The following interview by Neil McCormick appeared in The Daily Telegraph Magazine in September 2003...
He is a multi-million-selling pop star, a significant environmental campaigner and a dedicated father, yet he has never been popular with the media. Now, with a new album and autobiography, Sting hopes to win the respect he craves. By Neil McCormick.
On a blazing hot day in June, I sipped freshly made lemonade with Sting in his garden. Well, one of Sting's gardens. At the last count, Sting owned seven properties: a mansion with 800 acres in Wiltshire, 600 acres in Tuscany, a $6 million Malibu beach house, a New York apartment, a house in the Lake District and a couple of places in London - an apartment on the Mall and a grand 18th-century terrace house in Highgate whose elegant, acre-long garden backs on to Hampstead Heath. It was to the latter we retired to take our lemonade, after a superb lunch on the patio prepared by Sting's chef and discreetly served by a formally attired butler.
If this all sounds rather rock-star fabulous, I think it is fair to say that Sting is not oblivious to the underlying absurdity. He laughs when I ask how one actually lives in seven houses. 'I'm married to a whirlwind,' he says, cheerfully abdicating to his spouse, Trudie Styler, all responsibility for the regular relocation about the globe of a household comprising six children (from two marriages), approximately 10 dogs and an indeterminate (to him, at any rate) number of staff. 'We make use of the houses' it's not as if they lie fallow,' Sting insists, giving me a sketchy breakdown of which home is lived in for which purpose (Wiltshire for school, Italy for holidays, various residences for European and American touring and promotion). 'I've got a sort of working class thing about bricks and mortar. I never thought I'd earn any of this, much less a house.'
Seven houses, I correct him.
'I enjoy knowing they're mine,' he says.
It's a simple answer but it appears to be the truth. Sting enjoys the trappings of wealth and success. Yet there is a paradox here that he is acutely aware of, a contradiction between his image as an environmental activist and the conspicuous consumption that goes with being fantastically rich. 'I have no excuses,' he says thoughtfully. 'But this is a conundrum faced by anyone who has a car, central heating, air-conditioning. I don't know how to alter the paradox. I could go and live in the middle of Hampstead Heath with a blanket around me and eat grass. Maybe as a gesture that might be heroic and even considered useful.'
Actually, it would probably be considered pretentious and risible, attracting the same kind of snide mockery as did his appearance in 1988 daubed in body paint alongside Amazonian Indians to draw attention to the destruction of the rainforest. Sting-baiting is practically a national pastime among British journalists. Much fun was had at his expense in 1995, for example, when it was revealed that his former accountant had siphoned off ¬£7 million without Sting's noticing. 'I didn't know how much was in the account in the first place,' he shrugs, which seems quite reasonable when you consider that estimates of his wealth tend to vary wildly between ¬£85 million and ¬£200 million. 'I really resent being on these rich lists that they keep publishing. For one thing, it's nobody's business how much money I earn. It just makes people envious. And for another thing, if you're on the list then you see that Phil Collins has something like five million more, it makes you so f****** competitive!'
He is joking, by the way. I feel duty-bound to point that out because so much can be lost between the lines when a throwaway comment is printed in hard black and white. Like the twinkle in his eyes (which are a lot wanner than might be judged from photographs). And the sudden burst of comical energy in his voice. Yet he is often described as being humourless, perhaps because he strikes a very subtle balance between taking himself and the world seriously while being all the time aware of the inherent strangeness of his place in the world. 'You know I like making money,' he says. 'I sing for money, I'm not ashamed of that. But how much money does anyone need to feel secure? I'm not sitting there counting it, but I think I spend the money well. I employ a lot of people. I invest in things that I think are good. I worry about what money might do to my kids. I don't want to kill the fire in their bellies so I have made it very clear that they are not going to get a penny. Trudie and I are heroically trying to spend it all.'
