The following interview with Timothy White appeared in a February 1993 issue of Billboard magazine...
Among all living creatures, only human beings are endowed with a sense of humour, and their worthiest attribute may be the will to laugh at themselves.
"You're supposed to have a smile on your face - or I do, anyway - after you hear this record," says Sting of 'Ten Summoner's Tales', confiding that this sixth solo album is mostly a series of musical jokes." Yet this is levity with a sense of heritage as well as humanity. "What interests me about songwriting is that there is some kind of lineage between the tradition of songwriting and the tradition of storytelling."
Hence, the light-hearted template for Sting's latest release is one of the most cherished strokes of rhyme and whimsy in the English literary tradition, 'The Canterbury Tales', which medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote between 1386 and 1399. In Chaucer's time, the practice of making pilgrimages to holy shrines was a popular and unusually egalitarian practice that brought together citizens from every station of medieval life, whether noblemen, peasants, or those of the mid-tier civil and religious services, such as friars and summoners. It was the summoner's job to notify citizens of impending civil or ecclesiastical court appearances. As one of Chaucer's pithy wayfarers puts it in "The Friar's Tale": "A summoner's one who runs about the nation / dealing out summonses for fornication."
"Yeah, he's a rascal, basically," laughs Sting, aka Gordon Sumner, "and if you didn't want to go to court, you just paid the summoner. In England at this time, everyone wanted to earn blessings and indulgences by making pilgrimages, but both the church and civil societies would also sell these blessings. The more basic joke at work here is that this is actually where my surname came from! Over the centuries summoner became sumner.
"The stories in 'The Canterbury Tales' are romantic, bawdy, funny, sad, and the characters tell them in different styles. I think my record is a lot like that. It's a mixed bag of character sketches connected - only by the journey it took to complete them, meaning that for the first time in my solo work the songs - which actually number eleven are simply a record of my labours over a particular period."
Just as Chaucer's 'Tales' were the fruits of a picaresque career as a courtier/clerk for the royal houses of King Edward III and Richard II (whose company he was privileged to entertain by reading aloud, versifying, and singing in the vernacular English), so former school teacher Gordon Sumner has found his calling as a working chronicler of the social commerce of his own era. And since last April, Sting's been conceiving and recording music in the chapel-like vaulted dining room of his Tudor country home in Wiltshire (once owned by a noble in the army of King Charles I).
A visit there last summer found the bass-playing laird labouring over the final touches of the first single from 'Ten Summoner's Tales', the gliding, gorgeously sung 'If I Ever Lose My Faith In You'. As a pale pastoral sun spilled in through the stained glass windows, co-producer Hugh Padgham and Sting stood at a portable sound board and tinkered with the tracks imposing knell, bringing a chapel-like warmth to the cathedral-sized sound.
"That song is interesting," Sting now reflects, "because while it's very easy to define what one may have lost faith in - and you can list them: governments, the church, all the things you're supposed to have as crutches in our society that have proved to be fake - I found that it's not so easy to define what you still have faith in, so the song doesn't. It s very uplifting when you get to the chorus, but I don't state whether it's God, self acceptance or romantic love that I'm optimistic about.
"I think a lot of ghosts were exorcised on my previous record," he notes, referring to 'The Soul Cages', which was dedicated to the memory of his late father. "That album was very personal, confessional, and therapeutic in terms of facing death and loss. But I guess you could say the therapy worked, because now I have a new sense of freedom, a desire to move on and make songs solely intended as entertainments, designed to amuse." Hearkening back again to Chaucer, Sting aimed to concoct what the author of "The Canterbury Tales" had called "some comedy," a phrase that six centuries ago meant a narrative poem in the common tongue with a pleasurable conclusion.
While Sting could never be accused of resembling in aspect Chaucer's own Summoner, whose features are described as so pockmarked they frightened small children, the singer's startling wit is equal to that of his fictive namesake as he skewers the false piety of our world in other new songs like the hilariously theatrical 'Saint Augustine In Hell' or the hard-rocking 'Heavy Cloud No Rain'. Throughout the record's varied array of musical character studies, royal astrologers and witchcraft related farmers do their best to redirect the forces of fate but the only power that prevails is sincere faith in the mystery of one's own potential.
Though Sting insists 'Ten Summoner's Tales' is a "traveller's rag bag of tunes" it actually is his most uniformly engaging effort yet at conjoining dramatic musicality and sonic storycraft. Simply by recognising the depth latent in the patterns of ordinary ritual - how the suits of common playing cards are derived from the turbulent symbology of the tarot (spades are swords... clubs are weapons... diamonds mean money) - he constructs a bedazzling handsome ballad about the intrinsic specialness of love on 'Shape Of My Heart'. Within the innate poker of the track itself, plucked acoustic guitar, chromatic harmonica, delicate drums, cello, and Sting's imploring vocal comprise a masterly wager on the power of control versus the sweetness of probabilities. The effect is so subtly euphonic it must be heard to be believed.
"We all know that the shape of the heart on the playing card is not the actual dimensions of the human heart," says Sting. "And yet we gamble all the time as if things really are that neat and precise and familiar. On this album, I've looked around at the most normal things in my life: the cowboy movie on my TV, the golden fields of barley beyond my house, and tried to see the subtle stories within them. Yet on the record's final song, 'Epilogue (Nothing 'Bout Me)', I say you can search all and still not know anything about me, the storyteller. But maybe that's not true, because being whimsical is an essential part of my personality and my own searching. I want to be a good pilgrim on the road to Canterbury, but I want to ignore all the signposts along the way. As I quote him on the album, St.Augustine had a prayer for all the rascal summoners of the world: 'God, make me pure, but not yet!'"
© Billboard Magazine