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Sting talks with Charles Bernstein

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About the Dramatic Art of Writing Songs

by Charles Bernstein

On March 13, 2002, I had the pleasure of talking about songwriting with Sting at his seaside Malibu home. It was the occasion of his second consecutive Academy Award Nomination for the original song “Until…” written for the film Kate and Leopold. I was greeted by Sting and his lovely wife, Trudy. Their living room houses a beautiful grand piano and some amazing ethnic instruments. Sting enjoys an elegant/organic environment for creativity as opposed to the more often encountered MIDI studio. There was a book of J. S. Bach guitar transcriptions on the piano. The two of us headed to a quiet fireside sitting area where we discussed songwriting as Sting illustrated his musical ideas dexterously on his classical guitar. Our conversation centered around the challenge of fashioning songs for dramatic use, as opposed to writing strictly for commercial airplay. The use of songs in films was a particular focus of interest. In any conversation, there are intangibles, subtleties that don’t easily come through in a printed interview. In this case, these qualities included warmth, intelligence, charm and a ready wit, all of which fairly describe Sting’s personal style. I came away from our conversation feeling stimulated and eager to think more deeply about the subject of songs and songwriting. I hope you will to.

CB: Do you have any particular feelings about writing songs for film as opposed to writing songs in general?

S: Well, because you’re given a pretty specific brief in terms of the mood of the film, the plot of the film, the characters in the film, often the title of the film-it’s in some ways easier than standing alone in the ether and going, “what the hell am I going to write a song about? God, please help me.” So, in this case, the director or the producer play God. They say, “Listen, my son, you will do this and we’ll get you nominated for a Golden Globe and Oscar.” So that’s really what happened with Kate and Leopold. I screened it around the end of October last year. The film was virtually completed. As you know, that was sort of an appalling time for everyone, after September the 11th. The newspapers were full of anthrax attacks, and threats of terrorism, and impending war.

CB: Where were you on that day, on September 11th?

S: I was in Italy actually, at a concert that very night. So, as you can imagine, to see a film like Kate and Leopold kind of transported you away from all of that mayhem and aggravation and tragedy. And I was very taken with it. I thought it was a very delightful escape. And Miramax asked that I might write a song for the end of the movie. Now normally, as you know, when you’re asked to put a song in a movie, a pop song, it’s usually a marketing tool which they can use to get bits of the movie onto MTV, or VH1, or rock radio. Lets’ be honest here, I’m not really interested in doing that. (laughs) So, I saw the film, and the last scene in the movie is Kate and Leopold, or Meg Ryan and Hugh Jackman, together at last after the whole film, and they’re dancing in a 19th century drawing room with a string quartet. And they’re waltzing, 3/4 time. And then the film ends and we come to black, and there’s the credits and this is where I supposedly write my song. And I said, well it’s very clear, that’s my starting point. It’s a waltz, it’s an old fashioned waltz. Start with the guitar and a string quartet. And I’m thinking, half my mind’s thinking, you know something, they’re going to hate this because this is not what they need to market this film at all. But it’s what I’m going to do anyway. So I spend the next two weeks writing changes and writing lyrics, getting a structure together and I’m very happy with it, but I’m thinking all along, “Are they going to like this at all?” Anyway, I send it to them and it’s just me on guitar, the arrangement as it is, and I get a call back that day saying, “We love it! And not only do we love it, we actually entered it for the Golden Globes and today is the last day it could have qualified!” The last afternoon it could have qualified, but they accepted it. So I’m over the moon! I’m really over the moon.

CB: So the demo version that you sent them was pretty much the finished arrangement that we hear in the film?

S: The finished arrangement apart from the strings. The [chord] changes and the way it ramps up in the middle, all that was done. But I knew I needed a string quartet and I got my friend Dave Hartley to come in, who was my partner on the last Oscar adventure, to orchestrate it for me-to do the string quartet, because he’s an expert on that. We did that and they put it on the end of the film, people liked it, and then we got nominated for the Oscar, but it didn’t get on MTV-glad. (laughs)

CB: You mentioned the 3/4 meter, which seems appropriate to the ending scene, but after you made your basic decisions of style, waltz time, and so forth; did you struggle a lot, or did it just flow and come to life?