Their heroic effort is presumably being made just a little bit more challenging by the fact that Trudie is bringing in a few million herself. As well as running this sprawling household and apparently being chiefly responsible for maintaining Sting's equilibrium, the sometime actress has carved out a successful career for herself as a film producer, notably bringing the world the enormously profitable Britflick 'Lock. Stock and Two Smoking Barrels' (in which Sting had a cameo role). Sting's children, however, do seem a well adjusted brood, never turning up in the tabloids and gossip columns in wild-child outrages. His two children with his first wife, the actress Frances Tomelty, are Joe, 26, a working musician who plays in a band, teaches music and, to his credit, does not trade on the family name (then again, with a father known only by his nickname, what family name does he have to trade on?), and Kate, 21, who has been attending drama school in London and has, against stiff competition (Sting reports proudly), just landed the lead role in a major theatrical production in LA. Mickey (Brigitte Michael to give her her full name), 19, his eldest daughter with Trudie, is about to start art college in London (though over lunch in Highgate she exhibited the relaxed uncertainty of a confident teenager about what course her life might actually follow) while Jake, 18, Coco, 13, and Giacomo, seven, are all in various stages of education, the youngest attending private schools in Wiltshire. As positive as he is about his children he pulls a face when he reveals that Trudie is keen to have another. I've done my bit for the population,' says Sting. 'Surely six is enough? I don't think I could go through all that again.'
Changing nappies? I inquire sympathetically.
'Oh, I think I can afford to employ people to do that for me,' Sting smirks.
So there we are, sitting beneath the shade of an old tree, bantering about Sting's fabulous lifestyle, when we are interrupted by an assistant who urgently requires a statement responding to Sting's inclusion on Her Majesty's latest honours list (released that morning). He has been awarded a CBE for his services to the British music industry. He shoots me a deadpan look, as if to acknowledge that you couldn't make this stuff up. He seems uncertain about what the honour actually represents ('It doesn't make me Sir Sting, does it?') but expresses himself 'surprised and flattered' at this establishment accolade. 'If my mum and dad were still here they would be made up,' he says, sincerely. There is something touching about this evidence that his parents, who passed away within months of each other in 1987, are still present in his thoughts.
Sting is looking rather regal, as it happens, sporting a sort of Abe Lincoln half-beard, shot through with grey, grown for amusement during a recent stint in the studio. 'I like the grey,' he says, stroking it. 'I am growing old. It's nice to acknowledge that.' Trudie, apparently, is not so keen. 'She complains I look exactly like my dad. I say, "What's wrong with that? He was a handsome man."
And here we are again, balancing between light and dark, between trivial humour and something serious, between small talk and big issues. Because Sting has been thinking a lot about his late father recently. He has been writing a book about his upbringing. And it hasn't all been good. 'I hear it in my tone of voice sometimes. I get angry with the kids or something and I hear my father telling them off. That really pulls you up short.' The son of a Geordie milkman turned global pop superstar, Sting sits among his millions and says reflectively, 'I look in the mirror sometimes and say, "Oh hello, I thought you were dead."
Sting is the man who has everything... except respect. Virtually every profile turns his extraordinary life into a trio of snide soundbites. To quote the opening line of a 'Mail on Sunday' feature: 'He's known for singing, saving the planet and tantric sex, not always in that order.' He tends to be analysed with a creepily unpleasant mixture of prurience (about his life with Trudie) and mockery (regarding his unapologetic engagement with serious issues) leavened perhaps by a begrudging acknowledgement of his huge commercial success. Almost everyone calls him pretentious.
'What is wrong with being pretentious?' ponders Sting, equably. 'I think you only achieve anything by pretending to achieve it in the first place. I pretended to be a musician and by that process became a musician. I pretended to be a grown-up and by that process grew up. I pretended to be a dad and then I became a dad.'
So there you have it from the horse's mouth. Sting is pretentious. But it could be argued that Sting is the very model of a modern man, striking an impressive balance between the physical, emotional, spiritual, social, philosophical, political and artistic aspects of life. He is extravagantly talented (but works at his natural gifts); he looks fantastic (practising the demanding meditative discipline of Ashtanga yoga for an hour and a half every day); he is committed to good causes (and is a significant campaigner for environmental issues and Amnesty International); he is apparently a decent and certainly a concerned parent, and he has been in his present relationship for more than 20 years (accepting all blame for the failure of his first marriage). Most significantly (from the point of view of critics and the general public, at least) he is working at the very highest level of his art, creating populist music that embraces all aspects of his character, multi-million-selling records that engage the heart, feet and mind.
And this, indeed, is what brings me to Sting's garden. His new album, 'Sacred Love', is a quite extraordinary creation. It is barely pop in the mundane sense of the term, with Sting largely forsaking the kind of well-crafted songwriting that has kept him in the charts for 25 years. Rather it is a torrent of ideas conveyed in a frantic storm of jazz, trance, rock, funk, pop and various strands of world music. 'It's a post September 11 record,' says Sting (who lost three friends in the attack on the World Trade Centre). 'I think it really was a watershed. An event like that makes you redefine your craft and question what function you serve in society. If the world's going to hell in a hand basket then, you know, how can you either help that along or stop it?'
