Sting and his wife Trudie keep with tradition on Christmas Eve: They go to a local church, sing along to carols, then head back home to their English estate to open presents with their family.
It's a cheery scene one would expect during the holiday season. But that kind of celebratory mood is absent on his latest album, "If On A Winter's Night."
Instead, the seasonal offering features the rocker's interpretations of traditional British songs, ranging from carols to lullabies, that somberly mark the winter season — definitely not the kind of music for that tree-trimming party.
"I wanted to present something slightly different," explains a bearded Sting, talking about the album while sitting in his Upper West Side apartment.
"There's a fault with a lot of Christmas songs; they are a little bit triumphal: 'Isn't life wonderful, God's in his heaven and I'm rich,'" laughs Sting. "They sort of forget a lot of people aren't."
"If On A Winter's Night," which Sting will present in a "Great Performances" concert on PBS on Thanksgiving, doesn't forget. In a recent interview, Sting explained why he felt compelled to make the CD, being middle aged and why he's not giving up on his rock roots.
The Associated Press: Had you rejected doing a traditional Christmas album in the past?
Sting: I don't think there's any need for me to do one of those kind of records. I think there are enough of them out there and my feeling toward the season is a little bit more ambiguous (laughs). So just to be truthful to my own sensibility, I need to acknowledge that the season is not all joy and light for a lot of people. It's tough — environmentally, emotionally, spiritually. So I wanted to achieve some sort of balance between that sense of traditional Christmas and being home and being warm and being cozy, and also the opposite of those things. A lot of people suffer.
AP: When the leaves start to fall and the snow comes, what do you start to think about?
Sting: At this particular time, preparing for the winter of one's life. I'm 58. I'm not in the winter of my life but I'm definitely preparing for it, so it reminds you of your mortality, the short span of years we have on the planet, what to do with that, how to be useful, how to be meaningful.
AP: How does one prepare for that?
Sting: I don't know yet (laughs). I think this kind of work for me, this kind of creative work, is my preparation. This is my realm. I did a lot of research for this record. I looked at songs from all different cultures and time periods and genre, anything that mentions snow, ice cold wind or Christmas, and arrived at like 15 or 16 songs that encapsulated my feeling about it. All of the songs are kind of magical. All the stories have a kind of spooky, ghostly quality about them because I think winter's the seasons of ghosts... I like the season, I like it, I look forward to it, but at the same time, it has a scary aspect to it.
AP: Some of these songs are centuries old. Did you consider doing new songs?
Sting: That would have been nice but at the moment in my career, I seem to be interpreting material rather than writing it. I haven't stopped writing. It just seems your career goes through cycles where sometimes you're there to learn. I'm learning to interpret other people's work and immerse yourself in other people's work. It's a good thing to do.
AP: There are always people who want to hear the "pop" Sting. What do you say to that?
Sting: I mix it up all the time. I did a rock gig last week with my band in Asia. I'm constantly doing different stuff, and of course I go back to rock 'n' roll, but I would have learned something from another area and bring something back. I'm not one of these guys who can stay in the same rut. I constantly want to find out new things. I'm curious.
AP: A lot of artists prefer to stick to what's been successful.
Sting: I'm not saying they're wrong. I mean, sometimes you can be rewarded for doing that commercially, at least. It's just not me (laughs). I tend to have made my decisions against that kind of logic. In other words, what I would find safe and logical was the opposite to what I felt I should do. Stay in a successful band like The Police? Yeah, you would think, well, that's what you do. They're the biggest band in the world, right, so you just stick with it. My instincts said, no, go the other way, and see what happens. Keep making pop records on my own? No. Try doing 16th-century art songs and see what happens. I think you're always rewarded by taking a risk.
AP: Do you still feel the push to create that big hit that lives in the public consciousness?
Sting: That's a nice feeling to have that, when people are whistling your song in the street, or you're walking past the shop and you hear it blaring or a car goes by. Oh, that's a great feeling, to have a hit record. It's fantastic. You can't have that all your life (laughs). There's a time when your interests are more esoteric. A little bit more refined, so the popular taste maybe bypasses what you do. My career has largely bypassed popular tastes... I enjoyed having hit records but at the same time, I don't mind not having hit records, as long as I'm making music.