S: Well, it certainly was a pleasant struggle if it was a struggle at all, really. It kind of flowed. I’m a traditional songwriter in the sense that I believe two verses and a chorus should be followed by some sort of bridge and then, you know, a key change. It’s a nice, uplifting feeling that things are progressing. You go up the half step, but the half step is disguised. It’s not quite like in the Bobby Darrin song, Mack the Knife. I like veiling things like that because it’s really a lovely transposition but it needs to be disguised.

CB: And the lyric?

S: The lyric probably took me longer than the overall song.

CB: I was wondering about that because there’s quite a piece of poetry there. Is it a simultaneous creative process with music and words?

S: It wasn’t. I knew the kind of mood I wanted to set lyrically, but I’d actually finished the melody before I tackled the lyric.

CB: Including that beautiful bridge section? It was completely there musically before the words came?

S: Yeah, the coda was there too, and everything. So in a way, my belief, I may be completely naïve and wrong in this, is if you structure a song in a way that obeys the golden rules of song structure, then it can only have a coherent narrative.

CB: That’s really interesting.

S: And that way, the structure will write the lyrics for you if you trust that structure and if you just give yourself over to it. So I just take it from the waltz in my head (sings), free-associating in that mood, and eventually the words come. You have to be patient, but they come. Then there’s finessing, changing this and changing that.

CB: That’s fascinating to me. You know, that melody is so infectious! There are very few infectious melodies out there these days, and it stays with you after the movie. It came home with me, it was there the next day, it was there a week later. I can’t remember many songs in our current environment that I wanted to hear again, or that even stuck with me afterwards. In the process of finding that melodic/harmonic idea, did you work on the guitar?

S: Yes, I worked on the guitar specifically on this song.

CB: So the chord changes, that feeling where you kind of walk down to the 6th degree, the flat sixth in the minor, you sort of played with it and felt into the melody?

S: If I bring the guitar over actually I’ll show you. [Sting brought over his classical guitar at this point to illustrate the examples]

S: I was thinking okay – waltz. And there’s a Bach piece, I don’t remember the name of it, Bill Evans did a version of it. (He plays and sings) So that feeling was going on in my head.

CB: That’s a Bach piece that Bill Evans adapted into a jazz piece?

S: Right. It made a sort of nice jazz waltz. (He plays) So now I’m playing the nice chords and I sort of develop an idea from there. I thought, you know, you need something repetitive and very simple. (He plays and sings precursor melody to “Until.”)

CB: That’s lovely.

S: It’s sort of optimistic and gentle.

CB: The part you just played, the (CB sings bars 7 and 8), I have to tell you, that blew me away because it’s so unexpected and it’s rhythmically kind of offset. You know, I really expected (CB sings same passage without rhythmic off-set), but the way you did it sort of breaks out of the waltz grid for a minute. And the way you sang it, also plays with that sort of rhythmic freedom. Do you remember what prompted that particular phrase, because you did that before the lyric, right?

S: That’s right.

CB: I would’ve thought, “well, maybe the lyric made him do it.”

S: No. The lyric was really written by the melody. The melody is just an instinct for me. I’m not a technical sort of musician, really. I don’t know why I do things half the time. Who does really? It’s just an instinct.

CB: As you’ve been writing more for film recently, I’ve become more and more of a fan of yours, that’s because movies are where I live. So, it’s clear that you’ve spent a certain amount of time with the film musical classics…

S: Well, when I go back to my past-I’m actually doing this extensively because I’m writing a book about my life-I’m remembering why I became a musician in the first place. My mother was a pianist, a very good pianist. And she educated me with a record player-which she played me, and then I took over-all the Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, My Fair Lady, Singing in the Rain. And I played these things to death! You know these people knew about structure, they knew about emotions, and they knew how things worked. So that was a very good education, and an oblique one for a rock and roll musician.

