The 17-time Grammy Award winner also chats with the Pop Shop about how he had “no desire” to make The Last Ship a “jukebox musical” based on his hit songs, and how to him, “the play is never finished,” and how “it's always in the process of being remade, night by night, performance by performance, week by week, season by season.”
In addition to all the The Last Ship talk, the superstar also discusses his upcoming concert residency, Sting: My Songs, at The Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas (beginning May 22), but jokingly warns fans: “I won't be changing a gown every song. I won't be even wearing headdresses.” Also coming up for Sting is a new dance/theater production set to his songs, Message In a Bottle, which begins its previews at The Peacock Theatre in London on Feb. 6. “They've been given carte blanche to do whatever they want with my music,” Sting says of the show.
Below are some highlights from our interview with Sting – including his thoughts on the passing of Juice WRLD (who sampled Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” in his own hit “Lucid Dreams”) and why Sting is – unlike some artists – receptive to the idea of his music being sampled and interpolated by others.
On starring in The Last Ship touring production, though he was not part of the original Broadway cast:
I never intended to be in this play. I wrote it for actors other than myself. It's odd, that once I was asked to be in it -- because, quite frankly, a name will sell more tickets than someone who isn't a name -- and it's just the commercial reality. So I agreed to do it, and then, that worked. We started to sell tickets. And then once I got my feet wet I realized that I was enjoying it and could bring even more of myself into this character which I'd created myself. So, I've had a great time, and whenever the opportunity to play the role comes up now, I grab it with both hands because it's so much fun.
On why it was important to take the show on tour:
You know, for me, the play is never finished. It's always in the process of being remade, night by night, performance by performance, week by week, season by season. You're always looking to improve it, to hone it, to make it better than it was. And we're still in that process. I love that. The fact that it's not a museum artifact. It's actually a living, breathing, organic thing, with real actors, and you're playing off them all the time. It's a bit like jazz. You know the general shape of the tune you're playing, but within that there's all kinds of variations (that) can happen, and surprise you, and surprise the audience. So the opportunity to bring it to the people, which someone suggested -- first of all, we're here in L.A., then we're going to be in D.C., San Francisco, Detroit, which I'm looking forward immensely, and Minneapolis/St. Paul -- it tells the audience that it's really for them. And it's not necessarily a tourist attraction. It's about a real issue. It's a love story set in an industrial town that's falling apart. But that's not the subject of the thing really. It's a love story. It's an entertaining one.
On if Detroit might appreciate the show more, considering the direct connection between the decline of the auto industry and shipbuilding industry:
I was a little apprehensive about L.A. Will they get it? And having done a week here, they certainly do. So, I don't think it's industry specific. I think there's an anxiety in the world, generally, that this play addresses. How do you deal with anxiety as a community in the world? And all of us are suffering that.
On if during the initial stages of creating the show, did anyone suggest setting the story to Sting's catalog of hits, instead of newly written material?
A jukebox musical? … Then you'd have to shoehorn the songs into some spurious plot that would be stupid. And I had no desire to do that. I wanted to do the most difficult thing in the theater, which is to create an original musical. That's the hardest thing you can do, and anybody will tell you that. But I've never been one to want to fall off the bottom rung of any ladder, you know? I'm pretty ambitious. And it's nine years in, I've had the greatest adventure, and I'm having the greatest adventure of my creative life. It's so satisfying.
But did anyone actually ever suggest setting the show to his hits?
Yeah, people have suggested it all the time, and presented me with really dumb plot ideas. (Laughs.)
On how he was pitched the concept of the dance/theater production "Message In a Bottle," and was it an immediate "yes" from him?
Well, it's being performed at Sadler's Wells (in London), which is one of the most famous dance companies in Britain. Very historic. And for me, dance is a very abstract art form. So they're using my music to create a story, but in a much more abstract way than it would be if there was dialogue, like a play. And so I was intrigued by that, because it's not an area I know very much about. And, really, they've been given carte blanche to do whatever they want with my music. I saw an early workshop and was very touched by it, very moved by it. How the movements were telling me a story, directed by my songs. It was interesting.
On how the show, as described by its director/choreographer Kate Prince, is "based around the idea of war torn countries and refugees and displacement, and the global story of how that is affecting so many people."
The refugee crisis is with us and will not go away, while there are still wars being prosecuted, while we still have climate change issues. And so this is probably the biggest problem of the 21st century, is mass movements of people across borders. And borders are always fraught with tension, and they're artificial, and we're gonna have to learn to deal with it. I'm not sure building walls is the way, but certainly to be more responsible about how we behave as first world countries. In other words, the weapons that are prosecuting these wars are built here. They're built in Europe. They're built in Russia. They're not built where the people are suffering. And I think we have to take responsibility for that. So, any refugee story like that is something I would be attracted to. I think it's an important message to get across.
On why a concert residency at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace seemed appealing:
I've played Vegas many many times over the years, coming in for one night to play various entertainment venues. This will be the first time I actually have my own room that's dedicated to me and telling my story through song. I won't be changing a gown every song. (Laughs.) I won't be even wearing headdresses. But there is an opportunity to make a more theatrical show than I normally would. I normally just rely on good lights, great band, and songs. This gives me the chance to explore more theatrical areas. I love the room. I think Caesars Palace is a great room. It's a big room. But it's also very intimate. The architecture is intimate, so it gives me a chance to get close to the audience, and they get close to me. And I'll be telling my story through songs. How did I end up here in Vegas?
On the passing of Juice WRLD, who sampled Sting's song "Shape of My Heart" in his own hit "Lucid Dreams," and how Sting has performed a mash-up of the two songs in concert.
Well, first of all when I heard it, I recognized something very special in that interpolation. I thought it was a wonderful interpretation, interpolation. And so of course I was supportive of it. I never met the man, and was horrified when he died so unnecessarily and so tragically. I think he was a great great talent and we miss him. I'd love to have worked with him. But as a tribute we sing his song as part of the original ‘Shape of My Heart.’ I think they fit together beautifully.
On how there are some artists that are not receptive to seeing their music interpolated, but Sting is someone that has been open to the idea:
I find it interesting when people take what you've done and then make something new. This is how music stays alive. There are copyright issues, and the creator of (the) copyright needs to be rewarded appropriately, but saying to someone you can't work with my material -- you know, all of us borrow from everybody. Every songwriter ahead of me I borrowed from. Whether it was Rodgers & Hammerstein or The Beatles or Mozart, we steal from each other. But, you know, we need to get paid, but also we should be open to seeing what happens when someone else takes your idea and puts it somewhere else.
Also on the Pop Shop Podcast, in addition to the interview with Sting, the Pop Shop team chats about the 2020 Grammy Awards (or shall we call them the Billie Eilish Awards?) and big charts news from Eminem, who notches his 10th No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 chart with Music to Be Murdered By.
The Billboard Pop Shop Podcast is your one-stop shop for all things pop on Billboard's weekly charts. You can always count on a lively discussion about the latest pop news, fun chart stats and stories, new music, and guest interviews with music stars and folks from the world of pop. Casual pop fans and chart junkies can hear Billboard's senior director of charts Keith Caulfield and deputy editor, digital Katie Atkinson every week on the podcast, which can be streamed on Billboard.com or downloaded in Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast provider. (Click here to listen to the previous edition of the show on Billboard.com.)