The opening track, 'Inside', is a dark mantra of withdrawal. evoking fear of love, with a blistering vocal performance in which Sting defines love as 'a violation, a mutilation, capitulation', then pleads for love's annihilation. 'I wanted to redefine the ideas we have about poetic love,' he elaborates. 'To a lot of people, love is a terrifying concept. I think a lot of us have been hurt by love and traumatised by the world and we've withdrawn ourselves into gated communities where we're terrified of the world outside: the Muslim world or the Third World. Yet there's a certain point where you have to open the doors to it. You have to say, well, I need to be overwhelmed by this inclusion in the world because to be separate to it is unnatural. At the risk of annihilation.'
He describes the song as not being composed so much as 'regurgitated'. Sting recorded the album in Paris during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, which he feels lent the whole process a sense of urgency, particularly since, in recent years, he has changed his approach to songwriting, creating music first and adding lyrics at the end of recording, relying a great deal on freeassociation. "There was that feeling of just having to get it down before the war started, throwing stuff together as an emergency measure.'
Another highlight of the album is 'This War' an epic protest song about politicians and businessmen who profit from conllict. With sharply focused lyrics, this is heavyweight stuff putting most of the current generation's self-regarding garage rockers to shame. "I'm 51 and I"m not going to write about dancing particularly, or girlfriends, or cars,' says Sting. 'There is a place for trivia in pop music. I'm responsible for some of it. But sometimes you've got to get serious. My intention is to create something beautiful and unique and pleasing to people and at the same time tell the truth about how I feel in the world: Judging by this album, he feels simultaneously fearful for the future but optimistic about the human condition.
An intelligent, engaging conversationalist, over a couple of hours he elaborated on his song lyrics to discuss (with a degree of depth difficult to convey in the limited space afforded by a magazine feature) the roots of conflict ('The human race sees war as a solution because it's simple. You just ghettoise problems into black and white, us and them, Muslim-Christian, Jew-Palestinian, right-wrong, good-evil. Whereas complex problems demand complex solutions. Pacifism is not an easy course'); the nature of religion ('Osama bin laden thinks God looks like him, George Bush thinks God looks like him, but he-she-it doesn't look like you and he doesn't look like me. God is a concept so enormous that we poor monkeys right now will never grasp it but it's surely an inclusive concept, it includes everything, the cosmos, this garden, every cell in our bodies. Trying to simplify it of its complexity is, again, part of our problem'); our deteriorating environment ('I am actually more concerned that the icecaps will melt than I am about al-Qa'eda. A bunch of idiots with religious pretensions are not going to bomb us back into the Stone Age but we might manage that all by ourselves. The icecaps reflect a lot of heat from the sun back out from the earth. A mile of ice works very well to do that but so does an inch of snow. But when that inch goes, what's left is black and the impact on the planet would be catastrophic and immediate') and the imperative of conservation ('We need to invest more in the future and not think of ourselves as the last generation. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, using up the world resources now because we think we mimer more than future generations').
That's the world sorted out while sitting in this garden drinking lemonade,' Sting jokes, all too aware that this is exactly the kind of talk that invites such derision from his detractors. But Sting is, by instinct, an activist. 'I believe that we all have a job to do, It doesn't have to be grand. It's really about bringing up a family, it's about love, it's about relationships and friendships, voting, speaking your mind when you're asked. It's small things. The world will be saved incrementally.'
This is the stuff Sting makes pop music out of. Yet, in a throwaway remark that is surprisingly revealing, he says, 'it is all the same song anyway', Pressed to elaborate, he comments, 'I think I've only written one song, It's about feeling trapped and gaining release. It's something I find in the very structure of the standard song form: verse-chorus, verse-chorus, bridge, key change, coda. You're making a statement, making it again and then, with a key change or middle eight, you get some change of viewpoint, so suddenly you're in a different space, That's uplifting, It takes you out of a loop you might be in. I've written a lot about loneliness, where you don't want to get stuck in this ever-turning circle, you need some outlet and the music can help you do that. It's therapy for me because, like everybody else, I get trapped in thought loops, emotion, anxiety, anger, loneliness. I am my own shrink.'