CB: So, is musical theatre a real part of your background…

S: Certainly, I can sing you most of Oklahoma. And I actually performed in the Three Penny Opera on Broadway in the 80s playing Mack the Knife. I love Kurt Weil. He’s the best.

CB: There seems to be a touch of, I don’t want to say just Kurt Weil, but “European” ness, to “Until” that’s not unlike Weil.

S: Please, that’s okay. I’m known to write at the feet of all of these people and that’s nothing but a compliment to me.

CB: So, one real component of your background is musical theatre, and hence the structure, the understanding of drama, and how to bring plot and character into the equation.

S: Well, I think songwriting is telling stories, essentially. As I said before, a good structure tells an abstract narrative anyway, so what you have to do is translate it.

CB: Translate it. That’s fascinating. I’ve talked to a lot of songwriters and I’ve never heard anybody else put it quite that way. You start with good musical structure, and the lyric narrative would actually be translated from, or dictated by that structure.

S: I have certain theories about that. You know, the idea of presenting a situation in a song, first verse: “I’m lonely. She’s left me.” Second verse: “Still lonely, so lonely” And the chorus: “Now really lonely.” Come to a bridge – a bridge is almost like saying, “Let’s look at the horizon for a few seconds. Let’s just take stock of this.” And from that comes a key change. Suddenly a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel, a sun on the horizon. Something in that key change gives you this sense that the narrative is actually going somewhere, that there’s a way out of this loop. In the coda, you’re in this new area. Otherwise, a song is just a closed loop and you’re stuck in this misery. And I think songs, the way that they’re structured, can bring you out of your blues.

CB: This is good. I like what you’re saying about the potential for songs to become closed loops. A lot of songs don’t have a feeling of going from here to there, and drama is always about these arcs, movement and changes, and that comes through your writing. I may have to go back now and listen to some of your earlier stuff with that in mind.

S: I did a song a couple of years ago called “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying,” it’s a country song. And it’s about a divorce as most country songs are. (laughs) And in the bridge this guy figures he can get out of it if he thinks in a different way. The key change supports that view. The title “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying” begins as this very cynical title and then, in the end, he’s actually singing it for real. He’s happy and he’s crying.

CB: You seem to think about the macro drama, the big drama, and also the smaller drama, there are dramas within dramas the way you’re looking at things. The idea of the bridge being someplace where you sort of stand back and see the whole problem in perspective, and get outside the box, so to speak.

S: You know that, as a composer. That’s what you use the bridge for, isn’t it?

CB: But I never actually thought about it, frankly.

S: There’s a lyrical analogue to that musical process. Lyrics should reflect that.

CB: Have you ever done it in the inverse? Have you ever come up with some sort of verbal idea that pushed you into a melodic place, or is it always music first?

S: Well no, I mean now they can sort of work in reverse polarities. I’m not always sure what comes first, I understand that now.

CB: So sometimes there’s a simultaneity where the whole thing just kind of arrives together, music and lyric?

S: Well, spontaneity is the ideal, where you can write a song where the music and the lyrics arrive together.

CB: Does that happen occasionally?

S: That’s sometimes too much to ask. But with certain songs. Occasionally a phrase, a lyric will come with a melody built in or vice versa.

CB: What about the process when you’re working with film people, a director, or whoever’s on the other end of the line? Have you had collaborations where you’ve had to really work things through with the other person?

S: Well, The Emperor’s New Groove was a very interesting, actually tragic, story, because that began as a different film called, Emperor of the Sun. And it was going to be a musical with singing characters, which really galvanized me. That was really what I wanted to do. I was signed up on the strength of that idea that I would write for some hit, because my favorite Disney movies are Jungle Book, or actually Mary Poppins.

CB: That’s the Sherman Brothers. They have such great craft.

