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The Incredible Zen of Being Sting

With a new album, audio memoir and coming residency in Las Vegas, he puts life — and art — in perspective

spinner image Sting sitting for a portrait
Mayumi Nashida

It's been 37 years since Sting left The Police at the peak of the new wave trio's success, but he's continued as a solo artist to play exceedingly well with others. The acclaimed singer/songwriter, 69, demonstrates his far-flung taste, talent and teamwork on his new album, Duets, 16 collaborations with such partners as Eric Clapton, Mary J. Blige, Annie Lennox and Sam Moore, plus a new tune with Italian rocker Zucchero. The tracks were culled from a large cache of duets he's recorded in the course of racking up 17 Grammy Awards, 100 million record sales, and credits in book publishing, film and theater (most recently, the Tony-nominated Broadway musical The Last Ship).

During lockdown, the singer also completed a 90-minute, audio-only memoir, Sting: Upon Reflection (Audible, available March 25), a partially sung production that includes fresh versions of “Roxanne,” “Fields of Gold” and “Message in a Bottle.” In the memoir, Sting (born Gordon Sumner in the shipyard town of Wallsend, England) describes his upbringing in industrial surroundings, his escape to London and his rise to stardom.

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On Oct. 29, he'll begin a Las Vegas residency at Caesars Palace called “My Songs,” inspired by the same-named 2019 album of reworked Police and solo tunes. Amid the high velocity of his life, the star paused to discuss his new projects, why early fame is a curse, the secret to his long marriage and much more with AARP.

Some of your guests on Duets are musical giants you idolized, like French singer Charles Aznavour, who interpreted hundreds of songs in nine languages. Were you ever intimidated singing with others?

I always put myself in the position of a student. When I sing with Tony Bennett, I am singing opposite the great master of phrasing. I'm just so happy to be learning from him. These are people whose records I bought as a kid. It's not intimidating. It's just wonderful.

You're paired on tunes with everyone from Shaggy and Julio Iglesias to Agropop artist GIMS and Algerian folk singer Cheb Mami. Were your tastes always this eclectic?

I was educated by the radio, the BBC. They played everything from the Beatles to Beethoven's Ninth. Music to me was a common language. My mother played the piano. My father sang. I listened to their music, but I didn't have an attitude like, that is your music and this is mine. I played the guitar, and I could play standards that my father liked. Music is a universal language and not a tribal signifier.

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Still, Police fans might be surprised to hear you cover “My Funny Valentine” with Herbie Hancock or “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” with Chris Botti.

[Fellow Police band members] Andy [Summers] and Stewart [Copeland] also had a universal appreciation of music. We considered ourselves musicians first and pop icons way down the list.

What did you find appealing about doing an episode for Audible's Words + Music series, which has also spotlighted artists like Yo-Yo Ma, Patti Smith, Common and Smokey Robinson?

In lockdown, you're wondering what you're going to do, and I decided to use the time to reflect on my life and my career. Audible offered this opportunity to do it in a more public forum, and it seemed like a fairly easy and natural thing to do. I sat with a microphone and a guitar and talked about my life, focusing on anecdotes that were touchstones.

You talk about ships and the shipyard environment of your youth, which crop up in your songs. Why those images?

Ships are such powerful symbols, particularly big ones. They dominated the town. They dominated the skyline in a very literal way. I watched so many launches as a kid: the ship moving backwards into the river, never to return. It became a certain metaphor for my life.

The Police were not an overnight success, and in hindsight you say you consider that a blessing.

It's a great advantage. I don't envy people who become stars straight out of high school. I might have envied them at the time. But I'm grateful for all those years in the wilderness, struggling to make a living and to figure it out slowly. That gave me time to mature as a man, so when I did make it I could appreciate it.

spinner image Sting on stage with an acoustic guitar talking into a microphone
Sting was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Police in 2003.
Andrew Toth/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

When I was 18, I thought, why am I not on top of the pops? It would take another 10 years, years that were well used in forming a craft, forming a philosophy and being an adult. I was a dad and I was mature when it happened. It's one of the reasons my career has lasted this long.

How much did The Police prepare you for your solo career?

It gave me a very good jumping-off point. It was one of the most successful bands in the world at the time, and I decided to leave. It was counterintuitive, and people said, you're crazy. I had one chance, and I took it. That first album outside The Police was successful and gave me the confidence to carry on. I was following an instinct rather than some sort of grand strategy. It seemed like what I should do. I think once you stay in a band beyond a certain point, you can't leave. The band is it. I like the idea of freedom.

Your songs draw from your experiences and memories. Do you censor yourself?

I'm pretty candid. My songs seem to fit into a narrative of my life. I think a trained psychologist could look at these songs and tell you what's going on in my head. I've used songs as therapy in an attempt to heal myself.

Your last few projects have revived past works. Anything new in the pipeline?

I'm in the studio now, writing new songs, writing about who I am now. They're coming slowly but surely. I never panic. At a certain point in my career, I was much more sure of myself, maybe cocky. Now that I know more, I'm more demanding, more critical. I want to better what I've done and demonstrate some evolution. I don't want to do the same thing again and again.

Explain why the element of surprise is crucial to a good song.

I have to surprise myself. I'm led by my curiosity. If it's just a boilerplate bunch of chords, I'm not going to follow it. I always follow novelty. I play every day, and sometimes my fingers will find things I haven't found before, even though I've been playing for over 60 years. You always find something. You don't say, I'm going to write a hit song. You just turn up. It is like fishing in a way. You'll get nothing if you don't turn up.

You and Trudie Styler have been married almost 30 years. What's the key?

I've just been very, very lucky in my choice of partner. We're from the same part of the world. We have the same nostalgia. There's something comforting about sharing your life with someone who has the same memories. Even though she claims to be much younger than me, she's not.

Your longtime activism includes environmental issues. How hopeful are you about reversing climate change?

As a strategy in life, optimism is much better than its opposite. Denialism is on the rise in the world. It's a psychological problem, something we do as children. A lot of our political leaders are in denial, which is not grown-up. The biggest trouble we're going to face this century is climate change. That's linked to these pandemics, and there will be more. How do we turn it around — that's the question. It's all fine to say stop eating meat, separate your garbage. That's not going to change much unless the United States, the European Union and China decide to do something. We need political will.

Do you see a point in the future when you'll work less and maybe go fishing?

I'll never take up fishing. I'm lucky I make a living at something I would do for nothing. I can't imagine life without music, without singing, without songwriting. Whether other people want to witness it or pay money to see me is another matter. I need it.

Edna Gundersen, a regular AARP music critic, was the longtime pop critic for USA Today.

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