The following interview with Robert Hilburn appeared in a March 1993 issue of The Los Angeles Times newspaper...
The Long, Strange Trip of Sting: The ever-surprising singer-songwriter follows his most sombre album of all with the upbeat 'Ten Summoner's Tales'. Now on the eve of a tour with, yes, the Grateful Dead, he talks about life, humour, obsession and that band he used to be in. Sting continues to surprise.
After first startling the rock world in 1984 by quitting the hugely successful Police, the British singer-songwriter then caught the music world off guard by using jazz hotshots, including saxophonist Branford Marsalis, on his first solo album and tour. Then he confounded everybody in 1989 when he starred in a Broadway production of Brecht-Weill's 'The Threepenny Opera'.
On a personal level, it was equally surprising last year when Sting got married. Here was a man whose restless lifestyle and anxious songs about alienation had given him the image of the quintessential loner. (Divorced from his first wife in 1984, Sting lived with actress Trudie Styler since the mid-'80s and the couple had three children together before getting married.)
Now his new album, too, falls into the area of the unexpected. Where 1991's brilliant 'The Soul Cages' was a sombre album growing out of Sting's grief following the death of his father, the new 'Ten Summoner's Tales' is a light, frequently playful work that even takes occasional jabs at his own serious, sophisticated image. On the eve of the album's release and a tour, including some dates with the Grateful Dead, Sting, 41, spoke about love and marriage and - to use a word that long seemed out of place for the man who once wrote a song called King of Pain - happiness.
Question: What about the difference in tone between the new album and 'The Soul Cages', which was about as far as you can go, in terms of seriousness and sophistication, and still be considered a commercial artist? Was the lighter feel planned or simply a reflection of changes in your life?
Answer: When you write a personal, confessional record like 'The Soul Cages', you have your finger in the pan to a certain extent. You are drawing specifically from your own experience. When I started this one, I said, "OK, I'm going to write songs about other people." But having given myself that freedom and latitude, I ended by accident revealing more of myself than I had figured.
Q: So, it was part planned and part accidental?
A: Right. A lot of it came about because it's how I feel at this point in my life. I was about to get married... I had moved to the country and reached the age of 40. I am a very contented, blessed individual.
Q: Would it have scared you as an artist at one point in your life to make that admission? A lot of artists seem to worry that happiness is a threat to serious creativity.
A: I did have those suspicions - that songs came from some pain or some inner wound. I think a lot of them do, but they don't all have to. You can write songs and be happy. As far as I was concerned, I was happy to be happy. I remember having this strange, macabre thought after moving into this house in the countryside (in England). For the first time I said to myself, "Well, I could die here. This is where I would like to die." It pointed out to me how things have changed in my life.
Q: What changed your mind about marriage?
A: I had already made those promises and had failed to keep them... and I was wary about making them again - and also changing a relationship that was working. The real motivation came from our children (ages 2, 7 and 9), who said they'd feel better if we got married. It had never really occurred to us that we needed to, but they were pretty militant about it. I sort of waited for a romantic moment and popped the question. And I don't regret it at all. (The relationship) is better than ever. And, there's something else I've noticed: People treat Trudie better now than they did before, which is kind of strange.
Q: What do you mean?
A: It's like they are more respectful to her for some reason. It's odd. I don't quite understand it, but there is something different.
Q: What about the album's opening song, 'If I Ever Lose My Faith in You'? It seems to be both a love song and a sort of look at contemporary values. How do you see it?
A: It's kind of a look at my present state. I find it very easy to define the things that I've lost faith in, but I can't quite define what I've got faith in. So the song is ambiguous. When I say, "If I ever lose my faith in you," it could be romantic love or faith in my partner, faith in God or faith in myself. The one thing I do know about the song is that it's essentially hopeful. If people can find anything to believe in these days, it's a blessing.
Q: What about the humour in the album? Do you enjoy showing more of that side of you?
