Interview: MUSIC UP! (1999)

September 08, 1999

The following article by Marc-Emmanuel Konigson appeared in the September 1999 issue of the French magazine Music Up!. The article was very kindly translated by Martin Vauchel...

Sting: The reason for happiness...

We went out of the studio where Sting is mixing the tracks from the new album. He lets us listen to, in his words, three 'naked' songs. 'Brand New Day', with Stevie Wonder on the harmonica, 'A Thousand Years' and 'Desert Rose', a duet with Cheb Mami.

Sting: At each listen, I change something, I'm never satisfied.

Up!: And what do you think about it this time?

Sting: I like the last one. I must rework the two others. On the sound, the bass level. People, as a whole, wouldn't hear those kind of details, but I do. I work for my own pleasure and it needs a lot of time for me to be satisfied.

Up!: Is there a moment where you decide to call it a day, and keep the latest version?

Sting: Ending the 25th version, I lose my objectivity, I don't hear the song anymore, I don't hear anything but the sound. As Fran?ois Truffaut used to say, we never finish a work, we offer it.

Up!: 'Brand New Day' is cheerful, religious, optimistic and very 'gospel' in feel.

Sting: 'Religious' surprises me. But it's interesting. I consider it as a millennium song. In this song we have threat, darkness, disaster - even apocalypse - all subjects that when talking about it, I consider as very stupid. It's not because counters are going back to zero and computers go crazy, that it's a bad thing. On the contrary, everything has a new start when all the shit is brushed up. That's the reason why I used the love/relationship metaphor. It's going bad, everything seems to be finished... Let's restart everything!!! I've basically got an optimistic approach. Pessimism works to fulfil those kind of prophecies. So I always look for optimism and the track makes me happy. I've no idea of the depth of this song (laughs), but I know that it's a happy one.

Up!: 'A Thousand Years' is both moving and catchy.

Sting: This time again it's a millennium song. It's about reincarnation. I'm not sure I believe in reincarnation. Intellectually speaking, the answer is no, but on an emotional point of view, I like the idea. Consciousness develops during several lives. It's a very romantic idea. The idea of devoting several lives from the most heroic to the most insignificant, to only one loved person, touches me. A 1000 lives, a 1000 years, a 1000 words, etc. I like that eternity idea. Even so it's morally indefensible.

Up!: How did the meeting with Cheb Mami, who sings on 'Desert Rose', happened?

Sting: All last summer I lived with Cheb Mami's album. Eating, walking, all the time. His voice is an incredible instrument. He does whatever he wants with it, it really impressed me, as did his talent as a musician. I hadn't got any idea of what he could sing, I didn't know raï music. Then I saw him in Bercy with Khaled, Rachid Taha and this great orchestra... and Steve Hillage. Very impressed, I began to write a song on this experience and we met. I asked him if he'd like to sing for me, in a way to 'authenticate' my experience (ironic smile). He's a lovely man. He sung without knowing what I was singing. As it happens, it's about desire, craving. I asked him : just improvise, in Arabic, on my melody. Later I asked him what he was singing about, he answered that he sang about desire, craving of a loved person. I told him that it was exactly the song's theme! So the music suggested those words. It was a sort of unconscious and automatic process. I always considered that it was the music which wrote the text. For this album, more than all the others, I began by writing the music, then I went walking and this music suggested a character, a story. Like a sculptor who kneads his material, then notices a nose, a leg. It's longer, but more organic.

Up!: You're often quoted as one of the 'aristocrats' of Rock, like Phil Collins or Eric Clapton... Do you consider yourself to be an 'aristocrat' ?

Sting: (Laughs) I don't think I've much time to devote to aristocracy! I'd never be the kind of man who avoids it. You, French people, who got rid of it know what I'm talking about! I'm not an aristocrat, I'm an artisan. I work to live, I could never be recognised for what I am. Not being an aristocrat, I'm not good for the guillotine.

Up!: 'Mercury Falling', when released in 96 was, by some people understood as an indirect reference to Freddie Mercury, particularly when you reminded us that Mercury was the God of thieves and that you personally take a lot of pleasure by 'stealing' from every style.

Sting: I never thought about that. The word 'mercury' has a lot of different interpretations : the planet, the metal, the poison. Even so, Freddie was a person that I knew and that I hugely respected. His music has still the same impact ; if you go to a rugby match between France and England, they inevitably air 'We are The Champions', which is all the more funny because Freddie was the most homosexual of all the men I ever met! He was a great musician , a great singer. Like me, he liked to explore new domains, new musical styles and play, have fun, which is also my point of view. I will never be interested in 'pure music'; pure jazz, pure blues, etc. The white album by the Beatles is my supreme reference as regards mixed styles.

