23:16
TED2014

Sting: How I started writing songs again

Filmed:

Sting’s early life was dominated by a shipyard—and he dreamed of nothing more than escaping the industrial drudgery. But after a nasty bout of writer’s block that stretched on for years, Sting found himself channeling the stories of the shipyard workers he knew in his youth for song material. In a lyrical, confessional talk, Sting treats us to songs from his upcoming musical, and to an encore of “Message in a Bottle.”

- Composer, singer, author, actor, activist
He’s sold more than 100 million albums and earned 16 Grammy Awards, yet Sting continues to surprise. His fourteenth solo album, The Last Ship, features songs from his Broadway-bound musical of the same name. Full bio

(Music)
00:13
♪ It's all there in gospels ♪
00:16
♪A Magdalene girl comes to pay her respects ♪
00:19
♪ But her mind is awhirl ♪
00:23
♪ When she finds the tomb empty ♪
00:24
♪ Straw had been rolled ♪
00:27
♪ Not a sign of a corpse ♪
00:29
♪ In the dark and the cold ♪
00:31
♪ When she reaches the door ♪
00:33
♪ Sees an unholy sight ♪
00:35
♪ There's a solitary figure and a halo of light ♪
00:37
♪ He just carries on floating past Calvary Hill ♪
00:41
♪ In an Almighty hurry ♪
00:45
♪ Aye, but she might catch him still ♪
00:46
♪ Tell me where are you gone, Lord ♪
00:49
♪ And why in such haste? ♪
00:51
♪ Oh don't hinder me, woman ♪
00:53
♪ I've no time to waste ♪
00:55
♪ For they're launching a boat
on the morrow at noon ♪
00:57
♪ And I have to be there before daybreak ♪
01:01
♪ Oh I cannot be missing ♪
01:05
♪ The lads'll expect me ♪
01:07
♪ Why else would the Good
Lord Himself resurrect me? ♪
01:09
♪ For nothing'll stop me. I have to prevail ♪
01:13
♪ Through the teeth of this tempest ♪
01:16
♪ In the mouth of a gale ♪
01:19
♪ May the angels protect me ♪
01:21
♪ If all else should fail ♪
01:23
♪ And the last ship sails ♪
01:25
♪ Oh the roar of the chains ♪
01:28
♪ And the cracking of timbers ♪
01:32
♪ The noise at the end of the world in your ears ♪
01:33
♪ As a mountain of steel makes its way to the sea ♪
01:37
♪ And the last ship sails ♪
01:42
So I was born and raised
01:48
in the shadow of a shipyard
01:50
in a little town on the northeast coast of England.
01:53
Some of my earliest memories
01:57
are of giant ships
01:59
blocking the end of my street,
02:01
as well as the sun, for a lot of the year.
02:04
Every morning as a child,
02:07
I'd watch thousands of men walk down that hill
02:09
to work in the shipyard.
02:12
I'd watch those same men
02:14
walking back home every night.
02:15
It has to be said, the shipyard was not
02:18
the most pleasant place to live next door to,
02:20
or indeed work in.
02:24
The shipyard was noisy, dangerous,
02:26
highly toxic,
02:29
with an appalling health and safety record.
02:31
Despite that, the men and women
02:35
who worked on those ships
02:38
were extraordinarily proud of the work they did,
02:40
and justifiably so.
02:43
Some of the largest vessels
02:45
ever constructed on planet Earth
02:46
were built right at the end of my street.
02:48
My grandfather had been a shipwright,
02:52
and as a child,
02:55
as there were few other jobs in the town,
02:56
I would wonder with some anxiety
02:58
whether that would be my destiny too.
03:01
I was fairly determined that it wouldn't be.
03:04
I had other dreams,
03:07
not necessarily practical ones,
03:09
but at the age of eight,
03:11
I was bequeathed a guitar.
03:13
It was a battered old thing
03:16
with five rusty strings, and was out of tune,
03:17
but quickly I learned to play it
03:21
and realized that I'd found a friend for life,
03:23
an accomplice, a co-conspirator
03:29
in my plan to escape from this surreal
03:31
industrial landscape.
03:35
Well, they say if you dream something hard enough,
03:38
it will come to pass.
03:40
Either that, or I was extremely lucky,
03:42
but this was my dream.
03:44
I dreamt I would leave this town,
03:46
and just like those ships,
03:47
once they were launched, I'd never come back.
03:49
I dreamt I'd become a writer of songs,
03:52
that I would sing those songs
03:56
to vast numbers of people all over the world,
03:57
that I would be paid extravagant amounts of money,
04:00
that I'd become famous,
