Interview: THE VANCOUVER SUN (2000)

July 01, 2000

The following interview with Kerry Gold appeared in a July 2000 issue of The Vancouver Sun...

Older, happier but still Sting.

The former bass player and singer for the Police has dumped his pop-music focus and now has a sound that draws from jazz, funk, reggae and ethnic music. But Sting, who comes to GM Place Friday with k.d. lang, is still thrilled that a song from his latest album, Brand New Day, managed to crack the top 10.

Multipurpose celebrity Gordon Sumner, a.k.a. Sting, is at that midway vantage point where he can take stock of the continuum that has been his life so far.

On paper, the man who's made himself a celebrity institution from a music and film career and a 12-year-plus environmental and human-rights mission is doing fine - 14 Grammys, about 10 significant film roles to his credit and recently, for the first time in six years, a top 10 single. On a personal level, Sting is happy, and judging from the self-effacing good humour he displayed in an interview last week, the man who so perfectly personified the inner conflict of British '60s youth in the 1979 British film 'Quadrophenia' has achieved a state of blissful self-acceptance. Sting has grown up.

"I'm 48 and my philosophy is, you either get older or you die. A lot of my friends have died, and I'm happy to be alive," he says, laughing. "I'm actually much happier than I used to be when I was young. I'm proud of my age, proud I've got six kids, proud of the life I've lived, the experiences I have had. They are an ingredient of what I do.

"I think when I sing about romance or love or pain, it's actually something I've experienced. I think an older artist can bring that authentic emotion into music, you know, which is important. In any other art form, people don't reach their peak until they're my age - in the arts, opera, serious music or acting. It takes a while to develop the craft. We shouldn't be ageist."

Musically, Sting - who plays GM Place Friday with k.d. lang opening - started out simple and developed a style as if trying on layers of clothing. Along the way, he traded in the old '80s ska fans for the emerging audience of funky, world beat and, alternately, some rather tepid easy listening. Following his departure from the Police after their last tour in 1986, Sting charted hits like 'If You Love Somebody Set Them Free', 'We'll Be Together', 'All This Time', 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You', 'Fields of Gold' and 'The Three Musketeers' soundtrack No. 1 hit, 'All for Love', with Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart.

On his new, two-time Grammy-winning album 'Brand New Day', he adds Stevie Wonder and James Taylor to the growing supporting ensemble that musically rounds out his literary brand of songwriting (Branford Marsalis has been with him since his solo debut). Sting writes about characters more often than personal experience, and on this album, the cast includes a transvestite, a thief, a dog and a gas-station attendant.

"I think it's probably a mark of maturity," he says. "You begin to see the world from other points of view, whereas when you're younger you tend to be very myopic and you see one point, your own point. Songs are often confessional and very self-absorbed. As you get older, you see the world in a more objective way.

"I'm not sure where the characters come from. I'm not sure where the transvestite came from - it's as far removed from my experience as I can imagine. But then again, having written this character, I felt a compassion and understanding for that person and that's what I try to convey in a song."

Because the mature Sting has dumped the exotic pop front and prefers to assemble a sound from his early jazz roots, plus funk, reggae and ethnic-music dabblings, he's not exactly cosy with hit-focused mainstream radio. He is, however, earning accolades for experimenting with rhythms and riskier, more complex arrangements that most mainstream artists would avoid.

It therefore thrills him that his new album's single, Desert Rose, made the top 10 of the music charts. The song features the voice of Cheb Mami, a French star of Rai music, a mishmash of Arabic sounds, disco, reggae, flamenco.

"When [the record label] first heard this record, they said, 'You know, it will never get on the radio. You've got some Arab guy singing, got to take him out,'" says Sting. "I said, 'You can't do that. That's the flavour of the song.' So we stayed by our guns, and sure enough, it's on the radio."

Like Moby's album 'Play', Sting's 'Brand New Day' was given a jump-start courtesy of Madison Avenue. Sting appears singing a song from the album in a Jaguar car commercial. He's no stranger to marketing tie-ins - Compaq computers sponsors his tour.

