Sully, The Sting Variations, and More: A Conversation With Tierney Sutton - The Huffington Post
Updated: Jul 8, 2018
A Conversation with Tierney Sutton
Mike Ragogna: Tierney, let’s start with a little bit of your history. You collaborated with Clint Eastwood on Sully, you’ve recorded a Joni Mitchell project, and now The Tierney Sutton Band today has released The Sting Variations. What do you think you brought out of Sting’s works that might even surprise their composer?
Tierney Sutton: I would have to leave that up to him. When you compose something, I would imagine you’re inside it in a way that the listeners aren’t. I think, in a strange way, when something becomes iconic or a big hit like so many of Sting’s songs have become, we have a specific association with the song. I think the best example on The Sting Variations record that I can point to is our cover of “Every Breath You Take.” Over the years, people have said to me, “I love that song, but it kind of gives me the creeps,” because the perspective is kind of like a stalker. It might surprise him because we kind of turned it around and made it a lullaby where a mother is singing to a child. In my mind, and actually in the mind of the producer Trey Henry, we were thinking about our children who are leaving the nest now, children who are in their late teens and early twenties and going off to live their lives. With the relationship that you have as a parent, the lyrics work. “Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you. Can’t you see you belong to me?” This is what you feel as a parent, but I’m sure that wasn’t Sting’s perspective when he wrote this song. So that’s one that I think might even surprise him.
MR: What did you discover as you researched Sting’s solo and Police recordings?
TS: There were a couple of things. One was that my entrée into being a real Sting fanatic is strange, in the same way that my entrée into becoming a real Joni fanatic was strange, because I became a Joni fanatic because of her album in 2000, Both Sides Now, which is mostly standards that she recorded with an orchestra. I’m such a jazz head that it turned me into a Joni fan and then I went back and listened to her whole catalog—hits and obscure stuff. Other than the big hits, I then educated myself about her deeper catalog. With Sting it was similar. The turning point was the score that he wrote for the Broadway show The Last Ship. I fell in love with that music. I thought it was literary. It was beautiful, it was evocative, it was so complete that I just listened to it obsessively. Right as the Joni record was being completed, I fell in love with that recording. I listened to it a ton and had a conversation with our drummer Ray Brinker and asked him, “Who else is a ‘pop’ artist who has deep jazz roots,” that we might look at after Joni. He said, “What about Sting?” I said, “Well I’ve been obsessed with The Last Ship, and he said, “Me too.” I think I had the most shallow knowledge of Sting’s music out of anyone in the band. Of course, I knew all the hits. But then I went back, as I did with Joni, and spent a whole bunch of time with Sting’s work beyond The Police and really fell in love with a lot of things. One thing that didn’t make it onto the record but that I absolutely love is the Songs From the Labyrinth album that he did with John Dowland and this archaic British classical guitar stuff. He’s a really, really deep experimental artist.
MR: With Sting’s material, because you’re approaching it all very differently, what was the hardest challenge?
TS: Christian Jacob said years ago, and I always think about this, “When we arrange something we want to serve the soul of the composition.” Sometimes when something is very iconic and it has a specific groove to it, that groove can be considered part of the soul of the composition itself, but I think when things have enough meat to the actual composition outside of the arrangement, you can serve the soul of the lyric and of the story of the song with a very different treatment. That’s basically what we usually try to do as a rule. If something has a very, very famous arrangement, then that exists. It’s there. Is there really any purpose to me singing “Every Breath You Take” with virtually the same treatment as Sting? I’m not going to do it as well as he does it in that way, so I’ve got to find a perspective that works and that I can stand inside of as a story. Musically, Trey Henry really was the mastermind on this one. He did most of the arranging and produced the album. He would give us a jumping off point and give us a basic template of most of these things and then I would go in with the lyric and story content and say, “What if we did this here, add a bar,” or something, because of how this lyric works and what I need to do in terms of telling the story. So there’s always that give and take, but in the end, it’s about serving what you think is something of the essence of the song that is illuminated in a different way than what’s on the original.
MR: Are there any other songs on the album that you re-contextualized, or one that affected you differently from when you first heard it?
TS: There are two that I’m thinking of. The first one is the opening track, “Driven To Tears.” This is a song that I didn’t know well, but I listened to many, many versions of it. I so love the lyrics, and I think it’s so timely, because no matter what your personal perspective is, I think we are definitely living in a time where most people feel like things are crumbling around them, and we’re more aware of the suffering of humanity than ever before because of the media and being connected as a world community. At the same time, we are more inured to it. The merit of Sting’s “Driven To Tears” with Miles Davis’ “So What?” at first it was just a musical idea that Trey had, and I don’t know that Trey sat down and thought of the depth of the story context, but I did. Maybe he did, too, but I think at first, it was just a musical decision he made because both were basically in the same harmonic modal template, but it’s pretty deep to sing, “My comfortable existence is reduced to a shallow, meaningless party.” In these times, to be able to sing that lyric, I can’t imagine singing anything that feels more real to me. So often when you’re singing the great American songbook, the songs are timeless, but they’re timeless in a kind of general way. This really feels very specific to our times.
MR: You were connected to Clint Eastwood’s film Sully, which Christian Jacob scored as well.
TS We did it as a band and Christian did too. The credit for this thing is “Christian Jacob & The Tierney Sutton Band.” Clint first approached me as a fan of the band and asked me and Christian to come see some of the ways that he had used tracks from our CDs in the rough cut of the film. We didn’t know what he was asking at first. We just thought he wanted to maybe license the music or re-record a few things, but we rapidly came to realize that he wanted to try having the band score the film. I think he kind of lucked-out because neither he nor the producers knew that Christian is a brilliant orchestral arranger and writer as well. So we went into the studio with the band with literally forty eight hours’ notice in real time with the film, Clint directing us, and our twenty-five years of experience collaborating together. Clint said what he maybe had in mind for a cue and we said what we had in mind and we would just do it. We did that over the course of two days, fairly improvisational and spontaneously. Clint had written a beautiful theme, Christian had written a few themes, and we jumped off of those. Then Christian wrote a gorgeous string reinforcement to those things and then later I wrote a lyric with a writing partner to one of Clint’s themes. I also wrote a lyric to one of Christian’s themes. It was a really incredible experience and very much a collaboration from beginning to end, with the band and with Clint. He was really present in the music every minute.