Sting: ‘When I get angry I’m a Geordie. It’s very effective’
The former Police singer talks music, politics and his brush with the IRA
Sting: 'When I get angry I’m a Geordie. It’s very effective.' Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
When you say, “I’m here to interview Sting”, nobody says, “Sting who?” There’s one Sting, like there’s one Bono, one Cher and one Bosco.
The former Police singer, once known as Gordon Sumner, is in Ireland to promote his Tony-nominated musical The Last Ship. On stage in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin, he tests the acoustics: “Friends, Romans and countrymen!” he declaims.
He looks very good for 66, in jeans and a cardigan, with his glasses hanging from the collar of his shirt. He has, after years of music-making, suffered some hearing loss and he occasionally cups his right ear in his hand to hear what I’m saying. He also has a slight Geordie accent. “When I get angry I’m a Geordie,” he says. “It’s very effective. And if I’m speaking with my brother or Jimmy [Nail, star of The Last Ship] it comes back. I lost my accent because I didn’t want to be judged. At the time, regional accents were not accepted at all. I’d watch the news every night and the newsreaders didn’t speak like Geordies. I thought, I’ll develop that and not be identified with a particular region. But it comes back.”
The Last Ship is the story of the decline of the shipyards in his home town of Wallsend. Jimmy Nail grew up in a council estate five miles up the road from him. “I always say he was posh because he had a garden,” says Sting. “That pisses him off.” He laughs. “I didn’t see a tree until I was 16.”
Did they know each other back in the day? “No. We met as successful exiles.”
The Last Ship started life as a song cycle that came to him in a flood of characters, melodies and couplets after a period of writer’s block.
“The first inspiration was an article in the Guardian about eight years ago about some ship workers in Gdansk at the shipyard where Lech Walesa started Solidarity. It was closed with the economic downturn, and all the social problems that are attendant when young men are made redundant were extant . . . A local priest decided he would do something and he raised some money for the men to make a ship in the back of a man’s home. It was a wonderful story. I thought if I can weld that story to the story of my town then I’d be able [to give my community] a voice they haven’t had before. Their story hasn’t been told. It was remarkable what happened to them – generations of skilled people were thrown on the scrapheap for abstract economic reasons.”
He also references the Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid who led a “work-in” in Clydeside in Glasgow. Is there an explicit political message? “By ripping the heart out of a community, what are you achieving? So there is a political message. We can’t put people on the scrapheap. Nobody is dispensable. Telling the story now is important because those same questions are still there: What is the importance of community? What do we do when our manufacturing disappears, when we’re no longer making things? What are we?”
Did he think, as the son of a milkman, that working in the shipyards would be in his future? “Oh no,” he answers quickly. “I mean, it crossed my mind. I’d watched those men go to work and there’s nothing much else in the town, so as a kid you say, ‘That’s it? When I leave school is that where I’m doomed to go?’ But I had other dreams. I dreamt about being a musician, writing songs.”
His parents were musical and he was given a guitar at the age of eight. “I was 11 when the Beatles came out and they were from a similar town and wrote their own songs and conquered the world and that gave a whole generation of us the permission to at least try.”
But even before musical success, he says, he had made the jump to the middle classes.
“I got a scholarship to the grammar school. I put a uniform on and we were told we were the top 10 per cent. I was self-exiled from my community even though I was living there. That split was a very cruel one. Kids I’d gone to school with who hadn’t passed the exam were on the scrapheap and I was promised the Earth. So there’s a survivor’s guilt in me.”
Is that why all this came flooding back?
“As you get older, like a salmon you find yourself swimming back to the spawning ground for unconscious reasons,” he says. “It was only later I realised I had to pay a debt of some kind, survivor’s debt. I realised it was a great privilege for me as an artist to have been brought up in that very surreal environment. The end of my street was this f**king massive ship. It has an extraordinary symbolic power that I’m really grateful for.”
Was he conscious of this in the 1980s at the time the industry was being destroyed?
