MC: Calling the album 57th & 9th implies that your surroundings at the time had a significant impact on it.
Sting: Yeah. That was a wonderful part of the process, living in New York and walking to work every day and having that privilege of walking to work. I find the binary act of walking creative anyway. It's rare now; Most people have to commute or they're stuck at home behind a computer. Actually walking to work is a very noble and useful thing for me. New York is a stimulating city on every level. It's dramatic. It's architecturally dramatic. It has a social drama. You can't really resist the noise, so walking to work and then back home every day became a kind of playlist for a lot of thinking. Ideas would occur to me on the way home, and at that corner, 57th and 9th, you're forced to stop at it almost every time you go because traffic is so busy.
It allowed me to sort of stand for a few minutes waiting for the lights and ponder, take stock, say, "Okay, what am I doing in my life?" or "How fortunate my life is, that this is my work and this is my city and I'm being asked to do things that are pleasurable rather than something that I dread doing."
MC: Was there a first song that came along for this one?
Sting: I think it was the first song on the record, which is called "I Can't Stop Thinking About You"—which of course sounds like a love song, but is in fact a song about the obsessive nature of searching for inspiration or for a theme for a song. Like I said before, you're hunting this ephemeral creature, and that is an obsessive compulsive disorder, constantly thinking of a song, a subject, a story.
MC: "One Fine Day" sounds like it could have a double meaning, too.
Sting: Y'know, that's my ironic take on climate change denial, and rather than standing on a soap box and saying, "You're All Crazy," or all wrong I've done it in a slightly more subtle way, putting myself in the middle of this argument between apologists and people who are generally afraid of what's happening in our climate and how responsible we are. I think we must somehow have a more powerful effect on climate—political climate, too—than we maybe imagine.
MC: Making the album in New York you were in Donald Trump ground zero during the presidential campaign. Did that make any impact?
Sting: Well, I was writing the album with no real confidence that he would get in. Nonetheless there was a threat there, and when I hear people in responsible positions saying climate change is a hoax and 98.9 percent of the scientists in the world are saying, "No, it's not a hoax. It actually is very real. The ice caps are melting. Sea levels are rising. The glaciers are disappearing. People can't breathe in Shanghai and there are floods," then you have to say that for sure we're playing a part in this thing. But I didn't want to be to heavy-handed in a song; I don't think that serves a purpose well. I was just kind of even-handed, if a little ironic.
The basis of the song is a quote by William Blake, even though I didn't use it, which is "a man who persists in his follow will become wise," and I think we can, the whole species. One day we'll be wise; I just hope it's before it's too late.
MC: You got an Academy Award nomination for the track "The Empty Chair" (from Jim: The James Foley Story). How did that come about?
Sting: I was asked to watch the documentary about Jim Foley, the American photojournalist who was murdered by Isis in 2014, and I watched a very harrowing and very compelling and inspiring story of his life, and at they end of the thing they asked me to write a song. I said I couldn't possibly write a song about this subject. It's too heavy. I don't know how to do that. I think it's beyond my powers. It's a fantastic film and an inspiring film, but it's not the sort of thing you want to write a song for, in my opinion.
MC: So what changed your mind?
Sting: I went home and it was Thanksgiving, and some of my family were around the table, and my wife, and I thought, "I wonder what I would feel like as a parent if one of my kids were in captivity somewhere and I didn't know if they were coming back or how they were being treated or whether they were alive, even. How would I feel?" And then I saw a chair that was empty and I thought, "That's what I'd probably do, some ritualized prayer that perhaps by leaving the chair it would be filled one day by this person." And once I'd found that metaphor, then the song came easily. I wrote the song that night and sent it to them, and they were over the moon.
MC: No shame in losing to La La Land, though.
Sting: (laughs) No. But my interest in the campaign is I'd like more people to see this movie, because it is really, especially at this time, an example of true American heroism, compassionate heroism, real courage under extraordinary circumstances. It's very quiet, but it's powerful. It's not a kind of shoot 'em up heroism that we tend to see in movies. This is something different. It's a privilege to get to know this man who was murdered so brutally and so publicly. It's harrowing.
But I think the job of the song is to get people back into one place so they can leave the cinema not being in a pool of tears.