Back in 1983, Sting sang about being the “King of Pain.” These days, he’s pain-free, not to mention prosperous.
His most recent album, 1999’s “Brand New Day,” is one of the most successful of his career, with more than 7 million copies sold. It won two Grammy Awards and netted him a spot in the pre-game show at this year’s Super Bowl, while his contributions to the soundtrack for Disney’s animated feature “The Emperor’s New Groove” earned him an Oscar nomination.
And on Saturday in Washington, D.C., the British musician – who co-founded the Police in 1977 and dissolved the group at the height of its success in 1984 to go solo – is kicking off his third North American tour since “Brand New Day’s” release a year and a half ago.
“It’s a bit of a risk, really,” says Sting, 49, who was born Gordon Matthew Sumner but adopted his mono-syllabic moniker after switching from teaching to music during in the early ’70s. “We were just interested to see what the marketplace would yield, and surprisingly, ticket sales have been very encouraging, even in markets we’ve been to twice before – especially (in those markets), actually.
“So it’s kind of gratifying that you’ve reached a point where you can just tour regardless of what’s going on.”
Sting always seems to have something going on, whether its music, stage (he has starred in “The Threepenny Opera” on Broadway), screen (credits include “Dune,” “Plenty” and “Lock, Stock and 2 Smoking Barrels”) or a variety of humanitarian and environmental causes, from Amnesty International to the Rainforest Foundation, which he founded with his wife, Trudie Styler.
“I’ve always managed to do exactly what I like,” he says, “and largely it’s collided with popular tastes.”
That’s certainly the case with “Brand New Day,” which is currently being represented by the single “After the Rain Has Fallen” – a song inspired by Sting’s visit to India while he was making the album.
“I’d been trekking in India,” he recalls, and I walked into a rajah’s palace one night, really late. It was the middle of the night. And there were all these guards sleeping with rifles on their chests, in the courtyard, and the first line of the song became, ‘The palace guards are all sleeping.’ It’s a beautiful sight – and that didn’t stop me (from) going in.”
The album’s particular point of pride, however, is “Desert Rose,” the Mideast-flavored track that became a smash after Sting’s video for the song was appropriated – with his full approval – for a series of luxury car commercials last year.
He calls the move into that world “a calculated risk” designed to bring the song to people who otherwise might not hear it, and the fact that it reached No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, he says, vindicates his decision.
“It’s an unusual song,” explains Sting, who’s receiving the Arab American Institute’s 2001 Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Human Award for his “efforts to promote cross-cultural understanding.”
“It begins with Cheb Mami singing in Arabic, which people were very afraid of at first; they thought it would be an impossible task getting that on the radio. (The ads) opened the floodgates, really; once people recognized the song, radio was much more amenable, and we ended up playing the Super Bowl!
“I know people may feel that you’re cashing in, or you’re playing the game too… earnestly. But it just seemed an opportunity I was willing to take, and I’m glad we did it. But I don’t think you’d find my songs selling hard liquor or cigarettes or anything like that.”
With the “Brand New Day” tour on a kind of victory lap that will end in late July, Sting is starting to turn his attention to the future.
One project is a live album that will be recorded at a pub-style venue in Europe this coming fall, with his touring band and some “old friends” as surprise guests – including saxophonist Branford Marsalis, a frequent collaborator.
“It’s going to be a small, intimate gig,” says Sting, who promises to “reinterpret” the songs he’s been playing on the road during the past year and a half. “It’ll be the same songs, but with a few curveballs thrown in there; it won’t be the polished arrangements we’ve been working on for the past 18 months at all. We’re just gonna try to surprise each other and see what happens.
He also hopes for a quick release – significantly quicker than usual.
“We want to release it the next day,” he says. How? “Don’t know,” he says with a laugh. “I’m not the scientific boffin. We’re working on it.”
Sting says he expects to be working on some new music before long, likely influenced by his recent immersion in the works of Bach.
“I’m starting to get anxious about it, which is always a key to creativity,” he says. “It’s the anxiety, really. I finish touring the end of July, and then I’ll have a holiday with the family, and then I won’t have a job, so I’ll really have to sit down and think.
“That basically is the start; I just sit and think, ‘Who am I? Have I learned anything? Do I have anything useful to say?’ If the answer’s ‘no,’ I don’t say anything. But that usually isn’t the case.”