This month, Sting will become the latest songwriter to become an Ivors Academy Fellow, the highest honour the Academy bestows. Ahead of the ceremony, Music Week enjoys a one-on-one meeting with the legendary star to talk about everything from songwriting and Sam Fender to The Police, sampling and much more besides...
Words: James Hanley
There was an outbreak of fake news last month when P Diddy joked on Twitter that he paid Sting $5,000 a day in royalties for sampling The Police’s 1983 classic, Every Breath You Take, for his 1997 smash I’ll Be Missing You. Laughing off the tweet – which was taken at face value by multiple media outlets – an amused Sting points out the giveaway was hiding in plain sight the whole time.
“Well that's not true,” he says in response to Diddy’s quip. “But anyway, he's paying Universal. He's not paying me anymore.”
Sting, lest we forget, sold off the family silver to Universal Music Publishing Group last year for a reported nine-figure sum. The blockbuster deal united his song catalogue, previously with Sony Music Publishing, with his recorded music catalogue at UMG – Sting’s label home for his entire career through A&M, Interscope and Cherrytree Records.
“I don't think I would have sold it to anyone but Universal because they put my records out, so they have a vested interest in curating it in a responsible way that keeps the integrity of the songs,” the iconic hitmaker tells Music Week. “It's been a good partnership and I've sort of rationalised it the way a painter would say, ‘I've sold my paintings to these people, but they're still my paintings.’”
It has been quite the journey for the man born Gordon Sumner in Wallsend in 1951. The singer, whose most recent album was 2021’s The Bridge, achieved global stardom with rock band The Police with Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland, and latterly as a solo artist. Before moving to London and hitting the big time, he played in North East jazz fusion outfit Last Exit.
“We were influenced by people like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters with a bit of Joni Mitchell thrown in,” he remembers. “A couple of songs survived from those days – [The Police’s] So Lonely was a Last Exit song, although it might have sounded totally different to what it eventually did.
“In music, nothing's ever wasted,” he contends. “Everything just gets fed back into the reservoir. You might have a chord sequence here you haven't [played] for a while, and you take it and add it to another set of lyrics, or another melody on top. I'm always looking back and saying, ‘Okay, can I use that again? Or maybe I could make that better.’ It's a system.”
That system has contributed to one of the all-time great music careers. The 17x Grammy winner has sold more than 100 million albums on the back of genre-bending standards such as Roxanne, Every Breath You Take, If I Ever Lose My Faith In You, Shape Of My Heart, Desert Rose, Message In A Bottle, Englishman In New York and Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.
Sting’s 1993 single Fields Of Gold, meanwhile, was paid the ultimate compliment by Paul McCartney, who named it as the song he wished he’d written.
“I can't tell you how many songs of Paul McCartney's I wish I'd written,” he chuckles. “So that was a lovely thing for Paul to say. But again, he's one of those people who inspired me to become a songwriter. He's from Liverpool, a working class guy who conquered the world with his songs, so he gave a whole generation of people behind him the permission to attempt to do the same. And we did.”
The spry 71-year-old is about to follow in McCartney’s footsteps by becoming an Ivors Academy Fellow – the highest honour the songwriting organisation bestows – at The Ivors on May 18 in London. Sting will become just the 23rd Fellow that the Academy has inducted in its 79-year history, joining an exclusive club containing the likes of Elton John, Kate Bush, Barry Gibb and 2022 recipient Peter Gabriel.
“I think songwriters… we're all connected in many ways,” muses Sting. “You don't become a songwriter just out of nowhere. You become a songwriter because you hear other people's songs, because you're inspired by them, because you learn from them. Everyone in that fellowship is someone whose music has informed my own, and so we stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Sting, who is bringing his My Songs Tour to Europe next month, is already a serial winner at the ceremony, collecting seven awards at Ivors gone by including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
“The actual award itself is probably the most beautiful award you can be given as a piece of art,” he notes. “It's a beautiful bronze statuette, which I think was designed by an artist [Hazel Underwood] in 1955. There's a long tradition there, so having another one is good but I just love the event. Songwriting is a craft, and the Ivor Novello is its guild, if you like, so to be invited to be part of the fellowship is a great honour and one I don't take for granted at all.”
