The following interview with David Furnish appeared in the February 1996 issue of Interview magazine...
Intellectual, earthy, egotistical, introspective, enigmatic, and environmentally obsessed are just some of the terms of endearment that have been flung Sting's way in the seventeen years he's been working at the high-risk job of making popular music. But the Police's former chief is nothing if not a man stretched between the poles of his public personae. His sixth solo album, 'Mercury Falling' (A&M), is, as might be expected from this urstylist, a mosaic of musical styles. Less predictable, though, is the reconciled tone of the record, which offers telling clues that Sting's current existence as rock'n'roll paterfamilias - albeit one who practices yoga - is wearing well on him. Even a heartbreaking song about an impending divorce, 'I'm So Happy I Can't Stop Crying', is infectiously upbeat. And though, for the first time, he appears to be creating music in a conflict-free zone, he's far from complacent. We met during a break between the European and American segments of his latest tour at his New York apartment, over a ridiculously healthy lunch.
DAVID FURNISH: I'd like to start by asking you about your current tour. You essentially opened it with a tiny gig in New York City. Why?
STING: I was finishing my album and wanted to preview it at a small club before it was released. I find that sort of intimacy necessary. In a large auditorium, half the job is done for you by the venue, but on a small stage, you can actually see the audience and almost touch them. It has to be real. They won't accept anything that's too theatrical.
DF: Don't you find that intimidating?
S: Well, yes, I'm more self-conscious singing in a pub than in front of twenty-thousand people. I'm a naturally shy person, rather than an extrovert, and I find solace in the spotlight that blocks my view of the audience. I can look into that light all night and see nothing else.
DF: And what happens to you when you look into the spotlight?
S: Well, since I am a naturally introverted person, to cross the line onto the stage is to become the opposite [of what I am], to sort of balance me out.
DF: Many artists seem to find touring either draining or nourishing. How does it affect you?
S: Sometimes I feel I could actually do without it, though it would be very difficult to find something else in my life that's like walking onto a stage in front of twenty-thousand people who are all basically saying, "We're pleased to see you." That's a very powerful drug. [laughs] Whether I could do without that, I'm not too sure. I get a different kind of affection from my family that's obviously more personal but is just as intense. I'd say I enjoy playing live, but if there comes a time when it doesn't feel natural to be a performer, then I hope to have the courage and wisdom to stop.
DF: Does sitting at home ever make you feel anxious?
S: I'm learning more and more to be happy where I am, not to waste my time wishing I were somewhere else. I used to be very ambitious and wanted to sell records and win Grammy Awards and all that stuff and, having achieved that, I've realised that success and happiness aren't necessarily the same thing.
DF: You have said in the past that you needed conflict in your life in order to he creative. But your new album doesn't seem driven by that tension.
S: I did subscribe to the idea that to be creative you had to be in pain and through the songs there would be some sort of catharsis. I believe I subscribed to this theory so readily that I was willing to almost manufacture trauma in my life in order to be creative. I used to mess up relationships or ruin or betray something and then deal with it. Gradually I got to thinking, Do I really want to live this way? Can't I just be happy? Are there role models for the creative person who are happy? There are, I think. For example, Bach had his family around him all the time and he made music while living a happy life. I feel very comfortable in my skin now, even though I never thought I would. I'm actually enjoying getting older, and wisdom seems to come naturally.
DF: Have you had to overcome much anguish to find this sense of calm?
S: I remember a very unhappy and alienated childhood where I didn't feel as if I belonged anywhere. I think that fed my creativity. I sought solace in music and playing the guitar or songwriting or simply in fantasy. I'd be off in my own world, which then became my career. [laughs] I don't regret my childhood, but I've just begun to understand it because it made me what I am. I think my parents were of a generation and class that wasn't encouraged to think for itself. Then I got a scholarship as a kid and received an education that went beyond that of my parents'. I began to read books and have experiences they had no knowledge of, and so I became quite separate from them, and we didn't discuss very much.
DF: So music was your escape.
S: Yeah. I continued to write about that kind of pain and loneliness until I was successful.
DF: Did that come at a particular point?
S: I don't think there was ever some sort of journey to Damascus where I saw a light and suddenly my life changed. I think there was a series of small rebalancing effects in addition to experience. I will say that, because of her patience and love, my wife, Trudie [Styler], saved my life. She understands me and has forgiven me a lot. She's also allowed me enough leeway and freedom to find my own sense of what's right.
