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NEAL CONAN, host:

It's been over 30 years since an English schoolteacher named Gordon Sumner transformed into the rock icon we all know as Sting, and he's been reinventing himself ever since - first as the lead singer, principal songwriter and bassist for The Police, a collaboration that produced a series of critically acclaimed best-sellers, five Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the height of the band's success in 1984, Sting started a solo career that includes acting while his music expanded to incorporate elements of jazz, rock, reggae and now classical.

(Soundbite of song, "Englishman in New York")

STING (Musician): (Singing) I don't drink coffee. I take tea, my dear. I like my toast done on one side. But you can hear it in my accent when I talk. I'm an Englishman in New York.

CONAN: Next month, Sting headlines a concert at Carnegie Hall to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Rainforest Foundation, an organization he and his wife founded to help preserve Brazil's Amazon rainforest. And in June, he takes the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra with him on a world tour. You heard them just a bit there.

If you have questions for Sting about his career or his music, our number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And an Englishman joins us from New York. Sting is in our bureau there. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

STING: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And for most of your career, you've worked in small groups. Why now a symphony orchestra?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STING: Well, I've worked with symphony orchestras before, you know, but one-offs, say, at the Grammys or the Oscars...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

STING: ...but just for one song or two. And then last May, I was asked by the Chicago Symphony to put together an hour's program of my own music for their orchestra. It was a benefit concert. And I accepted because I like a challenge. And - but my intention was to ask the orchestra to play in a very rhythmic manner rather than just be sawing whole notes behind a pop ballad. I was going to ask them to do something a little more challenging because I think they'd enjoy it better.

My hunch was correct. The orchestra loved playing it. I had a great time and so did the audience. So I repeated the exercise again with the Philadelphia Orchestra this - earlier this year, and that gave me the confidence to push the button on this tour, which I'm taking the Royal Philharmonic all over the world. We start in Vancouver in June. We're going to play up till Christmas. So I'm very excited, a little anxious but mainly excited.

CONAN: Well, you've toured with rock musicians, you've toured with jazz musicians. What's it going to be like touring with a symphonic orchestra?

STING: Well, yeah, I think the old idea of, you know, symphonic musicians of being sort of long-haired, intellectual snobs is over. I don't think that's the case anymore. Most orchestra members have been brought up with pop music as well, as well as playing classical music so there isn't that snobbery.

And also, I think, as I said, this music that there's enough harmonic movement in the music and enough energy and interest in it for symphonic players to enjoy, so I think it's going to be a successful - what's the word - partnership, yeah.

CONAN: Well, some people might wonder what that young rebel who came out of the north of England 30 years ago would have made with the lush arrangements behind some of your songs now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STING: Well, you know, I was brought up by the BBC in England. It was just like your NPR, and they played everything from Beethoven's "5th" to the Beatles. So I thought of music as being a continuum, as one thing, not a sort of ghettoized, you know, sectioned-off thing. And so classical music has always been a part of my life and my education. In fact, I borrowed from it freely in my entire career. So this is maybe not so much of a surprise to end up here.

I mean, I - this is a great privilege and an honor, but, you know, I think you could draw an arc from the beginning to the end and it wouldn't seem so ridiculous.

CONAN: Let me ask you another question about touring in general. You are a demon, you do all - an 80-city tour. Why do you do this?

STING: I love it. I mean, I can't imagine a better job. You know, I get paid for singing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STING: That's a job I'd actually do for nothing, but let's keep that a secret, okay? But I love my job, I love touring. I like the idea of forward momentum all the time and the audiences. And I'll do it until I die.

CONAN: Well, let's get some listeners in on the conversation and hope that eventuality is very distant in the future.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Bill's on the line from Reno.

BILL (Caller): Oh, hey - geez, my heart is racing. Hi, Sting, how are you?

STING: I'm fine. How are you?

BILL: I'm good. I saw you in the '80s, man. It was amazing. You've broadened my musical influence. I have a question.

STING: Well, that's a nice thing to say.

BILL: I have a question for you. I've always had, ever since I was in high school, a fascination of singers out of England, and my favorite is Rob Halford. I consider him to be technically one of the greatest singers ever.

STING: Yeah.

BILL: What is it about England that produces such great artists and technically singers like Dio, and hard-rock singers and other singers? And who would be your all-time favorite hard0rock singer?

STING: Okay. Well, I think, it's probably to do with the weather. You know, we have a lot of wind in England, and it's noisy. And to get your point across, you have to shout. My first job was selling newspapers on the streets, so I developed healthy lungs. My favorite rock singer is probably Roger Daltrey from The Who.

CONAN: Hmm.

BILL: Oh, yeah. He's great, too.

CONAN: And, Bill, we know there's a lot of wind out in Nevada today, so we hope you're coping with that.

