Sting sits at the dining-room table of his modest apartment on a rainy day in New York City’s Upper West Side, overlooking a not-as-breathtaking-as-one-might-wish area of Central Park. “It feels a little bit detached from the city,” he says, gazing through the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows. “It’s kind of Blade Runner.” The English pop icon and his wife, Trudie Styler, have kept a place here since 1984, but this is only a temporary accommodation while he moves from one permanent apartment to another. “This is a stop,” he says.
It’s a suitable setting for a conversation with an artist who is constantly in transition. From rock stardom as the frontman of the Police in the late 1970s to his innovative solo work, Sting has continuously sought out new ways to tickle his muse’s fancy. In the last several years alone his projects have included an album of 400-year-old lute music penned by John Dowland (Songs From the Labyrinth), a blockbuster reunion tour with the Police and a set of winter-themed songs (If on a Winter’s Night …). His latest move was characteristically unexpected: a set featuring symphonic rearrangements of songs from throughout his catalogue, dubbed Symphonicities (a punning nod to the final Police album, 1983’s Synchronicity).
Just as surprisingly, he has also mounted an ambitious world tour accompanied by the 45-piece Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conductor Steven Mercurio and several members of his own solo band. The tour is set to wrap up soon with stops in South America after nearly 100 shows. “It’s the most fun I’ve had in many a year,” reports the singer, smartly turned out in a navy jacket and elegant light-blue dress shirt. “It’s funny, I can have a whim like, ‘Oh, I’d like to play with a symphony orchestra,’ and the people around me hear these whims and say, ‘All right, let’s figure it out and we’ll do it.’ And then the whim becomes this thing - 100 people on the road and the whole shebang. I was a little shocked when it happened.”
He shouldn’t be - after all, the soft-spoken fellow born Gordon Matthew Sumner 59 years ago near Newcastle upon Tyne has been turning his whims into reality for decades now. He grew up dreaming of a life in music, getting his start by playing bass in jazz groups while working by day as a schoolteacher. In 1976 he headed south to London, where he, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland formed the Police the following year. The trio catapulted to fame with now-classic songs like “Roxanne,” “Message in a Bottle” and “Every Breath You Take” before breaking up in the mid-1980s at the height of its success. In his ensuing solo career, Sting has enjoyed a long string of hits while touching upon almost every genre imaginable - pop, rock, jazz, reggae, dancehall, hip-hop, country, bossa nova, classical, you name it. “Curiosity is the engine that runs me,” he says. “I’m a student of music. I love to learn about music, and there’s certainly a lot to learn out there.”
Now we have Live In Berlin, a new DVD and CD documenting his September 2010 show with the Philharmonic in the titular city. The concert documents yet another new musical direction for its creator while also serving as a look back at a career that now spans more than three decades (a long enough timespan that two of his six children now have bands of their own, Joe Sumner’s Fiction Plane and Eliot Sumner’s I Blame Coco). “It has been one of those reflective periods,” he says. “I’m trying to fi gure out what to do next. I’m bursting to write new songs, but I needed to revisit. In order to go forward, I needed to take stock and assess what it is that I do. And now I’m ready to write new material.”
Still, Sting is not finished with the past just yet - he is tentatively planning a stage musical version of his 1991 album The Soul Cages, a song cycle inspired by the death of his father. “It was the least understood of the records I ever did, and the most pilloried. At the same time, I do still get a lot of correspondence about it from a strange constituency of the recently bereaved,” he says with a mordant chuckle. “They seem to find solace in it, and that makes me very proud.”
Whether he’s creating something altogether new or finding fresh inspiration in his rich history, Sting can be counted upon to keep his audience on its toes. “As an artist, you need to keep telling the story. It doesn’t matter that it’s the same story, as long as it’s a story,” he observes with a chuckle, fiddling intermittently with a stray harmonica lying on the table. “You’ve got to keep thinking of different ways of telling it.”
