The following interview with Robert Hilburn appeared in a January 1991 issue of the Los Angeles Times newspaper...
A conversation with Sting.
Sting's new album - his first in more than three years - is a sombre, intensely personal work that grew out of the British rock star's confusion and grief following the death of his father in late 1987.
But Sting seemed unusually at ease on the eve of the album's release last week as he sat, surrounded by his family, in the living room of his spacious, two-story co-op apartment on Central Park West.
Was this the same Sting who has been seen as the quintessential loner, a restless spirit who wrote anxious tales of alienation? The man for whom travel, adventure and work were as much a confirmation of being alive as his heartbeat? The same handsome Newcastle native who has been on the run creatively ever since leaving the Police in 1984, acting in films and a Broadway musical, supporting various social causes and making albums?
He and actress Trudie Styler, his companion since the mid-1980s, have three children together, but for years Sting communicated with her largely by phone or in brief, hectic reunions in London, where the family mainly stayed, or in Malibu, where they also have a home. Not so anymore.
On this day, the couple's two oldest children - Jake, 6, and Mickey, 7 - raced around the room, carrying toys and vying for attention. The youngest child, 5-month old Eliot Paulina, rested on the floor, gazing at a small, brightly coloured toy swing set.
This wasn't just another hectic family reunion. It was a sign of increased closeness in the aftermath of the soul-searching that Sting went through about his childhood while writing and recording the new album, 'The Soul Cages'.
"I don't think I was given a very good blueprint as a youngster for what family life could be," he said, sporting traces of a beard as he sat on a sofa. "I think I was afraid of being part of that kind of family again. I didn't want to be like my father, who was never around and who was never able to show his love. But I gradually realised I was becoming like him anyway. I am my father's son and I saw I needed to make some changes in my life. I was better at expressing my love, but I was never around either."
Q: The most surprising thing about your new album is its ambition and sophistication. Weren't you tempted to come back with a safe, ultra-commercial album to reaffirm your status as a major record seller after the failure of '3 Penny Opera'? (Sting played Mack the Knife in the widely panned and short-lived 1988 Broadway production.)
A: By whose standards was it a failure? I had the time of my life in that show. I learned all sorts of things. People often last on Broadway one night after a bad Frank Rich review in the New York Times. We did 120 nights. That's not a failure - not to me. But even if it were a failure, I'm not sure you have a choice when it comes to the kind of album you are going to make. I can only write what is on my mind.
Q: But don't you have a competitive side that wants to do well on the charts?
A: If you are the kind of person who makes judgements about yourself on the basis of where you are on the charts or how many tickets have been sold to your concerts, you are guaranteed to be in for a big shock the day those figures don't turn up in your favour, and that day is inevitable. You can't measure your work by how much it sells.
Q: Then how do you measure yourself? Take other artists you admire - Bruce Springsteen or Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel. Do you ever ask yourself, "Is this album as good as 'Nebraska' or 'Graceland' or 'So'?" Didn't you once quit racing as a youngster in England because you came in second in a championship race and wanted to find something that you could be the best in?
A: Being a musician isn't like being an athlete. In athletics, you are either Carl Lewis or you aren't. When I found people who were faster, I could see the limits of what I could do. With music, there aren't those same limits. Everyone is doing something different. We are all trying to find the individual, unique voice within us. Bruce has found his, Paul has found his, and I feel I have found mine. Once you have done that, the only measure is how true you stay to that inner voice.
Q: Was there any point where you wrote to be successful commercially? For instance, when you were with the Police?
A: Because of all the success the Police had, it's easy to assume that those songs were very calculated or aimed at a particular pop audience. But they weren't. I am immensely proud of the Police's music. I think I have been fairly lucky in that what has interested me at different times has also coincided with the public's interest. I don't want to have to underestimate the public's taste in order to be able to survive or function. As soon as you underestimate your audience, they leave you. I prefer to make a mistake the other way.
Q: When you were doing '3 Penny Opera',' you said you were out of ideas for songs. How did you start finding the ideas for this album?
A: I wrote music during that whole period, but I didn't write any lyrics. I couldn't think of any subject that I wanted to put into a song and that was a nightmare. That happens periodically, usually right after you've made a record because you tend to be a bit empty. But this had gone on much too long in this case.
Q: How did you fight that?
A: I have sort of learned to become my own therapist, which is helpful because it can save you a lot of money in this town. So, I started asking myself why I wasn't writing. Is it because you don't have anything to say or is it because you are afraid of saying something? Once I started to look at that last question, I started to find some answers.
Q: You've gone through therapy?
A: I went through Jungian therapy about eight or nine years ago. I was going through a personal crisis. My marriage was falling apart and there were the problems of adjusting to the success of the Police. It lasted about a year - until I learned enough about the symbols to become self-sufficient at dealing with some of the issues. I don't believe in that school of psychology where you have to have your analyst on the phone all the time.
Q: What were you afraid of dealing with?
A: I started to free associate and it became very apparent after a few days that the thing that was most on my mind was my childhood and my father's death. That's what I had been trying to suppress. I am not the sort of person who demonstrates his emotions terribly easily. I am very English in that regard. I tried to bury myself in my work after my parents died (about six months apart in 1987). I did the '...Nothing Like the Sun' tour, then the Amnesty International tour, then I went around the world trying to build support to save the (Brazilian) rain forest, then '3 Penny Opera'. I felt like a man possessed. I had avoided the grieving process, but finally I couldn't avoid it any longer. I had to deal with all the repressed feelings and if you look at the first song on the album, you can see the process beginning. I'm talking about where I was brought up - my house next to a shipyard and the memories of the enormous ships and the river. The album was basically written in order. Once I got through the first song ('Island of Souls'), it literally poured out.
