Putting the music first

Sting: The lyrics came last on the prolific songwriter's newest offering, `Brand New Day.'

November 11, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

NEW YORK -- For the fans, Sting has always been a musician's musician, the kind of player whose confidence and ability seemed worlds away from the garage-band amateurism of many rock stars. It isn't just that the former Police-man is a multi-instrumentalist, handling not only bass and guitar but also keyboards and (for a while) saxophone; he's also a jack of all styles, being as well-versed in jazz and classical music as he is in rock.

But for his own part, the 48-year-old pop star takes a much more modest view of his abilities. "I play a lot of instruments, but not terribly well," he says. "I'm no virtuoso or anything. But I think, in the songwriting department, I'm pretty good."

He laughs, and adds, almost self-mockingly, "I have a large amount of self-esteem in that department."

As well he should. Sting has been spinning off hits for the better part of two decades, a string that stretches back to the Police's 1979 breakthrough single, "Roxanne."

He wrote all of that band's hits, from "Don't Stand So Close to Me" to "Every Breath You Take," and maintained his winning streak when he went solo in 1985, thanks to such hits as "If You Love Somebody Set Them Free" and "All This Time."

But as he sits in the cluttered living room of his Central Park West apartment, music making seems as much on Sting's mind as music writing. In part, that may have to do with the abundance of instruments surrounding him -- in addition to the vintage Spanish guitar he occasionally strums, there's a grand piano, a lute and an assortment of instrument cases stacked on the floor -- but mostly, it's because he's gearing up for a tour in support of his latest album, "Brand New Day." (Sting performs at Washington's Constitution Hall tomorrow.)

To Sting's way of thinking, a live show demands that he keep both his audience and his sidemen entertained. To do so means balancing accessibility with sophistication -- a feat few pop stars dare attempt.

"I like to make pop music, and that involves appealing to popular tastes," he says, adding that commercial success has "largely coincided with what I've wanted to make anyway."

At the same time, Sting's smart-pop approach has provided plenty of grist for the musicians he has worked with, a crew that, over the years, has included such musical heavyweights as saxophonist Branford Marsalis, the late jazz keyboardist Kenny Kirkland and drummers Omar Hakim and Manu Katche.

His current band, which includes drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and guitarist Dominic Miller, is typically virtuosic.

"I've played with the best drummers in the world, the best guitarists, the best keyboard players," says Sting. "And I think the critics would bear me out on that. I've been really blessed.

"It's my job to keep those musicians engaged, technically and intellectually, and keep them playing at a surprising level," he continues.

"So I like to feel I have my foot in two rooms -- very populist, `let's have everybody whistling your tune,' but also, `let's stretch the parameters of what listenable pop music is'."

He knows that the boundaries of musical accessibility are not easily stretched, particularly given the nursery-rhyme simplicity of much contemporary pop. "Can people be educated to like more sophisticated music?" he wonders. "There's a limit, there really is a limit. But I like to push it farther than a lot of people have."

The songs on his current album are a case in point. On his previous albums, Sting says, he went into the studio with a full set of melodies and lyrics. But for "Brand New Day," Sting took an almost improvisatory approach to creating music.

"I didn't think about lyrics, or necessarily structure even," he says. "I played, mainly the guitar, with a variety of combos. Maybe just me and a drummer, me and a keyboard player. I would improvise melodies and chord structures on the guitar, and then I pieced [the ideas] together until I had an hour of music which was finished, virtually. Arranged, sequenced.

"But I had no idea about lyrics. I had avoided that issue. I put it to the side."

Turning those sounds into songs was quite a challenge. "I asked the music to tell me a story," he says. "Because I figured if I had constructed [the music] properly, then it would have some kind of internal narrative. I just had to translate that into stories.

"It was a slow, almost mystical process that sometimes didn't bear fruit for days on end," he adds, explaining that finishing the album took "much longer than usual."

"But it was quite satisfying," he says. "All the songs seemed to have a narrative, they seemed to have a thread running through them -- about romantic love, I suppose.

"It wasn't like making an album. It was like having a jam, and then the album appeared."

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