What drives Sting? What keeps him making albums (since 1978 he has released 12 original studio albums including five with the Police, plus three film soundtracks and several live albums) and touring the world (as a solo artist, Sting has performed live every year since 1985) despite already having pretty much everything money can buy and (if one takes into account his longlasting relationship, attachment to family and the spiritual and health benefits of yoga) a lot more besides?
'I need to work.' he says, emphasising 'need'. Talking about his trade, he speculates that musicianship (Sting is a virtuoso bass player) may be related to mild psychological disorder. 'You know that you need to keep doing this thing, playing scales, the same f****** tune for hours on end, driving everybody nuts. I think being an obsessive compulsive may be what attracts you to the instrument in the first place and gives you the engine, the curiosity to keep doing it till you can achieve a certain proficiency. I don't know where I'd be without music or what I'd be doing with my fingers if I wasn't playing anything. Stealing? Murdering people? That some people manage to do without it is a mystery to me.'
Discussing yoga, he notes that his chosen form of this meditative discipline is one that requires great physical effort and willpower. 'It is about control and letting go, compulsion and release. Being goal-oriented but also having to surrender. I wonder, is it related to music somehow? You know, the discipline of practising every day, practising scales and arpeggios for that time in the day when you go on stage and you just release it and it becomes an expression of joy or sadness, it's not an exercise any more, it's an emotion. I think there's a parallel.'
Sting is extremely disciplined for someone in the profession of pop. A former schoolteacher, he has spent the past year writing an autobiography. He was partly driven by his frustration with his image in print. 'There's books written about me by people who have never met me, with stuff they've gleaned from tabloids. It's kind of a self-perpetuating version of a person I don't even recognise,' he complains. But one suspects his real motivation goes much deeper than that. He admits he was not interested in 'celebrity goings on and tea with Elton' and has instead chosen to write about Gordon Sumner in the first 25 years of his life, 'before success', focusing on his parents and his childhood. 'It was a painful process as well as an uplifting one,' he reveals. 'I got into a depression for most of the year because I was having to bring up memories and feelings that I'd really suppressed and left to lie in loads of sediment. But you pull a memory out of the well and that breeds another 10 memories and those 10 breed another 100 and you realise you haven't forgotten a damn thing, it's all there. It hurt me greatly but I had to sift through all this stuff and try and figure what the saving things in my life were. My mother was 18 when she had me, my dad wasn't much older and they were trying to figure out how to be parents. They hadn't a clue. As a child, I felt stuck in this situation, thinking "Why the f*** am I here?" 'but writing about it as a 50-year-old man, with a certain amount of life-wisdom and experience and compassion, I can love them for their mistakes and, you know, understand that whole picture. I feel released from a lot of it and I'm glad I did it, because I've a better understanding of myself now and what I have to do.'
And what he has come to understand is why, as he puts it, 'no matter how full my belly is I will always be hungry'. The spur that drives Sting is his relationship with the father he sees when he looks in the mirror. 'He didn't really pay me that much attention so I was constantly seeking my father's approval. You know, my father has been dead for 15 years but I'm still trying to fulfil whatever he wanted from me. I still don't know, to this day, what he wanted. He died before he could articulate that, so that drove me on. Drove me to pretend that I wasn't trying to seek his approval. But one of the things I realised writing the book was that everything I did I was seeking his love.'
Sting's parents died when they were not much older than he is now (his mother was 54, his father 60). 'My parents died of cancer. And cancer is largely created by unhappiness and circumstances,' he says. The implication is that he has set great store by creating the ideal circumstances for his own personal happiness. But he claims death is never far from his thoughts. 'It really pleases me to keep doing what I do. It's like a tennis game; the longer you're in it the harder it gets but the more satisfied you feel. You don't want the game to end but it will. And that's a conundrum. Dealing with mortality, being driven to get it all in but letting go at the same time, it's an interesting time in life. And that is not being pretentious. These are real issues we all have to face.'
So here is Sting CBE, hard-working superstar, an individual who has surely done enough to have earned a little respect by now. 'I like work,' he says. 'That defines me. Otherwise what am I? A man sitting in a garden with lots of money in the bank. Lotus-eating. Wandering about smelling the flowers. But I'm not interested in being that person. I want to be the person that works. A person who provides. A person who is responsible. And a person who is admired.'
'Sacred Love' (Polydor) is released on September 22. Sting's aurobiography: 'Broken Music: A memoir' (Simon & Schuster) is published on November 17.
© The Daily Telegraph