Interview: THE BOSTON GLOBE (1996)

March 06, 1996

The following article by Steve Morse appeared in a March 1996 issue of The Boston Globe newspaper...

Sting rising...

Sting's good fortune is evident. He lives in two stories of prime, high-ceilinged real estate overlooking Central Park. His living room is elegantly appointed with Oriental rugs, antiques, oil paintings, acoustic instruments and dozens of books, among them biographies of jazz legend Chet Baker, fashion designer Gianni Versace and poet Pablo Neruda. There's an adjacent billiards room, a home studio and even a chef who comes out to declare that Sting's lentil soup is ready.

This is Sting's home when he's not living in his country estate in Wiltshire, England. Each home symbolises a quantum leap from the late '70s, when Sting - then singing with the new-wave band the Police - travelled from one small club to another in a low-budget van, getting wild on stage and even wilder off it.

Today's Sting is not just a rock aristocrat, but a mature father with six children. He's an eclectic musician who has crossed boundaries from rock to jazz to bossa nova to soul. He's a spokesman for environmental causes. And he's into yoga and meditation, revealing in a recent Yoga Journal story that he practices yoga postures for two hours before each concert.

"I think it's a natural progression. You live a wild, profligate life for a while and then stop short one day and go, 'OK, my spirit needs to be fed.' Then you go to the next step," says Sting, sitting on a living room sofa to discuss his deepening spiritual life and musically brilliant new album, 'Mercury Falling', which comes out Tuesday. Its first single, 'Let Your Soul Be Your Pilot', is already out, with its sultry, Stax-Volt horns and softly levitating gospel choir.

"I feel very calm at the moment - and happy. I'm actually happy," he says, mocking his oft-cited, oft-misinterpreted image as an overly serious, gloom-and-doom artist. "This album was easier than some," adds Sting, dressed casually in a black sweater, jeans and black sneakers. "It's always hard to write and always hard to better yourself and dig deep, but at the same time there's a great deal of therapy in writing. And my intention was not to make music that was angry or difficult, because I'm not angry. If there's a theme on the record that's consistent, it's one of acceptance of things that cannot be changed. I don't want to give the impression that I'm complacent, because there are certain things in life that do anger me and make me want to fight to change them," says Sting, who will perform a rain-forest benefit at Carnegie Hall next month with Elton John and James Taylor, followed by a solo tour expected to hit Great Woods this summer.

"But I also am able to recognise the things that I simply should not bother fighting against," he says. "One is age - growing old and dying. It's one of those things to learn acceptance of. I think a lot of the new songs are about that."

The new disc seeps into the listener's mind by shuffling moods and exotic time signatures (like the 9/8 time of 'I Hung My Head') with extraordinary results. Sting reflects on the interconnectness of life in the Celtic air 'I Was Brought to My Senses'. He sings haunting love songs in 'The Hounds of Winter' and 'You Still Touch Me'. He adds an acoustic bossa nova in 'La Belle Dame Sans Regret'. He talks about a Chilean sailor trying to get home to a loved one in 'Valparaiso'. He changes pace with the playful 'All Four Seasons', a tribute to his daughter Coco ("She can be all four seasons in one day"). And, in 'Lithium Sunset', sparked by a meeting with a Brazilian shaman, he sings of how a sunset's light can have a healing effect. It's a mystical but optimistic end to a disc that improves with each listening.

The album title, 'Mercury Falling', is drawn from the lyrics of the first song, 'The Hounds of Winter'. Says Sting, who wrote most of the album in his Wiltshire home: "The line 'mercury falling' is very literal. It was getting colder and I wanted to write a song about the winter... And it's a phrase that's resonant with references. Mercury is so many things. It's a liquid, an element, a planet, a poison, a god. So it was redolent of all of those references. And I also feel that if you describe the album, it's very mercurial."

