Sting Turns 69: Revisiting Our Profile with the Rock Legend Talking Aging, Art and Inspiration
Sting was photographed by Bryan Adams for Zoomer's 2009 winter cover. Photo: Bryan Adams
To mark Sting’s 69th birthday, we revisit our 2009 cover story where the king of musical reinvention reflects on his art, aging and the inspiration behind his 9th studio album If On a Winter’s Night.
Sting, recently turned 58, looks remarkable — not “good for his age” or “well-preserved” or any of those other patronizing labels that are attached to people who defy chronology.
Besides, it’s embrace rather than defiance that defines Sting. He looks his age. He also happens to look remarkable with it. But if time has not turned out to be his enemy, he’s also just made an album, which is a thoughtful, poetic meditation on its inevitable passage.
If On a Winter’s Night is a collection of traditional songs, hymns, lullabies and laments inspired by Sting’s favourite season. His record company had suggested a Christmas album, but he wasn’t partial to that idea. The subject of winter, on the other hand, had a deep personal resonance. “I’m interested in the psychological concept of what winter means to us,” he explains. “It’s hugely important, and it’s disappearing with global warming. It’s the season of the imagination, when we invent stories. We need the winter to reflect, to sit in darkness, to deal with the ghosts of the past. And then we can move forward. So, for me, the album is about regeneration rather than salvation.”
Sting deliberately sought out songs with an idiosyncratic take on the season. “I avoided Frosty and Rudolph and all the triumphalist songs about God in his heaven because, for a lot of people, Christmas is tough and desolate.” That’s the feeling captured by the traditional “Christmas at Sea,” its tale of a sailor caught in a storm as unseasonal a song as any yulophobe could desire. But the album’s mood in general is so melancholic and solitary that it sounds elegiac to me, more the kind of music you might expect from a creative lion in the winter of his years, rather than a man who is a mere 58. “I’ve always been a little premature,” Sting acknowledges. “I grew up quickly, and I’m heading into maturity quicker. In some respects, I’m 14½; in others, I’m an old man, growing into wisdom about the world, asking questions about why we are here. It’s an incredibly complex system we’ve been put into. Neither science nor religion gives you the full picture. There’s some core mystery we can’t grasp.”
Sting places his faith in the power of the human imagination to fathom that mystery. “That’s my religion,” he declares. “Without imagination, you have no art, no music, no literature, no religion. You can’t throw one out without throwing them all out.” It is that faith that finds common ground with the sentiments of songs that, in many cases, are centuries old. “My instinct about the record in the beginning was to go back home,” he says, “to be inspired by my own experience of winter, which was largely as a child, working on the milk round with my father, driving in the snow, not saying too much to the old man.
“I think I dreamt my life as a child on that milk round,” he continues, “imagining this life as a musician, famous in the world, with a big family – and it came to pass. I believe in the power of dreams.” But then, Sting adds a slightly downbeat coda: “I need a new dream at the moment.”
He does that often during our conversation, qualifying his statements with a murmured aside, usually self-deprecating — like when he says, “I keep thinking one day I’ll get a nudge, and it’ll be back to the end of the queue, mate.” Again, that downbeat note, the quintessential attitude that the British attribute to anyone from “up North,” as Sting is.
Still, as much as he believes musicians are innately melancholic (“It’s life viewed through a prism of minor keys”), Sting insists he’s happier than he’s ever been. “In my late 20s, early 30s, I was very successful and not particularly happy. It was interesting to learn that success doesn’t equate to happiness. Look at poor Michael Jackson trapped in this closed, hermetically sealed world with no way out. That’s no kind of success.”
Sting, by comparison, walks to work every day (in London, he’s based in his wife Trudie Styler’s offices). There are no bodyguards, no entourage. “I try to live as normal a life as I can, a citizen’s life, given that I have a huge amount of privilege and I’m paid ludicrous amounts of money to do a job I’d do for nothing.” (“Looooodicrous,” he murmurs to himself, “and there’s a sense of irony about that.”)
Both his parents died at more or less the age he is now, so Sting is understandably philosophical about getting older. “I don’t want to die. I’ve got a lot to do before I die, but people have been doing it for eons, and there are ways to do it with some grace and ease. Our society isn’t terribly reflective, but I think it’s important to reflect so we’re prepared for it.” Sting himself is, of course, famously — even notoriously — physically fit (though, in a recent interview, his daughter Coco squelched the stories about his day-long tantric sex sessions with Trudie). “I enjoy the challenge of being 58 and being as fit as I was when I was 25,” he says. “There’s a certain amount of vanity involved and dignity. I wouldn’t feel good singing my own songs unless I looked decent, and I couldn’t really do my job if I was a fat git.”