BILL: I'm holding on tight. I'm driving.

CONAN: Hundred-mile-an-hour winds up there. Wow.

BILL: Yeah, it's crazy. Sting, like I said, I saw you in the '80s with the Police in Sacramento, and I'd never heard you before, and I've been a lifelong fan. So, thank you.

STING: Oh, that's very nourishing to hear that. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Bill.

STING: Here's to Reno.

CONAN: Email from Joy: As a former teacher, he has touched my heart with his outreach to help poor kids find happiness through his outreach with friend Bobby Sager. Sting and Bobby designed and had been distributing indestructible soccer balls to children in Third World countries. What's the current status of this mission? I wondered if they've thought about finding a corporate sponsor to help. Maybe they could get a big sponsor to market these balls to the public and donate a portion of the proceeds to indefinitely perpetuate this cause.

STING: Well, it's a good idea to get a corporation to get in on this. I mean, we're at very early stages now. I helped developed this ball. I put the finance into the R and D of it. It seem to me a no-brainer, you know, because a lot of kids and refugee camps in Africa and the rest of the world, they play with footballs made of newspapers or with rags, and they do a very good job. But to give them an indestructible ball is something that will last for a lifetime, that they can use to teach their own kids football with a mentor. There's a mentoring program.

So I think it's a wonderful project. And I'm very proud to be a part of it. I'm hoping we'll get a corporate response soon, particularly with the World Cup coming up in South Africa in June. It would be an ideal vehicle.

CONAN: You're going to take time off from the tour to watch some of those soccer matches?

STING: I'll be on tour at America, so the games will be, I think, around midday.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

STING: Yes, I'll watch England play. I think the first game is England-USA, so I'm very keen to see that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Best watch that one alone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Ace is on the line from Tallahassee.

ACE (Caller): How you doing, Sting? How are you?

STING: I'm good, man. How's Tallahassee?

ACE: It's - the weather's balmy, and the universities are here. That saves the town. So that's a good thing. I saw you in your first tour of the United States in a dive bar in Florida many, many moons ago. But I think, part - my question is - you answered part of it about that continuum, because I've seen so many musicians go, in your case, from the three-piece to the jazz and now to the orchestra. and you just said a moment ago that it was part of the same continuum. But I guess my question would be what would be next, in your mind, after this? Because I think all these different modes are actually a part of the - your own expression, just in a different format.

STING: Well, for me, the key to any music career is surprise and novelty. You know, you never want the audience to be totally comfortable with what you're going to do next. I think they need to be surprised. It's, like, every time you come back, well, what's he going to do now?

It's perfectly possible that I will go back to a small band after this. I like the variety, basically. I'm looking forward to playing with, you know, a 50-piece orchestra, but I like playing with a three-piece. I like playing with a little jazz group. Variety and surprise.

ACE: So you're one of the few musicians that has grown so much over time, and your music is just fabulous. And thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Thanks for the call.

STING: Thank you, sir.

ACE: All right.

CONAN: Email question along the same lines from Rachel in Essex, Massachusetts. Sting, I love your song "La Belle Dame Sans Regrets" off of "Mercury Falling" and know that you speak fluent Portuguese, when are you going to do a collection of Brazilian jazz, ala Antonio Carlos Jobim? The world needs this from Sting.

STING: Does the world really need that? I mean, I'm not so sure. I mean, I'm a huge fan of Jobim's, and I was fortunate enough to know him before he died. I'm not sure if the world is ready for that, but thank you for the compliment. I'm trying to live up to it.

CONAN: Let's go next to Chris, and Chris calling from St. Louis.

CHRIS (Caller): Hi, Sting. I manage the band that was your support band in the first tour of New Zealand. Their name was Penknife Glides, and it was the "Zenyatta Mondatta" tour.

CONAN: Yeah.

CHRIS: And listening to the symphonic strings behind "Roxanne," I can't help but feel the band would want me to ask you - like, they were ska-punk band - like, what happened to the punk attitude?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STING: You know, I think it was a good attitude at the time for a guy in his early 20's. But, you know, I'm 58 now and a little more mellow. I still have that energy, but I'm not sure I have the anger or the sense of righteous...

CHRIS: Indignation (unintelligible)...

STING: ...I had then. But, you know, I can still conjure it up if I need to.

CONAN: Has your voice changed, as well?

STING: I would say my voice has evolved into a more flexible instrument. I can do more with it than I could in the past. I used to sing high to get over the noise of the drums and the guitars. But now I can relax more and sing in a lower register - a little more sinuous, perhaps. But it's growing. It's evolving as an instrument, and that's really was my intention all along.

CONAN: Chris, thanks for the remembrance.

STING: Thank you.

