10.17.99 THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE


The following article by George Varga appeared in an October 1999 issue of The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper...

Suiting himself: Sting finds happiness in his heart and his musical quest.

Sting happily credits The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and onetime recording partner Miles Davis as some of his most enduring artistic influences. But his current role model may come as a surprise to most fans of the urbane English pop star and former leader of the reggae-rocking Police.

"Tony Bennett is a friend of mine, and he just gets better every year," said Sting, an admirer of Bennett's jazzy singing and career longevity.

"There's a level of experience and emotion Tony has, and I want to emulate that. I'd like to be singing when I'm 64, or 74."

Gordon Sumner, as Sting was known in his pre-Police days as a schoolteacher and struggling musician, is all of 48. But the veteran singer, songwriter, bassist and bandleader realises pop music is essentially a young person's game. And while it's a game he has played better - and longer - than most, he doesn't take his continuing success for granted.

"Why am I still popular at 48?," mused Sting, who performs a sold-out show Sunday night at Copley Symphony Hall downtown. (The concert is the eighth stop on his recently launched tour to promote 'Brand New Day', his seventh and latest solo album.) "I consider myself fortunate. The market today is very youth-oriented, getting radio (airplay) is hard, and I'm competing with Ricky Martin and all these glamorous young people.

"At the same time, I'm not competing with them. I'm my age - I've never denied it - and I'm very happy. Yet, I do this job, and I am who I am."

His allusion to Popeye the Sailor Man notwithstanding, Sting believes it his determination to look forward, not back, that has enabled him to persevere.

He has outlasted many other pop and rock musicians who also launched their careers in the mid-1970s. And he has done so, in large part, by refusing to pander to nostalgia-mongering fans.

"I think if I was happy to re-create the music I was making when I was 25 forever, and was not interested in developing a style, then, yeah, I should have retired by now," Sting said, speaking from a New York rehearsal studio. "But I really feel that if I keep doing what I'm doing, it will get better in a natural, organic way. I am reinventing myself as I go along, without being terribly self-conscious about it. My intention is to get better as a musician and songwriter. This is my intention; whether I'm succeeding, I don't know."

Is this a case of false modesty? After all, most of the dates on Sting's current U.S. tour sold out the day they went on sale, despite the fact that 'Brand New Day' had not yet been released at the time. And the album debuted high on the U.S. national sales charts, even though it doesn't contain a hint of teen-pop, rap-metal or other flavour-of-the-month styles.

"It's for other people to say if I'm succeeding," Sting clarified. "I hope I am. Some people may have a different opinion; they may think I was better in the Police. But I take my musicianship seriously, and I work hard."

His penchant for meticulously crafted music that combines various styles is demonstrated anew on the note-perfect 'Brand New Day'. The 10-song album features cameos by Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, Algerian rai star Cheb Mami (who sings in Arabic on 'Desert Rose'), and erstwhile Sting band saxophonist Branford Marsalis (who makes a rare appearance on clarinet).

But the manner in which Sting made his sleek new album was anything but natural or organic for him. He composed, refined and completely sequenced the music for all of the songs before he'd written any lyrics.

"I tend to write lyrics and music at the same time," he said. "This album was exclusively music first, sequencing it and then finishing it, and taking it away to figure out what it says. If you finish it correctly, it already has an internal narrative. And it's your duty to translate it into words. It's a slower and more mysterious process, but it's very satisfying."

Does Sting envision repeating this process the next time he records?

"I'd go back and forth," he replied. "There's no one way to skin a cat, if you can still use that expression. Sometimes the (creative) well is dry, and you have to dig a new one."

Was this metaphorical well dry when Sting made 'Brand New Day'?

"Not really," he said. "I was just having fun. I pretended I was not making a record, basically, to trick myself. I make music because I enjoy making music, and because I need to forget about the infrastructure of record companies and people who rely on your creativity to live.