Up!: What is the importance of your involvement in causes like Amnesty International, alongside great artists such as Peter Gabriel?

Sting: During that tour with Springsteen, Peter, Youssou N'Dour and Tracy Chapman, we made the world tour, it lasted for six weeks and every time we meet for a drink we all agree it was the best time every one of us spent on the road. Exciting, a different country every day, to be all together in the plane with good friendship, without ever forgetting the reason why we were united. We really had a lot of fun. That tour also contributed to a huge increase in Amnesty subscriptions. Last winter, they called me to play with them in Paris Bercy. I knew that there was Bruce, Peter... But I had to tell them that I couldn't do it, that I was recording, and that there were 25 musicians waiting for me. They understood perfectly and the following morning, seeing the concert reviews on the TV news, I was really sad to not have participated! (nostalgic laughs)

Up!: What are the real consequences of your involvement in the Rainforest Foundation?

Sting: This is a very sensitive situation. Since I began to fight for this cause, hundreds of trees and thousands of animals have still been destroyed. So I haven't won the war, but rather just some small battles. For example, to obtain some legal protection for some territory and the tribes who live there. I don't agree with those who say that the problem is too big, for it is well worth trying. The media have so little support for me that today, I take part in this fight less publicly; but I have continued this for ten years now. The media prefer to watch you miss and fail rather than succeed.

Up!: You acted in approximately 12 films. After your contribution to 'The Adventures of Baron Munchenhausen', what does Terry Gilliam think about Sting, the actor?

Sting: I've no idea! All I know is that we're neighbours and that he's a good friend, who comes regularly to ask me for some coffee.

Up!: What do films bring you that the music doesn't offer you?

Sting: I'm rather glad NOT to be an actor. It's funny, my wife produces a lot, and recently has again asked me to play a small part for free, during one day! But that's not my passion, my vocation. It would really upset me to take a young actor's place who, contrary to me, would be ready to die to get the role. I'm a singer, that's where I express myself artistically.

Up!: When you listen to Radiohead or Alanis Morissette, do you still feel enough young to take part of this stage or older, but wiser?

Sting: I'm 47, I know more and, yet at the same time, I'm less certain of myself. When I was younger and I knew less, I was a lot more categorical about what was good or bad! Today, I accept that I live somewhere in the middle, between those extremes. It's very difficult to feel revolutionary at my age - and it's not the case anyway! Radiohead or Alanis Morrissette, I understand very well, but I've no strong passion. I'm taking more and more of the heat out of me. I'm no longer a fan of something or someone...

Up!: What did you find in India that you hadn't met in England?

Sting: A really good curry. But you get those in England too! I went in India, for the first time, at the end of the 70's. I recalled the colours, the light, the smells. I went again recently. I needed to rediscover that spirituality, that had been accidentally lost a little by accident. The people look happy, satisfied, in very rudimentary life conditions. I like to be there not as a tourist, but with the people - to sleep on the floor, with rats. That's the only way to really see India. To live for a time, in different conditions, away from your normal routines, allows you to establish a better perspective on your life. Personally, that's very enriching. It feeds me, it feeds my ideas.

Up!: What was the process of this new recording.

Sting: After having recorded in Italy, I mix in Paris, as I'd done for 'The Soul Cages'. 'Brand New Day' may be the title, even if 'The Lovers' is the actual working title. These are all love songs. Love being I think, a good metaphor for a lot of things, social, religious and philosophical. A classic way of using a simple love song is to talk, in reality, about a more 'important' subject.

© Music Up! (France)



Sep 1, 1999

Can we forgive Sting? Sting has invited me to listen to some new songs he's recording in New York for his next album, Brand New Day. We're at the studio, Right Track. He pulls out a cassette and makes the usual excuses: rough mixes, unfinished tracks, just a dub. He paces while I listen. He looks like Sgt. Fury today, all in khaki: baggy army pants, tight olive T-shirt, tan lace-up boots, scraggy beard, superhero shoulders. He reads the paper and puts it down. He walks in and out of the room. He eats some pasta and salad. He stands on his head. Sting can stand on his head a long, long time. He does not need to lean against a wall to do it...

Sep 1, 1999

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...