S: This is a craft I want to emulate. And I’d written about five or six songs for characters in the film and then two things happened. One, they didn’t like the script anymore, the powers that be, which may be wrong, I don’t know. They also had got a piece of research saying kids now, when characters sung, they tuned out, they switched off. Now, I don’t know what they’re eating or what they’re toilet training is like. (laughs) Frankly, I was just so upset by this. So all they basically wanted was just songs in the background. And that’s not what I signed up to do, so I quit three or four times, then they had me back. I ended up doing the title, the beginning song, which some character did sing, and the end song I was singing.

CB: And, in the end, it wasn’t a musical.

S: No. They took it all out, and I was very proud of those songs. But, the characters the songs were written for were fired, basically. And the songs were disembodied. You know, it was a learning process for me.

CB: When you were in that process did you actually work closely, collaboratively, with these guys?

S: Absolutely. That’s why it was so exciting, because before the script was done I was actually thinking of song opportunities and wanting to tell stories within the songs as part of that process. I was loving it! And then the whole thing just collapsed, so it may have been my fault, or it may not have been, I don’t know. But it was certainly something that appealed to me, and as an experience I have no regrets about doing it at all. I learned a great deal.

CB: Do you have some thoughts about ever doing a Broadway musical or a film musical or something where there is actually a body of songs like Lerner and Lowe?

S: Well, I was very excited by Moulin Rouge. It was actually my favorite film.

CB: It was incredible.

S: And it did have an advantage in that it had wall-to-wall hits. Including one of mine, I might add. It was such a fresh approach and there was a very interesting thing in the New York Times yesterday comparing it with An American In Paris. Lots of parallels.

CB: Really? Was it an article or an ad?

S: It was a double page ad with all these parallels between An American In Paris and Moulin Rouge. How An American In Paris won the Oscar against the odds, against A Streetcar Named Desire. They were both set in Paris, both musicals. So, I was very excited by that. I thought singing characters, maybe people don’t turn off. Maybe that research is just b.s., which I think it is.

CB: As so much market research is. You caught what I think most of us in music caught in that movie – the power of a made-for-film live action musical, which we haven’t experienced on this level maybe since Yentl or, before that, Gigi.

S: Think of the Disney movies, you know, when you think of the Jungle Book, what do you think of? Not just because you’re a musician, you think of those songs. You think of “I Wan’na Be Like You,” or “The Bare Necessities.” Brilliant, strong songs. We didn’t think much about the dialogue.

CB: I have a six-year-old daughter, so I’ve seen all the Disney stuff many, many, many times. Maybe that’s a direction you’d be excited by- doing a full song-score for a new film?

S: Yeah, I think so. I mean, that’s what I would be comfortable doing rather than an actual score. I like writing songs for a character.

CB: Let me ask you about scoring. Your two previous partners from [the band] The Police veered into film music.

S: Stewart [Copland] does film music. He does quite successful scoring.

CB: And Andy [Summers] did too for a while, I believe.

S: He is back into playing jazz at the moment. He just had a very nice album with Monk’s music. And two years ago he did Mingus.

CB: Thelonious Monk and Charlie Mingus? That’s great. I had no idea.

S: So he’s really happy and doing what he should be doing.

CB: Did you ever get pulled into the direction of underscoring?

S: No. I only did one soundtrack quite some time ago, a film which actually I was in. I was the leading role in it and then they said, do the soundtrack. I had no idea how to do the soundtrack, but I did win a Grammy for it, whatever that means. That was fun, but really, I’m a songwriter. If a score can be culled from bits of song, fine, but it’s not what I naturally consider doing.

CB: Do you wish that Moulin Rouge had been attempted with a series of original songs? Or maybe that film had to be using existing songs, I don’t know.

S: Well, if the original songs that were written had been as good as those twenty-five hits, who knows? My Fair Lady is full of hits. It can happen. You can’t argue with that.

CB: Sting, this has been a real pleasure. Thanks for sharing so many compelling ideas about music and songwriting with all of us.

(c) Charles Bernstein 2002