DF: Have there been other people that have shaped you?
S: I'm not looking for a guru. I think we're our own gurus and are just learning to trust the inner voice. The soul knows the right thing to do.
DF: How would you describe your own religious beliefs?
S: I was brought up a Roman Catholic and I served on the altar. So I have a history of religious education. For perverse reasons, I even toyed with the idea of becoming a priest at one point. [laughs] I won't go into that. Then I got into existentialism and intellectual agnosticism and then atheism. Now I'm sort of reverting back to the idea that religion is important.
DF: Aside from your spiritual evolution, what about the progression of your career since leaving the Police?
S: One of the problems with being in a band is that a band is essentially an adolescent organisation. It's a sort of gang, and I think it's rather uncomfortable for a man in his thirties or forties to be a member of a gang. I want to stand on my own.
DF: And since then, musically it seems like you've almost feared repeating yourself.
S: I've been criticised for being too stylistically diverse since going solo, but it has become my thing. I've become my own category, which maybe I should escape from. [laughs] Having succeeded at one thing, I feel the need to move on to the next stage, even if I'm not sure what that is. The more I learn about music composition, for instance, the more I realise I don't know. It's an onion, and you keep on peeling it. I think rock'n'roll is very reactionary and conservative in a way. It decides that there's these three or four chords and that's it, it doesn't grow. I mean, I like rock'n'roll, but it's a closed system.
DF: So how do you counteract that?
S: I want an open-ended system, which I think is more modern. Serious modern music is about having no limitations. No one knows where it's going, but it's going somewhere. Popular music can have that feeling, too, or at least it should have.
DF: How much does your new record reflect where you are personally at the moment?
S: Totally. I have to reflect my moods, my memories, my hopes, my anxieties, my nostalgia and love for whatever's happening. That's my brief to myself when I make an album - it's a heartfelt expression of me. This is a hopeful record, and I'm proud of it.
DF: Hopeful, yes, but the record also ponders the loss of love, which is poignant.
S: I've had enough loss and sadness in my life not to be autobiographical, even now. I know what it's like to be heartbroken. Also, I think the universe is reflected in relationships and that you can tell a love story that expresses the whole of existence. And I find difficult relationships more interesting to write about. In general though, my work is less confessional than it used to be.
DF: I want to talk to you now about being "Sting."
S: You want to be Sting now?
DF: No, I don't want to be Sting. [laughs]
S: Be my guest, David.
DF: No, you do a very good job at being Sting. What I want to discuss is your image, which is by now almost iconographic. After all this time, do you feel imprisoned by that?
S: Well, I get solace from the fact that whoever Sting is, he seems to be sending out mixed signals. There seems to be a great disparity between the extremes people see in me. On the one hand, I'm a rainforest-tree-hugging saviour. On the other, I'm this sort of lowlife. I like to think that I'm able to encompass both ends of the scale. I don't really worry about it. I know who I am, the people who share my life with me know who I am, and despite that, they still love me. [laughs]
DF: Do you feel there are areas where you are really greatly misunderstood?
S: Yeah, several. I think I'm fairly earnest in my beliefs about certain things, and people sometimes misinterpret that. But you know, I can't control it.
DF: How do you respond to that?
S: You don't look for sustenance there. I know the value of my work and the value of me. I don't need outside verification of that. I've been marginalized by critics and I think that makes you strong.
DF: Who has influenced you over the years?
S: You can scratch the surface of my songs pretty lightly and you'll find someone who wanted to he James Taylor at the age of fourteen. And the Beatles were obviously very influential because of their background; they were educated in a way that was very similar to me. I think the Beatles are responsible for England producing successful musicians in the same way that Bjorn Borg is responsible for Sweden turning out great tennis players.
DF: I think the world sees you as a very serious person most of the time. What makes you laugh?
S: I have a strange sense of humour. I often avoid laughing because my face just kind of breaks up. I get out of control and then I get kind of hysterical.
DF: Where do you think you'd be without the outlet of your music?
S: Without a doubt, I'd he a criminal or some social deviant.
DF: That's extreme.
S: It's true. I need this valve, because without it, I am lost. Simply lost.
© Interview magazine