of thinking - "I could write a song based on this idea, or that idea..." I'm just constantly learning and then inspiration comes through that. I'm not waiting for a message. Life's too short. You have to work. So I put the hours in.

You've talked about the way Sept. 11 and some of the subsequent events have made you reexamine the role of the artist, the role of music, the role of creativity in general. Obviously it's a job like any job, but on the other hand it is one that communicates to a lot of people.

I've always considered my job to be important. It's certainly important to me to sing songs, to express ideas, provoke people's interest, people's enjoyment or thought. It's just that after Sept. 11 it kind of recalibrated everything and made you reconsider it. It was a wake-up call. Something you may have been doing unconsciously for a number of years, suddenly you were alarmed into thinking, "What is it I do? Is it important? How do I justify this living?" In a sense it woke me up. It woke a lot of people up. We're still in the process of figuring out what it means. Every single human being on the planet is connected to these events. How does an artist reflect that? I'm still working it out. I don't say I've got an answer, but this record is part of the process of trying to figure it out. I don't think I'll ever get to the end of it, but certainly my intention is to try and understand it.

What drives your involvement with programs like the Rainforest Foundation or Amnesty International, and what kinds of issues arise for a singer addressing social issues?

I think that like most people of my generation who are influenced by, say, Dylan - that kind of social consciousness - that when you became a singer/songwriter that was part of the job. So I suppose it began there. Practically for me it began in the very early '80s, in that I was invited to do an Amnesty show in London, for the Secret Policeman's Ball with the Monty Python people. And Bob Geldof was on the same show, myself, Eric Clapton. It was a pretty good show actually. Anyway, at that point I got involved with Amnesty, and got to learn about their work. And then I remember going to Chile with the Police - this was during the Pinochet regime - and Amnesty gave me information about his regime. There was some argument about whether we should go or not, and I decided that it wasn't like South Africa. It was a society that needed to be kept open in order for change to come about, rather than to ostracize an entire society because of the ruling regime. So in that sense I was supported by Amnesty and had all the information at hand. We went down there, played in Vi?±a del Mar where a lot of people were murdered, and we had a hateful time ultimately. But that kind of got me going. And then [we did] Band Aid, and then Amnesty got me to do this world tour with Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel, and if you ask any of those individuals what their favorite tour was they'll tell you that one because we thought we were doing good business and good work. It had a great many wonderful memories, but also we raised the membership of Amnesty by a huge percentage, so we had a direct result. I made it my business on every press conference to read an Amnesty story. I think the man's name was Fitaram Maskey. He was a political prisoner in Nepal and I read his story out in every country, and at the end of the tour I was told that he'd been released. It's because of the embarrassment that governments go through when the spotlight is put on them. Amnesty's one of those civilizing organizations, shaming people to behave in a civil way.

What sustains you through a long involvement in a cause?

Knowing that it's not a flash in the pan. This is something that I will consistently support. I mean, I think I got the most flak for the rain forest; that was in '89. I have a back seat in that organization now. I mean, I helped raise funds for an infrastructure that is getting on quite nicely thank you, and they don't need a rock star to be distracting from the real work. But just to consistently do that, it basically silences the critics. I mean, I haven't turned them onto my side, but at the same time they have nothing to say. So there's a satisfaction in that. You know, the initial impetus for that was, I visited the jungle and I was asked by some people if I could help them demarcate their land. I said, "I'm a singer, I don't know how to demarcate the land." They said, "You can help." So my idea there was to have one of them tell the story of what was happening to their people, especially the human rights issue. I mean, people criticize me like I'm hugging trees or whatever, but it's basically human rights. So we met the Pope and we met the king of Spain, the prime minister, and I think generally we raised consciousness. But God I'd got it in the neck. [laughs] I really got it bad. I mean, I was being stabbed a lot, and I thought, well, I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong here, but I think this is the way to do it, and eventually we demarcated this piece of land, which was the size of Austria or something like that - no small amount. And we did that by creating a real infrastructure, and that took a while to do. I've been helped greatly by my wife, who's an extraordinary organizer and producer and who kept me going when I was flagging and thinking I should just give up. She was the engine behind that really.

What do you see as the most pressing issues facing people today?

I think all of these problems are related. I don't think anything is separate. You can't separate the environment from human rights. You can't separate the environment from the imbalances of economic power. You can't separate violence from the industrial military complex selling weapons to Liberia. You know, none of the weapons are made in Liberia. They're all made in Germany, in France, Italy, Britain and the U.S. We're filling the world with these f***ing weapons. All these problems are connected. But it's all about balance, you know? It's all about trying to balance the world. It is completely out of balance in every sense. You know, in terms of justice and economics and resources.

More personally, how does it feel to publish your first book?

A little scary. I feel like I've just landed on a planet. I'm not sure whether it's friendly or not. I'm excited by the prospect. It's all new to me. You know, I'm not expecting too many kindnesses from the fifth estate. I'm a little anxious, but at the same time I really want to do this. I always wanted to see what that's like. I'm proud of it. I look at the thing as an artifact and I think well, you know, I wrote that. I wrote every word, and it's not a normal celebrity bio. It's something different. I think if I've achieved anything it's that. That it is something different.

The issues that you dealt with in your book are much more personal and complicated than most celebrity bios. You didn't set yourself an easy task.

No, but I didn't want to write any other kind of book. You know, I wanted to do something that was going to help me understand my life - and not enumerate how many GRAMMYs I'd won. [laughs] I don't need to do that.

Did it work?

Yeah, I think it made sense of a lot of issues, and made me come to terms with a lot of stuff that's been kind of buried, deliberately or unconsciously. Ultimately I think it was a good thing to give it an airing and then have a better understanding of why you behave the way you do, or why you believe certain things. Coming to terms with that as a 50-year-old man was a good thing to do. You know, I was writing about a child from my perspective, and hopefully soothing that child and comforting the child.

And, finally, what does it feel like to join the company of MusiCares' honorees?

The illustrious crowd. I feel like a bit of a pretender. I think somebody's going to say, "No, not you, we made a mistake." [laughs]

Anthony DeCurtis is executive editor of Tracks and a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He won a GRAMMY in 1988 in the Best Album Notes category, and he teaches writing at the University of Pennsylvania.

© GRAMMY Magazine


Feb 1, 2004

The MusiCares foundation will bestow on Friday its person of the year honor on singer, songwriter and humanitarian Sting. From founding seminal rock group the Police in 1977 to his prolific solo work beginning in 1985, Sting has proven himself to be a musical force as well as an activist. In 1989, he and his wife Trudie Styler founded the Rainforest Foundation to protect the indigenous peoples in those regions. To date, the organization has raised more than $18 million. As a solo artist, Sting has garnered 10 Grammy Awards, a Golden Globe, an Emmy and three Oscar nominations. He's also tried his hand at acting, appearing in more than 10 films and recently added author to his list of achievements with the publication of his memoir, 'Broken Music'. He recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's music editor Tamara Conniff...

Jan 25, 2004

A Life Less Ordinary: Sting can remember being by his father's side when he died. In a moment of rare intimacy between the two men, he took his father's hands in his own for the first time since early childhood. "I looked from his eyes to the cross on the wall and then down at his two hands cradled in mine. It was then that I received something like the jolt of an electric shock, because his hands and mine were identical. 'We have the same hands, Dad. Look...'"