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“It was Thanksgiving,” says Sting, the legendary singer-songwriter-bassist, as we sit down in Malibu to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “I was sitting with my kids around the table and I thought, ‘Well, God, if one of my kids was in captivity, how would I feel and what would I do? I’d probably set a place for them — a chair and a place-setting to honor them — in the hope that they’d fill it at some point.’ And then, once I’d thought of that, I went, ‘Oh, that’s the metaphor!'”
Days earlier, the 65-year-old Brit, who became world-famous as the frontman for the punk rock band The Police nearly 40 years ago before embarking on a hugely successful solo career, had been approached by J. Ralph, a twice Oscar-nominated songwriter, about collaborating on a tune for the documentary Jim: The James Foley Story, about a freelance American war correspondent who was killed in Syria in 2014. “I said ‘no,'” Sting recalls. “And then I said, ‘Give me a day or two to think about it,'” and requested a copy of a letter Foley had sent to his family that is referenced in the doc.
After his Thanksgiving epiphany, he says, he went back to that letter “and cherry-picked things that Jim’s family had said about Jim or Jim had said about his life, and compiled the song from those elements. And I sent it the next morning to Josh.”” The song, which they called “The Empty Chair,” plays over the doc’s end-credits. (“It’s very specific for this story and it’s also very universal,” he says. “It’s something everyone can understand.”) And it could bring them a best original song Oscar nomination.
(Click above to listen to this episode or here to access all of our 100+ episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Robert De Niro, Amy Schumer, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Sally Field, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, Tyler Perry, Kate Winslet, Michael Moore, Helen Mirren, J.J. Abrams, Taraji P. Henson, Warren Beatty, Kate Beckinsale, Michael Eisner, Brie Larson, RuPaul and Natalie Portman.)
Gordon Sumner was born and raised in a shipping town in northeast England. A “dreamer,” he constantly imagined a better life for himself, and when an uncle left behind a Spanish guitar at his house, he found his path to one. “It became my best friend,” he says, noting that the arrival of The Beatles shortly thereafter showed him it was possible for someone from a northern industrial town to write their own music and perform it around the world. As he arrived at adulthood, he worked a string of regular jobs by day (civil servant, teacher, etc.), but continued to play music with a variety of bands by night. “I’m grateful for that rather wide-ranging experience,” he says.
A fun fact: he got his nickname at 18 because he refused to wear one band’s uniform. “My girlfriend had knit me a top, which was kind of black and yellow hoops,” he recalls with a chuckle, “which I thought looked really cool. And, of course, the band laughed at this outrageous costume of mine and thought I looked like a bee or a wasp, and then started to call me ‘Sting.’ And the name just stayed with me.”
Sting headed south in 1977, arriving in London just as a new sort of music was becoming popular: punk. A drummer named Stewart Copeland invited him to join forces in “a punk band inspired by The Sex Pistols” called The Police. The name apparently was chosen because Copeland’s father was a founding member of the CIA. “I just went along with it,” Sting says, noting that the original guitarist soon was replaced by Andy Summers. After a year of struggle, The Police stole a tape and recorded their master over another band’s; headed to America; and, thanks to the song “Roxanne,” suddenly caught on in a massive way. “It kind of went viral, and as we were touring around America in a station wagon, driving ourselves, we’d hear our song,” he recalls. “I’m grateful for those years of struggle [before that], those years of not being sure where the next meal was coming from.”
Over the next seven years, Sting wrote and The Police performed a slew of other songs that became hugely popular, including the iconic “Every Breath You Take” (“I often ponder why this song is so successful,” he comments), “Message in a Bottle,” “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and “Can’t Stand Losing You.” Then, in 1983, after having released five studio albums and won six Grammys, Sting put The Police on a hiatus and eventually disbanded it. “I found myself in the biggest band in the world at the time — hugely successful — and I made another counterintuitive decision to stop that and begin again,” he reflects. “I couldn’t rationalize it at the time, but my intuition was telling me that that was the thing to do, despite it seeming odd.” He continues, “The Police were a fantastic group, but we were defined by limitation. There were only three of us and it was a very signature sound, but it could only go so far. My interest was in songwriting, so I wanted a larger vehicle for songwriting than just The Police.” (The Police reunited for a single in 1986 and a tour in 2007.)
As a solo artist, Sting feels he gained “a wider palette to paint with.” He came up with other hits song like “If You Love Somebody Then Set Them Free,” “Fragile” and “Fields of Gold.” He put out an album of 16th-century art songs performed on a lute — which was a hit in its own right. And he even composed a semi-autobiographical musical for Broadway, The Last Ship, which he describes as “the most challenging, difficult, enjoyable, demanding five years of my life.” Last month, he released “57th and 9th,” his 12th solo LP, which marks a return to the sound of The Police, and he also reopened the Bataclan, the French concert venue attacked by terrorists a year earlier. Now he’s focused on getting people to see Jim: The James Foley Story, which premiered at Sundance back in January (he and J. Ralph performed “The Empty Chair” there for Foley’s family and others) and began airing on HBO in February.
“The film is remarkable because you actually get to know this man and fall in love with him in many ways because he’s a true American hero,” Sting says, emphasizing that Foley’s sort of heroism is “grounded in compassion and caring and genuine courage.” He calls Foley’s life “an inspiring story” emblematic of “the kind of Americanism that the world needs.” While Jim did not land on the shortlist for the best documentary feature Oscar that was released on Tuesday, it still could become an Oscar-nominated film if “The Empty Chair” is recognized with what would be Sting’s fourth personal nomination, following best original song noms for “My Funny Friend and Me” in 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove, “Until” in 2001’s Kate & Leopold and for “You Will Be My Ain True Love” in 2003’s Cold Mountain.
Sting’s focus, though, squarely is on the music. “For me,” he explains poetically, “music is an ocean without a coastline. Its depth is limitless. I’m just swimming in that thing and seeing where it takes me.”
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