Never say never, especially if you’re a songwriter.
In 2013 Sting declared that he was no longer interested in writing songs for a rock band or in the kind of personal mode he had come to think of as “inward navel-gazing.” He had done a reunion tour in 2007-8 with the band that made him a superstar in the 1980s, the Police, then dismissed it as “nostalgia.” He was immersed in “The Last Ship,” the musical inspired by his childhood in a shipbuilding town. Writing for theatrical characters, rather than himself, had broken through a decade-long block.
It seemed as if the last thing he’d do is what he’s doing this week: releasing an album of verse-chorus-verse rock songs, “57th and 9th,” with a core of guitar, bass and drums that unmistakably recalls the Police. The playing is nimble and articulate, bursting with intricate virtuosity and informed by jazz, Celtic music and waltzes, as well as by rock. Sting sings about crumbling romance, climate change, refugees on the move and what it feels like to read rock stars’ obituaries.
On the phone from Honolulu last week, Sting spoke about changing his mind, tricking his muse and how to find a story in a wordless piece of music. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
You’ll be reopening the Bataclan in Paris, the theater where terrorists massacred 90 people just short of a year ago. Has that show been planned for a long time?
Literally two or three days ago, someone said, “Would you reopen the Bataclan?” I played there in 1979, and I thought about it. I said: “Look, there are two things to balance there. One is respect and remembrance for the people who died there. And the other thing is to celebrate the music and the love of life that the theater represents.” I’m hoping we can reconcile those two things respectfully and intelligently, and so I’m doing it. I’m going to start with “Fragile.” I think it’s appropriate.
When you were working on “The Last Ship,” you said you weren’t interested in writing introspective songs for a rock band. But now, here’s that new album of rock songs.
I’m famous for making polemic statements just to see what reaction they get. [Laughs.] For me, the most important element in music is surprise. When I listen to music, I want to be surprised. When I compose music, I want to lay a surprise within a certain number of bars. And then, when I choose to do the music I want to present to the public, again, I want to surprise them.
You made “57th and 9th” at studios near that corner, in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. And you changed your usual methods.
I normally go in the studio with a great deal of preparation. This time, I just booked the studio and brought my cohorts who have worked with me for almost three decades: Dominic Miller on guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. And I said, “Guys, let’s just play musical Ping-Pong.” An idea will go around in a circle, and a song will materialize, or at least the semblance of a song. I then structure it, give it a shape, and then take that shape home and ask that song what it’s telling me. Who is the character singing this? What’s the mood, what’s the narrative?
And then I’d play a trick on myself. I’d lock myself out of my apartment, on the terrace in the cold, and not come in until I’d finished a lyric. I had a cup of coffee and a coat. It was one of those things to put myself out of my comfort zone in order to trick the muse into playing ball with me.
In one new song, “50,000,” you’re reading rock star obituaries and thinking about stadium shows. People might well hear that as autobiographical.
Although it’s about a rock star, and of course I’ve been a rock star, “50,000” is not really me. It’s a character that seems to be singing through me and looking back on his career and, in reflection, finding philosophy. There are a lot of people like me at my age, still making rock ’n’ roll, having that rather singular experience of being in front of all those people and feeling empowered, and the hubris of that. And the psychological danger of it, too. And then coming out the other side and asking: “What did that mean? Are you, in fact, a god? Are you godlike?” No, you’re not. You’re very very human, and very mortal.
It’s hard to express how unique that feeling is. Not many of us have stood up on those stages in front of 50,000; 100,000; a quarter of a million; in my case, half a million people out there. That can be a very heady and confusing experience. You need a certain perspective on it, to say, “This is fun, but it’s an illusion.” If you do that, then you’ll survive it. Otherwise, no, you’ll become the victim of it.
Your catalog has just been rereleased on vinyl as a set, “Sting: The Studio Collection.” Do you hear the older albums differently now?
My catalog is in my memory bank. I don’t have to go back and listen to it. I’m often impressed by decisions I made as a younger man, and wonder how I knew how to do that, that that chord follows that particular cadence. It was purely instinct. Now it would be a little more knowledgeable.
“The Last Ship” lasted only three months once it reached Broadway. But you’ve called that project the happiest five years of your life.
It was certainly the most challenging and the most difficult and the most satisfying journey, because it was very personal to me. This was the play I wanted to make.
The hardest thing to do on Broadway is to do an original story. I chose a difficult subject — out-of-work shipyard workers in the North of England. It’s not exactly hit razzmatazz. I was very happy with it, and the people who came to see it, the cognoscenti, if you like, said this is what Broadway should be. I was very gratified by that. I watched a performance of it in Salt Lake City the other day, and again I was amazed that the thing translated — in the middle of Utah, there was my hometown.
Would you do another musical?
I would do it again in a New York minute. But I need something that’s as vitally important to me to do. I want to do something that means something to me, and I hope will mean something to an audience. I think we need meaning.
Where do you find meaning?
Well, there’s a question. [Laughs.] I’m in a very meaningful part of my life at the moment. I just turned 65, and I’m accepting mortality. I’ve probably lived most of my life already. I think that as an artist, that is probably the most interesting subject you can tackle. How do we approach the end of our time here?
When you’re a teenager, you sing about your car, your girlfriend or your shoes. And now you’re speaking about mortality. I think the best art does that. All the best operas are about death. But not to be morbid — I’m not a morbid person. I think, if anything, acceptance of it enriches your life. You realize that there are a limited number of days, so make use of them.
(c) The New York Times by Jon Pareles