Sting's "If on a Winter's Night..." may feature holiday-inspired songs, but don't call it a Christmas album. "The whole season is much broader than that," he says. "Winter is about inspiration and imagination."
While culling source material for "Winter's Night" -- which debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and has sold 139,000 copies since its Oct. 26 release, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- Sting found inspiration in everything from a 14th-century carol ("Gabriel's Message") to traditional lullabies and poems. He also collaborated with a host of musicians from the British Isles and performed with the ensemble at England''s Durham Cathedral in a concert that will be broadcast Thanksgiving night on PBS' "Great Performances" and released Nov. 23 on DVD.
How did you decide on the concept for "If on a Winter's Night..."?
It was during last winter that I decided I would do an album based on the season. It has this kind of gravitational pull toward one's roots -- the family home, the cradle or church -- but a lot of people face it without any of those things. The sadness of not being able to go home is probably encapsulated best in "Christmas at Sea," which is based on a 19th-century Robert Louis Stevenson poem about a sailor who is sinking off the coast and realizes his home is on the cliff top. He's pulled toward home, yet he's in terrible danger. That sums up the ambiguous feeling of this record. It's not entirely happy, and I also avoided symbols that I think have been overused, like Santa Claus or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
What was it like recording with such a large group of musicians?
My first instinct was to look for traditional musicians from north of England: Kathryn Tickell, who plays the Northumbrian pipes; her brother, Peter, who plays the fiddle; and the Melodeon player Julian Sutton are all from my hometown. We started recording in my house in Italy last January. We sat around the kitchen table with the fire on, huddled up with coats and scarves and explored these songs together. It was like method recording -- it had to be cold for us to begin this thing.
Many of the songs on "Winter's Night" are deeply rooted in Christian themes. Did you have to reconcile your own agnosticism with recording nonsecular material?
I was brought up in the church, and the Christian story is part of my background. At the same time, I can't really accept a lot of the elements of those stories as articles of faith. I think there is one true unassailable religion, and that is the human ability to tell stories -- to make myth of why we're here and what we do. So I put those Christian stories next to pre-Christian stories. I treated them with a great deal of reverence and respect. But again, I'm not singing articles of faith; I'm singing magical stories.
Your daughter recently said in an interview that your practice of tantric sex is just a myth. What's the real story?
People get very silly about what tantra is. It's using your normal life as a devotional practice, which includes breathing, walking, eating, being and making love. All of those things are practiced consciously, and that's really what it's about. Music is my tantra. It's my way of saying "thank you" to anything, whatever it may be.
What was it like reuniting with the Police through last year?
We tied up a lot of loose ends with the last Police tour. I was glad I did it, and people were very happy to see us together again. They came out in droves to see us play. It was an exercise in nostalgia, but we don't need to keep repeating that. I need to be doing something new all the time.
Would you like to make another concept album?
I don't know, we'll see how this one does. It's an interesting way of working, collecting or writing material around one theme rather than just writing songs. But if you said to me, "Are you going to do spring next?" No, that would be far too expected.