04:04
that I'd marry a beautiful woman,
04:06
have children, raise a family,
04:09
buy a big house in the country,
04:12
keep dogs, grow wine,
04:14
have rooms full of Grammy Awards,
04:16
platinum discs, and what have you.
04:18
So far, so good, right? (Laughter)
04:22
And then one day, the songs stopped coming,
04:26
and while you've suffered from periods
04:31
of writer's block before, albeit briefly,
04:33
this is something chronic.
04:36
Day after day, you face a blank page,
04:38
and nothing's coming.
04:41
And those days turned to
weeks, and weeks to months,
04:42
and pretty soon those months
04:44
have turned into years
04:46
with very little to show for your efforts. No songs.
04:47
So you start asking yourself questions.
04:52
What have I done to offend the gods
04:55
that they would abandon me so?
04:57
Is the gift of songwriting taken away
05:00
as easily as it seems to have been bestowed?
05:03
Or perhaps there's a more --
05:06
a deeper psychological reason.
05:08
It was always a Faustian pact anyway.
05:10
You're rewarded for revealing
05:14
your innermost thoughts,
05:16
your private emotions on the page
05:18
for the entertainment of others,
05:20
for the analysis, the scrutiny of others,
05:21
and perhaps you've given enough
05:27
of your privacy away.
05:29
And yet, if you look at your work,
05:31
could it be argued that your best work
05:35
wasn't about you at all,
05:37
it was about somebody else?
05:39
Did your best work occur
05:41
when you sidestepped your own ego
05:43
and you stopped telling your story,
05:47
but told someone else's story,
05:48
someone perhaps without a voice,
05:50
where empathetically, you stood in his shoes
05:53
for a while or saw the world through his eyes?
05:55
Well they say, write what you know.
05:59
If you can't write about yourself anymore,
06:03
then who do you write about?
06:04
So it's ironic that the landscape
06:07
I'd worked so hard to escape from,
06:10
and the community that I'd more or less abandoned
06:12
and exiled myself from
06:14
should be the very landscape,
06:17
the very community I would have to return to
06:19
to find my missing muse.
06:22
And as soon as I did that,
06:25
as soon as I decided to honor the community
06:27
I came from and tell their story,
06:29
that the songs started to come thick and fast.
06:33
I've described it as a kind of projectile vomiting,
06:36
a torrent of ideas, of characters, of voices,
06:42
of verses, couplets, entire songs
06:48
almost formed whole,
06:51
materialized in front of me
06:54
as if they'd been bottled up inside me
06:56
for many, many years.
06:57
One of the first things I wrote was just a list of names
06:59
of people I'd known,
07:02
and they become characters
07:04
in a kind of three-dimensional drama,
07:05
where they explain who they are, what they do,
07:07
their hopes and their fears for the future.
07:11
This is Jackie White.
07:15
He's the foreman of the shipyard.
07:16
My name is Jackie White,
07:20
and I'm foreman of the yard,
07:22
and you don't mess with Jackie on this quayside.
07:23
I'm as hard as iron plate,
07:26
woe betide you if you're late
07:28
when we have to push a boat out on the spring tide.
07:30
Now you can die and hope for heaven,
07:33
but you need to work your shift,
07:35
and I'd expect you all to back us to the hilt,
07:37
for if St. Peter at his gate
07:40
were to ask you why you're late,
07:42
why, you tell him that you had to get a ship built.
07:44
We build battleships and cruisers
07:47
for Her Majesty the Queen,
07:48
supertankers for Onassis,
and all the classes in between,
07:50
We built the greatest ship in tonnage
07:54
what the world has ever seen
07:56
♪ And the only life worth knowing is in the shipyard ♪
08:00
♪ Steel in the stockyard, iron in the soul ♪
08:04
♪ Would conjure up a ship ♪
08:07
♪ Where there used to be a hull ♪
08:08
♪ And we don't know what we'll do ♪
08:12
♪ If this yard gets sold ♪
08:14
♪ For the only life worth knowing is in the shipyard ♪
08:17
(Applause)
08:22
So having decided to write about other people
08:27
instead of myself,
08:30
a further irony is that sometimes you reveal
08:33
more about yourself than you'd ever intended.
08:35
This song is called "Dead Man's Boots,"
