JEFFREY BROWN: Call it Sting with strings. Sting is rock ‘n’ roll royalty, an international pop star. The strings are part of the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, which is helping him recreate past hits with a very different sound.
The singer and his band are in the midst of an American and world tour and have released a recording titled “Symphonicities.”
Born Gordon Sumner and raised in Newcastle, England, Sting burst on the rock scene in the 1970s as lead singer and bass player for The Police, a three-member rock band that recorded numerous hit songs and sold millions of albums.
The group split in 1984 and, other than a reunion tour several years back, Sting has been on his own ever since, with more hits and several unexpected twists.
In 2006, he recorded the songs of Elizabethan composer John Dowland. And, last year, Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler, presented a theater performance based on the lives and words of composer Robert Schumann and his wife, Clara.
Now, at 58, he’s got the orchestra, not for classical compositions, but for his own.
And when we talked recently at his New York apartment, my first question was why.
STING, musician: It’s my job as a songwriter to keep these songs alive as long as possible.
For example, I have to sing songs tomorrow night in Boston that I may have written 30 years ago, 35 years ago, with as much passion and commitment as if I had written them this afternoon. And, so, I’m constantly looking for different ways of looking at the songs, of interpreting the songs, allowing the songs to evolve, as a storyteller, as singer.
And, so, I’m always looking for different ways of interpreting them. They are not museum pieces that are set in stone. They are living artifacts for me.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. So, why, though, with an orchestra? What do you gain from reworking them, or re-imagining, if that’s how you think about it?
STING: Well, there is a certain amount of ego involved, you know, to be…
JEFFREY BROWN: A certain amount of ego?
STING: To be stood up there in front of a symphony orchestra, you know, it’s like that really does massage the ego somewhat.
STING: And it’s not something I expected to do, to be frank.
JEFFREY BROWN: I mean, you have stood in front of thousands and thousands of people, looking at you.
STING: I have.
JEFFREY BROWN: But to have — you mean to have a symphony behind you is different?
STING: To have them behind, you know, that’s the Royal Philharmonic there. This is not just any old orchestra. This is a serious orchestra. So, in a way, it does flatter my ego.
STING: But, also, I have to step up to the plate and, you know, hit them. And so it’s a big challenge for me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, how do you do that? I have heard a lot of rock and pop musicians have — bring in an orchestra. And you have, too. How do you use the musicianship that is available? Because you know what can happen. They are just sort of providing a background.
STING: Exactly. It can become musical wallpaper, where the violins are just playing boring whole notes behind a pop ballad. I didn’t want that.
I said — to the arrangers, I said, look, I want the orchestra working rhythmically, as if they were playing Stravinsky, with that same commitment, that same rhythmic passion, because then they will enjoy it better, I will enjoy it, and so will the audience.
And this exactly what we did. There is enough harmonic movement within those songs to warrant a symphony orchestra addressing it. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t do it.
JEFFREY BROWN: But is something lost? I mean, as someone who grew up with rock ‘n’ roll, including your music, much of the power of that is the rawness and the edge.
JEFFREY BROWN: What happens without that?
STING: You have to make a trade between having this huge, very rich palette of color to work with, which is the symphonic — symphony orchestra, as against having this edgy, kind of spontaneous, almost improvised feel of a rock song. So, you give that up.
But, in exchange, you get this huge, almost like a continent of color. And so it’s an exchange I have been willing to make. There are compromises you have to make. Classical musicians hear time in a different way. Time for them is much more elastic, whereas time for rock musicians in modern music is very, very strict, in strict tempo.
Time in classical music is — it’s much more — kind of breathes more. And so you have to learn how to do that. Also, the conductor never gives you a downbeat. He gives you an upbeat, which is completely opposite.
STING: So, we have had to learn how to read that and then read each other.
JEFFREY BROWN: To help people understand this transformation, take a song, one that a lot of people know, like “Roxanne,” for example. How did you see yourself transforming that from the one we know from many years ago to now?
STING: Well, it’s an interesting example, because “Roxanne” began with just me on a guitar playing a kind of bossa nova rhythm, singing the same lyric and the same melody, but with a different feel. And then I took it to the band, the three-piece band, The Police, and made it much edgier, which is what people know as “Roxanne.”
But then, when I went to the orchestra, I went back to the original way it was written.
JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you were talking about the ego of having the orchestra. You know, in some quarters, they’re — they’re — people roll their eyes, right? They say, there he goes again, right?
STING: Yes, I like that.
JEFFREY BROWN: You like that?
STING: Because there I do go again.
JEFFREY BROWN: Uh-huh.
STING: I refused to be sat in a corner in the classroom or stuck in a box. I can do whatever I want.
JEFFREY BROWN: Even if you get accused of various pretensions for the lute, trying the lute, and now the orchestra, and the…
STING: I love that word, pretentious. I’m not quite sure what it means. It means pretending. And, for me, it’s about experimenting and taking a risk and putting yourself in the position of a student constantly, where I’m here to learn something.
I’m here to learn how to play the lute. I’m here to learn how to sing in front of an orchestra. I’m here to learn how to arrange for an orchestra.
I’m not a finished product. I never will be. I’m a work in progress. If that’s pretentious, guilty. I’m card-carrying, bona fide pretentious.
JEFFREY BROWN: There is the — inevitably, the aging — well, there’s the aging baby boomer. There’s the aging rock star, right, trying to do it gracefully.
STING: I always found that phrase odd, the aging rock star.
Aging to me doesn’t seem to be particularly a pejorative. And, in many ways, I have enjoyed this decade — I’m 58 now — more than any other.
JEFFREY BROWN: Because?
STING: So, by extension, I’m hoping that my next decade will be just as much fun.
But I think it’s really about flexibility in the mind, you know, being able to take on new things, learning new skills. That’s — that’s how to stay at least young in spirit. And I think I have managed that.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Sting, thanks for letting us come talk to you.
STING: It’s a pleasure.