The following article appeared in April 2022 in Clash Music...
“All That Matters Is Right Now!” Sting Interviewed - “Keep practising, you’ll never know enough...”
Love, loss, separation and political turmoil are just some of the themes featured in Sting’s current album ‘The Bridge’.
The legendary musician spoke to Clash Magazine’s Emma Harrison about how music is his ‘personal bridge’, why he remains curious about his art, his forthcoming residency at the London Palladium, and the importance of living in the present moment.
'The Bridge' thematically centres around the impact of lockdown, love, loss, separation, disruption and political turmoil with the ‘bridge’ representing an enduring and ever-evolving link between ideas, cultures, life and death, relationships and situations. How did this album come about and what inspired you to make it?
I’m one of those fortunate people who love their job, because it’s so varied. I’ve been on tour almost permanently since the ‘70s interspersed with being cloistered for months at a time in a studio. This is the cycle that sustains me, the pandemic just moved me into studio mode earlier than expected.
I never have any specific idea of what I want to do there, but just turning up is enough.
Some days you get inspired, some days you don’t, but what I do know is this, if you don’t turn up for work then nothing will happen. There’s no mysticism involved here, 'The Bridge' simply materialised from this, just turning up for work.
The album evokes the feeling that we all need a bridge – something or someone to take us from one mindset to another, a place of chaos to a place of peace and so on. It’s about connection- connecting with others and perhaps also reconnecting with yourself. Is this how you envisaged this collection of songs to work? Did you learn anything about yourself whilst making this album?
I had no idea what this record was about until it was almost finished.
I surprised myself when I realised I’d written about ten songs, and listened to them in the hope of finding some connective tissue between them, the hope that some common theme would reveal itself, rather than just a random collection of separate ideas.
To my delight and surprise, I recognised that every one of the songs was built around a character in some sort of transition, between ‘life and death’, ‘ sickness and health’, between worlds, between relationships, and each of them looking for some sort of bridge to the future. Somewhere different, safer, happier. I suppose all of us are in this state at the moment, as a result of the pandemic, the political turmoil, the threat of war, of climate change. These are not comfortable times to be living in for any of us, and these songs had arisen from my own subconscious as a reaction to this anxious state of the world. It was only then that I wrote the song that would be the title track, ‘The Bridge’.
Music is my personal bridge, my bridge to the rest of the world but also an internal bridge to my own psychology, and song writing has always been ‘therapy’ for me.
Music is my ‘bridge’ too. Has ‘The Bridge’ afforded you the opportunity to reflect on the people and places that have influenced your career musically?
I’ve always been a student of music, to this day I still practice, I’m still curious about music, and what it means, why is it still so influential in the world and in my own life? I can’t imagine life without music, it’s my medium – just like fish in water, but that doesn’t mean I understand any more than anyone else. Everything I’ve ever heard has influenced me, and I’m always looking to be surprised, to learn something new, to assimilate, to evolve.
I can’t imagine it either! Do you have a favourite track from the album? If so, what is it and why is it your favourite? Mine has to be either ‘Rushing Water’ or ‘Harmony Road’, but they are all superb.
Some songs are more complex than others, but I try not to equate complexity with ‘quality’, the simple song is often the hardest to write, again surprise is what I’m aiming for, in terms of melody, harmony and rhythmic structure. But how do you give people what they want and also surprise them? That’s a puzzle, sometimes I find the solution, sometimes I don’t.
Please can you tell me more about your approach to songwriting. Does the music come first or the lyrics?
I believe that well-structured music is already telling you a story, long before any lyrics materialise it has a kind of abstract narrative. It’s my job to excavate these stories from the abstraction, maybe the way a sculptor will find the ghost of a figure inside a piece of stone. You work away at it and slowly the abstraction then comes to life. I listen intently to the music and simply ask it to tell me a story.
Your songs are loved by people all over the world. Although there is one person in particular that is a huge fan – Sir Paul McCartney who says he wishes he had written ‘Fields Of Gold’ which must be hugely flattering. If you could pick one song (by Paul or otherwise) that you wish you had written, what would it be and why?
I could go on at length about McCartney songs I wish I’d written, he’s one of the reasons I became a songwriter myself. Lennon and McCartney were two working class grammar school kids from a Northern seaport, and they conquered the world with their songs, giving an entire generation permission to try and do the same.
If I have to choose a Macca song, I’ll go with ‘Eleanor Rigby’. Compelling, mysterious, and utterly surprising!
I love that song! You are back playing live again and are about to play the London Palladium with your ‘My Songs’ residency where you are playing several dates. This is named after your 14th album which was released in 2019 which featured reworked versions of a selection of your most widely recognised songs from your illustrious career. What can we expect from the show?
I always try to give the audience what it wants, songs they know and love and are familiar with, but there’s also a bargain to be struck. At some point they’re going to have to listen to something they don’t know, something they’re not familiar with, and with the hope that these new songs will also become old friends eventually.