Did you know your songs would work with an orchestra?
I was pretty confident that the songs we were going to do had enough harmonic movement within them to warrant the symphony orchestra playing them. If they were just three-chord bashers that might work for a little while, but eventually you need a little more harmonic meat. I was pleased and happy to find that was the case. Also, I wanted the musicians themselves to be really engaged in this stuff. There’s nothing worse than an orchestra just playing whole notes behind a ballad. They’re bored, the audience is bored. I said, “Look, I want arrangements where the string players have steam coming out of their ears. It’s got to be difficult.” And that was the case. Rather than just ending up as a singer and his orchestra, it ended up like a band. They started to do choreography, totally unbidden - dancing in sequence, singing. It felt very much like a band experience after about 80 shows. That was very heartening. In the old days, classical musicians were a pretty stuffy bunch. The idea of playing with a pop musician would be not on. But the average age in this orchestra was about 30, so they’d been brought up with pop music. They get the way we understand rhythm.
There is a surprising amount of percussion.
It’s important. Once you lose that in pop music, you have a tendency to lose everything - because it’s about the pulse. A symphony orchestra can get kind of woozy if they don’t have that pulse. (laughs) Symphonic music tends to sway. The tempo is not strict, whereas pop music is, so there were compromises to make. So I brought along that safety net, and they responded really well to it.
How did you pick the songs?
There were things that were pretty obvious. For example, “Russians” was basically ripped off from Prokofiev in the first place. I steal from the best! (laughs) So that was an easy one. For the new arrangement we stole a bit extra from Prokofiev and a bit more from Mussorgsky. Some of the other songs were surprising. For instance, one of the arrangers, Rob Mathes, said he wanted to do “Next to You.” I said, “Well, it’s only got four chords. Are you sure?” He said, “Trust me, it’ll sound great.” And there’s something fantastically punky about these string players playing eight to the bar. It’s fantastic. It also allowed me to explore the songs emotionally in a different way. Suddenly interpreting songs that I’d done for years and years with a symphony orchestra behind them changed the meaning slightly.
Like “Roxanne,” which I’ve sung every night for half my life. With the symphony it becomes less angry and judgmental and more romantic, if that’s possible. It felt like a calm homage to this woman, rather than, “You shouldn’t be doing this!”
Were there songs you tried that didn’t work?
Oh yeah. We had about 40 songs arranged, and I used maybe 28. Some things work better than others. Not for any particular reason - maybe there wasn’t enough structure to the song to warrant the orchestra playing, or maybe it didn’t work emotionally.
You also talk to the audience in these shows more than usual.
Occasionally I’d have to explain the context the song was written in, because it didn’t mean anything without that context. “Russians” was written in the Cold War, and I needed to explain what that was about and why I wrote it. Or the song about the transsexual [“Tomorrow We’ll See”]. When I played that role, I needed to explain why. And that was fun, because in explaining it to the audience I started to understand my own psychology more, why I wrote things. I discovered things in the songs I hadn’t necessarily been aware of.
Were the audiences calmer than your typical crowd?
Yeah. When you walk on with an orchestra there’s a nervousness about behaviour. At first people behaved as if they were in church or something, apart from the occasional drunk who would shout out “Free Bird.” (laughs) But after the first 16 bars, you can see them relax and see that they aren’t going to be tortured with some pseudo-classical music - it’s pop music with an orchestral polish.
Were you concerned it would come off as pompous?
There’s obviously a Spinal Tap side to it. There’s actually a line in This Is Spinal Tap where they say, “We could be playing some of our songs with the Royal Philharmonic.” It’s funny, but I think we went against the cliché and it actually worked.
Is it odd to sing without playing bass?
