Sting’s Salvation: Songwriter Opens Up About Dark Obsessions, Rock Rebirth
Sting sits on a stool in a rehearsal space on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. He cradles his bass and waits for drummer Vinnie Colaiuta to count in “50,000,” a rocking lament to Bowie, Prince, Lemmy and others lost this year. It’s from 57th & 9th, his first rock album in 13 years. His Springsteen-esque biceps pop out of a gray T-shirt. (Those muscles made middle-age women gasp and fan themselves at a downtown acoustic show the night before.) Muffled, ungodly sounds leak through the walls. It’s Kiss mucking about next door. “Do you know Gene Simmons?” asked Sting later. “An interesting guy.”
Colaiuta starts the count, and an Australian camera crew filming the proceedings moves in for a close-up. Sting halts his band for a moment. He sends his fingers on a not-so-secret journey.
“OK, no boogers.”
A publicist titters, but Sting gives a naughty grin and shrugs: “It’s always good to check.”
In the three days I spent with him, Sting played against the cliché of him as a dour rock god with an overly earnest sense of self-importance. Sometimes he failed: He humble-bragged that he received an award from BMI for “For Every Breath You Take” being played 13 million times in the United States. “That’s quite a lot,” he said with arched eyebrows. This was shortly after he marveled about Bob Dylan’s I’m-not-there attitude toward winning the Nobel Prize.
Still, Sting now seems in on the joke that he is a tantric-sex-practicing, lute-playing semi-egomaniac. He now sends up his own exalted image with comic timing. During a break in rehearsal, he did an extended riff on his much-maligned lute album from a decade ago, Songs From the Labyrinth, which he takes pains to point out sold a million copies. “People had a go at me,” he says as we sit cross-legged in the studio parking lot to try and get away from Simmons’ caterwauling. “People were like, ‘I don’t want to listen to the fucking lute.’ I’d say, ‘What’s wrong with the lute?'” He pauses and smiles. “I think the instrument suffers from the Monty Pythonization of the lute.”
But the levity only goes so far. After a break, the band, including longtime guitarist Dominic Miller, cranks out “50,000,” which contains the cheery lyric:
I’m feeling a little better today,
Although the bathroom mirror is telling me something else.
These lines of stress,
One bloodshot eye,
The unhealthy pallor of a troubled ghost.
Where did I put my spectacle case?
I’m half blind and as deaf as any post.
OK, so Sting is never gonna be the rock & roll equivalent of the office clown blowing beer out of his nose at the office Christmas party. “I think death is the most interesting subject in any art form, whether it’s literature or poetry or opera,” Sting told me a month earlier while talking about “50,000” in his New York home on Central Park West. He’d just shown me a 1962 photo of the street he grew up on in Newcastle in England, with a looming shipyard at the end of the block. Everything in that neighborhood has turned to dust; his house, his parents, the shipyard. Staring at the photo had put him in a melancholy mood, an emotional state that he admits he revels in a little too much.
“Pop music is supposed to be about girlfriends and cars and the color of your shoes,” he says. The banality of pop music is a familiar Sting trope that has led him to be accused of taking himself way, way, way too seriously since his “King of Pain” days. He pets his dog, a pointer named Compass. “I’m 64. Most of my life has been lived already, and then, like most of us when a cultural icon dies, we’re children.” He stretches his palms outward. “Because you think, ‘How could he or she die?'”
He cheerily admits to being a workaholic; he notoriously slept through the birth of his first child. I ask him if he thought he’d made enough time for his six children – two of whom are musicians – in between his touring and recording. “That’s a good question,” he says. “If my kids would ever complain about that, I would say to them, only half serious or half not serious, ‘For some reason, you chose me as a parent.’ Not I chose you, you chose me. Because that makes them less of a victim. They’ve all turned out beautifully. I give all credit to their mothers.” He pauses for a moment. “Was I a perfect parent? No. I wasn’t parented terribly well myself, so I didn’t really have an idea.”
