Interview: REPLAY (1996)

June 09, 1996

The following article by Elysa Gardner appeared in a June 1996 issue of Replay magazine...

The importance of being Sting. Rock's mercurial aristocrat embraces his art, his family... and middle age.

The best single word to describe Sting's in-person appearance is taut. His face seems even more neatly chiselled than it does on television, his body even more impeccably lean and fit. There isn't an ounce of excess flesh on this man, and he's clearly quite proud of that. Greeting me in the dining room of his tastefully decorated apartment on New York City's Central Park West, he stands tall and offers a firm, authoritative handshake. Then he sits down and rips off his shirt.

After a brief moment of gleeful anticipation - after all, Sting's fondness for baring his chest is legendary - I realize that he's still wearing a short-sleeved undergarment. But it clings so tightly that I can practically see the outline of his ribs. That is, until he crosses his arms and begins to slowly, deliberately rub his biceps.

It's no secret that Sting is a guy who pays, and draws, a lot of attention to his looks. Over the course of his 15-plus years as one of the most famous people on the planet, he's been chastised repeatedly for his vanity and narcissism, sometimes with a vindictiveness that smacks faintly of jealousy. (Lest we forget, the majority of rock critics are male, and as a group they're not exactly known for their devastating sex appeal.)

At 44, however, Sting knows that his stud-muffin days are numbered. As an international heart throb, and as a recovering Catholic with existential tendencies, the singer never has been able to hide his preoccupation with mortality. Particularly not since his parents died of cancer in the late '80s. There was an element of protesting too much in the way he publicly embraced middle age: commemorating his 40th birthday in 1991 with a festive pay-per-view concert, for example, or boosting about his physical and sexual stamina in interviews. In contrast, the wistful reflection on albums like 1987's 'Nothing Like the Sun' and 1991's 'The Soul Cages' - respectively inspired by and dedicated to his mother and father - mode it plain that Sting was grappling with the some anxieties that face us all as the years pass.

If his new album, 'Mercury Falling', is any indication, all that heady contemplation wasn't for naught. The title is a reference to the onset of winter, a process with which, figuratively speaking, Sting now appears genuinely to be coming to terms. The theme that ties the album's 10 songs together, he says, is acceptance, mainly of things that are inevitable - like growing old and dying.

"This is a new acquisition for me," Sting admits, leaning forward in his chair. "I normally accepted nothing. I would fight against anything that mode me feet uncomfortable. Now I'm learning to differentiate between things I can change and things I simply can't. And I actually feel better because of it.

"It's an interesting subject, mortality, and it's one that our industry as a whole, the media, tends to ignore. We are all pretending to be so much younger than we are, getting faceifts, all kinds of things. for people to admit their age is almost considered an aberration. But I'm actually very proud of being forty-four. There's a certain wisdom that comes to you, increasingly, and I'm enjoying that. I'm enjoying being wiser than I used to be."

Certainly, Sting's mood appeared to be taking an upward turn on his previous album, 1993's 'Ten Summoner's Tales'. It is the singer's purest, shiniest pop album, full of radiant melodies and lyrics that substitute witty self-deprecation for brooding self-analysis. On 'Mercury Falling', Sting returns to earlier themes of pain and loss, but this time he and his characters are able to take their lumps and move on. Songs like 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying', a country-flavoured ditty about a divorced father making peace with his situation, and the spirited, gospel-tinged single 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot' suggest that he's come a long way from the romantic depressive he seemed to he on previous solo albums or back in the Police's heyday, when he penned such dour classics as 'So Lonely' and 'King of Pain'.

"Ten years ago, I would have said that it was impossible for someone successful or happy to make music," he muses. "I thought you needed to be suffering some sort of trauma to write music, or else what you're saying will be glib and useless. That's the sort of trap I think a lot of people fall into - that they have to manufacture crises in order to be artists, you know? Whether it's drugs or relationships that fall foul or just general recklessness. I think a lot of us don't make it."

I mention Kurt Cobain, whose recordings with Nirvana remind some of the Police's punk-pop economy. He nods ruefully. "My son [Joe] was a big Nirvana fan, and he was mortified when [Cobain] died. I was angry too. It's perfectly correct for young people to use music as a vehicle for negative emotions. But I have a feeling that as you process those emotions through music, something else comes back, and it heals you. Music healed me. It served my life. It's a shame that that opportunity wasn't left to Kurt Cobain, because I think he was an enormously talented boy."

In addition to making music, Sting claims he has reaped great rewards from being a dad. And he's been just as prolific in this arena. In addition to 19-year-old Joe, a fledgling musician in his own right, the rock star's brood includes Kate, 14, also from his first marriage, and four children with current wife Trudie Styler: Mickey, 12, Jake, 11, Coco, five, and Giacomo, born last December. So it's fitting that Sting cites Johann Sebastian Bach, who fathered 13 children with his second wife alone, as an inspirational figure.

"Bach seems like he was a happy guy," Sting scars. "Complex, but ultimately enjoying his life. He had all these kids, and every day he would play music with his wife in the kitchen. I play Bach's music all the time now, and I feet like I've gotten to know him. He's a better role model for me than the dying poet.

"I still want to be a singer when I'm 50, or 60. But I want to have carved a niche for myself where I don't have to pretend that I'm in some sort of teenaged gang. I mean, I've lived as wild and as profligate a life as any rock star, but I feel it's all been balanced out. I'm a different person now than who I was." Once again, he brings up that word, savoring it like a newly discovered treat: "I'm happy the way I am at the moment."

