Talking to Sting is a strange experience. In many ways he’s the perfect interviewee: he’s thoughtful, warm, eloquent and charming (very, very charming – he radiates so much charisma he could burn your head off). But there’s also the odd sense that your presence is pretty much optional, that if you went away he would keep musing to himself indefinitely. His speech is measured and paced, as if he’s carefully dissecting his own thoughts as they occur to him. On occasion, he chuckles affably at his own wordiness. It begins to feel like Sting is both the speaker and the audience, and you’re the one holding the cue cards.
Then again, if anyone’s earned the right to be impressed by themselves it’s Sting. Born Gordon Sumner (but nobody – including his family – calls him that any more), Sting moved from his native Newcastle to London in 1977; he formed The Police soon after arriving, and a year after that they unveiled their debut album. Their breakneck schedule saw them releasing four more albums in five years, including hit singles such as ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’, ‘Message in a Bottle’ and – of course – ‘Every Breath You Take’, before tensions caused them to part ways. His resulting solo career saw a string of top 10 albums that cemented his position in the rock pantheon, and added to the wealth of crowd-pleasing favourites that he’ll be playing at Meydan on March 4.
But despite the flurry of activity that saw him producing new music consistently from 1977 to 2003, his last two albums – Songs from the Labyrinth and If on a Winter’s Night… – were largely reinterpretations of existing songs from the past 500 years. So, we wonder, when will he start working on new material? ‘I’m always working on new material,’ he explains. ‘I’m just doling it out very sparingly at the moment. Part of my process is to do research first, instead of hoping to do original songs from scratch. Original songs come from somewhere else, usually, from research into an era or a psychological problem you’re going through. But I’m interested in some original material, so I’m putting myself into that state now, where I will hopefully write songs.’
That methodical interest in research and analysis was what led to Songs from the Labyrinth, Sting’s much-publicised reinterpretation of the work of 16th-century composer John Dowland, which started out as a personal project and then became a surprise hit. But when asked about where his interests lie at the minute – which may help to explain something about his new songs – he dodges the question gracefully. ‘My curiosity has been about the music of the past and the music of now, but I’m probably most interested in the music of the future, particularly mine,’ he says. ‘Where does this path lead me? I’m not sure, but the essence of music is surprise. That’s what’s always on my mind. How do I surprise people? How do I surprise myself?’
It’s tempting to bellow a hearty ‘Booo!’, but we resist. Instead, the conversation turns to how much the audience influences his writing. Sting is, after all, in the enviable position of never having to sell another record. He not only has absolute artistic freedom, he also has the money to realise it. So does he feel any commercial pull these days, or any interest in writing for the charts?
‘First and foremost I make music to please myself. It’s my therapy, my spiritual path, if you like. It’s something I do because I need to do it. I’ve been very fortunate that this compulsion has coincided with popular taste for many years – largely, anyway – so I’ve had the great advantage of making money out of a job that I would happily do for nothing.’
And while you may imagine that a man so fascinated by surprise and curiosity would grow weary of playing ‘Roxanne’ for the millionth time, Sting is adamant that’s not the case. ‘It’s my job to stand up there and sing songs I wrote 35 years ago with the energy and commitment and sense of discovery as if I’d written them that afternoon. And the songs aren’t written in granite; I always find something new, some inflection, some little discovery in each performance, that keeps me going. I never get bored. I’m always searching. And I think that’s the essence of live performance. It’s a journey of discovery every night; it’s something that’s very much alive.’
Sting plays at Meydan Super Thursday on March 4. Dhs275 golden circle, Dhs555 golden circle premium and Dhs735 premium seating, from www.timeouttickets.com
Sting’s performance is just the start of a whole month of music action
After the state the world was in last year, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether Dubai would ever host any big-name singers again. But worry no more: not only do we have Sting this week, we’re getting a slew of top talent in March alone. Finley Quaye, the reggae-rocker behind ‘Sunday Shining’, will be playing Radisson SAS Media City on March 11. The following day at The Irish Village, current UK pop-rock sensation Paolo Nutini will strut his stuff, while The IV will also host Bob Geldof’s annual St Patrick’s Day gig on March 19. Also on March 19, Festival City will stage the Elements music festival, featuring Damon Albarn’s cartoon band Gorillaz and reggae-rapper Sean Kingston (of ‘Beautiful Girls’ fame). And just before going to press we heard that ex-Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland will be coming to town on March 26, though the exact venue hadn’t been decided.