Q: Were you close to your father?
A: I think like all men of that generation, he did not show his emotions or demonstrate love. It's probably more intense in England than in America. Americans seems to be much more open with their emotion. The English aren't - the men at least, and I am that way to a certain extent. I was fairly close to my mother, but my father was a milkman who went to work at 5 every morning and was gone all day, and then he would sleep when he got home. But now I can understand where he came from in an historical context. He was an intelligent man who wasn't given any opportunity to transcend the situation, so you can imagine how frustrated he must to have been, how angry. He was a symbol to me of the whole town, which was always so bleak... Not much promise of opportunity or future. I remember going to the movies and seeing all these people and places in Technicolor and wondering, "Why couldn't our life be like that?"
Q: Did the relationship ever improve?
A: We never really got the chance. Like every kid, you grow up and you reject what your parents did, and them and everything they stood for. You go away and have your own life and then slowly you come around in a circle. I was noticing a lot of similarities between myself and my father. I was getting older and I was a father myself. I could look at myself and see a lot of him in me. I was coming around to understanding him, I believe, and ready to make that journey back and talk, but then he died. It was suddenly too late. That was really at the core of my grief. I never had the chance to make that journey back. So this record is a musical way of making that journey. Dealing with the deaths helped me understand more about myself.
Q: What did you learn?
A: I learned that it was time to stop running. On his deathbed, I had my father's hand in mine and his hand was exactly the same as mine... These big sort of milkman's hands with gnarly knuckles. And I said, "Look, we have the same hands." And he said, "Aw, but you put yours to better use." And that's the only compliment he ever paid me. It shocked me so much. It made me realise how much we missed... how we might have been able to know each other better if we had the time. I do have the time with my children and I want to take advantage of it. I have already lost part of our time. My family can travel at the moment, but there will be a period when they won't be able to travel. They'll have to stay in school and I'll have to deal with it. I'm still a Gypsy. I never unpack, but I used to always have to travel alone. I would come to New York and be on my own - live like a bachelor... suffer alone.
Q: Did you believe that artists have to suffer to make great art?
A: Oh, sure. I had this mythological idea that real creativity came from pain and loneliness. How could you write a song if you were domestically happy? So, you would manufacture situations where you weren't domestically happy. The blueprint for that kind of life is very clear. Look at all the people who have burned themselves at the stake of their own art. In some ways, the media even encourages you to become a victim... Marilyn Monroe, John Belushi, Jim Morrison archetypes. I don't want to be that. Madonna says something very clever: "Marilyn Monroe was a victim, I'm not." I'm not either. I no longer think we have to destroy ourselves to make good art.
Q: The album seems to attack religion in several ways. Do you still consider yourself a Catholic?
A: I was brought up a Catholic and I don't regret the (Jesuit) education and the sense of symbolism... the guilt, the blood, the death. All that is good for an artist, actually. But I don't embrace Catholicism today. In fact, I am against a lot of it. Birth control, for instance. It's ludicrous in this world that you can't have birth control. I also object very strongly to the idea that man enjoys a higher place on this planet. If God exists, He exists in everything. As soon as God is outside of nature, it is no longer a sin to destroy nature and, to me, that is one of the greatest sins.
Q: You turn 40 this year - is that going to be traumatic?
A: Not at all. I want to have a big party when I'm 40... Maybe do a gig with UB40 as the opening act, so that the marquee can say "UB40 and IB40."
Q: A lot of rock artists have had a hard time making the transition from teen hero to adult artist. Mick Jagger is still battling with that. Why were you able to make the transition so easily?
A: It's partly a matter of timing. You've got to make the move soon enough - before people label you. I didn't leave the Police for that reason, but the timing probably helped me. I have always hoped to confuse people and confound people so that they can't put a label on me. That's one reason I like to do different things... go in what looks like wide shifts of direction. That's not the reason to do, say '3 Penny Opera', but it is a (bonus). People don't know what to expect from me. I'm sure a lot of people would have thought this album would be about ecology because I have been so identified with the rain forest, for instance.
Q: So, focusing the album on the environment would have been a mistake?
A: It would have been a terrible mistake because it would have confirmed people's expectations and I don't want to do that. I want people to be constantly surprised by what I do and I want to be surprised as well. Besides, I didn't have anything to say about ecology as an artist at the moment. As much as I am committed to those issues, I don't want to just write slogans.
Q: Do you plan to remain as high-profile on social causes?
A: I have mixed feelings. There is a tendency when celebrities get involved with causes that some people think there is some miracle cure is at hand... that with just a few million dollars, everything can be solved. Then they don't understand when the problems don't go away. On the other hand, I think all the publicity around the rain forest did help. When this campaign began three years ago, the area of Brazil that was burning was the size of Great Britain. It's less now largely because the Brazilian government was forced to stop giving subsidies to the large land owners. But there is still so much work to be done. The key line for me in the album is "Men go crazy in congregations - but they only get better one by one." I don't believe in dogma, be it religion or political. People do have to work together, but change has to start in the human heart."
© The Los Angeles Times