””

Sting writes songs from point of view of a rock star getting older and remembering glory days

The musician says that is his ambition, but for now, the 65-year-old is embracing being an ageing rock star

At all of 65 years old, with a remarkably full head of hair and a well-exercised body filling out a tight black T-shirt, British musician Sting is wholeheartedly embracing the process of being an ageing rock star.

That is if ageing has anything to do with being reconciled with mortality, not being called "grandpa" and non-retirement plans.

"I do the job of a 25-year-old, I'm fitter than most 25-year-olds," the musician says.

"I think it takes a lot of skill and practice to retire. You need to have thought it out. What will you do? Are you gonna take up oil painting? Fly fishing? Sail around the world? I'm gonna carry on what I'm doing until I find a better plan. I like this job. I'm very proud of my age. I think as you get older, you should become wiser, become a sage, which is still my ambition. I'd like to get there."

The words are delivered matterof-factly, even gently, with a casual shrug, as a band of journalists meet the singer as he prepares for this month's worldwide release of his 17th album, 57th & 9th.

Marketed as the star's return to rock, the new release is seen as a comeback of sorts, 13 years following his last release of singersongwriter/rock material, Sacred Love, in 2003. (In between, there have been collaborations with a lute player and an orchestra as well as a soundtrack for a musical, among other releases.)

However, 57th & 9th's tracks field a much wider diversity, showcasing singer-songwriter ballads, acoustic folk tunes and 1990s-esque New Wave tunes.

"Sometimes, I make statements just to make statements," Sting says, refuting an earlier quip to newspapers that he had returned to his 1980s roots.

"I'm not sure this is a rock 'n' roll album. I just put my songs out in a few different styles. I don't have to write rock 'n' roll. I just write songs. And I play songs."

He sits back, bemused. He likes playing with the idea that one gets to change one's tune - literally.

Perhaps this has something to do with his no-nonsense, workingclass upbringing as the son of a milkman and hairdresser. Or perhaps it comes with having lived through 40 years of the music business to know that nothing should be taken too seriously.

57th & 9th is named after an intersection in New York which he crossed every day while getting to his recording studio. Its first track, I Can't Stop Thinking About You, released as a single in August, has drawn comments that it sounds like the work of his former hit group, The Police.

Referring to the song's title, The Straits Times asks if he still has the mojo to handle obsessive love as a ripe old sexagenarian.

There is a small, knowing grin on Sting's face.

"No, it's not about falling in love. My meaning, if you want it, is about writing. It's about the dilemma a writer faces every day when he faces this - a blank page," he says.

"And it looks like… snow. You have snow in Singapore? So you're like this blank page and you're looking for inspiration, a character, a pathway, a road, a spiritual muse, a romantic muse. It's an obsession, even though there's nothing there. It's a song about obsession, artistic obsession.

"But you can have your original meaning if you want to. I don't want to correct anyone's interpretation of a song. Songs should be ambivalent, they should have more than one meaning."

Not every song is graced with multiple meanings, however. Some are deliberate anthems to growing old and - if you can bear it - watching people around you perish, while contemplating your own demise with equanimity.

The track 50,000, for one thing, "was inspired by the death of so many rock stars this past year. Lemmy from Motorhead, Glenn Frey from The Eagles, Prince". Stings adds: "And my dear friend (actor) Alan Rickman. He was not a theatrical rock star, but he was a cultural icon.

"I think when we lose cultural icons, we feel shocked because we imagine they're immortal.

"It's not intellectual and it's just a feeling - that someone who is a cultural icon will never die. Of course, it's a delusion, but all of us feel it. So I wrote this song from the point of view of another rock star getting older, someone a bit like me, not completely me.

"A feeling of mortality in the face of colleagues dying. And remembering the fantastic days, you know, of filling stadiums, when 50,000 people listened to you."

But it is not all biographical either, he assures. Death haunts others too; death haunts everyone. The new, wise version of Sting tries to bring this sentiment across in a conscious demonstration of musical empathy-meets-activism in the track Inshallah, a paean to displaced and forced migrants around the world.

"I'm concerned about the refugee crisis. People and their families are in boats, trying to find safety - people from Syria going to Turkey, from North Africa to Italy," he continues.