The frontman has been a frequent visitor to St James’ Park this season to witness his hometown club Newcastle United’s Champions League push (“I'm happy for the team, I'm happy for the fans. I'm not quite so sure about the ownership”). And while he admits to not being au fait with what's hot in the charts right now, he knows enough to tip a new local hero for greatness.
“Oh, I know all about Sam Fender, I think he's wonderful,” beams Sting. “He’s the real thing. The songs are fabulous. The playing is great. The singing is great. I'm a big fan of Sam and he's a nice guy – and a Geordie!”
We switch from the Toon Army to Tuscany, where Music Week connects with Sting at a property he owns in the Italian region to pick his brains about mastering his craft, the pros and cons of reunion tours, and why music will always be its own reward…
You first entered the music industry in the 1970s, what do you think has been the secret to your longevity?
“I'm curious! I'm curious about music itself. I'm still a student of music. I still practice every day, I still study. I sit at a piano or with a guitar and I'm learning still, and I find things that I haven't found before, so you can't get to the end of it. That's the wonderful mystery of it – the enigma of music – but also I'm willing to learn. So if that's why I'm still hanging on by my fingernails, then it's a good reason.”
What makes a great song to your ears?
“Well, we all know it when we hear it. If it was a formula, it would be one thing and then we'd just keep repeating it, but it's not, it's something much more mysterious. I don't know and I don't suppose I ever will, but I know it when I hear it. And I know it when I've written one.”
How has your approach to songwriting evolved over time?
“I know more now about harmony than I used to, more about harmonic structure and how to modulate keys, which is all technical stuff. So I suppose I'm more adept at being able to move the bits of songs around than I was. But there's something about being a young musician, a young songwriter; it's just kind of balls to the wall, let's go for it. That energy is something that you can't discount. But I'm 71 now, so my music has to reflect who I am, so I'm not desperately trying to get on the K-pop charts.”
You’ve never been afraid to break down genre boundaries though, do you feel ahead of your time in that regard?
“I think there's a difference between being in a band and being a songwriter. When you're in a band, you have to keep to the party line. You have to keep to the brand, the sound the band has, so your songwriting is limited in that sense. But when you're a songwriter without that, you can do whatever you choose. My career since I left The Police has been song-driven. I'm interested in lots of kinds of music, and the music tells me stories and I have to follow what the story indicated is. I believe firmly that music has a narrative and, if you've construct it in the correct way, it has a very coherent narrative. My job as a lyricist is to hear that and then make that into a character or a story. That's the hardest part and the most satisfying part. I've also learned that you can't be on output the whole time – I need to live a life and receive information in life so that I can write a song. At the moment, I'm not writing songs, I'm on tour, which is one of the great things about touring – you don't have to think. It's completely devoid of thought, which I kind of like but then when I finish a tour, I have to face a blank page and that's probably the most frightening thing. Somehow, if you're in the right frame of mind, you can fill that page. But you need to be patient and you need to be in a state of receptivity.”
You wrapped up your speech when you won the BRITS’ Outstanding Contribution award by saying, “Music is its own reward.” Is that as true to you now as ever?
“Absolutely. Obviously I'm very highly rewarded in a financial sense and also getting affirmation and attention if you like, but to sit on my own with a guitar or a piano and just hear the sound is so fulfilling to me. It is my spiritual path. I'm not conventionally religious, but music gives me a sense of something beyond myself, so it keeps me sane.”
On the subject of financial rewards, many songwriters argue they are not fairly paid as things stand. Is reform necessary?
“We are paid a fraction of what we should be. At the same time, I'm very fortunate because of the economies of scale, I have a lot of songs out there, I can make a living but if you only have one song and you’re a young artist, that's difficult. In fact, virtually impossible. So it needs to be figured out between the artists, the record companies and the streaming services. At the moment, it is not equitable.”
What do you make of the trend of older artists’ catalogues being bought and sold?
“I think it's a moment in time. We're just getting an advance basically on what we'd earn anyway. Sometimes I get a little nervous, but then I remind myself that I'm just being paid in advance.”
And why was it the right time for you to sell yours?
“I just think it was more to do with the financial industry than anything else. It was the right time for Universal, or all of these people, to buy so… there was a negotiation, obviously [laughs].”
You are one of the most sampled acts around. Is that something you enjoy or simply tolerate?
