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Sting sets sail with 'The Last Ship'

The former Police chief builds a new album around a projected musical

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

In a small, fishbowl-type meeting room in his record company's New York offices, in the middle of a sentence, Sting suddenly leaps up, reaches behind his chair and yanks out the power cord from the mini-fridge that had been rattling noisily and distracting from his conversation. "I'm such a rebel!" he says, and then he laughs.

Because, really, who is a better-behaved rock star than Sting? Though he has sold almost 100 million records since forming the Police in 1977, the former schoolteacher has attained this success with hits that quoted from Nabokov novels and psychology textbooks. He wrote a best-selling memoir, 2003's "Broken Music," that ended with the one and only paragraph that mentioned his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame trio. And, of course, at age 61, his famous devotion to yoga and physical discipline is immediately apparent when he walks into a room.

Now, Sting is embarking on one of the most grown-up things a pop musician can do, as he begins releasing material from "The Last Ship," a musical based on the shipbuilding community of Wallsend in the Northeast of England, where he was born and raised, that's being groomed for a Broadway run next year. First, he is putting out an album of songs written for the play, which will be available as a 12-song version; a two-disc deluxe version, featuring five additional tracks; and a "super deluxe" edition, containing 20 tracks within special packaging.

Bing: More on Sting

To mark the record's release, he will be performing songs from "The Last Ship" (some that made the final show and some that didn't) for 10 concerts in a tiny space at New York's Public Theater. He says that these shows are intended to "invite the audience into the puzzle that I was trying to figure out ... and maybe create a constituency of people who will see the musical and recognize that they're only seeing part of the ship, but the main part is underneath."

Though Sting speaks of the risks and challenges of writing for a different musical medium -- a format which has worked out well for rockers (most recently, Cyndi Lauper and "Kinky Boots") and not so well (Paul Simon's "The Capeman") -- many of his best-known songs have been written in character, from "Don't Stand So Close to Me" to "Roxanne" to "Every Breath You Take" (which he jokingly refers to as "the new anthem for the NSA").

"I like writing narrative songs," he says, "and at my best I write from other people's points of view. I hadn't really thought about it before now, but I've also never had to create a larger form from those little vignettes, and join things together."

Sting maintains that, while he never actually got to see musicals staged when he was young, he loved listening to the cast recordings and wore out the grooves on "Carousel," "South Pacific" and "My Fair Lady" ("my favorite -- the apogee of musicals for me"). So while he insists he has a lot to learn about creating for the stage, and wants to draw such unconventional elements as the folk music of his native region into "The Last Ship," he is also striving to honor Broadway's grand tradition.

"I wanted to respect the form as much as possible, and within that hopefully create something new," he says. "This isn't like a jukebox thing that's been bottled together. It's got an authenticity about. It feels right."

MSN Music: You've been working on "The Last Ship" for three years. What was the actual genesis of the project?

Sting: Well, it really started earlier than three years ago. I did an album in 1990 called "The Soul Cages," which was a thematic record about my hometown and about the death of my father. My hometown was a shipyard town in the North of England, at the war's end, where we built the biggest ships in the world.

MSN Music video exclusive: Sting: 'The Last Ship' interview

About eight years ago, I did my last studio album [note: Actually 10 years, 2003's "Sacred Love"], and I hadn't written anything in a long time. I got sick of the process, lost my mojo about it or was sick of mining my subconscious for stuff. I just lost the desire to write songs, and I was beginning to worry. And then I thought, "I wonder if I could go back to 'The Soul Cages' and treat it as a springboard for a theatrical piece?" And in doing that, in casting myself aside and writing for other people to sing, from viewpoints that weren't necessarily my own, I was sort of freed up, unparalyzed, and I started to write reams and reams of stuff, almost like projectile vomiting. This idea of creating a theatrical thing just opened a tap.

So much so that it seems like you have too many songs, and had to put all these different versions of the album together.

I'm glad to have at least 25 or 30 songs, meaning that I still have the gift; it hasn't atrophied. But only about a dozen of the songs will make it to the stage, because it's a very precise medium. So what to do with the other material? I hadn't intended to sing any of it, but I said, "Let's make a record of it. I'll sing what I can and what I can't, I'll ask some guests to fill in the gaps."

What are the different demands in writing for the stage rather than writing a pop song?

The parameters of making a successful song are entirely different, because in a musical, the song has to advance the narrative, all the characters have to be introduced by a certain time. But I enjoyed the challenge. It was not easy to write songs that began in one place and then brought the narrative someplace else. That's hard. But I like puzzles, and this is a three-dimensional organism that you're dealing with -- if you take this out, it changes that.

You previously wrote about your childhood not only on "The Soul Cages," but also extensively in your book. Why does this territory continue to call out to you?

I suppose it's still the landscape of my dreams. My subconscious is still trying to figure out a rather confusing, not terribly happy childhood. But I was born and raised in a very surreal environment, and it's only when I see pictures of that environment that I realize, this was odd. I wasn't brought up in a suburb or even in a city; I was brought up next to this industrial thing, with magnificent, huge ships towering over the harbor and cranes and thousands of men walking to work every day. Ship launchings are a very apocalyptic event, with the noise and these things of extraordinary size, often the royal family would come to launch the ships -- just crazy.

MSN Music: More on Sting

Also, there wasn't much opportunity for employment in my town other than the shipyard and the coal mine, and I wasn't cut out for either. They're both dangerous and unpleasant environments, and I wanted freedom, I wanted to escape somewhere else. And I did. Not that this musical is autobiographical exclusively -- some of it is me and some of it is people I know and some of it is made up. But there's a certain amount of biography in there, which I own and I'm still working out.

Was there any one moment, an image, where the project crystallized for you?

I wasn't writing a social history. I wanted to write an allegory, a sort of "What if?" The central conceit of the play is that the shipyard is closing for various economic reasons, the government has pulled the plug and the workers are encouraged by a certain character to occupy the shipyard and build their own ship with the idea of sailing away, which is such a quixotic, Homeric, whacko idea. I took the bare bones of that story to a producer on Broadway and said, "What do you think?" And he said, "Yeah, I like it" -- it was at the time of the Occupy Wall Street thing, so it had a kind of currency. He said, "I'll put you together with a writer and see what you come up with."

Virtually the next day, I sat down and wrote the names of the various characters, people I knew in my town -- a foreman, a self-taught intellectual riveter, a Communist agitator, the health and safety woman, the town drunk, a local priest -- and I just started writing verses and verses and verses, which became a song called "Shipyard," where the characters explain who they are and how they feel about their jobs, what their hopes are, what their fears and dreams are, and I realized I couldn't stop writing, I couldn't go to sleep. It was just this release, the freedom of having a reason to write that wasn't just about me, it was about other people.

What has been the biggest surprise in this whole process?

How completely absorbed in the play I am. I can think of very little else. I dream this play, I wake up with this play, I go to sleep with this play, I travel with this play. It seems to be a story that's been percolating for a long, long time, and I have a psychological need to tell this story.

I'm just amazed at how galvanized I am by it. Having been in a kind of hiatus for a while and being a bit jaundiced with the whole process, now I have a reason to be a songwriter again. Which I'm very happy about, because that's how I make my living.

Alan Light is the author of "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'" A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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Sep 28, 2013 3:31PM
I cast the demand aside and wish you light and rhythm and enjoyment in your musical project. You are special.
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