We agree to pick up the conversation in a few weeks. On the way out of a living room lined with books, I point at a painting I liked, an abstract with a lightbulb in the middle. “Oh, that’s a Basquiat,” says Sting offhandedly as he sips a cup of tea. Andy [Warhol] did the lightbulb.” He whispers the next bit. “My grandchildren like to come in and put their hands all over it. They don’t know what it is.” He grins. “It’s great.”
Sting named 57th & 9th after a Manhattan corner he would cross every morning on the way to the studio. He’d stop and meditate for a moment about his day to come and days past before crossing the clotted street. He spends much of his time in New York with his wife, Trudie Styler, a film producer. His kids are grown, and he and Styler are now empty nesters. He appreciates the relative anonymity Manhattan provides him. “People here are all in their own TV show,” he says. “They might stop and say, ‘Hey, Sting, I like your music,’ or ‘Hey, Sting, you suck,’ but then you just go on.”
Over the past decade, Sting has done everything but record a rock record. Besides that lute album, there was an orchestral version of his greatest hits, a Police reunion and the passion project of The Last Ship, a musical set in the Newcastle shipyard neighborhood of his childhood. It wasn’t a financial success – Sting had to step into a lead role to goose ticket sales – but he says he cherished every moment he spent working on the project.
He has a complicated relationship with Newcastle; the new album has a song called “Heading South on the Old North Road,” about escaping one’s hometown, and he points out there is a reason why the best song by Newcastle’s the Animals was “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” It was one of Sting’s theme songs back when he was a boy delivering milk with his silent father in the predawn hours. His parents were stuck in a sullen, infidelity-infested marriage, and Sting couldn’t wait to get out on his own. “I’ve always considered myself in exile,” says Sting. “Not really from my hometown, but from my country. I live in New York, but I’m not American. Exile is a useful point of view for an artist. Look at someone like James Joyce.” He quickly adds, “Not that I’m fucking James Joyce.”
Unlike on his previous solo albums, where songs and arrangements would be painstakingly laid out beforehand, Sting entered the studio for 57th & 9th with nothing – no lyrics, no melodies and no concept. “We would just ping-pong lines back and forth,” he says. “A bass line or something until we had a riff or a tune we liked.”
Sting is a prodigious walker – you can often see him strolling through Central Park – and he’d think about the songs while moving about. But he still had to write the words. So, he would get home from a walk, pour himself a cup of coffee, put on his heavy coat, grab his guitar, and sit on his frigid balcony with gorgeous views of the Manhattan skyline. He didn’t allow himself into the house until he’d written a set of lyrics. “I wrote four songs in two days,” says Sting. “It was fucking cold.”
Sting then brought the songs inside, usually playing them for Trudie, who Sting claims is his toughest critic. “She won’t say something is awful,” he says with a long-married smile. “But I can tell.” Except for “Heading South on the Great North Road,” Sting says he’s playing a character on every song on the album. The lead single, “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You,” comes across on first listen as a straight-ahead love song, but it’s really, according to Sting, about an artist searching for his muse. It’s a standard Sting approach – going back to “Every Breath You Take,” a stalker song disguised as a love ballad. “People aren’t really used to songs being articulate anymore,” says Sting, slipping into the mode of the schoolteacher he once was. “They’re just kind of meaningless. They have the semblance of meaning, but it’s not connected. I don’t like that. I like songs that actually mean something.”
Sting has been writing covert protest songs since the Police’s “Driven to Tears,” so it’s not a surprise that there’s a passel of slightly disguised political songs on the record. “One Fine Day” humorously deals with the quixotic hope that climate change is in fact a myth as the world melts around us. “Ishallah” tackles the refugee crisis from a humanitarian point of view, and “Empty Chair” is an ode to foreign correspondent James Foley, who was executed by ISIS in 2014. A recent interviewer recently linked Sting to Woody Guthrie, a comparison that baffles him. “Woody Guthrie, that I’ve never heard,” says Sting with a smirk. “Woody Woodpecker, yes.”