It’s a bit of a holiday, to be honest with you. I can sing a three-hour show and not be sweating. Not that I wasn’t working, I was very relaxed -and also not lugging that Fender bass around onstage. It’s a good thing to be able to play bass and sing, but it’s not an easy thing. Obviously I’ll still do it; it’s my instrument. I feel I have recognizable signature when I play the bass and sing. But it’s nice to just be a singer.
What did you take away from the Police tour?
Gratitude, first of all, for my career. I owe those guys a great deal. It certainly gave me a platform to explore, and without the Police I wouldn’t have this present career. At the same time, I’m not tied to the Police in any kind of nostalgic way. To a certain extent, a band is a teenage gang in another form. Do you want to be in a teenage gang when you’re approaching 60? In my case, no. For other people it may feel totally natural, but I’m not that kind of person. I have a great deal of respect and love for my compatriots in the Police, but I don’t really feel the need to be in the band. In many ways, the tour closed the circle. When we stopped working in ’84, there was no formal statement like, “We’re finished.” There was nothing. We just did our own things. This tour closed that. It was very successful, the timing was perfect, people enjoyed seeing it. I suppose it was gladiatorial in an entertaining way, but it’s not the way I want to finish my musical life. There’s more to do.
Did you consider making a new Police album?
No. It was about recreating what we’d done and reminding people that we were a great band, which I think we were. Mission accomplished, if I’m allowed to say that post-Bush. (laughs) I’m not standing on an aircraft carrier, so I guess it’s fine.
Do you still care about having hit records?
I’m not burning with desire to be on the radio or get on MTV. I’m 59 years old. I’m realistic. At the same time, there’s an audience out there who seem to like what I do, and I want to satisfy them as far as possible. I also want to satisfy my own hunger. I like the privilege of working. I don’t have to do it for any other reason than enjoyment.
Have you written much lately?
Not really. A couple of songs. What kicks in at a certain age is the internal critic. The inner child gets strangled by the inner grown-up. It’s important to be free of that, and to have the openness and trust and courage to just let it flow. That gets more difficult as you get older. It’s a young man’s business. It’s hard to maintain creativity.
Do you give much thought to audience expectations?
I hope they expect to be surprised, because that’s really the one essential in music. If somebody plays me their songs, and I’m not surprised within eight bars, there’s something wrong. It’s all about hearing something you think you know and then, “Ah! I didn’t expect it to go that way.” I’m the same with my career. People were surprised when I did the album of Dowland songs. “What is this?” But I was curious about it, and I wanted to learn how to do it.
And the audience learns something as well.
Well, that’s nice. It’s not essential that they learn something, but I was a teacher. I was good at teaching things I was enthusiastic about. If I was enthusiastic about something, the kids usually learned something. It’s a function of my own enthusiasm.
Do you write an album with a theme in mind?
I still think there’s a place for albums to have serious literary intent. It may not be fashionable at the moment - it’s one-off singles or whatever - but I like the idea of a unified, integrated record that lasts 50 minutes or an hour, and you actually have to work and figure out the connections. It may be completely against the current zeitgeist, but that’s what I like to do. Somehow when you’re working, if you’re being honest, those connections happen by accident. It’s not like, “I’m now going to write an album about this.” It just happens, it’s almost unconscious. Once I realize it’s there, it becomes richer for me. I don’t know how fashionable that is, or how commercial that is.
Are you sad to see the album format fade?
No. The old model is no longer working, and the new model hasn’t been created yet. We’re in a time of transition. I think it’s a crisis in music, and I’m enthusiastic about crisis - it’s where we evolve. Right now there’s a crisis in every human endeavour - politics, religion, philosophy, art, social issues, the environment. So hopefully we will evolve through this. That’s the only hope we have, to evolve. I’m still evolving, I hope. I like the ongoing nature of being a musician. I like being on the road, I like constant movement, momentum. I find it very difficult to be in one place. This could be considered a weakness, but it’s the way I’ve lived for most of my life.
Do you have a goal in mind?
To die happy.
© Music & Musicians by Chris Neal