Notes from Rick Beato’s Sting Interview

This interview is a must listen for songwriters. Topics include the essence of music, the process for crafting a song, the importance of having “flagship” songs, JS Bach, and modern music.

Along with his Pat Metheny interview, this is one of my favorite interviews by Rick Beato.

Full interview:

Essence of music is surprise (0:45)

In the song “I Burn For You” the melody uses the Aeolian mode (flat sixth), technique of using “haunting tones” to surprise the listener.

“The essence of all music is surprise, when I listen to a piece of music, if I’m not surprised in the first eight bars, I stop listening, I’ve switched off, I need surprise…”

“Composition is not about theory for me, it’s about instinct…”

Sting loves 3/4 and 6/8 time, adores the feel of a waltz. 

I’m not here to belong to a genre, or adapt myself to any rules, I just do what I instinctively want to do…”

Process for crafting a song (3:00)

Start with a germ of an idea, maybe your fingers found something on the instrument, a guitar riff, a spark that is the first building block.

Then establish the structure of the song. Can be a very traditional structure: Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Bridge, Key change, Coda

The traditional structure is ideal for me, even though it’s not terribly fashionable at the moment…” 

“The structure tells me a story. Some people listen to music and they see color. I see characters. I see situations. I hear lines that people say. It’s the music that’s telling me the story. But it needs structure. A riff on its own won’t do that…”

On writing “Fortress Around Your Heart” (4:45)

It starts with three chords, and then I just go on an adventure with it, find it, it writes itself, you just have to be open to it, in a state of grace, the music will tell you where it goes next…”

“I’m not a trained musician, I’m not a conservatory musician, I just have this trust that harmony will lead me in the right direction…”

On musicians that are formally trained (5:45)

Going to a music conservatory exercises a different kind of muscle.

I know some amazing musicians that can play anything, but don’t write…”

On writing “Shape Of My Heart” (6:19)

Dom came in with this fantastic riff, beautiful cadence…a Bach like descending bass line. We spent the morning structuring it, making it into a song. Verse here, key change there…”

Sting goes for a long walk with the song in his headphones, a few hours later has a concept of what the song is telling him, the concept of a gambler, the music tells him the story.

I came up with that motif as an exercise for myself, a warm up exercise based on 6th chords. That took inspiration from Chopin piano type chords. A similar approach to how John McLaughlin would write chord sequences, he wasn’t articulating the 3rd very much, it was about the 6th. I was just having fun with that…”

Dominic Miller

It was Sting’s imagination as a songwriter, a perfect example of collaboration, he was the one that said that’s a song. I said it’s just an exercise mate…and he goes in the garden and comes back with a lyric. That song was written in a day, it was just done…”

Dominic Miller

I’m a heavy metal singer (10:34)

Most heavy metal singers sing in a high register, so I’m a heavy metal singer…”

“To get above the noise of the band, you need that register…”

Transitioning from The Police to solo (13:00)

I was song driven, and not necessarily band driven. I then started to form bands which could play whatever I wanted to write…”

“The Police was one thing, it needed to be just The Police, but I wanted to spread out a little more…”

Dominic’s audition for the band (17:20)

Dom arrived in New York and it was taking a while to set up his guitar gear. He wasn’t getting the sound he wanted and couldn’t figure out what was going on. Sting eventually identified the problem, the guitar volume knob was turned down.

We jammed and I wasn’t really nervous at that point because I thought that I had already lost the gig…”

Dominic Miller

If you have to define what I am, I am a popular musician. I like to sell records. And that demands flagships. Songs that can get on the radio. At that time you needed at least two songs that could get on the radio…”

Knowing if the song is a Flagship song (21:50)

Will play a new song for close acquaintances to get a sense of the reaction.

But I also have an instinct, a very finely-honed instinct for it, some things will never get on the radio and you don’t care, they are good pieces of work anyway, but they need to be boosted by the flagship…”

Theory of creativity (22:30)

“My theory of creativity is like fishing, you go to the river, you throw a line in, and you don’t catch anything. The next day the same. The next day the same. Maybe by Thursday you catch a fish. But I know this, unless you go to the river with a line, you ain’t gonna catch a fish. Turn up. Turn up to the studio with the musicians, be patient, something will happen…”

The whole song writing enterprise is fraught with anxiety, will I ever write another song, will I ever write one as good as that one…so you finish a song and that feeling of calm and satisfaction lasts about 20 minutes and then it’s where is the next one…”

Music is a three-dimensional puzzle (23:30)

No one method to write a song. I’ve started with a lyric first. Messing around is a good start. Play around, change the tempo, change the key, it’s elastic, you just have fun. You sit on it for a while, go for a walk…ok I know what to do with it now…”

“It’s a jigsaw, I like puzzles, music for me is a three-dimensional puzzle…”

On being the singer and bass player (27:40)

It’s a very interesting place to lead a band from, being the singer and bass player. The keyboard player can play a C chord, but unless I play a C, it’s not a C chord. I control the harmony, I’m also controlling the top line because I’m singing it. The band is literally operating within my bandwidth, it’s a subtle way of leading a band…”

“I adore my musicians shining, it makes my job easier…I give you the ball, you gotta run with it…”

On practice (29:40)

You can play anything if you slow it down…”

“I still practice, there’s no other way…”

I practice Bach actually, very badly, very slowly, that’s my kind of thing…I learned a very good practice lesson from Jason Rebello, if it sounds good when you’re practicing, you’re doing it wrong…”

Dominic Miller

The musician you’d go back in time to hear (30:45)

It would be JS Bach for both of us, we sit at his feet everyday, we play a bit of Bach everyday, a bit of the cello suites, a bit of the partitas, you wouldn’t want to hear what we do, but we’re learning…”

Modern music and the bridge (31:35)

Modern music structure is simpler now. It’s minimalist and the bridge has disappeared.

For me, the bridge is therapy, you set a situation out in a song…my girlfriend left me…I’m lonely…chorus…you re-iterate that again, and then you get to the bridge, a different chord comes in…you start thinking maybe she’s not the only girl on the block, maybe I should look elsewhere…and that viewpoint leads to a key change…and the coda…and it’s not so bad…so it’s kind of therapy…”

“Modern music is circular, it’s a trap that goes round-and-round-and-round, it fits nicely into the next song, but you aren’t getting the release that there is a way out of our crisis…”

The Beatles (37:30)

The reason I’m a musician is because of The Beatles…they conquered the world with their songs, and they gave permission to a younger generation to try the same thing…ok we’ll try that…I know those four chords…I could do that probably…and we all tried…we all owe a lot to The Beatles… ”

Albums (46:22)

I still think in that model of A-sides and B-sides, putting a song at the end of Side A so you’d be compelled to turn it over…”

“I think in terms of albums, I think about people buying our records, listening to it for 40 minutes, I may be being naïve and unrealistic…”

A song is a living organism (49:40)

When performing songs Sting will add slight variations in either his bass playing or vocal performance.

A song is a living artifact, it’s an organism, it’s not a museum piece…so you have to breathe oxygen into it…”