As a legal alien in America, he tried to hold his tongue on the subject of Donald Trump, but he was crestfallen by the Brexit vote in his native Britain. “The concept was introduced by Winston Churchill in 1946,” says Sting, offering a brief history lesson. “He said we should have a trading group and then we won’t fight. Well, sure enough, 70 years of peace on the continent. Before, we had been knocking the crap out of each other for centuries. Now what?”
Sting has been an activist for more than 30 years, but he keeps a lower profile about it these days, content to run his Rainforest Foundation Fund with Styler and a board of experts, working on smaller projects that help people in 21 countries in the subequatorial parts of the world. “Sometimes, when you’re a star, the media tends to follow wherever you point your finger,” he says. “I’m done with that approach.”
The politics of his songs have evolved as well. We talk about “We Work the Black Seam,” a 1985 lament about Thatcherism, the danger of nuclear power and the loss of coal jobs in Newcastle and other areas that were dear to Sting’s childhood. Now, he is more versed in the downside of dirty coal and the necessity of nuclear power. “What we know about power, I would say my position has shifted,” he says. “I think if we’re going to tackle global warming, I think nuclear power is the only way you can create massive amounts of power.”
Inside, the band is waiting. He wants to make one thing perfectly clear.
“But hey, I’m not a scientist.”
Between our two visits, I turned 50 while Sting hit 65. He was keen to talk about the mileposts, even if, when we first met, he professed not knowing exactly how old he was. Now a senior citizen, Sting still looks, annoyingly, 38. It’s not by accident. Every morning he swims laps for an hour while listening to the Bach cello concertos played by Yo-Yo Ma. He then does a Pilates class. He describes himself as “vain and disciplined.” I ask if there was ever a point where he’d let himself go and put on 20 or 30 pounds post-tour. He looks at me as if I was mad: “Fuck no! I’d kill myself. I’d just die of shame. I’m a fattist when it comes to myself.”
The one thing Sting has failed at is a return to vegetarianism. He swore to me by the next time we talked he’d have given up meat, but it hadn’t happened. “We had a farm in England where we had livestock, so I thought, ‘Well, I better eat them,'” he says with a shrug. “I know we got to stop eating meat because it’s killing the environment.”
With all the talk of self-preservation, you could get the idea that Sting was one of those celebrities who have convinced themselves that their exalted state in the people food chain means, just possibly, that they’ll never die. Not so. The day before he turned 65, he played before a crowd of 100,000 at halftime of Australian Rules football’s version of the Super Bowl, in Melbourne. He then spent most of his birthday alone at his hotel thinking about having more days behind him than in front of him.
“I have been thinking about death since I was a kid.”
He spends an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing about death. His parents died young, and Sting skipped their funerals, blaming touring responsibilities, but now knows it was a mistake. Still, he hasn’t exactly made his peace with the end. “I have been thinking about death since I was a kid,” says Sting, who was raised Catholic. “I get a kind of spiritual vertigo. I was brought up in a religious background with ideas of eternity, eternal torment or eternal heaven, which sounded just as tormented to me. I became obsessed with it, maybe morbid about it.”
One of Sting’s attempts to parse mortality has been through multiple experiences taking the drug ayahuasca, a psychedelic popular in South American spiritual ceremonies. “I think it’s a way of rehearsing the feeling of being dead,” he says, stressing it’s not a pleasure drug. “Every time, I have to work up the courage to do it. You basically face your mortality, and it’s as if you’re dead, out of time. Your whole life passes front of you in this other realm. I can only sound vague about it. Most people die in total panic. Terror. I think there’s another way. We’re supposed to die. There must be a way to die peacefully and welcoming.”
