The former Police chief builds a new album around a projected
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.
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
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.
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."
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").
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
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
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?
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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
Was there any one moment, an image, where the project
crystallized for you?
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."
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
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.
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
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