Sting has always seemed something of a master of self-promotion, anyway. He once let it slip that he could sustain tantric sex for six hours. He jokes about it now: "They forgot to include the six hours includes dinner and a movie." He also adds: "It's the best PR I ever had." And he's probably right.

If he wasn't such a diehard environmentalist, the contradiction of him fighting to save the rainforest in one breath and pushing cars in the next might prove quite grating. But, through his Rainforest Foundation, he claims to have saved a section of South American rainforest "the size of Holland."

As for his own alliance with corporate America, he views it as a modern-day necessity for an artist like himself. "I think it's a reality now," he says of the advertising tie-ins. "You can choose to ignore it and stand on a moral high ground and say, 'I don't do that, I just write the music.' But in my position, maybe no one would hear it.

"There was a time when you could win a couple of Grammys and sit back and watch record sales add up. The market is such that now that is not the case. So we decided to really aggressively market this record. I have no shame about it at all. I think it has worked, and people who'd never have gone near it in a million years are appreciating it."

While '80s new-wave stars cash in on former glories, Sting, who has never considered himself a rock 'n' roller, has no interest in revisiting his pop-ska past. He doesn't envision a Police reunion tour any time soon, although bass player Sting, drummer Stewart Copeland and guitarist Andy Summers did reunite for a performance at Sting's 1992 wedding.

"It's an idea doomed to failure. It might make money, but that's not really my first interest. I think it would be a mistake. We get together occasionally, talk about old times. We're all fiercely proud of what we achieved. But I don't think we need to do that again. I think people would say we're running out of ideas."

Sting doesn't mind that the most popular portion of his live act is the Police material, including the band's biggest hit from 1983, 'Every Breath You Take'. "I have to figure out, what is it about this song? It's not terribly original, it's a pretty generic song, lyrically and musically. What I think it's power is, is that it has an ambiguous, romantic and sinister aspect to it."

It could just be that it's a nice tune. Quite rightly, Sting has earned himself a reputation for being too studied, too earnest, not a whole lot of fun. At times, he can sound pompous or intellectualizing, criticisms he's aware of and not particularly concerned about. Since he left school, he's become an avid reader of philosophy books and novels. Later, the mental workouts extended to the physical. He's famous for practising yoga, which he does from 8 to 10 a.m. each day. He got Madonna started, and technically she's far surpassed him, he says.

"I like fun, but I actually do like having a mind too," he says. "I am proud of my mind. I don't necessarily think I'm boringly intellectual. I've owned dogs for a long time, and most would be more intelligent than me," he adds, modestly.

"But you begin your musical life and what you play and appreciate is simple, there's nothing wrong with that. But it should be allowed to grow into something a little more complex. That's the natural progression."

As for the body-is-your-temple bit, he's not above a bit of late-night clubbing. "Oh God, yeah. I am extremely healthy, so I can abuse myself when I want."

Listening to Sting riff on life, he doesn't seem far from the practical guy from Newcastle who got his musical education from listening to the BBC, who played jazz on cruise ships and in cabarets, and who worked at one time or another as a ditch digger, a civil servant and a teacher. He hates the word spiritual and doesn't follow any religious indoctrinations, although he says he is feeling religious these days. He's at that age.

"I certainly think about my own mortality and the meaning of that, and why on earth has this complex being and this complex set of beings arrived on this planet just to be snuffed out after a few years. What is the point? Is there a point to it?" he says.

"I don't take myself terribly seriously. I might look as if I do, but I don't. I think it's really a mark of survival, you know. I've had my moments, but I've managed to survive them and learn from them, and keep myself intact."

© The Vancouver Sun


Jun 17, 2000

We have a great chance today on the World Cafe to have a second conversation with Sting, who's still touring for 'Brand New Day'. And we're backstage at the Sony Blockbuster E-Center in Camden NJ. Welcome...

Jun 17, 2000

Trudie Styler, wife of Sting, mother-of-four, actress, producer and environmental activist, is patron of the Tibet Foundation's Peace Garden Appeal. The two-and-a-half acrea garden, which was opened by the Dalai Lama a year ago, is set in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum in London...