"I wanted to forget all that, and just have fun. I invited the band over to my home in Italy, just to play. We'd just roll the tape, and it was very late in the day that I admitted it was a record.

"I enjoy working. And success or failure is besides the point. It's very nice to succeed, and it can be a little painful to fail. I'm always aware that you can fail. But I'm not terribly afraid of it, because I enjoy the process of working, and attempting, and being brave."

Bravery can take many forms, as 'Brand New Day' demonstrates.

Sting employs his usual array of intricate time-signatures, clever lyrical wordplay and sophisticated melodies and harmonies. The album features a sultry bossa-nova in 9/8 time ('Big Lie Small World'); a mystical country-cum- gospel song about redemption (Fill Her Up); and a series of svelte love songs that suggest Sting is a very happy man, a contention he is quick to affirm.

For all its flair and finesse, though, 'Brand New Day' lacks a creative edge or any sense of artistic risk or danger. The lushly produced album periodically surprises, but rarely provokes or challenges its listeners.

"Well, surprise is certainly something I respond to more than danger," Sting said.

"I love surprise. I like the listener to be cruising along in one genre, and then suddenly be given a (musical) curve. That amuses the hell out of people, and that's one of my jobs."

What about the edge he brought to his epic 1991 solo album, 'The Soul Cages', and to such classic Police albums as 1993's 'Synchronicity'? Has that edge vanished, along with the turmoil in his life that fuelled those albums?

"I don't know if my music now has an edge," Sting replied. "I'm a fairly happy person at the moment, and my music has to reflect that level of happiness and balance. I would be untruthful to myself if I said: 'This is about danger and risk and edge.' That's not what my life is about."

Sting once admitted that he deliberately created upheaval in his life, consciously and subconsciously, as a means of artistic inspiration.

"I did go through that," he affirmed. "I manufactured situations where, to be creative, I manufactured pain and used other people (to do so). I have no intention of doing that again. I have enough memory of pain, and can use it. But it doesn't reflect my current life. I am happy."

He is also happy to have recently signed a $20 million endorsement deal with Compaq computers, which is underwriting his tour.

"If we were selling something totally divorced from rock'n'roll - like perfume, or whiskey, or cigarettes - then I would have said no," Sting said of his lucrative endorsement deal.

"But computers are something we use at every stage of the creative process; I certainly do. I write (songs) on a computer, the lights in our shows are run by a computer, the whole band runs on computer. So it's a natural alliance."

Sting sounded a bit disingenuous when asked to justify the cost for tickets for his San Diego show, the majority of which were priced at $100 each (plus service charges).

"I'm not quite sure what to judge it by. I don't live in this country, so I'm not really sure how much that is," he said. "You think that's high? I suppose that's the marketplace. This is an expensive show to put on. I use the best musicians, and they are well-paid."

But ticket prices would be substantially higher for a reunion tour by the Police, which regularly receives extremely lucrative offers to reunite.

His former Police bandmates, guitarist Andy Summers and drummer Stewart Copeland, might welcome such a major payday. But Sting, a multimillionaire for much of his adult life, doesn't care to cash in on his initial musical glory days.

"My attitude is you can't re-create the past," he said of the Police, which disbanded under somewhat acrimonious circumstances in 1984.

"What happened 20 years ago, well, we're all different people now. When something has happened, you can stuff it, like a stuffed animal, and put it in a corner. And I don't want to do that again.

"I'm proud of the legacy of the Police being intact, and it's wonderful that people want us to get back together. But we don't have to follow that nostalgic trail."

Equally important to Sting, being a solo artist allows him to avoid the friction and fights common to many bands.

"A band is essentially a street gang," said Sting, who on at least one occasion came to blows with drummer Copeland in their Police days.

"If you're a solo artist, you can mature and grow more gracefully than if you're in a band. I love the Rolling Stones. But the problem is, they're in their 50s, and they're still in a teen-aged gang.

"I prefer to be a solo artist - and end up in (Las) Vegas!"

© The San Diego Union-Tribune
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