Sting interview: 'Us musicians get paid extravagant amounts of money'...
With a new album out, Sting talks to Craig McLean about ageing, rock ’n’ roll parenting - and being a milkman's son turned Picasso-owning millionaire
"I get confused when people say 'purple’,” murmurs a man dressed in fashionably battered blacks and greys (knackered trainers, distressed jeans, holey jumper). “Anything that’s slightly in the gaps of the spectrum, I can’t really figure it out.”
Sting, it turns out, the artist who sang about “fields of gold” and told Roxanne to turn off her red light, is colour blind. Might this explain his purchase of the bumblebee sweater that gave him his nickname almost half a century ago?
“Well, I knew it was black and yellow,” he says. “But I used to get bashed at school for doing purple skies or brown grass. 'But that’s what it looks like, miss!’,” he yelps plaintively.
Maybe, I suggest, those were indeed the hues of the industrial North East in the Fifties and Sixties, in the shadow of the Swan Hunter shipyard in which young Gordon Sumner was raised.
“Well, we didn’t have very many colours in Wallsend,” he agrees with a chuckle. “It was pretty monochrome in my memory.”
Over the past decade or so, Sting has given considerable thought to his background. Following on from 2004 and the evocative memoir Broken Music (the book stopped at the point where he had his first taste of success with his band The Police), the singer, in 2014, staged a semi-autobiographical musical on Broadway called The Last Ship, about the decline of the Swan Hunter shipyard during the Eighties.
It was an entertaining, polemical spectacle; Stomp by way of Alan Bleasdale. But The Last Ship didn’t last long in New York, which is perhaps unsurprising. Tyneside accents and the decline of Britain’s industrial heartland aren’t naturally in the wheelhouse of Manhattan’s jewellery-rattling theatregoers.
Sting, as we might expect, is defiant. He doesn’t do disappointment. “Actually, it was triumphant that it went on that long,” he says in a quiet, speedy, get-to-the-point style. “Most Broadway plays don’t make their money back. Just putting it on was a major triumph for me. It ran for exactly the same amount of time Porgy and Bess did, in the same theatre,” he says with another gravelly chuckle.
Is he suggesting The Last Ship might have a similar afterlife to the Gershwins’ classic opera? He ignores the question, telling me instead that he is off next week to see the production in Salt Lake City. He hopes to bring the show home to the UK in 2017.
“I’m very proud of it. But we chose the most difficult task to do - an original musical about a difficult, serious subject, competing with Kinky Boots or Jersey Boys.”
Sting is in London, over from his home in New York, sipping a double espresso in a nice hotel and agonising over the morning crossword. He is here to talk up his new album, 57th & 9th, named after the Hell’s Kitchen crossroads near where the recording took place. His 12th solo release is being touted as a “return to rock” after a run of albums that were anything but.
“The thrust of it is rock’n’roll, but all my [musical] DNA is in there. There’s some folk music, some thoughtful, quiet moments. My whole thing is surprise. If I’ve been making esoteric albums for the past 10 years, then people expect that I’ll do that again. But the main thing was, 'Hey, let’s have some energy’. It’s not a lute album,” he says.
Still, like the autobiography and the musical, it’s late-period Sting: reflective, nostalgic, poignant. For all the momentum and clatter of the 10 songs, there are lyrical meditations on death, on the life of the aging rock star and, on Heading South on the Great North Road, on his younger musical self and his fellow Geordie pilgrims.
“Me and others - [AC/DC’s] Brian Johnson, Mark Knopfler, The Animals, Bryan Ferry - all made that journey south.” If you ever doubted that the humble A1 was Britain’s answer to Route 66, Sting’s soulful rasp does its best to convince you otherwise.
The song 50,000, meanwhile, is a response to the deaths this past year of so many of his peers, one of them a close friend of Sting and his wife, film producer Trudie Styler.
“Glenn Frey, Lemmy, David [Bowie], Prince…” he says sombrely, “… Alan Rickman. We had dinner with him a few weeks before. Alan invited Trudie and I specifically to say goodbye to us, but without saying goodbye. His wife told us later - he came to New York and had dinner every night with his close friends. We called him on New Year’s Day - we heard he was in a hospice. He said, 'Oh, I’m fine, I just had a blood change.’ He was dead two weeks later.
“When a generation’s cultural icons die, it shocks us. The childlike part of us believes they’re immortal. And when you’re a man of a certain age [Sting is a father of six grown-up children and a grandfather of four] and you’ve lived most of your life already, you think, 'Wow, this is real.’ ”
In the song Sting sings of his old-man ailments: a Mr Magoo hunt for his spectacles case and struggles with his hearing.
Is he exaggerating?
“I’m deaf,” he says brightly, then laughs. “I’m not as deaf as Brian [Johnson], but I’m not sure what to do about it. I need glasses to read. Hey, I’m 65.”
Any arthritic bass-playing fingers?