Listening to Sting and his band play songs from 57th & 9th, one of the first things I notice is that there is clear space between the instruments. Love him or hate him, Sting’s songs are rarely cluttered with a cacophony of sound to disguise the lack of an idea. There’s a touch of audio aloofness to them, as if Sting has a secret that he’s not quite letting you in on. That aloofness is present in his personality as well. You get a sense that he’s throwing a jab that keeps the rest of the world from grabbing him in a clinch. “I’ve been with him for 27 years, but I wouldn’t say we are very close,” says Dominic Miller, his long-time guitarist. “I remember meeting him for the first time and my instinct was saying, ‘Don’t get too close to this guy on a personal level’ – there was an emotional distance.” Miller stubs out a cigarette. “But what I can do is get very close to him on a musical level.”
The loner part of Sting is largely responsible for the Police breaking up after only nine years. “A band is a democracy,” says Sting. “Or the semblance of democracy. You have to pretend more in a band.” While he claimed to have enjoyed the Police’s 2007 reunion, Sting might be fibbing. “It was a return back to that forced democracy and reminded me just why I’m not in the band,” he says. “It was Stewart’s band. He started it, he named it, and it was his concept.” I ask if the band was still a democracy by 1983, the time of Synchronicity and Policemania. He slyly smiles and shrugs. “No.”
Sting is still friendly with ex-bandmates Andy Summers and Copeland, who he saw before a Hollywood Bowl show last year. He said the reunion tour isn’t likely to be repeated again: “For me, it closed the circle. We’d never officially broke up. It was perfect timing. For me, it feels complete.”
Listening in on his rehearsal with his current band, Sting seems more relaxed and forgiving. “One of us can make a mistake and he just goes with it or it opens a new avenue,” says Miller. That is real growth for Sting from his earlier days. Asked about his long reputation for being a not-so-benevolent dictator, he readily nods his head. “I used to be an arrogant, feisty old fucker. I’m a better bandleader. I’m a more calm person.” He pauses a second and gives a Cheshire grin. “I think.”
The calmer Sting was present the night after the presidential election in New York. While the citizens of Manhattan freaked out and binge drank before a show at Irving Plaza, Sting appeared and acknowledged that many in the crowd had been “traumatized.” Instead of a lecture, he led the crowd in chanting the very British slogan: Keep Calm and Carry On. Perhaps not coincidentally, he launched into “Message in a Bottle,” and the well-heeled crowd sang a little louder at the chorus: “Sending out an S.O.S. Sending out an S.O.S. …”
There was more healing to do a few days later in Paris. Sting reopened the Bataclan, where, last November, 89 concertgoers were murdered by Islamic terrorists. He addressed the crowd in French. “We will not forget them,” Sting said. “Tonight we have two tasks to settle. First, to remember and honor those who lost their life in the attacks. Then, to celebrate life and music.”
Ambition in the young and beautiful can leave a sour taste. Ambition in the old and beautiful can be endearing. The night before his band rehearsal, Sting did an acoustic sing-and-talk show at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Sting was busy being Sting, questioning why he had to hold a microphone, barely not rolling his eyes at questions he thought banal and asking his host to guess how many years it would take to listen to all of his music that had been accessed on Spotify – just his solo work, mind you, no Police work. When the host shrugged, Sting told him, “Twenty-seven years. Imagine that.”
He also reported that “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” had entered the charts at Number Four on something called the Adult Alternative airplay chart. Sting hadn’t made any chart for a decade, and you could tell it meant a lot to him. But there was more to the story that he didn’t share with the audience. His musician daughter, Eliot Sumner, was on the same chart, right ahead of her father.
He had told me the story earlier: “It was fantastic. She was thrilled and said, ‘Ah, Dad, we’re in the same chart.”‘ He paused for a second, and the mask Sting sometimes wears fell over his chiseled face. “She actually had one more play than me.”
I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. And then he broke into a toothy smile. For a moment, Sting wasn’t Sting, just a proud father. It was a good look on him.
Inside Sting’s first rock album in decades.