The band that supports Sting on 'Mercury Failing' and is accompanying him on tour this year consists predominantly of old friends. The principal players are keyboardist Kenny Kirkland, who appeared on Sting's 1985 solo debut, 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles', and later joined fellow 'Blue Turtles' alum Branford Marsalis (who also pops up on 'Mercury Falling') in Marsalis' Tonight Show band, and two musicians who have worked with the singer since 'The Soul Cages', drummer Vinnie Colaiuto and guitarist Dominic Miller.

Miller recorded and/or toured with artists ranging from World Party to Phil Collins prior to booking up with Sting through producer Hugh Padgham seven years ago. Taking a break from a rehearsal session the week after my interview with Sting, Miller recalls that he wasn't an avid Sting fan when he first landed the gig and had little idea of what to expect.

"I had no preconceived notions,' Miller says. "I mean, I'd heard rumours that he was incredibly pretentious - which he's not at all. I mean, to be as successful as he is, there has to be a certain amount of ego involved. You have to be a leader, and he is a natural leader."

As such, the guitarist points out, Sting encourages individual expression among his associates. "The music we make is all under his banner, so there is a certain amount of regimentation," Miller says. "But Sting wants us to push the boundaries. I've been given the freedom to come up with my own personality."

Why, then, do so many people view Sting as a control freak? Perhaps it's the utter discipline he brings to his professional and personal endeavours, right down to his strict power-yoga regimen. Or perhaps it's his penchant for playing authoritarian villains and cads in the movies in which he occasionally acts - such as the scheming butler he portrays an upcoming adaptation of Patrick McGrath's novel 'The Grotesque', which was produced by and costars Styler.

This perception of Sting also might owe something to the elusiveness of his lyrics, which manage to be introspective without offering any concrete personal info. Other baby-oomer rock bards - like Sting's buddies James Taylor and Bruce Springsteen, for instance - tend to either wax confessional or create narratives about made-up characters. Sting typically takes a more complicated approach, using metaphors and storytelling to allow himself some psychic distance as he explores intimate concerns.

'I'm not interested in confession, really," Sting says with a shrug. "I don't think my life has much to do with the listener. But if I con find a metaphor that reflects my life and con still have resonance for listeners, then that's perfect. I don't even start a song unless I have some kind of metaphor in mind."

Sting has, of course, been more open and direct with some of his political views, expressing them both in his songwriting and through activism. (Though it should be noted that 'Mercury Falling' contains one political song that's disguised behind a romantic metaphor 'La Belle Dame Sans Regrets', which co-writer Miller says is a critique of France's recent nuclear-testing shenanigans. "You're not supposed to get it," Miller assures me. "It's in French, for God's sake.") An issue that presently concerns him is the criminalization of drug use in his native country.

'There are many problems associated with drug-taking, and I'm not trying to minimize them,' Sting stresses. 'But I don't think the current situation protects anyone. I think we need to look into why people take drugs, to have a meaningful dialogue. Are there ways to assimilate drug-taking into our society in a safer way? Tony Blair [the leader of England's ascendant Labour Party, whom Sting has praised in the post] will not discuss it. He's going to at least have to open up a debate if he's gonna get my vote."

Sting realizes that his outspokenness on various political and environmental matters has provoked at least as much criticism as positive change. "When a celebrity takes on a cause, it's not a bed of roses," he says with a laugh. "You have to accept that at least 50 percent of the population will look at it in a negative way. But I don't lose any steep over that. I get enough rewards and adulation in my life; I don't need any more.

"I don't take on a lot of causes. I've worked with Amnesty International for years, and the Rainforest Foundation, and I'll continue to. I feel justified and fulfilled by what I've done. And I'm quite practical in my advocacy. People ask me on a weekly basis to tie myself to the front of a train for various causes, and I have to say, 'Look, I can only do so much. The bloke next door hasn't done very much this week - try him, you know?'

Shortly after beginning a 90-minute sat previewing material from 'Mercury Falling' at the Midtown Manhattan club the Academy, Sting apologizes in advance for making the audience listen to songs they're unfamiliar with and explains that there may be a few mistakes. But he manages to get through the new tunes and a few old favorites without screwing up - or, notably, taking his shirt off - and no one seems bored. Industry executives and ageing professionals litter the crowd, but there are also plenty of teenagers and postcollegiate types. It's about as diverse a group as you're likely to see at a pop concert these days.

"I've never been interested in honing in on one cult following," Sting says. "I like the idea of music being a cohesive force. My audiences tend to be about 50 percent male, 50 percent female, and to range in age from 15 to 45. I think you can appeal on a broad level like that, without going for the lowest common denominator. I'm still a student of music myself. I still work hard so that the songs can develop, become more sophisticated. And I never want to underestimate an audience's ability to grow with me."

Later that evening, there's a post concert party at a trendy Italian restaurant. Fabulous people like Robin Williams and Brad Pitt are in attendance, as are a number of press and record-company bigwigs, but Sting spends most of his time sitting at a table with his wife and a few friends. He seems, well, happy that way. As he had told me the previous week, 'The media is a game to me. It's a game I quite enjoy playing, but my private life is much more important. My family and close friends know who I really am and that's enough.

"Not that I'm secretive about my life; if you ask me a question, I'll usually give you the answer. But then I have no control over what happens to that information. It can be like Chinese whispers: You tell somebody something, and that message becomes altered. But Sting the persona doesn't concern me. I think the music is what matters. The music tells the truth."

© Replay magazine



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