The singing Police man

by Jane Cornwall / 22 January, 2011
He's come a long way since his rock-reggae hit about a prostitute, and now Sting is back for gigs with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

'Music is my church," says Sting, sitting in an empty auditorium in western France and looking, with his steady gaze and yoga-honed leanness, more than a little priestly. "Music puts me in touch with things that are beyond description," he adds with a smile. "That's what spirituality is: the idea that there is something beyond your understanding that is paid reverence to."

His blue eyes crinkle. "All music is spiritual," he says in his clipped Geordie tones. "Pop music can be just as sublime as classical music, even if pop is in a state of crisis right now. But then everything is in a state of crisis: religion, philosophy, politics, ecology.

"It's an interesting time to be alive; as a species, we evolve through crisis. It's scary," he shrugs, "but whatever is happening, we've all got front-row seats."

Well, not today we haven't; after sound-checking Symphonicity, his critically acclaimed collaboration with the Royal London Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, Sting has padded down to where I'm sitting on an aisle in the middle of the stalls. Having snuck in a nana nap on arriving here in Nantes, one of numerous cities on the European leg of his Symphonicity world tour, the cultural icon and former Police frontman is in an expansive mood. And why wouldn't he be? Reviews have been glowing. His songs, rearranged, have garnered new life. His voice is sounding better than ever. His band, also here, are having a ball.

At an age when most rock stars have either hung up their guitars or crossed the line into caricature and parody (as it happens, Status Quo are playing this same cavernous concert hall the night after next), Sting has steered his career with an elder statesman's grace and more than a touch of gigantic ego. For a superstar often accused of taking himself far too seriously, of being annoyingly smug, this latest project smacks of further pomposity: enlisting a big band to reimagine one's own back catalogue - not even a set of standards or cool covers - has been viewed by some as a vanity too far.

He doesn't do himself any favours himself with the programme notes, a veritable Pseud's Corner of affectation: "I have always had an affinity for classical music," he writes. "When I was younger I studied the repertoire for Spanish guitar and still make a daily practice of playing a number of selections from JS Bach." Or how about: "In an effort to create a unique experience the modernist Bauhaus movement became one source of [staging] inspiration, wherein the visuals would serve to enhance the emotional and psychological aspects of the songs."

Not to worry. Sting, 59, is used to people thinking he's a pretentious prat. "That's fine," he says good-naturedly. "These people don't know me. They can believe what they want. I live my life."

A very nice life it is, too: there are the homes in Los Angeles, New York, London, Tuscany in Italy and Wiltshire in England. There is the indefatigable film producer/actress Trudie Styler, to whom he's been married for 27 years and with whom he has four children (he also has two kids with his former wife, actress Frances Tomelty). There's their gang of celebrity mates - Guy Ritchie, Stephen Fry, Annie Lennox - and their involvement in a host of environmental and social causes. There is, of course, their infamous alleged penchant for eight-hour tantric sex sessions.

Then there's the fact that creatively speaking - after winning 16 Grammys and selling squillions of records; after being inducted into the Rock & Roll and Songwriters Halls of Fame and maintaining a massive fan base over the course of a four-decade career - Sting can basically do what he wants.

Which is exactly what he's doing right now. "I could do this for the rest of my life," he says happily, nodding at the fresh-faced orchestra members heading backstage with their cellos and trumpets, violins and oboes. "One of my main concerns was there'd be me and an orchestra and never the twain shall meet. But what's surprised me is how many of my songs have enough harmonic movement in them to warrant a symphony orchestra playing them."

When Symphonicity plays Christchurch and Napier next month, that orchestra will be the New Zealand Symphony: "We'll practise for at least two sessions. Six hours [each show is three hours long] seems like a short time but that's one of the miracles of a symphony. You put the music in front of them and they play it."