08:38
which is an expression
08:39
which describes how difficult it is to get a job;
08:40
in other words, you'd only get a job in the shipyard
08:43
if somebody else died.
08:46
Or perhaps your father could finagle you
08:48
an apprenticeship at the age of 15.
08:50
But sometimes a father's love can be misconstrued
08:54
as controlling,
08:56
and conversely, the scope of his son's ambition
08:58
can seem like some pie-in-the-sky fantasy.
09:01
(Music)
09:05
♪ You see these work boots in my hands ♪
09:10
♪ They'll probably fit you now, my son ♪
09:13
♪ Take them, they're a gift from me ♪
09:16
♪ Why don't you try them on? ♪
09:18
♪ It would do your old man good to see ♪
09:21
♪ You walking in these boots one day ♪
09:24
♪ And take your place among the men ♪
09:26
♪ Who work upon the slipway ♪
09:29
♪ These dead man's boots,
though they're old and curled ♪
09:32
♪ When a fellow needs a job and a place in the world ♪
09:35
♪ And it's time for a man to put down roots ♪
09:38
♪ And walk to the river in his old man's boots ♪
09:42
♪ He said, "I'm dying, son, and asking ♪
09:50
♪ That you do one final thing for me ♪
09:53
♪ You're barely but a sapling,
and you think that you're a tree ♪
09:56
♪ If you need a seed to prosper ♪
10:01
♪ You must first put down some roots ♪
10:04
♪ Just one foot then the other in ♪
10:07
♪ These dead man's boots" ♪
10:09
♪ These dead man's boots,
though they're old and curled ♪
10:12
♪ When a fellow needs a job and a place in the world ♪
10:15
♪ And it's time for a man to put down roots ♪
10:18
♪ And walk to the river in his old man's boots ♪
10:23
♪ I said, "Why in the hell would I do that? ♪
10:28
♪ Why would I agree?" ♪
10:31
♪ When his hand was all that I'd received ♪
10:33
♪ As far as I remember ♪
10:36
♪ It's not as if he'd spoiled me with his kindness ♪
10:39
♪ Up to then, you see ♪
10:42
♪ I'd a plan of my own and I'd quit this place ♪
10:44
♪ When I came of age September ♪
10:47
♪ These dead man's boots
know their way down the hill ♪
10:49
♪ They could walk there themselves,
and they probably will ♪
10:53
♪ I've plenty of choices, I've plenty other routes ♪
10:55
♪ And you'll never see me walking
in these dead man's boots ♪
11:00
♪ What was it made him think ♪
11:06
♪ I'd be happy ending up like him ♪
11:08
♪ When he'd hardly got two halfpennies left ♪
11:11
♪ Or a broken pot to piss in? ♪
11:13
♪ He wanted this same thing for me ♪
11:16
♪ Was that his final wish? ♪
11:19
♪ He said, "What the hell are you gonna do?" ♪
11:21
♪ I said, "Anything but this!" ♪
11:24
♪ These dead man's boots
know their way down the hill ♪
11:27
♪ They can walk there themselves
and they probably will ♪
11:30
♪ But they won't walk with me
‘cause I'm off the other way ♪
11:33
♪ I've had it up to here, I'm gonna have my say ♪
11:36
♪ When all you've got left is that cross on the wall ♪
11:38
♪ I want nothing from you, I want nothing at all ♪
11:41
♪ Not a pension, nor a pittance,
when your whole life is through ♪
11:44
♪ Get this through your head, I'm nothing like you ♪
11:47
♪ I'm done with all the arguments,
there'll be no more disputes ♪
11:50
♪ And you'll die before you see
me in your dead man's boots ♪
11:55
(Applause)
12:04
Thank you.
12:13
So whenever they'd launch a big ship,
12:14
they would invite some dignitary up from London
12:19
on the train to make a speech,
12:21
break a bottle of champagne over the bows,
12:23
launch it down the slipway
12:26
into the river and out to sea.
12:27
Occasionally on a really important ship,
12:29
they'd get a member of the royal family to come,
12:32
Duke of Edinburgh, Princess Anne or somebody.
12:34
And you have to remember, it wasn't that long ago
12:37
that the royal family in England
12:40
were considered to have magical healing powers.
12:42
Sick children were held up in crowds
12:46
to try and touch the cloak
12:48
of the king or the queen to cure them
12:50
of some terrible disease.
12:52
It wasn't like that in my day,
but we still got very excited.
12:55
So it's a launch day, it's a Saturday,
12:59
and my mother has dressed
me up in my Sunday best.
13:01
I'm not very happy with her.
13:03
All the kids are out in the street,
13:05
and we have little Union Jacks to wave,
13:07
