Sting returns to his working-class roots for latest project

British singer-songwriter Sting performs during the 53th music festival 'Jazz a Juan', on July 18, 2013 in Juan-les-Pins, southeastern France. JEAN CHRISTOPHE MAGNENET/AFP/Getty Images

It's hard to imagine given his status as a rock star that Sting might have ended up in a different line of work had he followed his late father's advice on his educational and career aspirations.

In retrospect, the singer acknowledged that his father, who worked as a milkman, was right. "He thought making a living as a songwriter was a pie in the sky idea," said Sting. "He was worried about me. He thought I was nuts. He wanted me to go to technical school. I decided I wanted to escape."

That was one of the stories that the British singer/songwriter shared in front of an audience at New York City's 92Y Wednesday night in a talk with Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis. The discussion was mainly about Sting's latest project, "The Last Ship," which is both an album and a musical that is Broadway-bound next year. Drawing from a period in which Sting experienced a case of writer's block, the work dabbles into his personal experiences growing up in the working-class shipyard community of Wallsend in England. "I got sick and tired of writing about me," he explained. "I wanted to go back to the community that I was brought up in."

Recently, Sting did a 10-night residency in New York City performing the music from "The Last Ship" to benefit the Public Theater. He isn't the first pop star to delve into the world of the musical theater -- there had been previous productions that featured music by the likes of Billy Joel, ABBA, the Four Seasons, Bob Dylan and John Lennon. In Sting's case, "The Last Ship" features the singer's first new original music since his 2003 album, "Sacred Love." "I was well aware of how difficult it is to write a musical. I love that challenge." He further added: "I like to be the beginner, I like to learn. I'm learning from the best. It's a good position to be in."

It wasn't all talk during the 92Y event. With an acoustic guitar in hand, Sting performed some of the folk-inspired music from "The Last Ship," including the title song, "The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance," and "Dead Man's Boots" -- the latter a very poignant and powerful composition about the clash of traditions between father and son. Another highlight of the evening was when Sting delivered -- in a Geordie accent -- a spoken-word performance of "Shipyard," portraying the character of boisterous foreman Jackie White, who definitely embodied the spirit of the working-class.

"It's important for me to go back to this landscape," Sting later said. "It gave me a social scene. It gave me a sense of how important community is."

Not just about "The Last Ship," the discussion also touched on other aspects of Sting's life and career, one of them being the influence of the Beatles, whose members grew up in working-class conditions similar to that of Sting's. "I owe a great deal to the Beatles," he said. "I recognized something very clearly...that would change the world and change my life." He also commented about his former group The Police and why the band broke up in the mid-'80s. "I was driven by my curiosity. So I wanted to try something else. I wanted to write a record of my own and the momentum [of the Police] helped me to do that. I just wanted to do things differently and not stay in the same band forever."

At the moment, according to Sting, the musical is in the casting stage and sets are being constructed. "I have a great respect for musical theater," he said. "I want to acknowledge it, I want to honor it."

As for the reaction from the local folk to "The Last Ship," which was workshopped in England, Sting recalled of them saying: "'You've done us proud. You're very qualified to tell it.'"

  • David Chiu

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