“[The Police’s] success was extraordinary but my family was still living there. I knew what was going on in my town. I knew the price the town would pay. It still hasn’t recovered. But you’re not sure what you can do. These are forces beyond anyone’s control, perhaps . . . My dad died in 1988, my mum the same year, so their demise and the demise of the shipyard are inextricably linked for me.”
Did writing this music reconnect him to the community? “[My brother] still delivers milk in the town . . . He stole my birthright! He’s a lovely man [but] that community doesn’t exist any more. There hasn’t been a shipyard there for 20 years. The town is still there but it’s broken. Wallsend is a ghost town.”
Sting workshopped the musical in Newcastle and invited former ship workers along. “It was really to ask their permission, to show them what we’d done. [They said] ‘Oh there’s a bit too much love in it but we think you should do it. Carry on.’”
He laughs. “People cry watching this play. I see grown men in theatres crying. It’s a very emotional subject. For me the symbolism of the ship is such a powerful, profound thing. When I see footage of the ships being launched I tear up. I can’t quite explain it. It’s got something to do with death. It’s got something to do with escape. I’d have to sit with a psychologist to tell you what it actually means to me, but it’s very powerful.”
He is conscious of the fact he is “what Theresa May would call ‘a citizen of nowhere’”. He has lived in New York for decades. “On the Brexit argument I’m definitely a remainer. I think the European experiment has not been entirely successful but I’ve never had to point a rifle at a German, whereas my father’s generation and his father’s had to do that. We have lived in peace for 70 years, in central Europe anyway, and that’s a major success. I haven’t heard one good argument for why it’s a good idea.”
He references Churchill’s support for European unity and rejects the notion that referendums make sense in a “parliamentary democracy”. Then, remembering where he is, he smiles and says, “I know you’ve had a few”.
Is he at a reflective point in his career? “You have no choice, really. I’m 66 years old and I don’t know how much longer I’ll be on the planet, so I want to live in a useful, fulfilling way.”
I did a song with The Chieftains years ago, Mo Ghile Mear. I sang in Gaelic, apparently quite well
His kids are actors, film-makers and musicians and watching them work is, he says, “kind of an out-of-body experience. I recognise myself in them but I also see something that isn’t mine at all. I always say to them that music has to be its own reward, that it’s not about being famous and wealthy. And they say, ‘That’s easy for you to say, you are famous and wealthy.’ But I say, ‘No, if I [wasn’t] I’d still be making music in the pub.’ My parents did that.”
I believe him. He talks passionately about the creative challenges of writing for both male and female voices, about the composer John Dowland (he’s probably the only post-punk musician to have made an album of 17th-century lute music) and the dangerous “Brendan Behan idea that you have to be a wreck to make art”. He reads a lot. He has just finished Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan and is reading a historical novel by Brendan Mathews called The World of Tomorrow, about an Irish family and the IRA.
He had his own IRA scare in the 1980s when he lived in “fantastically beautiful” Connemara, where he received a paramilitary death threat. Was it genuine? “I don’t really know. But it was a tense time. It was during the hunger strikes . . . it may have been a hoax but I couldn’t guarantee our safety, so I got my family out of there.”
He talks a little about the Irish influence on Northumbrian music. He has worked with a lot of Northumbrian folk musicians including the Unthank sisters and the fiddle and pipe player Kathryn Tickell, “but I’m not a folk musician. No one wants to hear me sing a come-all-ye.”
Then he remembers something. “I did a song with The Chieftains years ago, Mo Ghile Mear. I sang in Gaelic, apparently quite well. They came to my house in Wiltshire and I made the mistake of giving them a liquid lunch and they were out of their minds by the afternoon. But they could f**king play. [The late harpist] Derek Bell fell in the river, God bless him. It was only about [a foot] deep.”
He laughs. “The work doesn’t finish. It never finishes.”
The Last Ship is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin, June 4th-9th, 2018. Tickets from €21. See bordgaisenergytheatre.ie