"They're putting themselves in great danger, obviously for a reason. They're escaping warfare and poverty. And even in peace, they are trying to escape climate change. It's not a crisis that will stop."

Coming at a time when Britain has been closing its borders to foreigners, alongside its decision to leave the European Union following the Brexit referendum in June, Sting's politico-musical utterances are deliberate, if even prescient.

He talks about the crisis of restricted human movement as "one of the major problems of this century".

"We need to find a solution as a community. Inshallah is just an exercise in empathy. Say I'm trying to find myself putting myself in a boat with my wife and children: How do I feel?" he says.

"The word Inshallah - it's resignation, it's humility, it's hope. Hope - it's a very beautiful word," he says.

Since his solo appearance for The Secret Policeman's Other Ball in aid of Amnesty International in 1981, Sting has been aligning his name, clout and music-making with various social and political causes. A frequent headlining act at Live Aid concerts, he has also dedicated songs to environmental activism (One Fine Day) and victims of the Pinochet regime (They Dance Alone), among other causes.

The point is to - through music - engender compassion, as much as it is to raise awareness.

"I can't offer a political solution - there are many, many problems," Sting demurs, adamant that he is not a politician.

"But I think if there is a solution, then it needs to come from a position of empathy."

Some of the performer's libertarian politics, one might suspect, pre-dates his musical career. Growing up the eldest of four children in a struggling family in Northumberland, Sting - born Gordon Sumner - multitasked as a bus conductor, builder and tax officer before taking a teaching qualification and working as a schoolteacher.

It was during his early after-work days as a jazz club performer that his nickname surfaced, coined for a striped yellow and black jumper he wore to gigs that made him look like a bee.

The musician's earliest success came in the late 1970s, when he moved from Newcastle to London to form The Police with Stewart Copeland, Henry Padovani and eventually Andy Summers.

While the band made their name largely in the New Wave scene, as a soloist, Sting went on to dabble in genres as diverse as folk, reggae, pre-baroque music and Stravinsky - all to considerable commercial success, as proven by the 100 million records he has sold to date.

During his songwriting hiatus, before the return of his muse in this month's upcoming album, Sting embarked on several world concert tours with fellow rock icons Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel.

But it is not all about making money while he still can, he asserts, instead it is about not standing still.

"I move from city to city. I do my show. I find my hotel, I sing and drink. A lot of thinking goes into it. It's the hardest work, but it's also kind of relaxing," say the soon-to- be grandfather of seven. He has six children.

"I have a season when I write. A season when I tour. I have a season when I spend time with my family."

•57th & 9th is released worldwide on Nov 11.


The musician on....

BEING A GRANDFATHER

They actually call me Nono, which is a term for grandfather. I don't feel like Grandpa. It's wonderful to see your children with their children. It's just joyful. It's great. When they get difficult, I just hand them back.

NOT LEAVING AN INHERITANCE FOR HIS FAMILY

My wishes for my children and grandchildren are only that they are happy. They are very independent, they are very proud of their independence. I wouldn't want to rob them of the satisfaction of making their name in the world themselves. I made sure they had an education. Gave them shoes. They really expect to make their own money.

MORTALITY

I'm not frightened. Just aware of mortality. I'm always aware of my mortality. We kid ourselves, we fool ourselves. But it's always going to be there.

THE CREATIVE PROCESS

I'm not sure about rules, but it does get more difficult to be creative and to find new ideas. So you have to put yourself outside of your comfort zone in some way because in your comfort zone, you can take as long as you like to find a story. If you say, 'I'm gonna make a record within a certain period', that forces you to have more energy, to be more aggressive.

HIS VOICE

I still have the same range, can still hit the high notes. Perhaps I have the lower voice as well. If you treat (a voice) well, it's like wine, it gets richer. But it's still me, I'm lucky with that. Whether you like my voice or not, it's good fortune.

GETTING ANGRY AND DEMOCRACY

I try not to get angry. I'm not sure it's a particularly useful emotion at the moment. I mean the situation in the world concerns me. There's a crisis of leadership in democracy, people have lost their trust in democracy. All in the world are leaning to the right and thinking that a strong man is the answer. I don't think so. I think strong women are the better answer. Which is my vote.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2016, with the headline 'Sting, a sage?'. Print Edition | Subscribe