“What?” he blares, deafly. “Ah, yeah, in this,” he says, extending his right forefinger. “I got this PRP thing,” he says, referring to platelet-rich plasma therapy. “That’s where they take your blood, put it in a centrifuge, which reactivates the anti-inflammatory agent, and inject the blood straight back into the joint that’s problematic. It’s really painful, but instantly I went from being unable to do that comfortably,” he says - curling the finger slightly - “to doing that” - curling it fully.
Beyond that, he is patently in top physical health - his yoga regime is a habit of two decades’ standing (and his predilection for tantric sex still a newspaper staple) and he has the musculature to prove it.
“And I can still hit a high 'C’ when I need to.”
Politically this veteran of “soapbox” rock remains as committed as ever. New song One Fine Day is an “ironic” tilt at the environmental causes for which he and Styler have been banging the drum for 25 years. Inshallah is an “empathetic” look at the migrant crisis, a version of the song on the album’s deluxe version recorded with refugee musicians from Aleppo whom he met in Berlin.
“I really had to ask their permission to write this song, in a way. 'Inshallah’ is a beautiful world - 'if it’s God’s will’. It’s a word of resignation, of hope, of fear. But for me it means solidarity. We’re all in this together.”
Brexit, he thinks, is at odds with this feeling. “I voted, and I voted to remain… It’s a f---ing nightmare as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “I regard myself as European, even though l live in America.”
At his age, with his experiences, with his successes - with his looks, frankly - Sting can’t help but occasionally sound self-satisfied; he pronounces himself “proud” of this or that achievement on five separate occasions, and refers to his profession as “noble”. But he gets away with it, just, by being upfront about it.
He enjoys his money (a single ledger entry: The Police’s 2007-08 reunion tour grossed more than $340 million). He enjoys his multiple homes in multiple countries. And, these days, he’s not averse to skewering his own pretension. When he was told by his manager that he had to record this new album pronto if he wanted to have it out in time for Christmas, he initially pushed back: “I don’t do that. I’m Sting and I’m waiting for the muse!”
Last year he and Styler divested themselves of one of their seven homes. “Like most parents our age, all the kids are gone, so we didn’t need this big, seven-storey house in the middle of London.” After the pad, near St James’ Park, went for £19 million, the contents went, too. One of the items in the £3 million art sale was a Steinway piano that was listed in the Christie’s catalogue as the creative wellspring for three albums. He shrugs it off.
“I have a lot of pianos and that’s one of them.”
Surely it hurt to part with his Matisse?
“Well, we kept some stuff that was of really sentimental value. But, yeah, I got rid of the Matisse. But I kept a Picasso. I’ve had it for about 20 years - I had a couple - it’s a drawing of his mistress. Trudie’s put it in her bathroom,” he says, chuckling again, aware (I hope) of how vainglorious that sounds.
Sting’s hardscrabble background is well known. The son of a milkman whose family was rocked by his mother’s long-standing affair, he spent his early years juggling a career in teaching with dogged efforts to make it in music, until finally getting a break in the late Seventies, moving to London, forming The Police and releasing Roxanne in 1978.
The young Gordon Sumner had plenty to motivate him - and he sings about it on Heading South on the Great North Road. But what about his children? When dad’s one of the richest men in rock, whence their drive?
“My kids have all migrated to America,” he says. “They’re a pretty independent bunch. I caused a lot of waves when I said [in 2014] that I wasn’t leaving them any money, but not among the kids, because they never assumed I would.” That said, he now backtracks a bit. “I was being polemical, really. I look after them, and I’ve got them the best education I could.
“But I’ve instilled in them a work ethic. They f---ing work their balls off. I wouldn’t want to rob them of the privilege and joy of making your own way in the world. My parents had nothing to give me, and I feel proud that I could live in this world and feel like I’ve made it on my own. Musicians give people joy. We don’t exploit people or torture people,” he says, including even those who bought his lute album, “and they pay us - extravagant amounts of money, I agree. But occasionally you have to embrace that extravagance and enjoy that absurdity. But I want them to be as proud and grateful for their lives as I am. I don’t want to hobble them with, 'OK, when I die you’re gonna get millions.’ They’re not!”
His own work ethic is undimmed. He will be touring for most of the next year (“I’m heading for my 3,000th gig,” he says with evident gratification), including a run of co-headline dates with Peter Gabriel. Retirement is not on the cards. “I’m a travelling musician, I’ll probably die up there,” he says.
But while Sting might not be worn out, are any of the songs? Can he still feel any emotion when singing Every Breath You Take?
“It’s my job to sing a song I wrote 25, 30 years ago as if I’d written it today,” he says. “Also, Every Breath You Take is such an ambivalent song. You can play it as a sinister stalking song or as a romantic, I’m-obsessed-with-you thing. So, yeah, there’s enough ambiguity and complexity within the songs to keep me interested.”
OK. If he isn’t feeling his age, and neither are the songs, how about that nickname. Like the faded tattoo of youth, isn’t “Sting” a bit silly for a man of (now, officially) pensionable age?
“No,” he says. “I think it’s a good one. In a way it’s a sort of a mask to hide behind. Although no one calls me anything else. I’m Sting, and fine with it.”
(c) Daily Telegraph by Craig Maclean