This project - which comes with an album, Symphonicities - is arguably more of a crowd-pleaser than his previous two excursions: Songs from the Labyrinth, a reinterpretation of the work of 16th-century Elizabethan composer and lutenist John Dowland; and If On a Winter's Night..., an austere collection of seasonal carols and hymns. Sting hasn't actually released a new body of work since his rather tepid 2003 album Sacred Love: "I never write new material when I'm touring," he reasons - and what with Symphonicity, and the above, and the Police reunion tour (which hit New Zealand shores in early 2008), he's been touring rather a lot.

"I certainly think this is a medium I'd like to write more for," he says, nodding at the stage again. "I'm not 24 any more and saying, 'I've just written this [rock] song, here it is.' I'm 59 now and whatever I do has to reflect that evolution."

He plays music every day, far more than he listens to it ("Because even when it's elevating me, I'm analysing it; I tend to listen to music when I want to learn something"). And not just the Bach suites: "I love pop, soul, jazz. I love the way that people like Miles Davis realised that the space between the notes is as important, if not more, than the notes themselves. As musicians, we can make beautiful frames around silence," he adds, smiling sagely.

There's a donnish side to this milkman's son - born Gordon Sumner in working-class Newcastle, north-east England - that is hard to square with the gobby, spiky-haired singer and bass player who burst onto the scene with the Police in the late 1970s. That Sting (the nickname stems from a much-worn yellow-and-brown striped jumper) was angry, outspoken and - as the post-punk trio went strato­spheric - thoroughly miserable.

"One of the greatest lessons I learnt was that at the most successful time of my life I was the most unhappy," he has said. "It was fun to be the biggest group in the world for a certain period, playing football stadiums and all that, but my intention all along was to get better at making music. That's still the case."

Despite (or perhaps because of) his unhappiness, his lyrics were always literate, if self-consciously meaningful. Aside from the anthemic De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da (which he's called "an articulate song about being inarticulate"), there were lines such as "Daddy only stares into the distance/There's only so much more than he can take/Many miles away something crawls from the slime/At the bottom of a dark Scottish lake", the title track of the 1983 album Synchronicity, which referenced the likes of Carl Jung; Message in a Bottle, with its "Seems I'm not alone in being alone" line, was an ode to existentialism. In a genre not famous for its cerebral content, Sting challenged fans to have a think.

"I was educated, which I am very glad about," he says by way of explanation. "It made me aware." His music-loving parents encouraged him to dream, and gave him space to do it: "I'd get up at 5.00am to do the milk round with my dad. My feet were freezing a lot of the time but it was a very interesting time to be awake; out there and owning the streets allowed my imagination to run riot. I dreamed about one day being a successful musician with an international life and reputation. I had this vague idea that somehow I would achieve glory in my life."

His hairdresser mother taught him piano, which he played so well he was offered a piano scholarship. Jazz and guitar were his real loves, however; he played jazz in Dixieland bands and on cruise ships between stints as a builder's labourer, bus conductor, tax collector and English teacher. In 1977, he moved to London with just one phone number and no cash, determined to play professionally. The number was for American drummer Stewart Copeland, who with Sting and guitarist Andy Summers founded the Police. When they had their first hit with Roxanne, a rock-reggae tune about a prostitute, Sting was 27. "I'd already lived a bit," he says.

After five mega-successful albums and international household name status, Sting dissolved the band at the height of their popularity in 1984, deciding - to his bandmates' chagrin - they had gone as far as they could go. Although their clashing egos and ongoing tensions undoubtedly influenced the move, Sting had grown creatively toey and was eager to push the boundaries of pop music. His equally prosperous solo career has embraced heavy elements of jazz, classical, flamenco, North African and other music.

He tuts when I mention the label "world music", and delivers a little sermon in response: "Everything's world music, isn't it? If there's anything particularly 'world' about music, it's in its power to break down stereotypes, to crack the sort of monolithic conditioning that says the Arab world is just one big thing, which is what people used to think about Russia. I believe in the power of culture and commerce to break those stereotypes down. That's why I like playing everywhere. It's just the commerce of knowledge, but it helps."

