Former Police frontman on singing, songwriting, and the power of the bass!
By Gary Graff
June 7, 2021
Our first look at Sting nearly 45 years ago was a platinum blonde playing a hybrid of punk and reggae, slinging a Fender and scowling like his bass was pranked out of tune. And so much has happened since then. Since the Police disbanded, Sting (real name Gordon Sumner) has established himself as one of our renaissance men, exploring a wide range of music — even 16th century lute songs on 2006’s Songs From the Labyrinth — and dipping into acting, on screen (“Quadrophenia,” “Dune,” “The Bride”) and stage (“3 Penny Opera” on Broadway) and even writing his own musical, “The Last Ship.” His list of honors is lengthy — including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, a Kennedy Center Honor, 17 Grammy Awards and a CBE from Queen Elizabeth II — and the Rainforest Foundation Fund he launched with wife Trudie Styler has raised millions for preservation since 1987. It’s far more than we or than the former schoolteacher from Newcastle, England, could ever have imagined, and with Sting’s 70th birthday looming in October, he assures us he’s far from finished…
FBPO: The most iconic photos are of Sting with a bass in your hands. Do you consider yourself a bassist first?
Sting: I’m a songwriter primarily, and I took up the bass for various reasons. It’s a good place to lead a band from, because the band might be playing a C chord, but unless I play C in the root it’s not a C, so you’re controlling the harmony. And as a singer I’m controlling the top line, so the band literally works within my bandwidth, and that’s a very subtle but powerful way of leading a band. So it’s an ideal position. McCartney did the same in the Beatles, and Jack Bruce with Cream. It’s a power play. (laughs)
FBPO: Playing bass doesn’t always complement singing lead. How did you develop the skill to do both?
Sting: It’s certainly not a natural thing to do. A lot of people can strum a guitar and sing at the same time, in rhythm, but the bass is often contrapuntal, literally, to what you’re singing, so it’s a little bit like juggling two objects in different hands. It takes practice. It takes slowing things down to where you understand how those two things relate, but by now I find it fairly natural. I don’t have to work at it.
FBPO: It’s been a long and very diverse career — not just musically, but in theater, movies, writings… What is it that drives you in all those directions?
Sting: I think it’s really about freedom, the freedom to just follow my music and follow my curiosity about music. My nature is much more of a gadfly. I’m intrigued by a lot of things, and I’m also intrigued by music as a continuum, as a universal mystery, not just one bit of it. I’ve needed that freedom to say, “I’m now going to make an album of 16th century art songs on the fucking lute, and you know something? It’s going to work!” And everybody around me goes “What?!” And the record company goes, “Are you kidding?!” And I say, “No, no, this is what I’m going to do.” But I have that freedom. I can say, “Well, I want to do an album of just songs of the winter, with a bit of Schubert and a bit of folk songs” and it’s totally crazy but it amuses me and it pleases me. Or I can go out with a symphony orchestra or go out with this little weird combo. I don’t want to be tied down to one thing. I get bored too easily.
FBPO: You pushed things with the Police, but you expanded exponentially once the band ended in ’84. Did you feel like you’d done everything you could within that context?
Sting: A band is a very restrictive, reactionary, conservative thing, you know? In any band you’ve got to be the band — “We have to have a little image, and we must never change! It’s what we do!” And that works for a lot of people, consistently coming up with the same stuff, and I can’t be critical of people who do that and do it exceedingly well. But I wanted to do more than that.
FBPO: You did reunite the Police for tours during 2007-08. Could it happen again?
Sting: I don’t know. It’s something I am very proud of, but I’m not sure there would be a reason to open it again except for nostalgic reasons, and I think we did that. I thought we did it very successfully. The timing was perfect. Everybody was happy to see us. If we’d done it the year previous or a year behind that…It was just perfect. Then you can say “OK, let’s close the book” without feeling like there’s unfinished business or a need to do it again.
FBPO: There was a lot of curiosity about where you’d go on your own. Why was what you did on The Dream of the Blue Turtles the right first direction to explore?
Sting: That wasn’t really a direction. It might have looked like a direction because the casting of the band was very much from the world of jazz, but we weren’t’ playing jazz — anything but. That direction was driven by the songs, which were very disparate — from “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” which is this kind of Kurt Weill sort of strange theater song, to “Fortress Around Your Heart” and “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free.” It was just a very disparate collection of songs. There was no, like, “This is what we’re doing.” It was just me exploring my freedom, and the fact that the band had a certain feel gave it the impression of being jazz, but it wasn’t, and I don’t think any of my albums have been considered like that. They’ve always been approached as separate songs and exercises, but of course once you finish a piece of work you realize that there is a thread, there is a connection. But it only occurs to you after the fact. I don’t sit there with a master plan and go, “I’ll start here and we’ll end up here.” I’m just experimenting and guessing.
FBPO: Your latest release is the Duets album. What led you there?
What led you to dip into your duets for this release?
Sting: I actually had pretty much forgotten about a lot of this stuff I’d done over the years. And this time of lockdown is a time for reflection — about Who are we? What are we doing? Where have we been? And missing that connection with other musicians — playing together, singing together and sort of reminiscing about the “good old days.” There’s a body of work…and stuff surprised me, like Charles Aznavour, me and Herbie Hancock doing “My Funny Valentine,” Melody Gardot…I said, “Let’s put something out that reflects the breadth of influences and music in these (duets). It was very easy to put together.
FBPO: Going through it all, especially chronologically, do you hear any difference in the way you approached duet singing over the years?
Sting: My approach in all of music is to put myself in the role of student that I’m there to learn — particularly when you’re facing Tony Bennett, for example, over a microphone. You’re literally looking at the way he’s phrasing, at the way he forms words, the way his lips move. That’s an incredible learning process. And playing tennis involves getting the ball back over the net. That’s what happened in those duets — the ball would come over and I’d play it and hopefully get it back across the net. (laughs) But that was my memory of these experiences, that I was there to learn from masters. It’s really about two singers and two artists just enjoying each other’s company.
FBPO: Were there many, or any, of these that felt particularly out of your comfort zone and opened an even greater opportunity for that kind of learning?
Sting: Y’know, I’m always willing to enter that discomfiting space that’s not quite comfortable in order to learn. A lot of these songs are my own. I know where the bodies are buried in these songs. All of these were challenges, but I love that. That’s what I’m in music for, because I’m curious about getting better.
FBPO: What are you working on now?
Sting: I’m working on a new album. I’m halfway through it, hoping to finish by middle of the summer and put it out by the end of the year. I like deadlines; I need them, otherwise work just expands with whatever time’s available. So I’m under the crush at the moment, trying to write lyrics, not quite sure what to say at the moment. Music seems to come easily, but lyrical content, a through-line, is hard. I’m driven by my curiosity rather than a brand sound, even though it winds up sounding like me. But it’s pretty eclectic. That’s me.
FBPO: You’re starting a Las Vegas residence in late October. Have you missed performing, or the ability to perform, on stage during the pandemic?
Sting: I’m being philosophical about that. It’s something I love and that I’ve done for most of my life. I’ve quite enjoyed sleeping in the same bed for three nights in a row, being with Trudi, getting into whatever family life we could. I’ll be ready to go back on the road by October, but I have used the time well, I think. I’m excited about (Las Vegas). It’s a big show; I normally just use sound and lights, but this is gonna be much more spectacular at Caesars Palace. We’re using the same production crew that did “The Last Ship,” so I’m looking forward to diving into that.
See Jon’s blog, with key takeaways from this interview here.