“No, I enjoy it. I like to see how a particular thing that we've written has inspired other artists to add to it, and I'm not precious about it. I think it's interesting what you can do. I mean, I'm careful about what they might be singing about. If an artist wants to use one of our songs and they’re not singing about it in a particularly politically correct or decent [way], I don't want to countenance that. But generally, it's great. I love it.”
Do you have any pet peeves about the current state of the business?
“Not really… I was kind of interested to look at the [Thinking Out Loud copyright] case with Ed Sheeran in New York, and no one can claim a set of chords. No one can say, ‘Oh that's my set of chords.’ I think he said, ‘Look songs fit over each other.’ They do, so I think all of this stuff is nonsense and it's hard for a jury to understand, that's the problem. They can be bamboozled by a musicologist saying, ‘There are four notes here that are concurrent.’ No, no, it doesn't work that way. But all songs are related, and publishing is quite a recent thing. Classical composers would take a theme from another composer and say, ‘This is based on a theme by Brahms and it will be fine,’ but there was no publishing. So that was the truth, musicians steal from each other – we always have. I don't know who can claim to own a rhythm or a set of chords at all, it's virtually impossible.”
AI is another highly controversial topic right now. Can computers make good songs?
“The analogy for me is watching a movie with CGI. I tend to be bored very quickly, because I know the actors can't see the monster. So I really feel the same way about AI being able to compose songs. Basically, it's an algorithm and it has a massive amount of information, but it would lack just that human spark, that imperfection, if you like, that makes it unique to any artist, so I don't really fear it. A lot of music could be created by AI quite efficiently. I think electronic dance music can still be very effective without involving humans at all. But songwriting is very personal. It's soul work, and machines don't have souls. Not yet anyway…”
Turning to The Police, your 2007/08 reunion tour was the third highest-grossing tour ever at the time it wrapped up. To any other bands thinking of getting back together, would you recommend it?
“Once [laughs]. You should do it once and the timing should be right. When The Police reunited it had been long enough and it was the right time to do it. And I'm taking credit for that because that was my decision. Doing it again would just be gratuitous and that won't happen. But we did it, and everyone was happy that mum and dad got back together again and had one last fling.”
Stewart Copeland described that tour to us as “pleasure and pain”, does that tally with your experience?
“Yes. I mean, it's an intense relationship. You start out in a band together and you live together; you sleep in the van together; you share hotel rooms. Your life is completely welded with the other guys in the band, and that's intense. We still love each other and respect each other, but I'm happy not to be in a band. I have much more freedom and when I have my own band, everyone's role is very clear. We just get on with the job. When a young band starts out, the roles are much more flexible and that creates tensions. But it's all natural, of course.”
The Police had a fractious relationship at times. On balance, is that tension more of a help or a hindrance to the creative process?
“Both. I think it gives you a competitive energy, a buzz. At the same time, there comes a point where it just gets in the way of the creative process and you're dealing with ego as opposed to actual musical ideas or the currency of musical ideas. When the flow stops, that's when a band has to break up.”
When the band reunited, was making new music together ever on the cards?
“Not really. It was, what’s the word, nostalgia, with recreating that thing for a short time. No, we didn't even try.”
Paul McCartney, who we spoke about earlier, headlined Glastonbury last year at 80. Do you still expect to be on stage at that age?
“Well, it's not that far away, why not? I'm not wearing a corset or anything. As long as I can get into my rock star pants, I'll be fine.”
So how do you keep yourself motivated?
“It's like a game. You want to stay in the game as long as possible, like tennis, just one more round and one more game. I'm competitive. I want to get better as a songwriter. I want to improve and I want to keep learning, and I think that's what keeps me going – just the idea that you can do better. Every night I try and breathe life into a song that could have been written 40 years ago with the same curiosity, the same passion, the same enthusiasm, and that's my gig. And I'm so grateful for those songs because they've transformed my life. They are the lifeblood of what I do.”
Message In A Bottle, the acclaimed dance theatre production by Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Kate Prince, set to the music of Sting, has been filmed for cinema release in 2024. The stage show embarks on a UK and international tour from May 2023.
Sting’s ‘My Songs’ world tour arrives in the UK on 24th June. Last remaining tickets are available here.