His lyrics have remained as profound, and as profoundly beautiful, as ever. ("You'll remember me when the west wind moves/Upon the fields of barley/You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky/As we walk in fields of gold," runs Fields of Gold, a track sumptuously rendered on the Symphonicity tour). Words are important to him; as important, he says, as music: "I read a lot. I'm always reading. I couldn't live without books." He has just finished Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and is now engrossed in James Kaplan's new biography of Frank Sinatra: "It's beautifully written. I'm currently falling in love with Ava Gardner."

Of course he isn't. Not really (and not just because Gardner is long departed). Although Sting's wit is as dry as it is self-deprecating (asked to translate the Sanskrit circling the silver bracelet around his wrist, he quips, "I think it says, 'I love Coca-Cola'"), he also has a life partner to whom he is devoted. So what if rumours abound of visits to swingers clubs and strip joints, or those marathon tantric sex sessions (that rumour allegedly stems from a drunken chat he and his mate Bob Geldof had with a journalist in 1990). Mr and Mrs Sting have managed to navigate a long and happy marriage in an industry not known for them, and for that they deserve big applause.

Styler, he says, is his anchor. Which is no wonder: both are from the north of England, from the same generation, the same class. They share references, outlooks, a sense of humour. "She makes me laugh the whole time and keeps my spirits up and knows me intimately and still loves me," he has said, before praising her willingness to tell him when he is "being a complete twat" (rumour also has it that Styler is not a woman to cross). Although it's a shame she didn't point out as much when he was filming the 1989 surrealist epic Dune in nothing but a pair of winged blue plastic underpants, they are nonetheless one of the more admirable A-list couples around.

After appearing in films such as Plenty, Stormy Monday and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which Styler executive-produced, Sting's acting career has ground to a halt. He isn't particularly bothered. Something had to give when he decided to put more time into the Rainforest Foundation, the charity he and Styler founded to "support indigenous and traditional people of the world's rainforests". "I've turned down so many scripts that I don't get sent them any more," he says cheerfully. "But the Foundation, which we started 20 years ago, is now active in 21 countries, which makes me very proud."

Styler may or may not influence his choice of creative projects, although Symphonicity wasn't his idea anyway. In May 2009, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra invited him to perform his songs in a concert for its wealthy benefactors. His songs responded so well to symphonic treatment that he took the ball and ran. Steven Mercurio, the conductor of the Royal Philharmonic, then cancelled his summer performances of Rigoletto in Rome for the chance to work with Sting; the Royal Philharmonic has now performed over 70 Symphonicity concerts in North America and Europe. After playing Australia and New Zealand with their respective orchestras, Sting is taking Symphonicity to Chile.

Later this evening, he will take to the stage in even tighter pants than the ones he's wearing now to join his band, a female vocalist and 45 black-clad orchestra members in a set that combines his greatest hits (Roxanne, Englishman in New York, I Hung My Head) with forgotten gems such as the shimmering When We Dance. There's a palpable sense of liberation inherent in redoing the old Police songs. The 2007/08 reunion tour was a trip too far down memory lane: "The time felt right to realise that asset," he has said. "But it made me physically ill. It was like going back into a dysfunctional marriage with all of the old problems."

The packed crowd in Nantes - unused to seeing their hero singing with a symphony orchestra - feels curiously reverential. Their eyes fix expectantly on him, unsure whether they should stand up or sit down, or be rowdy or attentive. A faithful congregation gathered here in the Church of Sting. When the cellos and trumpets, violins and oboes kick in on the formerly thrashy Everything Little Thing She Does is Magic, there's a few seconds of stunned silence before a huge whoop of recognition draws a crinkly-eyed smile from the man whose face is magnified on giant screens either side of the stage.

"I'm trying to create something new in this interface between pop and symphonic music," he had said earlier. "I always wanted this to be more than just aural wallpaper, more than just window dressing for a vanity project. I want the songs to sound new again, so I stand there and sing them with the same energy and commitment and sense of discovery that I had when I wrote them. I always find a new inflection, a new discovery, each time."

"Searching," he says, Father Sting-like, "is the essence of live performance." He pauses, sighs a melodramatic sigh.

"Well, that," he adds with a grin, "and remembering to turn up."

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