Interview: CANDIS (2005)

September 09, 2005

The following article by Mark Anstead appeared in the September 2005 issue of Candis magazine...

Sting - What's the old rocker up to now? It's not all rock'n'roll. Sting may be a bona fide rock star, but he's had to deal with his fair share of family strife. He tells Mark Anstead why chronicling his early years has been so therapeutic.

There's something disconcertingly self-conscious about Sting. It's almost as if, despite years of dealing with the press, he still doesn't know what to do with himself if he's not on stage holding a guitar. He averts his gaze during interviews, making minimum eye contact. And he thinks very carefully about some of the questions being put to him.

"It's because I've said a lot of stupid things in the past," he explains with a snort. "In America they once asked me what my home town was like and I said it was a nice place to bring up your food. I thought it was hilarious at the time but the people living there didn't. My brother works as a milkman there and he had to take some flak, so I learnt to be more circumspect."

That must be doubly true now that the 53-year-old star has brought out an autobiography about his childhood and life before being famous called 'Broken Music'. He insists his initial motivation in writing it was to dispel the unfounded rumours and inaccuracies he found within various unauthorised biographies. He couldn't recognise himself in them, he says, and he was advised the only way to stop more being published was to write his own.

But he's not so guarded as to be unwilling to discuss his success or his wealth. He sits cross-legged as he talks about his life, his tanned, extremely fit frame the result of hours of yoga practice each week. It's hard not to notice the grey streaks in his short hair but that's the only sign of his age - there's no doubt that Sting's in good shape.

As one ofthe world's most successful pop musicians (The Sunday Times Rich List pegs him as worth £175m) he freely admits that he owns seven homes - one in LA, one in New York, two in London, a 20-room 600 acre estate in Tuscany, his family's main 60 acre residence in Wiltshire and a house in the Lake District. Listening to him talk about them it's easy to see that his immense wealth has not made him blase.

"I do use all those houses, so it's important to have them," he says, a look of sincerity in his eyes. "I spent a quarter of a century living out of a suitcase travelling through hotels on tour but it's far nicer if you can go back to your own home instead with a few books that are yours, some art on the walls you bought and sit on your own furniture.

"I want to live as normally as possible and I demand my right to walk around in a normal way, without protection or bodyguards. I go out and get the newspapers in the morning, I walk the dogs and I demand respect from people on the street. Not as Sting, but as a guy who's got the same right to be there as anyone else in the community. I'm a citizen, if you like, and I have citizen's rights."

Born Gordon Sumner back in 1951, Sting is a Geordie, raised in a small house in Tyneside by a local milkman and his hairdresser wife. At the age of eight he had to rise at 4am to deliver pints with his father and in his book he describes his parents as a taciturn couple, with mealtime conversation restricted to "Pass the salt" and love was guessed at rather than expressed. He thinks he discovered his mother was having an affair when he was 14.

As a firstborn son he had the usual teenage battles with his father and left home at the age of 19 to become a teacher, rejecting his parents and their lifestyle. He was given the name Sting because of a black and yellow hoop sweater he used to wear while playing in jazz bands at nights and weekends - he brought his jazz experience with him as an influence on the sound of The Police.

"My father never could call me Sting," he says, sitting back. "He never quite understood what I became and he had aspirations for me I never realised - he wanted me to work in a bank. We had our battles but I was on the way back to both my parents when they died of cancer in their early 50s.

"It's been very therapeutic to go back over everything and write it down. But I found that writing about my life at the age of 50 means I could be grateful for my parents, love them and tell their story with honour. I wouldn't have been able to do that if I was younger - I needed to be a certain age and have the perspective and life wisdom that it brings."

He's a yoga devotee and plays bass guitar, an unusual choice of instrument for a band leader. But if there's one constant throughout Sting's life it has been his willingness to take risks and do things differently. He was 27 and married with a son when the Police had their first hit with Roxanne. Despite being warned he would lose his pension if he did it, he gave up teaching to pursue music at a stage in life when many men would have been far more concerned about long-term career stability.

Today he is a father of six children, two from his failed marriage to his first wife Frances Tomelty, and four with his second wife Trudie Styler. Listening to him talk about parenting there isn't even a hint of a permissive rock 'n' roll lifestyle in his words. He comes across as concerned about moral standards in the way every father is. Ironically, he is suspicious of the role of pop music in today's culture.

"Pop is basically about sex," he complains, scratching his head. "It sells sex to children who have no ability to understand it. My daughter Coco recently came up to me with a hat on. She said she was 'The Spy Who Shagged Me'. I'm not being puritanical, but I find that odd - it's a bit mawkish."

Despite the impression most people have of Sting's wilder side, he has dispelled the myths that he and Trudie engage in sessions of Tantric sex (claiming he doesn't even know what the phrase means and he was originally misquoted at a party). But he admits to taking hallucinogenic drugs. While campaigning for the protection of the Brazilian rainforest and. living among Brazilian Indians he was offered a herbal tea to put him into a spiritual trance.

"It's a substance they've used for thousands of years," he says. "You drink a cup of this horrible liquid and the first time I took it I had an hour of mortal terror and then a good hour crying for everything in my life - relationships I'd had with my parents, my family, my wives, my girlfriends and my children. That's when I first decided to write about my life."

A book that had already chronicled his early years was written by his lifelong friend James Berryman. 'Sting and I' is a book about Sting's childhood that his fans took to heart in the absence of other material and it was filled with tales of cheeky stunts at school - baiting the masters, shocking priests during confession and overfilling the incense burner in church so that the whole building filled with smoke. But Sting denies that there is any truth to the stories.

"We were at Grammar school together," he laughs, "and Jim went on to become a not very successful bookie. Every few months he would write me a wonderful letter asking for £5,000 or someone would break his legs. I don't know how much money I gave him before I realised it was all going on a horse. "So I said to him, 'Look, the letters you write are heartbreaking and funny. You should write a book - write about us'. So he wrote about us growing up together. It's a complete pack of lies but I recommend it because it's hilarious."

Sting has worked hard to attempt to cross the divide that cuts celebrities off from their peers. He seems glad that success came to him relatively late and often says that if he hadn't had eight years as a teacher, it may have been too difficult to handle. So what advice does he give to aspiring musicians?

"I tell them you probably won't make it," he says, suddenly more serious. "But that the spiritual journey you go through to become a musician is a soul-nourishing job. The chances of becoming rich and famous are slim, but that's not important. What's important is doing the job and working at it for your own sake."

© Candis