What did you miss most about playing live and how excited are you to be touring again?
I did a lot of virtual gigs during the lockdown, which kept the muscles working and the wolf from the door, but there’s nothing like the feedback from a live audience. The stage is your living room, you know where all the furniture is, you’re completely at home, but also that excitement of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen. Like a wire walker, you can take nothing for granted.
If you fall, maybe you deserve to?
Do you have a favourite song to perform live?
It’s my job to sing every song, even those I wrote decades ago with the same passion, commitment and curiosity as if I’d written them this afternoon. I always find some new, some incremental change that perhaps the audience is unaware of, but I am.
I love that! These shows follow your residency in Las Vegas. How was it performing in Vegas?
I was a little apprehensive about Vegas, wondering if I was going to be performing for a bunch of tourists in MAGA hats? In fact the audience couldn’t have been better. They’d come in from all over America, from all over the world, determined to have a good time. The show was much more visual than normal, adding a new dimension to the story telling.
The visuals looked incredible – what’s been your favourite ever gig that you have played and why?
Probably one of the early ones with The Police, first time we played The Marquee in Wardour St. or CBGB’s in New York. Nothing can replace the excitement of the first time, but nonetheless your job is then to recreate that excitement every time you walk on stage.
That’s such an inspiring attitude to take. So, let’s talk about awards! You have received a multitude of Grammy Awards, Brits, a Golden Globe, an Emmy, four Oscar nominations amongst others – how important are awards and accolades to you and is there one that means the most?
It’s not how I measure my life but if I have a favourite it’s the Ivor Novellos, I think I have eight of them, they are the most beautifully crafted awards but more importantly the Guild of Songwriters is an ancient and noble tradition that I’m proud to be a member of.
Songwriting is an ancient tradition and you have written some of the world’s most incredible and much-loved songs. You have sold over 100 million records worldwide ‘‘Every Breath You Take’ is one of the most played radio songs ever. An absolutely astonishing achievement. What’s been your standout moment in your career or do you have several?
I really try to live in the present moment. Nostalgia can rob you of that. All that matters is right now!
I completely agree! With this in mind, according to Billboard, on average, most popular musicians tend to circulate the music scene for around 24 years. Obviously there are exceptions to this with you being the epitome of the exception. Your career has spanned several decades – what do you think is the secret to longevity in the music industry?
It’s a short answer, Curiosity! Where is music going and what does it mean?
That works for me! It’s imperative to remain curious. So, if you could give your younger self any advice about the music industry (knowing what you know now) what would it be and why?
Keep practising, you’ll never know enough.
You had a landmark birthday last year and look as incredible as ever as demonstrated in the photoshoot you did with Finn Constantine at Battersea Power Station in London. How was the shoot and how did the collaboration come about?
I’m very close to Finn’s family, I’ve known him since he was a kid. I like photographers who instinctively know what they want in terms of location, mood, lighting. The same with Film directors. Finn has those instincts and working with him is a pleasure.
You have recently rereleased your track ‘Russians’ on all digital platforms with net profits to benefit www.helpukraine.center. This track originally appeared on your debut solo album in 1985. The sentiment of this song has been further elevated by the addition of strings and guitar. It’s very emotional. How was it revisiting this song and how did you approach the arrangement?
Having been brought up in the shadow of the Cold War where the possibility of nuclear conflict was ever a possibility, as insane as that idea was, it was an anxiety rarely spoken about but nonetheless there in the background.
After ‘Glasnost’ and the ‘Perestroika’ of the Gorbachev years, we felt we could relax again, but of course the weapons never went away. Now with Putin reminding us that Russia has the largest nuclear stockpile in the world, that anxiety has returned and the song has a new and unwelcome relevance. I wish it didn’t, but the message of our common humanity is still the same. This war is one man’s misguided decision, a decision that ought to be an anomaly in the 21st century, and the misery unleashed is a direct result of that anomaly. Democracy is a messy and an inefficient system most of the time, but it is vastly preferable to autocracy with its simplistic and often brutal solutions.
This month it’s the 30th anniversary of 'The Police – Greatest Hits' which is being reissued on vinyl. It has been remastered at Abbey Road and cut at ‘half-speed’ – how involved do you get in releases like these and are you excited about it? As a huge vinyl fan, this is definitely one to add to my collection which can sit alongside the five studio albums I already own.
I love vinyl too, and have missed the ritual aspect of actually handling a tangible artefact that reproduces music. Streaming of course is convenient and immediate but it can render music into a mere commodity, like coffee. But it’s far more important than a mere commodity and the rituals around it need to be preserved.
I am with you on that. Other than the tour and your appearances at festivals, what’s next for you? Can we expect another album this year?
Hopefully, and barring further lockdowns or a larger world conflict, I’m going to spend the rest of the year making up the dates that have been postponed. People held on to their tickets and I’m more than happy to honour that commitment. That's my job. if I have anything coherent to say after that, I’ll find it back in the studio.
(c) Clash Music by Emma Harrison