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STING: How I Started Writing Songs Again

STING: How I Started Writing Songs Again

Sting’s early life was dominated by a shipyard—and he dreamed of nothing more than escaping the industrial drudgery. But after a nasty bout of writer’s block that stretched on for years, Sting found himself channeling the stories of the Shipyard workers he knew in his youth for Song material. In a lyrical, confessional talk, Sting treats us to songs from his upcoming musical, and to an encore of “Message in a Bottle.”

So I was born and raised in the shadow of a shipyard in a little town on the northeast coast of England. Some of my earliest memories are of giant ships blocking the end of my street, as well as the sun, for a lot of the year. Every morning as a child, I’d watch thousands of men walk down that hill to work in the shipyard. I’d watch those same men walking back home every night. It has to be said, the shipyard was not the most pleasant place to live next door to, or indeed work in. The shipyard was noisy, dangerous, highly toxic, with an appalling health and safety record.

Despite that, the men and women who worked on those ships were extraordinarily proud of the work they did, and justifiably so. Some of the largest vessels ever constructed on planet Earth were built right at the end of my street.

My grandfather had been a shipwright, and as a child, as there were few other jobs in the town, I would wonder with some anxiety whether that would be my destiny too. I was fairly determined that it wouldn’t be.

I had other dreams, not necessarily practical ones, but at the age of eight, I was bequeathed a guitar. It was a battered old thing with five rusty strings and was out of tune, but quickly I learned to play it and realized that I’d found a friend for life, an accomplice, a co-conspirator in my plan to escape from this surreal industrial landscape.

Well, they say if you dream something hard enough, it will come to pass. Either that, or I was incredibly lucky, but this was my dream. I dreamt I would leave this town, and just like those ships, once they were launched, I’d never come back. I dreamt I’d become a writer of songs, that I would sing those songs to vast numbers of people all over the world, that I would be paid extravagant amounts of money, that I’d become famous, that I’d marry a beautiful woman, have children, raise a family, buy a big house in the country, keep dogs, grow wine, have rooms full of Grammy Awards, platinum discs, and what have you. So far, so good, right? (Laughter) . And then one day, the songs stopped coming, and while you’ve suffered from periods of writer’s block before, albeit briefly, this is something chronic. Day after day, you face a blank page, and nothing’s coming. And those days turned into weeks, and weeks to months, and pretty soon those months have turned into years with very little to show for your efforts. No songs. So you start asking yourself questions. What have I done to offend the gods that they would abandon me so? Is the gift of songwriting taken away as easily as it seems to have been bestowed?

Or perhaps there’s a more — a deeper psychological reason. It was always a Faustian pact anyway. You’re rewarded for revealing your innermost thoughts, your private emotions on the page for the entertainment of others, for the analysis, the scrutiny of others, and perhaps you’ve given enough of your privacy away.

I don’t like singing before noon. ~Sting

And yet, if you look at your work, could it be argued that your best work wasn’t about you at all, it was about somebody else? Did your best work occur when you sidestepped your own ego and you stopped telling your story, but told someone else’s story, someone perhaps without a voice, where empathetically, you stood in his shoes for a while or saw the world through his eyes?

Well, they say, write what you know. If you can’t write about yourself anymore, then who do you write about? So it’s ironic that the landscape I’d worked so hard to escape from, and the community that I’d more or less abandoned and exiled myself from should be the very landscape, the very community I would have to return to find my missing muse.

And as soon as I did that, as soon as I decided to honor the community I came from and tell their story, that the songs started to come thick and fast. I’ve described it as a kind of projectile vomiting, a torrent of ideas, of characters, of voices, of verses, couplets, entire songs almost formed whole, materialized in front of me as if they’d been bottled up inside me for many, many years. One of the first things I wrote was just a list of names of people I’d known, and they become characters in a kind of three-dimensional drama, where they explain who they are, what they do, their hopes and their fears for the future.

So having decided to write about other people instead of myself, a further irony is that sometimes you reveal more about yourself than you’d ever intended. This song is called “Dead Man’s Boots,” which is an expression which describes how difficult it is to get a job; in other words, you’d only get a job in the shipyard if somebody else died. Or perhaps your father could finagle you an apprenticeship at the age of 15. But sometimes a father’s love can be misconstrued as controlling, and conversely, the scope of his son’s ambition can seem like some pie-in-the-sky fantasy.

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STING: How I Started Writing Songs Again


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