There's a Sting in the tale yet
Former Police frontman Sting is finally comfortable with the fact he is no longer able to write pop songs. He tells Julia Molony how a self-penned play helped him beat writer's block, and explains just who he sees when he looks in the mirror
STING walks into the hotel boardroom bundled in a high-collared grey coat against the cold. His hair is tightly shorn, his clothing muted, his skin a soft beige. He only lives around the corner, he says, from the hotel in Westminster, and presumably has walked here. Except for the crop and a few more lines, he looks like he could have stepped out of the black and white video for Englishman in New York.
But that, of course, was more than a quarter of a century ago now and much has changed. He's no longer a writer of pop music for one thing. His days of starring in music videos are over. The realisation that this was the case was something that didn't come suddenly, but was rather a slow dawning over the last nine years. And indeed, it's something he seems only ready to acknowledge now that he's discovered an alternative.
"I'm 62 and from the age of my mid-fifties up until the present time, it's an uncomfortable position to be in to be a pop singer," he says. "What do you sing about and actually be true to yourself? Girlfriends? No. Motor cars? No. I'm not sure what the subject is. I think the real subject is getting older. And that's not really the stuff of pop music."
He's right, of course, even if it does seem a shame. If anyone could make the transition, it should be Sting whose particular brand of pop music has never really been troubled by zeitgeist or trends, but has counted on a kind of timeless, middle-market appeal. Still, he's determined not to keep on rockin' beyond his welcome, like Mick Jagger. "There's a great deal of ageism involved in the media..." he says. "But you know, you can't do it forever. Everything is finite. And at a certain age you say, maybe that's it. I haven't lacked in success. Nor was I doing nothing. I was touring, I was making albums but I wasn't writing."
He is lean and fine-boned, like a greyhound. And on first impressions, exudes a greyhound's kind of watchful solemnity too. Perhaps this demeanour explains why he's regularly accused of taking himself too seriously. I think the charge is a little unfair. Yes, he is serious, sometimes to the point of grave about his work. But he has flashes of warmth and even cracks jokes -- one or two at his own expense. He insists he is shy, which may be the reason for the slight froideur of his public image. "I'm not an extrovert. I don't expect to be the centre of attention all the time -- except when I work. When I walk on the stage I'm perfectly prepared to play that role. But it's not how I behave normally. I think performance is always a kind of reaction. It's almost a way of redressing something. You put the mantle on of a performer and suddenly everything is fine."
After almost a decade-long period of writer's block, Sting has reinvented himself and is writing again. Indeed, he just released a new album, The Last Ship. The difference this time is that it's not a pop album but a soundtrack -- the soundtrack to a play he has also conceived and co-written.
The problem, he discovered, had been that his "ego -- being Sting or whatever" was getting in the way of his creativity. Approaching music again with a distancing device -- writing for characters in a story rather than from his own direct perspective "was a way of just unplugging this thing." Once he'd discovered that, "these stories came out of me very quickly. So they must have been welling up somewhere".
They are other people's stories, but they are his own too. The play is about a community in Wallsend, Tyneside, where he grew up literally under the shadow of the shipyards. Behemoth boats loomed over his house from the river at the end of his street, "literally blocking out the sun for most of the year".
The story is about a post-industrial community -- and what remains when a collective endeavour that unites and defines that community disappears or moves away. But there's much more to it besides; it's about family tensions, about trouble between fathers and sons, about exile from the place you were born, and rivalry in love. All the baggage, basically from his own unhappy childhood and the forces that drove him away from the small town where he was born, is in there.
He admits to putting much more of himself into the play than he intended. "I suppose, when you are a songwriter you're best at telling other people's stories. And through that, by accident you end up telling your own. But I think I probably gave more away about myself than I'd intended, in the writing. Which is also a good thing."
Followers of Sting will recognise the territory. It was all there in his autobiography, Broken Music, which detailed his early life as Gordon Sumner, his parents miserable marriage, characterised by coldness and estrangement, his adolescent railing against his father, a milkman who couldn't begin to comprehend his son's frustrations or ambitions.
"It's a kind of paradox," he says, "writing about other people but then really ending up writing about yourself and your own conflicted feelings about where you come from."
It's too literal to say that the central character in The Last Ship, Gideon, is him. "But obviously there are elements of me in it -- not least the name. I mean, I chose that name unconsciously, and it's very close to the name I was given -- although no one ever calls me that ... I'm hiding in plain sight here.
"He is an exile, he's very ambivalent about where he comes from. He comes back under duress. And yet he finds himself in the spirit of community, in actually belonging. So yeah, there's something of me there. Not entirely. But there's something of me in all of these characters."
