Interview: USA TODAY (1991)

February 03, 1991

The following article by Edna Gundersen in a February 1991 issue of the USA Today newspaper...

Into Sting's soul - His 'Caged' unlocks sad memories...

"I didn't want to make this record, frankly," Sting says, "but there basically was no choice."

'The Soul Cages', his third solo album, dwells on a painful subject the 39- year-old British pop star resisted confronting for two years: the 1987 death of his father, with whom he had a strained and unresolved relationship. He held sorrow at bay with such distractions as his MacHeath role in Broadway's '3 Penny Opera', a long 1987-88 tour and efforts to save the rain forest.

"I approached my father's death in a very modern way," he says. "I just carried on working, hoping that would relieve some of the grief. I tried to deny it by running away."

On break between rehearsals for his current tour, Sting gulps two vitamin C tablets pilfered from a bottle on his publicist's desk. The office is stuffy, so he slips off a heavy pullover, mussing his blond hair. He's wilfully unfashionable in a loose black shirt and scuffed brown boots.

"Finally," he says after a pause, "I had to deal with what was actually on my mind. It wasn't terribly pleasant."

Once he permitted the anguish to surface, a frustrating two-year period of writer's block ended as imagery from his bittersweet childhood flowed into song.

"I do self-analysis," he announces with a smirk and chuckle. "It saves me a lot of money in this town. I started remembering my early life, putting images together: the shipyard next to where I was born, the town, the river, my father and the sea. As soon as I did that, the words just came, almost automatically. Then I realized what this album was going to be about. I thought, 'It doesn't sound very commercial, but I have to do this.'"

"It's his best solo record," says jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who's toured and recorded with Sting since 1985. Rolling Stone agrees (four stars), but other critics have dispensed mixed notices.

Marsalis suspects Sting's pop-hungry fans may be slow warming to the album's musical intricacies. "Studying music may have been Sting's biggest curse commercially. Once you've absorbed Bartok, Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill and Dvorak, there's no way you can tune it out and say, 'I'm only going to write three-note pop songs.' Problem is, the public likes three-note songs."

Though it strays from his usual jazz-pop sophistication, 'Cages' could capture the charts with its trend-bucking airy melodies and melancholy beauty. Hues of Celtic folk, designed to complement the personal themes, replace the Afro-Caribbean flavors of earlier works. Religious references, often angrily spouted, reflect Sting's Catholic upbringing.

"It takes a very strong personality to deny all that guilt, blood, torture and hellfire. It's in you, whether you reject it or embrace it. For a writer, it's a rich source of symbolism."

Though now proud of his origins, Sting felt trapped growing up as Gordon Sumner in Newcastle, a gray shipping town in England's industrial north. His father was a milkman, his mother a hairdresser.

"They were working-class people in a rigid caste system," Sting says. "There's no social mobility in England. My father was very intelligent, but he was raised to believe he couldn't move up. He put bottles on the step and picked up the empties. All this frustrated intellectual energy was not used, and that made him angry."

As a teen, Sting plotted escapes through athletics (track and soccer), academics and music, excelling at all three. He dropped out of college and held jobs as a ditch digger, file clerk and teacher before finding global fame with the Police, which released huge hits from five albums before disbanding in 1984.

Sting stoked his solo career with 1985's 'The Dream of the Blue Turtles' and 1987's '... Nothing Like the Sun', both far sunnier than 'The Soul Cages'. Will listeners find entertainment in Sting's aching tunes?

"It's very strange entertainment, to be put through pain," he says. "But then, it's kind of a good feeling. When I saw the movie Awakenings I thought, 'I paid money to see this; I'm paying for this privilege?' I was pretending to wipe my nose when I was actually wiping tears away. I found it painful, but it moved me deeply."

Does the best art stem from torment? Sting admits his most successful songs emerged during a traumatic divorce from his wife and the mother of his first two children, actress Frances Tomelty. But he says, "I'm not saying you have to manufacture a crisis to do good work. That's perverse."

Today, Sting lives with actress Trudie Styler, his girlfriend since the mid-1980s, and their three children: Mickey, 7; Jake, 6; and infant Eliot Paulina. They divide their time between homes in England, New York and Malibu. A self-confessed workaholic, Sting has reformed somewhat to spend more time with his family.

"My parents were of a generation that didn't show emotions at all," Sting says. "I'm not particularly good at showing my emotions, but I'm much more demonstrative than my parents were toward me."

Complicating domestic normalcy is "the unprecedented amount of attention on daddy," he says. "It can't be easy being a child of someone famous, but one thing I can show them is that I have a job I really love."

Two jobs, really. Sting is both activist and musician. The two frequently entwine, as when he joined 1985's Live Aid concert and three Amnesty International tours.

Many expected his new album to elucidate his commitment to rain forest preservation and human rights. But pop music, ideal for condensing ideas into slogans, can't explain complexities, he says.

"I couldn't find a suitable metaphor for the rain forest," Sting says. "To sing, 'Don't chop down trees,' is puerile. I'm more interested in using my fame to create a platform for real experts."

Sting believes the consciousness-raising efforts of celebrities can effect real change. He helped intensify public focus on rain forest destruction, prompting an embarrassed Brazilian government to stop subsidizing rich landowners who were clearing trees.

"He's a damn good human rights activist," says Jack Healey, director of Amnesty International USA. "He's one of few who understands and can articulate the civility of our approach. His remarks are not those of the average pop star. He's highly intelligent.

"We don't consider Sting a rock star. I've sat with him in a lot of meetings where managers and stars are battling. He's never pompous or arrogant or stupid. He's always there to do the right thing."

Unlike pop stars whose rock-benefit participation ends when the cameras stop rolling, Sting is no stranger to paperwork and policy meetings. Nor is he paternalistic in aiding such needy Third World peoples as Brazil's Kaiapo tribe.

"They live in a harmony with their environment that's inspiring," he says. "They use the environment without destroying it. They're not primitive at all, but we're sweeping these people under a tidal wave of so-called progress."

Sting agrees his serious preoccupations seem antithetical to rock's fun fixations.

"The crisis in rock 'n' roll is how do you age?" Sting says.

He doesn't feel self-conscious pushing 40 ("Wait a minute!" he protests. "I've got nine sexy months left!"). Nor does he mind drifting from the hormone-crazed vortex of pop.

"If my manager said, 'Look, you're going to have to wear a wig and a corset and satin trousers,' I'd get another job."

© USA Today



Feb 1, 1991

Sting's intellect stifles passion: It's a bloodless album; will show come alive? From the beginning, Sting was the perfect Rock Star - so rich and talented that all the boys wanted to be him, so chiselled-from-stone handsome that all the girls wanted him, period. By his own admission he was arrogant and aloof, but we found those to be forgivable sins. We forgave him because he was also literate, uncommonly articulate and politically correct. Most important, though, we forgave him because of the music he made: a moody blend of rock energy and reggae bounce that, as an added bonus, had something on its mind and the ability to express it with uncommon grace...

Feb 1, 1991

Sting in the tale: Sting says his songwriting is cathartic, yet he could not compose a single verse for three years after his parents died. The reason, he says, is that he refused to confront the stark reality of death. Sting, or Gordon Matthew Sumner as his parents christened him 39 years ago, was jolted by the death of his mother, Audrey, to cancer in early 1987 and his father, Ernest, to the same disease later that year...