The following interview with Joel Selvin appeared in a March 1996 issue of The San Francisco Chronicle newspaper...
New Tales From Rock's Genre-Bender - Sting back on world tour, releasing sixth solo album...
Sitting at a rich, luminous hardwood table in a darkly paneled dining room decorated with a pair of large oil paintings, Sting looked somewhat at odds with the grandeur of the surroundings.
The sumptuous two-story co-op he has owned for eight years - a previous tenant was Billy Joel - overlooks Central Park; it's a beautiful view even on this barren wintry day. Dressed in a rather ordinary wool shirt, his tousled hair uncombed, he listened absentmindedly to the new album of jazz standards by father and son Branford and Ellis Marsalis. A nanny carried his 3-month-old son, Giacomo, up the sweeping circular staircase, and Sting, his eyes twinkling, fondly rubbed the baby's cheeks. "Take him away now," he mock ordered. "Bring him back when he's 7."
Such domestic reverie would soon end. Two nights later, at The Academy, a dingy and dilapidated 1,500-seat theater near Times Square, he began a worldwide tour that will culminate with a week at London's Royal Albert Hall shortly before Christmas. His sixth solo album, 'Mercury Falling', will be released Tuesday.
Sting has spent the past several weeks attending to last-minute details from his Manhattan residence. "I love New York," said the man who sang 'An Englishman in New York'. "If I'm going to choose a city to live in, this is it."
After dipping his toe in the water with an appearance on "Saturday Night Live" last month, Sting immersed himself fully last weekend with his show at the tiny Academy, a hall smaller than any he had played since his early days with the Police. During the concert, which ran more than two hours, he performed all the songs from the new album, plus a driving, Motownesque rocker, '25 to Midnight', that mysteriously didn't make the final cut ("I think I may have made a mistake," he told the crowd). Branford Marsalis joined Sting's accomplished group for several numbers, while such fans as Peter Gabriel, Robin Williams and Brad Pitt watched from the balcony.
At the postconcert party at Il Toscanaccio, a tiny eatery off Fifth Avenue, Sting looked considerably smaller than the giant who had stalked the stage less than an hour before: slightly sallow, thin-boned and underfed, his close-cropped hair still not combed, a fragile air hovering over his jubilant mood. Surrounded by glad-handers and well-wishers, he barricaded himself behind a table and tucked into a plate of food.
After six solo albums, Sting belongs to rock's aristocracy, having established a clear personal identity and retained his artistic integrity as well as a broad popular following. His most recent studio album, the 1993 release 'Ten Summoner's Tales', sold more than 3 million copies.
One key to his lasting success may be his restless creativity, a substantive musical talent wedded to an ambitious spirit. His new album veers madly across the stylistic ballpark - Celtic swing, Gallic bossa nova, gospel-powered pop, even country and western - while managing, at the same time, to be suffused with his own vision and sound.
He wrote many of the songs in a glass boathouse overlooking the river that runs through his 16th century English countryside manor in Wiltshire, near Stonehenge. He recorded the album in his dining room there with longtime associates Dominic Miller on guitar and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, and a returning colleague, the abundantly gifted jazz keyboardist Kenny Kirkland.
"This is my game," Sting said, "to take a musical genre and stretch it until you can't really recognize it. I've a band which understands the game I play. I think it works. I'm not digging deep in any one trench, sort of flying everywhere. 'Mercurial' is the word. I don't really acknowledge those hard and fast, vulcanized blocks of music - rock and roll, folk, classical or anything else - and because I don't acknowledge them, I'm allowed to steal from them all."
A number of the songs are steeped in the murky ambience of Memphis soul from the Stax/Volt studios of the '60s. "That stuff was burned into my brain as a teenager," he said. "It's not like I've suddenly gone and listened to Otis Redding."
Sting took a certain perverse pleasure in bringing over the Memphis Horns, who played on those original records with Redding, Sam and Dave, and all the others, and making them suit their trademark sound to decidedly nonpop time signatures such as the 9/8 beat of 'I Hung My Head'.
"I love those meters," he said. "I find them very natural. Where are the rules that say all pop songs must be played in 4/4?"