A: Yes. I think there is definitely a frivolous side of me, which may have been disguised before - or at least not focused on. I don't think I'm necessarily the doom-laden, serious character that I've been painted. I think there is a vein of irony and comedy in my work from day one, which has always kind of been put under the carpet because people would focus on songs about issues or songs about political matters because they were the easiest to write about.
Q: 'Shape of My Heart' is one of the album's most tender and revealing songs. Did you start out writing it about yourself or someone else?
A: Actually, I wanted to write a song about a card player - someone who wasn't necessarily interested in winning, but was looking for some kind of mystical logic behind the laws of chance. He had a sort of philosopher streak in him. And part of my interest (in the subject) was the idea of the card player whose job it is never to show emotion, either positive or negative - which makes him a quite difficult person to live with or to have a relationship with because he has a hard time expressing his love.
Q: What part of the song is about you?
A: I think that reticence about being able to express love is probably part of me, but also the idea of the interest of life beyond winning. I'm not sure I need to win anymore. I enjoy to play the game for other reasons.
Q: By the game, do you mean making music?
A: I'm speaking about staying in show business if you like. Staying in the public eye is a game... and I'm not necessarily ambitious now to become the greatest rock singer in the world so much as to stay in the game... and to develop a strategy that will allow me to do that.
Q: Isn't there something scary in saying you don't need to win? Doesn't an artist need to feel obsessed in order to keep pushing himself to do his best work?
A: It's certainly against what I would have declared in the past, but I think (that obsession) can only lead to madness. If you are going to have to dredge up some inner wound every time you work or slash your wrist every time you write a song, you end up as the Method actor who is playing the murderer and has to go murder somebody just to feel he is right in the part. I am a songwriter and I think I can do it without necessarily having to kill myself to do it.
Q: What about going on tour with the Grateful Dead this spring? What is the thinking behind that?
A: It's partly logical and partly totally illogical. I have never opened for anyone before, but they have this huge home-grown audience that is a phenomena who probably haven't heard much of me. So what have I got to lose? They listen to the Dead improvising for hours on end, so they'll certainly dig my band. The part about reaching a new audience is strategy, but the other part of doing some shows with the Dead is is just damn the torpedoes: Let's just try this and see what happens.
Q: How was the 'Soul Cages' tour? The music was so sombre and intense and personal. Was it hard reliving those emotions every night?
A: It wasn't that hard. I figured that if I had done my work well and had constructed he melodies and the lyrics well, they would work on their own. I didn't feel I had to "live" them every night and I think I avoided it. Eric Clapton saw one of the shows and he complained to me. He said, "I wanted to see you cry on stage," and I said, "You didn't pay me enough for that." I'm not in that business. I'm a writer and I'm just transmitting it. I don't have to live it.
Q: Any doubt that you made the exact right decision in ending the Police when you did?
A: No doubt at all. I'm very proud of what the Police did and I think the legacy of the work will stand up, but I'm not sentimental or nostalgic. I don't want to re-create my youth or the past.
Q: What's the biggest difference between you as a writer now and during the Police days?
A: Oh, I think I was much more arrogant in those days. I was very sure of myself. Now, I am less confident actually. When I sit down to start an album and face the blank page, I always wonder, "Do I have any talent at all? ...Will I ever write another song?" But then something always happens... the ideas come and the songs get written.
Q: What's the effect over the years of an 'Every Breath You Take' or another huge hit? Does the rush of attention and acclaim inspire you as a writer or make things more difficult?
A: When you have a big commercial success, it almost forces you into taking a risk next time. I think my plan has been over the years to widen and then narrow the focus of the records. 'The Soul Cages', for instance, was a very narrow focus, a very personal focus. This one I want to widen the net, increase the constituency so next time maybe I can narrow it again. If you just keep narrowing and narrowing, you end up just playing for yourself really. I like selling a lot of records. I like the challenges it brings. At the same time, I don't want to have to compromise my work because I start thinking, "OK, I have to do this now or I'll lose my audience." I'm not afraid of that.
© The Los Angeles Times