Typically, Sting would take long walks in the English countryside before writing songs. "I think the rhythm of walking is really conducive to composing melody," he says. "And lyrics, too, tend to invade your consciousness when you're walking. I walk on my own for miles and compose, then I go back home and try to put things down in concrete form. "I don't write songs on the road," he adds, "so for the next year I will not even think about writing songs because I'll be on tour. But when I finish, it will begin to nag me that perhaps I should go into creative mode now. And that's the beginning of it. Then I start walking to relieve anxiety and things come. I'm also much more patient with myself than I used to be," Sting says. ''I clock on in the morning after a walk and I like to have something written down by lunchtime, then I will return after lunch to consolidate it. And I no longer work late at night. I used to live in a state when night and day were the same thing," he adds of his younger days with the Police. "I was just up all the time. You can sustain that when you're young, then you have to go with the seasons."

Sting also has a more experienced, more skilful way of devising harmonic structures. The new songs stretch and "twist up" in many directions, he notes proudly. "I tend to stretch them in a very elastic way until you can't recognise a specific style anymore. A song might begin as a country song, then be stretched into something else... For me, music is just one common language. My intention is not to re-create soul music or country music or anything else. It's to make something new of all these bits. It's like building cars out of scrap metal. Sometimes they work."

If his last album, 'Ten Summoner's Tales', was a "ragbag of styles," as he put it, then the new one is a more sophisticated ragbag. Sting imported a Northumbrian pipe player and also the vaunted Memphis Horns, who were on the last two Rolling Stones tours. They add a Southern-soul flavour that makes some of the music seem like retro-soul and modern adult-contemporary pop at the same time. He asked the Memphis Horns to play in strange meters, and it worked. ''There's a sort of perverse streak in me that likes to twist things up," says Sting. "I think you get the best out of musicians when you slightly take them out of their field, where they feel slightly less than comfortable. It's just a strategy of mine."

It's a strategy that Sting also applies to his own projects, whether it's singing with opera star Luciano Pavarotti (they made an import-only album), recording jazz standards for the recent film 'Leaving Las Vegas', making movies (he'll play a "diabolical butler" in the upcoming film 'The Grotesque', with Alan Bates and Theresa Russell), playing bass on a John McLaughlin session, or touring on last year's stadium bill with the Grateful Dead. "Jerry Garcia was a very sweet man and he played with us a couple of times," Sting says.

"It's important to keep up your trade as a journeyman - and not to paint yourself into an ivory tower of your own work, but to expose yourself to other things," adds Sting. "I will sing standards, even though I'm not Ella Fitzgerald. But I'm confident enough and have enough bravado that I can add myself to the mix. I think there's always a reward for putting yourself on the line and doing something that has a risk attached to it. Plus, I like to work. I really like to work," Sting concludes. "I have trouble saying no."

© The Boston Globe



Mar 1, 1996

New Tales From Rock's Genre-Bender - Sting back on world tour, releasing sixth solo album. Sitting at a rich, luminous hardwood table in a darkly paneled dining room decorated with a pair of large oil paintings, Sting looked somewhat at odds with the grandeur of the surroundings. The sumptuous two-story co-op he has owned for eight years - a previous tenant was Billy Joel - overlooks Central Park; it's a beautiful view even on this barren wintry day. Dressed in a rather ordinary wool shirt, his tousled hair uncombed, he listened absentmindedly to the new album of jazz standards by father and son Branford and Ellis Marsalis. A nanny carried his 3-month-old son, Giacomo, up the sweeping circular staircase, and Sting, his eyes twinkling, fondly rubbed the baby's cheeks. "Take him away now," he mock ordered. "Bring him back when he's 7..."

Mar 1, 1996

Stealing the Music: All rock stars have their kinky side, but few would ever admit to the sort of unusual interests Sting pursues. No, it's nothing to do with underage girls or Turkish geese. Sting, it seems, prefers to fool around with music, perverting pop idioms at every opportunity. For him, there's no better fun than teasing a country tune, undermining a waltz or leading a samba astray...