The following interview with Julien Caparo appeared in the October 1999 issue of the French magazine Best... The interview was very kindly translated by Fred Berthelot.
"I had thought of naming the album 'The Lovers' after 'Les Amants', as an homage to Jacques Brel." In the large west Parisian studio in which he is completing his album, (ultimately Brand New Day), Sting summits himself, Zen, to the professional task. Lucid and cultivated, he discusses, in short sentences, his musical choices, his engagements, his wants, dropping names of French artists and Latin terms... Later, he adds: "I'll be 50 in two and a half years. That's something I'll be quite 'proud' of:" He can be. Sting is engaging in a very "classy" second half-century.
You recorded this album in Tuscany, New York and London. You're wrapping up in Paris. Why?
I recorded and mixed 'The Soul Cages' here in 1990 and I liked it a lot. That's the first reason. The other reason is because of ra?Ø: I met Cheb Mami last year and I asked him to sing with me. He came with darboukas players and different musicians. For all those reasons, Paris was a practical place to finish this album. That said, I think you can never be finished; you end up quitting rather. It's Fran?ßois Truffault who said that. I'm a bit like that: I could mix again and again until the end of my life. I'm never satisfied, and that can become dangerous because you lose all objectivity. The more you hear a song, the less distance you have. I'm therefore in an unstable position between those two tendencies! (laughs)
Where did you compose the songs?
You can sense a lot of work on ambience and the importance of programming is surprising...
The place where I write doesn't really influence my music. I collaborated with a programmer who works a lot on synthesiser. It's with his help that I could bring those elements to the music. I'm a guitar guy, so that's not what I do best. I'm entirely satisfied of the result and I think it sounds quite "modern."
French rapper Ste collaborated on one of the tracks. How did that come about?
I wrote a song from the point of view of a dog in love with his mistress. He complains about her new lover. He says that everything was perfect before this guy ruined their love story. The mistress answers back. I asked Ste to talk to the dog, in French, rapping. I wanted the response to be incomprehensible to the dog who sings in English. An interesting exercise! (laughs)
Among others, because you produced the album yourself...
It's always more or less the case. I'm surrounded by very good sound engineers and we produce the album together. I'm not sure how to define "production": I think it's defined by the artist's weaknesses. Certain producers do everything, write songs, record, arrange, sometimes even play or sing... The artist is no more than a name, a store window. In my case, I can do just about all of that. That doesn't mean I work alone. I like having collaborators around to help me, give me ideas, support me. On this album, there's Kipper, which means "smoked haddock", it's a charming nickname... There's Simon Osborne who has been working with me for over ten years, and lots of musicians. Manu Katche on drums for example.
What musical style has had an impact on you recently?
I've listened to a lot of ra?Ø because that's a style that intrigued me. It's interesting... This music from North-Africa is a reflection of pop music. It has elements of flamenco, reggae... All of that crosses the Mediterranean and you find it in Paris. What got to me is that during all my life, I've never liked "pure" musical styles. I don't like "pure folk", "pure jazz." I like my music to be "b?¢tarde." (bastard) It's the best music because something new is always produce following that approach. When I listened to ra?Ø, I found something that appealed to what I liked.
You wrote 'Sister Moon' as an apparent sequel to 'Moon Over Bourbon Street'. Is there a sequel on this album?
I like to say that what I write is never just one song (laughs.) It's all part of one song that continues to grow. That said, when I write a song I'm never conscious of the fact that it might have a "father" or "mother"... I can't find a song on this album that would have parents! (laughs) Maybe you can find something?
On a personal level, how have you evolved since your last album?
Before every album, I assess myself. "Have I evolved as a musician? Writer-composer? Singer? Have I evolved as a human being? (laughs) Have I evolved as a social individual? If I've evolved in each of those categories, am I capable to translate that into a better album than the last? That's my hope, my desire. I can't know if it's true or not. I train every day. I do scales every day, I work my voice every day. I spend a lot of time writing songs. I'm always trying to better myself! I hope the album will show that evolution. I'm 47, I'm not done being a "etudiant de la vie" (student of life.) I'll always be, and that's important. The millions of disks I've sold, the Grammy awards, should that mean that I'm perfect and I can stop? That's not in my plans. I want to continue going forward, to learn. Because the more I know, the more I learn the less certain I am. I was more certain of things when I was 25.
Like the song by Jean Gabin, "Je sais, je sais qu'on ne sais jamais" ("I know, I know that you never know")
I don't know it, but I agree. I never would have thought that before having reached my age.
You seem serene as time goes by...
I'll be 50 in two and a half years. That's something I'll be quite proud of. A lot of my friends are dead. To be 50 and healthy is something to be proud of. I don't pretend to be what I'm not. I'm not going to act as if I were 25 or 30, that would be stupid. I'm a man nearing 50, I sing my songs, and I have to be honest because they represent who I am. If people don't like that it doesn't matter.
That's something of a philosophy!
If the album does well, I'll be happy of course. If it doesn't measure up to my expectations, then too bad. But I don't evaluate myself according to the charts. That's a question of what's "in", of tastes, of chance... A bunch of parameters. I know when I've made a good album. Otherwise it would be as if I evaluated myself according to my bank account. What's important are my friends, my family, my relationship with my children. I'm very blessed in that aspect. Money is nice, but it doesn't bring happiness.