CHRIS: Yeah. It...

CONAN: So long. Here's an email question from Vincent: Your lyrics in the early years were always very literary. Can you talk more about recent literary influences, or at least the books you're currently reading?

STING: I've been reading a lot of history lately. I just read Gore Vidal's book "Julian," about the emperor Julian in the 3rd century A.D., and another book about the history of Alexandria from 300 B.C. up till its demise. I like history. I like ancient history. I think there's a great deal to learn from history, great stories. What else am I reading? I'm not reading any novels at the moment, but I'm enjoying history.

CONAN: Sting is with us from our bureau in New York. He will, in June, appear at a concert in Carnegie Hall in support of the Rainforest Foundation, which he and his wife cofounded. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller in. This is Nathan, Nathan with us from Muncie, Indiana.

NATHAN (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

STING: Hi, Nathan.

NATHAN: Sting, it's such an honor to talk to you. "The Soul Cages" is the single greatest album of all time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STING: Well, thank you. I'm blushing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NATHAN: Me, too. So your last two albums were kind of explorations of classical and folk music, released on the Deutsche Grammophon label. While those were - although they were an incredible albums, I'm curious about whether or not you've been writing any new music of your own. And if so, would Dominic Miller or Kipper be involved?

STING: Well, Dominic and Kipper are, you know, my lifelong friends and compatriots, so yeah, they will be involved in a lot of things I'll do in the future. I think in the past couple of years, I've been on input, as opposed to being on output. I think it's - you can't expect to be on output all the time. You need to - in my case, I just bury myself in somebody else's creative process - like John Dowland or people like that - to learn something. And then once you've climbed out of that, then you can start creating again. But there's time when you need to retreat and look back at what's been done before so that you can move forward. That's my intention, anyway.

CONAN: Nathan...

NATHAN: It worked out great for you and the musical world, in general. So, thank you very much.

STING: Thank you, Nathan.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Nathan. One of your children turns 21, and you're going to have a concert in New York - we mentioned Carnegie Hall - the Rainforest Foundation.

STING: We are. I thought - I think my kid is - Coco's is 20. She's not 21 yet. She hasn't got the key to the door, yet, but she does have a recording career.

CONAN: What's the concert going to be like?

STING: Oh, the concert is interesting. We have - everyone's got a title. We have Lady Gaga. We have Sir Elton John and Dame Shirley Bassey. I'm only a commander of the British Empire, so I'm very low on the pecking order.

CONAN: So I guess that means you have to show up last.

STING: Of course.

CONAN: Yes, absolutely.

STING: I'm very modest.

CONAN: Follow everyone else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here's an email from Tony: Sting, is the music business as we know it for decades dead? What do you see is the arc of the future of the music industry, so a young musical artist might point his career in that direction?

STING: I think that these - saying the music industry is dead is not correct. I think it's changing. And no one really has any idea what it's changing into, least of all me, but it's exciting. There's still the same amount of music in the world, the same amount of people wanting to make music. So that's very encouraging. It's really that the model that will be the future has not yet been formed yet.

A lot of people have the idea that music should be free. I can understand that. At the same time, if you think about - think about it long term, how do people make a living out of making music? So where do the long-term artists come from? I think we need to think long-term.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. It's going to be Sarah, Sarah with us from Willmar in Minnesota.

SARAH (Caller): Hi, Sting. It's an honor to speak to you.

STING: And to you.

SARAH: I have a question regarding the song "Fields of Gold." I was wondering: What is your inspiration behind writing that song?

STING: Well, I have a lovely house in England in the County of Wiltshire, quite near Stonehenge. And from my house to Stonehenge is a about three-mile walk through fields of barley. And in the harvest season, it just looks like a sea of gold. It's waving in the wind. It's a very beautiful, beautiful image. And I wrote the song, really, as a song about continuity, about how the seasons change, but they keep coming back. The song's about family and, you know, loyalty and all of that good stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SARAH: My fiance and I just plan on having it as our wedding song, so I wanted to thank you myself.

STING: Oh, well, that's lovely. I wish you the best of luck with your marriage.

CONAN: Does that description, Sarah, comport with your image of the song?

SARAH: Oh, most definitely. It's a beautiful song. I just love it.

CONAN: Well...

STING: Thank you.

CONAN: ...congratulations on the marriage, and good luck.

SARAH: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for your time today. Sting was with us from our bureau in New York. His world tour kicks off on June 2nd in Vancouver, British Columbia. To see a complete list of tour dates, visit our Web site at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Sting joined us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much.

STING: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: Your - tomorrow, a pinstriped edition of Political Junkie. NPR political editor - as usual - Ken Rudin will be here with us, plus the two candidates for the Democratic Senate seat nomination in Arkansas.

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