Perhaps not surprisingly, Sting - born Gordon Sumner, a milkman's son from the gray North Sea shipbuilding city of Wallsend, but now called Sting by everyone - did not play rock music until rather late in his career. He began by doing Dixieland on stand-up bass in Newcastle pubs. "I played Neal Hefti arrangements in a big band of Ellington and Basie," he said. "I backed cabaret, played in a pit band in a theater, backed strippers, did cruises."
After a short-lived experiment blending jazz and rock, he joined two other musicians to form the Police, his first real rock group. The band rode to worldwide fame on a spare sound and Sting's elegant, passionate vocals. When he left it in 1984, the band was practically the most popular rock group on the planet.
"I've been making records after for longer than I was making them with the Police," he said. "The reason I left the Police was because I saw that we reached a place that was most successful - we played Shea Stadium, we had the big-selling album of '83 ('Synchronicity'). I suspected we would have diminishing returns actually every time we pushed the button. I liked the idea of just starting again.
"Obviously there's a certain amount of momentum, or at least curiosity about what you'll do next, when you leave a big band at the height of its career. But there's also a certain amount of resistance. People don't like change. But I got through that. The (solo 'Dream of the Blue Turtles') album was successful. And the next one. People still ask if I'm going to rejoin the Police. I wonder why?"
Although he has not toured or released a new album during the past two years, Sting has not been idle. He had a film role in the British black comedy "The Grotesque" (one of more than a dozen movies in which he has acted, from "Quadrophenia" to "Dune"). He learned enough Gaelic to sing on a Chieftains album. He cut a track for the Leonard Cohen tribute record. He recorded songs for three movie sound tracks, including a set of standards that appeared in "Leaving Las Vegas".
"Songwriting has very strict rules. You can ignore them. But when you obey them, there's some kind of state of grace that imposes itself on a song. I aspire to that. Occasionally I obey those rules and I'm rewarded for that. Verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle eight-key change. You obey those rules and God smiles."
The new album begins and ends with the same lyric - "Mercury's falling" - which gives the record its title. 'Hounds of Winter', the opening song, is a dreamy, textured tale of the desolation of lost love. Its title is taken from Shakespeare, to the best of Sting's recollection. ("I think so," he said. "I'm not sure.")
The album ends with a delicate ballad, 'Lithium Sunset', that closes with Sting repeating the phrase "Mercury's falling." "It seemed obvious to me," he said. "It was the first lyric I wrote for the album and the last. Whenever I've made records, I've tried to have some kind of shape, rather than songs thrown together, which is actually what it is. I've tried to give some semblance of rounded work."
Asked what shape he thinks the new album takes, he held his hands in a circle and grinned mischievously. "Actually, I don't know about shape, but I know about certain themes," he continued. "And I know about this after the fact. It's not that I sit down and write songs around a certain theme. I write songs almost automatically, like therapy and I'm my own psychiatrist. And this album seems to be about acceptance.
"It may have something to do with getting older, but I'm much more prepared to separate what can be altered by struggle and the courage to face the inevitable. I wouldn't have believed it until recently. I'm happier in my skin than I've ever been in my life, quite honestly. I'm 44. It's really my ambition to remain happy, and I have no other ambition."
Sting's six children range in age from 3 months to 19 years. The two oldest he had with his ex-wife, actress Frances Tomelty. The four youngest he had with his current wife, film producer Trudie Styler. His eldest son is a musician ("Very angry music he writes," said his father.)
In addition to the New York and Wiltshire homes, Sting maintains residences in London and Malibu. His children attend public schools at home in England.
'When We Dance', from Sting's album 'Fields of Gold: The Best of Sting 1984-1994', earned him another Grammy nomination for best male pop vocal, but the day after this year's ceremony he did not appear disappointed in the slightest at not winning ("It's good Seal won," he said). But then, Sting already has 12 Grammys.
"Success and happiness aren't the same thing," he said. "You mustn't confuse your real life with this show business. It's very dangerous. I've had to learn some very hard lessons in life. It's not where my happiness lies, where my stability lies. That resides with my family, a small group of people who know me and, despite knowing me, still love me."
© The San Francisco Chronicle