With your impressive experience, can you discern tastes, what the public wants?
I don't know, really. At my age, you don't make an album according to what's in fashion. If I make an album that works, it's because it's a good album. When you're young, it can go your way because you wear the right pants, you have the right hair cut and you have a face that people remember. Now I know that success can only come form the best reason: because your music has touched people. And that's exactly what I hope. Is it going to work? "Je ne sais pas!" (I don't know).
Concerning choices, you worked with Puff daddy to remix The Police. A collaboration that surprised a lot of people...
He decided to rewrite 'Every Breath You Take' for his friend Notorious BIG. It's a very special song for me, full of emotion. I was honoured that he chose it to celebrate the memory of his departed friend. It became a huge hit. It's interesting, if not important, that this song has become, by combining both versions, the song that has held the number one spot for the most amount of time in the US. We then worked together on 'Roxanne'. He remixed it with Pras Michael from The Fugees. I take things very positively: another generation has heard of me because of this! Anyway, I can't have any control over my songs. I can't stop anyone from covering them. And Puffy got a great response from it. I like what he does, he's full of energy and success. Now he has to maintain it, take good decisions. I heard he spent some time in jail for hitting a record executive. I was really disappointed. He must take that gangsta rap thing too seriously!
What about your acting career?
I did a movie last year. 'Lock, Stock And Two Smocking Barrels', a gangster film which my wife produced. She was looking for someone to play the father who wouldn't cost too much. She said: "You work for free so you should do!" I have a 22 year old son, so it's a role I could pull off. It was the biggest movie last year in England, but it didn't do well in France.
Is acting something that appeals to you now more than ever?
No, I rarely act. It's a hobby for me. I don't take it seriously! I never took lessons...
Many famous actors haven't...
I've always functioned this way: If from time to time I'm offered a role that I like and I'm available, I'll take it. It's never been an ambition or a passion. There's a lot of actors for whom it's a true passion and it's their job, so they have to act. So I don't get in their way by asking for a part.
You get a lot of offers?
Yes but I only accept sometimes, for fun.
No projects in the immediate future?
No, nothing for now.
You've always engaged yourself in humanitarian causes, political cause... Strange that you didn't participate in the Amnesty International concert last November in Paris...
I was recording in Italy. There was a studio and a lot of musicians waiting for me. I was asked to come to Paris. I turned down the invitation because I had to work on the album. The next week I saw the concert on TV. There was Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N'Dour... and no Sting! (laughs) It made me very sad and I regret it. I sincerely would have liked to participate, but I couldn't. I toured with the Amnesty International "Human Rights Now" tour about twelve years ago: when I see Bruce or Peter, we always tell each other that those were the best times we ever spent on tour! There was a real camaraderie, a fantastic fraternity.
You're also known for your activism for the rainforest. You've become discrete about it.
I don't talk about it, but I continue the work. We're having great success: we don't work solely in Brazil anymore; we also deal with problems in Mozambique and Thailand... The work continues but I don't feel the need to talk about it to the press. I can round up a few million dollars per year to finance it and that's all it takes. The press is not necessary. I work silently. At first, I needed the press to launch the idea, but that's not the case anymore. With all the respect that I owe the press, it's of no use to me anymore! (laughs)
Are humanitarian causes a part of the rock star's duties?
No, that's just something I wanted to do, and it became personally rewarding. I learned a lot about myself through this initiative. I'm happy to have done it, but it was hard. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone: Many don't want to see you succeed! (laughs) People are waiting for you to fail. Because you're a rock star, an actor, a celebrity, you're not supposed to do anything else. It confuses people. There's a certain negativity in seeing rock stars engage themselves in such a way. That's also why I work silently now. It makes it easier.
You seem ultimately positive under all circumstances...
I'm always a bit of an optimist. It's a strategy. To act as if things were going to be better. I think that philosophy has been beneficial for me throughout my life. When you're optimistic, you're right most of the time. If you're a pessimist and you're right, that's a bad sign! (laughs) Whatever the importance of problems on this Earth, we have the capacity to solve them. With education, evolution... Most problems that we encounter are atavistic. An example is what happened in Yugoslavia recently: it's a regression in relation to evolution, to knowledge, which goes back to a primitive form that consists in the need of killing your neighbour because you don't like his face. It's monstrous. These people were lead by a maniac who himself was a victim of such atrocities. Both of Milosevic's parents committed suicide. His wife's parents were executed by communists. This kind of problem is not due to an absence of progress; it's due to regression and it's a disaster. I hope that this time around we will have learned a lesson. "You cannot kill your neighbour and expect to live happily." In those words it sounds crazy, but some of the populations engaged in the conflicts would have felt better if they could have wiped out all Albanians. It's like the French National Front: according to them, everything would be perfect if there were no Blacks and no Arabs. Let's say that's true, in that case you wouldn't have the same national football team! (laughs) And your music would be shit! Those are Neanderthal problems, not worthy of civilised human beings.
© Best magazine