Interview: MUSIC CONNECTION (2009)

December 23, 2009

The following article by Danny Taylor appeared in a December 2009 issue of Music Connection...


You know that when Bob Dylan finally deigns to record a Christmas album, it's either a sign of the Apocalypse or time to think what a Christmas record should and could be. That seems to be what Sting had in kind when formulating his ambitious new release, 'If On A Winter's Night...' Rather than duck into a Hollywood studio in mid-July to do one-take versions of 'Jingle Bells' and 'Here Comes Santa Claus', the former Police chief has crafted something much more expansive. Yes, Christmas is well represented here, but only as one part of a broader annual pageant - the sometimes bleak, uniquely beautiful season of snow and ice. Exploring the intracies of the artist's favourite time of year, 'Winter' is a "concept" album that broadens the scope of what a yuletide holiday album can be. Released by Cherrytree/Deutsche Grammophon and recorded in multiple locations including Italy, New York City and The Source in Malibu, CA, 'If On A Winter's Night...' features one of popular music's pre-eminent talents supported by stellar, hand-picked musicians and inspired by not only the spirits of great composers like Henry Purcell, Johan Sebastian Bach and Franz Schubert, but folk music heroes from long ago. As Sting (born Gordon Sumner in 1951) relates in the following Q&A, the album is very much an outgrowth of vivid childhood experiences that have remained with him to this day.

Music Connection: It will be easy for people to mistakenly call 'If On A Winter's Night...' your "Christmas album"; it's more than that. What was the catalyst for this project, and how did it come to fruition as it did?

Sting: This album happened in an organic way. It was a suggestion to do a Christmas record, and I said, "No no, let's do something wider than that, let's do a winter record. Winter is a season that I've always had an affinity for. And it's certainly rich in terms of inspiration and material."

I said, "There are lots of great Christmas carols, there are lots of great folk songs, there's lots of great classical music. Let's create a mood that all of those pieces, that atmosphere, that is unique to me, that expresses my feelings about the season and about Christmas. It's a dark time. It's a cold time, yet it's also a time of warmth and family and love and tenderness. And so we used those ingredients in this kind of soup we created, which is a Christmas pudding if you'd like.

MC: Tell us more about your love of winter. What's your personal experience of that season?

Sting: I'm the son of a milkman, so I spent a lot of mornings in the snow with my dad delivering milk. And it was a magical time, you know; we were the first people to leave our prints on the foot path, our tire marks on the road. The snow does an interesting thing: the sound, the milk bottles, you know, they clank in the snow. They're kind of dulled, and it's a very vivid thing.

MC: Isn't It amazing how a little snowfall can transform a place in a matter of minutes? Even a dreary street can become almost magical.

Sting: I'm from Wallsend, England. which is very industrial. The snow would make this into a wake up and then suddenly it was a different place. So that magic extends into everything about winter. The stories, the spookiness, the ghosts in the chimney, the silence of the snow. All that stuff I wanted to bring to this album, my feeling of mystery and storytelling.

MC: You weren't concerned, though, that the album could have become too downcast?

Sting: I'm drawn to songs that have an ambivalent quality about them. That's the way I feel about the winter and Christmas; generally I love it, but I also get a little bit unhappy. I don't like the commercialism of it. I like a bit of mystery and so I gravitated towards songs that have an ambivalent quality.

MC: The lullabies on the album seem to contain all of those qualities you just mentioned. Is the hibernation aspect of winter something that suggested lullabies to you?

Sting: I'm just fascinated by lullabies; they're very beautiful and they're very comforting, but they're also disturbing, and this dichotomy, this paradox; it's extremely interesting. I haven't quite gotten to the bottom of it, but it's very rich.

MC: The album has a strong traditional folk thread, as well. Were there folk songs from your childhood that were begging to be represented here?

Sting: Oh yes, one particular folk song, called 'The Snow It Melts the Soonest', is from my hometown. It reminds me of the Northumbrian moors in the winter; starkly, bleakly beautiful.

MC: What relationship do you see between folk songs and what we now call popular music?

Sting: I feel very close to folk music because I think pop music is folk music. I think folk music is learned by ear; it's passed from, you know, one person to another.

