Sting plays musical ping-pong

For his latest album, the musician says he bounced an idea around with his cohorts till a song materialised

Songwriter Sting, whose new album is titled 57th & 9th, wants to surprise listeners when he produces music.
Songwriter Sting, whose new album is titled 57th & 9th, wants to surprise listeners when he produces music.PHOTO: AGENCY FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Never say never, especially if you're a songwriter.

In 2013, Sting declared that he was no longer interested in writing songs for a rock band or in the kind of personal mode he had come to think of as "inward navel-gazing". He had done a reunion tour from 2007 to 2008 with the band that made him a superstar in the 1980s, The Police, then dismissed it as "nostalgia".

He was immersed in The Last Ship, the musical inspired by his childhood in a ship-building town. Writing for theatrical characters, rather than himself, he had broken through a decade-long block.

It seemed as if the last thing he'd do is what he's doing this week: releasing an album of verse-chorus- verse rock songs, 57th & 9th, with a core of guitar, bass and drums that unmistakably recalls The Police.

The playing is nimble and articulate, bursting with intricate virtuosity and informed by jazz, Celtic music and waltzes, as well as rock. Sting sings about crumbling romance, climate change, refugees on the move and what it feels like to read rock stars' obituaries.

On the phone from Honolulu last week, he spoke about changing his mind, tricking his muse and how to find a story in a wordless piece of music. You are reopening the Bataclan in Paris, the theatre where terrorists massacred 90 people just short of a year ago. Has that show been planned for a long time? Literally two or three days ago, someone said, "Would you reopen the Bataclan?" I played there in 1979 and I thought about it. I said: "Look, there are two things to balance there. One is respect and remembrance for the people who died there. And the other thing is to celebrate the music and the love of life that the theatre represents.

I'm hoping we can reconcile those two things respectfully and intelligently and so I'm doing it. I'm going to start with Fragile. I think it's appropriate.

When you were working on The Last Ship, you said you weren't interested in writing introspective songs for a rock band. But now, here's that new album of rock songs. I'm famous for making polemic statements just to see what reaction they get. (Laughs) For me, the most important element in music is surprise.

When I listen to music, I want to be surprised. When I compose music, I want to lay a surprise within a certain number of bars.

And then, when I choose to do the music I want to present to the public, again, I want to surprise them. You made 57th & 9th at studios near that corner, in Hell's Kitchen in New York. And you changed your usual methods. I normally go to the studio with a great deal of preparation. This time, I just booked the studio and brought my cohorts who have worked with me for almost three decades: Dominic Miller on guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. And I said: "Guys, let's just play musical ping-pong."

An idea will go around in a circle and a song will materialise, or at least the semblance of a song. I then structure it, give it a shape and then take that shape home and ask that song what it's telling me. Who is the character singing this? What's the mood, what's the narrative?

And then, I'd play a trick on myself. I'd lock myself out of my apartment, on the terrace in the cold and not come in until I'd finished a lyric.

I had a cup of coffee and a coat. It was one of those things to put myself out of my comfort zone in order to trick the muse into playing ball with me. In one new song, 50,000, you're reading rock star obituaries and thinking about stadium shows. Is that autobiographical? Although it's about a rock star, and of course I've been a rock star, 50,000 is not really me.

It's a character who seems to be singing through me and looking back on his career and, in reflection, finding philosophy.

There are a lot of people like me at my age, still making rock 'n' roll, having that rather singular experience of being in front of all those people and feeling empowered, and the hubris of that.

Not many of us have stood up on those stages in front of 50,000; 100,000; a quarter of a million; in my case, half a million people out there. That can be a very heady and confusing experience.

You need a certain perspective on it, to say, "This is fun, but it's an illusion." If you do that, then you'll survive it. Otherwise, no, you'll become the victim of it. Your catalogue has just been re-released on vinyl as a set, Sting: The Studio Collection. Do you hear the older albums differently now? My catalogue is in my memory bank. I don't have to go back and listen to it.

I'm often impressed by decisions I made as a younger man and wonder how I knew how to do that, that that chord follows that particular cadence. It was purely instinct. Now it would be a little more knowledgeable. Where do you find meaning? Well, there's a question. (Laughs) I'm in a very meaningful part of my life at the moment.

I just turned 65 and I'm accepting mortality. I've probably lived most of my life already.

I think that as an artist, that is probably the most interesting subject you can tackle. How do we approach the end of our time here?

When you're a teenager, you sing about your car, your girlfriend or your shoes. And now you're speaking about mortality.

I think the best art does that. All the best operas are about death. But not to be morbid - I'm not a morbid person.

I think, if anything, acceptance of it enriches your life. You realise that there are a limited number of days, so make use of them.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 10, 2016, with the headline 'Sting plays musical ping-pong'. Subscribe