It’s not just his body Sting is constantly pushing. “Cold Song” is an album highlight whose formality sounds almost as though the singer was posing it as a challenge for himself. “True, I was using the lower register of my voice, which I haven’t used so much. There’s a wonderful word — pretentious. You only achieve something by pretending to be able to do it at some point. Kids pretend to be grown-ups, then they become grown-ups. In a way, you put yourself in the position of other people. F**k it, I’m here to learn something. This material will teach me, take me up a level. You allow that to happen, do it diligently, and it’s never wasted. Good work is never wasted if you do it with integrity and respect. And it will feed into other creative areas of your life generally.”
Contrary to what the career might suggest, Sting insists he’s not particularly ambitious. He’d like to keep his life the way it is (who wouldn’t?) and maintain the artistic freedom he has to claim new areas as his own. “I sang with the Chicago Symphony in May, and that was a fantastic experience. Last weekend, I played with my rock band in Quebec. Or I could reform the Police. To have these areas where you feel free and to look for other things – that’s my ambition. And I still have the opportunity of working with people whom I admire — Tony Bennett, for example, well on in years but an extraordinary singer. Being in the same room with him, trying to second-guess his phrasing, which is totally unique, you learn. You have to raise your game to get the ball back over the net.” Sting also sees those elder statesmen as father figures. He was in his mid-30s when his own father died, and he admits he spent a long time looking for people to replace him. “Someone like Gil Evans, for instance, one of those teachers of wisdom I’ve come across that have helped me. I suppose one day you become one of those yourself.”
The unremarkably unedifying sledgehammer satire of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno made fun of the need some contemporary entertainers (principally the three superstars — Elton, Bono and Sting — who appeared with Cohen at film’s end) feel to edify. “I can’t really speak for entertainers per se,” Sting counters, “but my instinct is to teach. I was a schoolteacher before I did this job, and part of me is still intrigued by that idea of presenting information that people perhaps haven’t been exposed to before, arranging it so they can enjoy it or get an insight into it. A lot of the sources of this record are quite esoteric, and people would explore them, so my job is to say I think this song by Purcell is interesting and you may be totally into rock ‘n’roll and never listen to Purcell, but just listen to these unbelievably complex, modern harmonies.”
That element of surprise is something Sting values in everything he does, for himself as much as his audience. “Reforming the Police? That was a huge surprise even to me,” he says drily. “It was psychologically difficult for me, like going back to a dysfunctional marriage. I think we navigated it pretty successfully, but none of us found it simple. I’d grown used to being a bandleader. ‘You don’t like it? Tough!’ And the Police had a semblance of democracy.”
If you think the evolving wisdom of late middle age would have provided an antidote to the problems of the past, think again. “It didn’t make much difference,” Sting concedes with a rueful laugh. “Still, we did 150 shows, played to 2.7 million people. We didn’t kill each other. We stayed friends more or less. We’ll still go to the weddings of our children, and we’ll meet each other occasionally without remorse.”
Personality crises aside, the Police constituted a major part of Sting’s growth as an artist and even though he claims he’d never sit down to listen to his old songs, whenever he hears one by accident — in a shop or drifting out of a car window — he’s not embarrassed. Same with performing them live. “I can still get the high notes. Once I can’t get those, I’ll stop embarrassing myself. Some of those songs I wrote over 30 years ago. My job as a singer is to do them like I wrote them this afternoon with the same energy and excitement and sometimes with more insight. I’ve sung “Roxanne” just about every night of my professional career, and it’s loose enough an arrangement to explore harmonically different facets all the time. Miles Davis only played six or seven tunes his whole life onstage. He knew it didn’t matter what the head was, he could explore, so it’s much the same with my old songs. They’re not written in stone. They’re not sacred cows. They’re vehicles for exploration.”
Sting included two of his own songs in the lineup for If On a Winter’s Night-. They help underline the personal nature of the project at the same time as they would seem to express a hope that his own songs will endure the way Purcell, say, has. “Well, the themes endure,” he says. “We are part of a tradition, and I am proud my songs stand up. I hope they do, at least, without seeming who-does-he-think-he-is pretentious. I get that anyway. But I thought it was important to inject a personal element into the songs to emphasize that these are my own specific original interpretations.”
But surely he relishes the notion of musicians several hundred years hence applying themselves to his songs the way he has applied himself to Purcell or Schubert or the Elizabethan composer John Dowland, the focus of his last album Songs from the Labyrinth? “No, posterity is not something I spend a lot of time thinking about,” Sting demurs. Instead, it’s the music itself that absorbs him. “There’s no end to it. If you think you know about arranging, go and listen to Ravel. If you think you know about rhythmic composition, go and listen to Stravinsky. I have so much to learn and so little time.”
So time, in the end, is a hard taskmaster, even for Sting, a man who seems so at peace with it. “Yeah, I could do with another 58 years,” he agrees.
A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2009 issue with the headline, “All This Time,” p. 56.