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Sting back to rock and striving to stay optimistic
[NEW YORK] As Sting took up the refugee crisis for his latest album, he met in Berlin with musicians who fled Syria. The rock legend asked for their permission to record his song.
"I felt it was important to have that sanction," Sting told AFP of the track Inshallah, in which he envisions himself on a boat like a refugee desperate for safety.
The song appears on Sting's album 57th and 9th, which comes out Nov 11 and marks the most rock-driven work in years by the former Police frontman.
The long politically engaged artist and Amnesty International supporter, who turns 65 on Oct 2, also reflects somberly on his own mortality on the album.
Sting asked the Syrians to share their stories and performed with them a version of Inshallah - which means "God willing" in Arabic - for the album's deluxe edition.
"'Inshallah' is a beautiful word from the Arabic language which is kind of resignation - it's God's will, it shall be - or it's a word that describes some sort of hope, courage," Sting said.
"I don't know what the political solution is," Sting said of the refugee crisis that brought more than one million asylum seekers to Europe's shores last year alone.
"But I think if there is a solution, it has to be rooted in empathy - for the victims of the war that's going on in Syria at the moment for example, the victims of poverty in Africa, and perhaps in the future the victims of global warming."
Climate change also figures on the album in the track One Fine Day in which Sting playfully prays that skeptics are right and that the planet's fast-rising temperatures are all a hoax.
"I would love everything to be fine and for us just to carry on what we're doing with impunity. But of course all of the scientific evidence is pointing the other way," he said.
Sting said he chooses to remain upbeat despite what he sees as a rightward turn in the world.
"As a life strategy I've thought that optimism was the best route to take in most things, and I still do, but it's getting more difficult to be optimistic," he said.
"I think the strongman trope - the man we have in Turkey or in Russia or in the Philippines - people wanting this strong alpha male, chest-beating type of leader, and the Trump phenomenon here, it would indicate a certain anxiety and fear in the world generally. And of course they feed on that, and they feed it," he said.
57th and 9th opens in robust rock form with I Can't Stop Thinking About You, a love song with a charging drive.
Sting's studio return to his rock roots comes after a decade of experimentation including a lute album, a symphonic interpretation of Police songs and the Broadway musical The Last Ship about his shipbuilding hometown in northern England.
After selling more than 100 million albums, Sting said he was fortunate not to worry about commercial considerations - but wanted a change.
"The most important aspect of music, in my opinion, is surprise," he said.
The album's title came from the Manhattan intersection where Sting, who lives with his actress wife Trudie Styler near Central Park, would cross each day as he walked to the studio.
New York "has always inspired me - its architectural drama, the clamour of the city, the traffic, the noise. You see stories on the street - you hear stories, people speaking very loudly on the phone, very intimate conversations," he said with a laugh.
Yet Sting said he appreciated the city as an outsider.
"I'm an Englishman in New York," he said with a smile as he referenced one of his best-known songs.
"I'm still very much that alien, and enjoy that."
Conscious of being a foreigner, Sting steers clear of partisan stands on US politics, although he said he was following the election "extremely closely" and quipped that few people would have trouble guessing where he stood.
He shows no such reticence on British politics, saying he was "horrified" by the June 23 vote to leave the European Union after a campaign full of "fear-mongering nonsense".
Despite appearing in strong health, Sting is increasingly reflective after the deaths this year of fellow music greats including David Bowie and Prince.
On the new album's song 50,000, Sting sings to a rock guitar about past glories and staring himself down in the bathroom mirror.
Sting said that, with more than half of his life clearly behind him, it was time to reflect on death.
"That's not to be morbid. I think to accept one's mortality is actually enriching because every day counts, every experience counts."