Being a musical, it needs a love story. "And the course of true love never did run smooth so it had to have a triangular structure. A girl with two suitors. It's kind of Homeric. This guy comes back and the girl he's been thinking of for 14 years is obviously attached to somebody else. Just like in Homer."
Naturally, since it's inspired by his own childhood, the romantic love depicted in it, (in the songs at least) is disappointed, emotionally disconnected. And of course, his own family life teetered on a love triangle too, which he admits is the inspiration for that particular plotline. As a boy he came home to discover his mother in the arms of her lover -- an employee of her husband. She left the family for a while to start a new relationship but it didn't work out and she returned thwarted and frustrated.
"It just happens," he says. "If you are being truthful when you write, all of that just comes out. It's like a stream of consciousness. Like being on Freud's couch. It just comes out when you are telling a story. Which is probably the value of story. It allows us to understand ourselves, our history.
"I've come from a family of disappointed romantic love and I think that's one of the things I'm sorting out. My parents' marriage was a nightmare and I think that's what I'm excavating. Which is not exactly comfortable."
It's funny then, that he's known for having one of the most enduring and satisfactory marriages in showbiz. A couple of years ago, he and his wife Trudy Styler posed together for a handsy photoshoot in Harper's Bazaar, complete with ass grabbing and tongue touching -- impressively tactile and passionate for a couple of more than 30 years standing and probably about as far away from what he observed of his parents growing up as it's possible to get.
"I have a fantastic marriage, mainly as a reaction to what I saw," he says with a low chuckle. Is that part of it? Did he determine to have a happy home life as an adult as a way of redressing the failure of his parents' one? "Well, I did have one divorce -- that was probably the only failure in my life," he says. "I wonder what my kids will do. They've had this largely happy life. They've never seen me and their mother fight." They're lucky. "It's lucky but they might feel otherwise," he says, rather gnomically. "Maybe there's no such thing as an easy childhood, for anybody."
I've been warned in advance not to ask him about tantric sex. Presumably he's bored of being asked about it in almost every interview he's done over the past 20 years, ever since he drunkenly mentioned to a journalist that he and Trudy were fans. I suppose I can understand his reticence, despite being curious about whether it still helps them keep the fire alive. After all, they single-handedly managed to totally rebrand a practice previously associated with hemp, patchouli and hairy armpits and make it sound glamorous.
Why does he think he keeps going back to his childhood? He's already done the book, and there was an album The Soul Cages in 1991, which tackled unresolved feelings about his parents. He'd reconciled with them both by the time they died, but didn't attend either of their funerals. Wallsend featured prominently there too. There are plenty of big stars who leave behind the small towns of memory to make it big and never look back. You don't see Madonna, for example, memorialising Bay City, Michigan in song. But Sting seems unable or unwilling to let go.
"I think there's a lot to figure out with me. It wasn't a particularly happy childhood. And the reasons I am the way I am today and the reasons I think the way I do are there. And I still haven't quite uncovered it. So it is a pretty fertile psychological bed for me. Even though it's not comfortable."
He had to be away from it, to write about it, he reckons. "I was very aware of the irony that I spent so much energy trying to escape that place and that community and then the irony of going back there and finding it a very rich pasture which was very fulfilling.
"I think at some point in your life you need to return -- whether it's in a creative way or whether it's actually physically returning. But also I feel the exile -- self-exile -- is an important qualification to write about an environment. James Joyce would not have written Ulysses without living in Paris for many years, in exile from his community. You have the distance then -- you see it for what it is. You love it, you hate it and then you can really describe it. So I felt qualified.
"I'm not equating myself with James Joyce, by the way," he adds quickly. With the slightly bitter awareness that from anyone else, a comment like that would pass without notice, but from him, could be taken as pompous.
One of the songs in The Last Ship tells of an older man standing at the shaving mirror and wondering who stares back at him. In I Love Her But She Loves Someone Else he sings: 'The ghost of his father long dead all these years, or the boy that he was still wet in the ears, or the terrible sum of all of his fears.'
Did he, I wonder, have such a moment of reckoning in the mirror?
"All the time," he says lightly. "The older you get -- you face mortality on a daily basis. I see my dad in the mirror now, I don't see myself anymore."
That must be weird, given the difficult relationship they had. "Yeah. 'I thought you were dead? Oh, it's me.' I think mortality is probably the most interesting subject," he says finally. "And you have to really be a grown-up to face mortality."
'The Last Ship' is in record shops and online now