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Sting steers toward his past in latest project, an homage to his early life in northern England

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In the truest sense of the term, this is roots music.

With the music from his upcoming stage play, The Last Ship, former Police frontman Sting is revisiting the place he's from -- the northern English shipbuilding town that was his childhood home and a place from which his desire to escape was so intense that it ignited within him a sense of purpose and drive that would carry him to global fame and immense fortune.

"I was born on a street where at the end of the street was usually a ship that was in construction," Sting, now 62, recalled of his upbringing in the Newcastle-adjacent town of Wallsend. "Some of the biggest ships ever built in the history of the world were built there. ... It's a rather surreal industrial landscape to be brought up in, but I appreciated it, I suppose, although I was terrified of ending up in the shipyard.

"It was a very dangerous place to work. But I sought another route in life -- I became a musician."

A musician, indeed. Between his time in the Police and the multi-faceted solo career that has followed, Sting has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide and collected 16 Grammy Awards along the way.

But with his latest project, The Last Ship, the musician who set out (rather successfully) to conquer the world is returning to his working-class roots to tell a story of men and women who did not escape the difficulties and regrets of a life spent building ships.

The new Great Performances special Sting: The Last Ship showcases the music from the play, which is scheduled to open in Chicago in June before migrating to Broadway later in the year.

In an interview session last month -- via satellite, from New York -- during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, Sting explained that he continues to be drawn to the themes and hard lessons of his childhood home, despite having explored them musically numerous times (most notably in his 1991 album The Soul Cages).

"That landscape of my childhood is still the landscape of my dreams," he says. "I still find myself back there a lot of the time, trying to sort out (and) understand what actually happened to me as a child. It wasn't a particularly pleasant childhood, and yet I'm drawn back there to try and find answers.

"So there are elements of The Soul Cages in this new play, particularly the relationship between fathers and sons. It's about community, you know -- it's about the importance of work, about the dignity of work, how sometimes-abstract economic theories do not favour community, and yet without community there is no economics, in my opinion. So it's really about a lot of important issues at this time."

He adds that having emerged from a dying-industry town carries with it a strange sort of remorse for having escaped what so many could not. Like the ships the men built, which departed for exotic places while the workers stayed put, the musician's reality has been the stuff of the working men's wildest dreams.

"I suppose that the metaphor of the ship that never came back, it was a metaphor for my life," he said. "I became an exile from my town and my community, and became very successful as an exile. But there's also a kind of survivor's guilt involved there -- you know, I go back there, and there's part of me that feels like I abandoned this community. So what I try and do in this work is to honour that community, the community that spawned me, that made me who I am, and speak of their courage and their skill."

The 16 songs in Sting: The Last Ship are infused with the Celtic rhythms of the English north, and cover a wide range of personalities and emotions. Vocal duties in the special are shared by Sting, fellow Newcastle native Jimmy Nail (whom some might remember from the beloved early '90s British drama Spender), reliable backup singer Jo Lawry and acclaimed Brit a cappella group the Wilson Family.

Sting called Nail's involvement in the project essential to whatever success The Last Ship might eventually enjoy.

"He's from my hometown, and in fact, before he was (an actor and musician), he was a welder," Sting explained. "He's a very tough man, and for me, he was my kind of muse. You know, I left that kind of world very early on through education and through music, but Jimmy is an authentic 'Geordie.'

"So Jimmy was the template I wanted to test this material on. And he loved the material, and he's going to be in the play in June. And, you know, without him, I'm not sure I'd have had the courage to carry on sometimes."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2014 C15

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