and at the top of the hill,
13:10
there's a motorcycle cortege appears.
13:12
In the middle of the motorcycles,
13:15
there's a big, black Rolls-Royce.
13:16
Inside the Rolls-Royce is the Queen Mother.
13:19
This is a big deal.
13:21
So the procession is moving
13:23
at a stately pace down my street,
13:25
and as it approaches my house,
13:27
I start to wave my flag vigorously,
13:30
and there is the Queen Mother.
13:32
I see her, and she seems to see me.
13:34
She acknowledges me. She waves, and she smiles.
13:38
And I wave my flag even more vigorously.
13:40
We're having a moment,
13:43
me and the Queen Mother.
13:44
She's acknowledged me.
13:46
And then she's gone.
13:48
Well, I wasn't cured of anything.
13:51
It was the opposite, actually.
13:55
I was infected.
13:57
I was infected with an idea.
14:00
I don't belong in this street.
14:03
I don't want to live in that house.
14:05
I don't want to end up in that shipyard.
14:08
I want to be in that car. (Laughter)
14:11
I want a bigger life.
14:15
I want a life beyond this town.
14:16
I want a life that's out of the ordinary.
14:19
It's my right.
14:23
It's my right as much as hers.
14:24
And so here I am at TED,
14:27
I suppose to tell that story,
14:32
and I think it's appropriate to say the obvious
14:34
that there's a symbiotic and intrinsic link
14:39
between storytelling and community,
14:43
between community and art,
14:46
between community and science and technology,
14:49
between community and economics.
14:52
It's my belief that
14:54
abstract economic theory
14:58
that denies the needs of community
15:00
or denies the contribution that community makes
15:03
to economy is shortsighted, cruel
15:06
and untenable.
15:10
(Applause)
15:12
The fact is, whether you're a rock star
15:16
or whether you're a welder in a shipyard,
15:19
or a tribesman in the upper Amazon,
15:23
or the queen of England,
15:26
at the end of the day,
15:27
we're all in the same boat.
15:32
♪ Aye, the footmen are frantic in their indignation ♪
15:36
♪ You see the queen's took
a taxi herself to the station ♪
15:40
♪ Where the porters, surprised
by her lack of royal baggage ♪
15:44
♪ Bustle her and three corgis
to the rear of the carriage ♪
15:48
♪ For the train it is crammed
with all Europe's nobility ♪
15:51
♪ And there's none of them
famous for their compatibility ♪
15:55
♪ There's a fight over seats ♪
15:59
♪ "I beg pardon, Your Grace ♪
16:01
♪ But you'll find that one's mine,
so get back in your place!" ♪
16:03
♪ "Aye, but where are they going?" ♪
16:08
♪ All the porters debate ♪
16:10
♪ "Why they're going to Newcastle
and they daren't be late ♪
16:12
♪ For they're launching a boat
on the Tyne at high tide ♪
16:16
♪ And they've come from all over,
from far and from wide" ♪
16:20
♪ There's the old Dalai Lama ♪
16:23
♪ And the pontiff of Rome ♪
16:26
♪ Every palace in Europe, and
there's nay bugger home ♪
16:28
♪ There's the Duchess of Cornwall
and the loyal Prince of Wales ♪
16:31
♪ Looking crushed and uncomfortable
in his top hat and tails ♪
16:35
♪ Well, they haven't got tickets ♪
16:39
♪ Come now, it's just a detail ♪
16:41
♪ There was no time to purchase
and one simply has to prevail ♪
16:43
♪ For we'll get to the shipyards
or we'll end up in jail! ♪
16:47
♪ When the last ship sails ♪
16:51
♪ Oh the roar of the chains ♪
16:55
♪ And the cracking of timbers ♪
16:58
♪ The noise at the end of the world in your ears ♪
17:00
♪ As a mountain of steel
makes its way to the sea ♪
17:04
♪ And the last ship sails ♪
17:08
♪ And whatever you'd promised ♪
17:11
♪ Whatever you've done ♪
17:14
♪ And whatever the station in life you've become ♪
17:16
♪ In the name of the Father,
in the name of the Son ♪
17:20
♪ And no matter the weave of
this life that you've spun ♪
17:24
♪ On the Earth or in Heaven or under the Sun ♪
17:28
♪ When the last ship sails ♪
17:32
♪ Oh the roar of the chains ♪
17:35
♪ And the cracking of timbers ♪
17:39
♪ The noise at the end of the world in your ears ♪
17:40
♪ As a mountain of steel
makes its way to the sea ♪
17:44
♪ And the last ship sails ♪
17:49
Thanks very much for listening to my song.
17:58
Thank you. (Applause)
17:59
Thank you.
18:31
Okay, you have to join in if you know it.
18:37
(Music) (Applause)