I've always been interested in folk music. I sang a lot of folk music and I don't really see there's a fine distinction between folk and pop. People could argue with me, but no, I'm serious about it. And also my area of northeastern England is very rich in this folk tradition and it's part of my eclecticism. It's part of what I do.

MC: Let's talk about that eclectic nature of yours. You've always had a drive to bring new, unexpected elements into your music. Can you explain how that open-mindedness originated?

Sting: My parents were musicians, and through them I never saw music as having any barriers up for me. I was educated, for example, by the BBC where there was one radio station and a light program and you'd hear just about anything, Beethoven's 5th, the Beatles, Kathy Kirby, so you appreciated music as a continuum, as one thing, one language, and so I am very much for the open plan of music. It's all one language that we share.

MC: Whether it's with the Police or any of your other incarnations, how do you characterize your mission as an artist? Is it more than just bringing good music to people?

Sting: There's sophisticated music, and there's simple music and there's good music and there's bad music, but my job is to be a gadfly and to just pick this and pick that and make some sort of form out of it. That's what I do. I want to pick and choose to create something hopefully new.

MC: You're also good at picking and choosing talented sidemen. Who are some of the players on the Winter album?

Sting: For this album I surrounded myself with a very interesting and eclectic group of musicians, the core of which come from the traditional music scene. Mary Macmaster is a Celtic harp player from Scotland; Kathryn Tickell has worked with me for over 20 years now: Julian Sutton plays the melodeon. Then there's Daniel Hope who is a classically trained concert violinist and Vincent Segal, a cellist from Paris who plays everything from bossa nova to Bach preludes.

MC: Who stands out as your "most valuable player"?

Sting: Well, I want to thank Dominic Miller, my guitarist; he's very patient with me, he's used to my gadfly meanderings and he'll go with me. He's a very eclectic musician too, just filtering different styles and experiences to come up with something refreshing and new.

MC: It's interesting that you're achieving something fresh and new by reworking music that is old and traditional. Do you see yourself as part of a long line of English artists and composers?

Sting: The album has songs from Henry Purcell, the great British composer. There's a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson that is the basis of another song. Generally, most of the album is British and quite patriotic about British music, particularly British song. I think it's been one of the royal gifts that these islands have given to the world, the song tradition. There Is a modality, a tonality in the mood of British song, and I'm glad to be part of that tradition, I respect what's led up to where we are now.

MC: What song on the album is a particular highlight for you, something that really speaks to you personally?

Sting: 'You Only Cross My Mind In Winter' is about a journey that'd been done many years ago, by two people, two friends, and now only one is making the journey through the snow. And he's saying, 'You know, I miss you and I say your name and nothing but silence comes back," And then he turns and he realizes that there's another pair of footsteps behind him.

MC: That's a good example of how some of these tunes are not your typically happy 'Jingle Bells' fare. There's a darker side lurking. The idea that winter is a form of death.

Sting: I think there's a dark side to every Christmas story. I tried to address that in 'Soul Cake', a song I've known since I was a kid. I knew it was a "begging song, but I didn't really know the derivation of the whole thing. So we did some research and found out it was pre-Christian and that they would make food for the souls of the dead for the Celtic festival of the dead, what is now known as Halloween. The soul cakes were there to appease the ghosts of the past. Later it became a day when kids would go and beg for cakes, but that's the derivation and it kind of ties in with treating with the spirits of the past so that you can move forward.

MC: The album has Its share of uplifting tunes, as well. The song 'God Rest You Merry Gentlemen' is a sunny selection, Did you purposely take care to not allow 'If On A Winter's Night...' to get too somber?

Sting: I juxtapose the dark side with 'God Rest You Merry Gentlemen' which is very triumphalist - you know: "We're good Christians and we're having a great time and God's in his heaven and we are rich."

MC: Right now, in light of all the artistic and material success that you've had, what really matters to you at the end of the day?

Sting: What matters at the end of the day is if someone feels an emotion or hears a story that moves them. That's the only thing that's important to me. The listener should be moved and engaged. and where it was made or who made it or who wrote it, that's not so important.

© Music Connection by Danny Taylor


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