Watch this interview with Sting about songwriting with Jools Holland, from The Police era. Sting talks about the more or less usual problem of songwriting about hitting that invisible wall, i.e. how it’s getting harder and harder to top his previous material and follow hit songs with hits that are even bigger.
How to beat Roxanne with a Message In A Bottle
He says how he liked “Roxanne” and it’s become a hit, but then he wrote “Message In A Bottle” – another Police hit – that he liked even better, it was actually his favorite song at the time of the interview. He wrote this song on a bus, with the help of a mono cassette tape recorder with a built-in drum machine. He played guitar along with it, when he stumbled upon the now famous riff of the song built from sus2 chords (interestingly, he calls them minor 9 chords). He says how he writes music and lyrics (on a notepad) separately and more or less independently, then sometime later they meet.
Harmonizing the chord progression
So once the chord sequence was down and Sting was at home, he recorded it again on a bit of a better equipment then played along with it, putting a harmony on top of that guitar riff (he’s demonstrating all this on a Fender Stratocaster going into a clean amp with some lush chorus on, playing with his thumb only, like he does on his basses). Then came the music of the chorus, that he calls “some rock & roll” the song just needed. Jools suspects Sting might have actually come up with the idea of the brighter sounding chorus part before the verse riff, and Sting says it’s possible.
Sing rubbish – it works for the pros
He also says he was mumbling rubbish along with the music all the time, which seems to be quite a common thing among songwriters; check out Phil Collins‘ demos to hear how it goes! Anyway, once the structure of the song is down, Sting tries to match it with a big pile of lyrics that he writes anywhere, be it a bus stop or a pub. He says he writes from titles and from the chorus line going backwards; he doesn’t like to write the first line cause then it needs the second line and so on, which is often a dead end for creativity. Once the song is roughly complete, Sting introduces it to the other members of the band, so they can all add their own style to their parts.
Write tunes on a Moog Taurus
He then talks briefly about how he came up with the song idea for “Invisible Sun” on a Moog Taurus bass pedal, while playing along with that bass line on a guitar, all that on top of the drum machine laying down the groove.
Sting says he’s very impatient and needs to get things very good and very quickly. Which means that after having a rough song idea, they went straight into the studio and if they didn’t have a song recorded in about 30 minutes, they ditched it.