18:40
♪ Just a castaway ♪
18:47
♪ An island lost at sea, oh ♪
18:50
♪ Another lonely day ♪
18:54
♪ With no one here but me, oh ♪
18:56
♪ More loneliness than any man could bear ♪
19:00
♪ Rescue me before I fall into despair ♪
19:06
♪ I'll send an S.O.S. to the world ♪
19:12
♪ I'll send an S.O.S. to the world ♪
19:15
♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪
19:18
♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪
19:22
♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪
19:25
♪ Message in a bottle ♪
19:28
♪ Message in a bottle ♪
19:34
♪ A year has passed since I wrote my note ♪
19:41
♪ I should have known this right from the start ♪
19:47
♪ Only hope can keep me together ♪
19:53
♪ Love can mend your life ♪
20:00
♪ but love can break your heart ♪
20:02
♪ I'll send an S.O.S. to the world ♪
20:06
♪ I'll send an S.O.S. to the world ♪
20:09
♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪
20:12
♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪
20:15
♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪
20:18
♪ Message in a bottle ♪
20:21
♪ Message in a bottle ♪
20:28
♪ Message in a bottle ♪
20:34
♪ Message in a bottle ♪
20:40
♪ Walked out this morning ♪
20:47
♪ I don't believe what I saw ♪
20:50
♪ A hundred billion bottles ♪
20:53
♪ Washed up on the shore ♪
20:56
♪ Seems I'm not alone in being alone ♪
20:59
♪ A hundred billion castaways ♪
21:05
♪ Looking for a home ♪
21:08
♪ I'll send an S.O.S. to the world ♪
21:11
♪ I'll send an S.O.S. to the world ♪
21:15
♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪
21:18
♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪
21:21
♪ I hope that someone gets my ♪
21:24
♪ Message in a bottle ♪
21:27
♪ Message in a bottle ♪
21:33
♪ Message in a bottle ♪
21:40
♪ Message in a bottle ♪
21:46
So I'm going to ask you to sing after me,
21:49
okay, the next part.
21:51
It's very easy. Sing in unison.
21:53
Here we go.
21:55
♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪ Come on now.
22:01
Audience: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪
22:05
Sting: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪
22:08
Audience: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪
22:11
Sting: ♪ I'm sending out an S.O.S. ♪
22:14
Audience: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪
22:17
Sting: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪
22:20
Audience: ♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪
22:23
Sting: ♪ Sending out ♪
22:26
♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪
22:39
♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪
22:41
♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪
22:44
♪ Sending out an S.O.S. ♪
22:47
♪ Yoooooooo ♪
22:53
Thank you, TED. Goodnight.
23:02
(Applause)
23:04

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About the Speaker:

Sting - Composer, singer, author, actor, activist
He’s sold more than 100 million albums and earned 16 Grammy Awards, yet Sting continues to surprise. His fourteenth solo album, The Last Ship, features songs from his Broadway-bound musical of the same name.

Why you should listen

Premiering in 2014, The Last Ship—with direction by Joe Mantello, music and lyrics by Sting and book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey—is inspired by Sting's memories of the English seafaring community of Wallsend where he was born and raised. The story is set against the demise of the local shipbuilding industry and is anchored by a group of unemployed workers who take back the shipyard to build one last ship.

The constant throughout Sting's enduring career has been his propensity to evolve. From his tenure as lead singer and bassist with The Police, producing classic hits like "Every Breath You Take" and "Message In A Bottle," to his acclaimed ventures as a solo artist, Sting is one of the world's most renowned and distinctive musicians.

An actor, composer, author and committed activist, Sting, along with wife Trudie Styler, founded the Rainforest Fund in 1989 to protect the world's rainforests and the indigenous people living there. This year, the organization celebrates its 25th anniversary.

More profile about the speaker
Sting | Speaker | TED.com