There can only be one question to begin this interview – and it is just one word. Why?
Why would Sting and Shaggy hook up and make a track, let alone a whole album? Why would the big voice of defining 1990s songs Oh Carolina, Boombastic and 2000’s It Wasn’t Me trade musical punches with his softer-voiced counterpart, author of more earnest songs like Fields Of Gold and Every Breath You Take? Surely the musical egos would clash monstrously? These are the empty-headed assumptions, at any rate, but when we come to call, the reasons and shared history behind the two musical musketeers become clearer.
An air of drowsiness hangs over one side of the room – Shaggy’s side – and to countenance it the singer has donned sunglasses and a very relaxed gait in his chair. Sting, by contrast, sits upright and alert, eyes bright and ready to engage.
“We took the train from Paris last night,” says Shaggy, explaining his relaxed demeanour. “I was asleep all the way through,” Sting laughs. “Yeah, I took you down the aisle and was dressing you up in all kinds of shit!” The two are inseparable at the moment, mostly for promotional reasons – but clearly they are both having a ball, finishing each other’s sentences. “We are,” says Shaggy, sitting up a bit, “and it could be worse! This project is fun, promoting it has been fun, making it has been fun, and we can’t wait to perform it. It’s the most fun I’ve had in a really long time!” “With his clothes on!” comes the retort.
Has it all been as spontaneous and unlikely as it seems to this interviewer’s eye? Sting nods appreciatively. “It was very much an accident of just meeting and making a record together, just for fun, and then making another one to see it wasn’t a fluke – and then making the record piecemeal. After three weeks or so of this process we realised we had something that seemed substantial, and so we gave ourselves a deadline. We said let’s see where we are in three weeks, and if we have a record then we have a record. I think there is a joy that comes from the tracks that is palpable, and that’s really the reason why we did it. If it has any further life then we’ll be very happy, but even if it doesn’t then it was still well worth doing.”
“To this day it is still a part of my thinking as a musician and a composer. That reggae style underpins most of everything I do, there is always that little offbeat there – it’s characteristic of me now.” – Sting on reggae
The title of the new album – an altogether un-catchy 44/876 – is a blend of the country codes from where they both hail. Was it a thrill for them both to find that making music could still be enjoyable and instinctive? “The good thing is that we’re both accomplished in our own right,” booms Shaggy, “and that made it easier as we had nothing to prove. As much as we might have our own egos when we’re in the studio together there was no ego at that point, we were just following each other – and that comes from trust. It’s not like we hung out long before to gain that trust, it’s part of the magic. You meet someone and it just clicks, everything just clicks. I feel like I’ve known Sting for years, but I only just met him around two years ago when we started hanging out. I’ve seen him in the business back and forth, but never anything like this, and it’s pleasant. I honestly can’t remember a moment that I’ve been with him that has been an unpleasant one.”
“This is some past life shit going on here, some wooo stuff!” offers Sting. Yet it is beginning to make sense, especially as Shaggy grew up with the vocals of his now-sidekick. “I did grow up with the early Police stuff, there was a lot of reggae involved there. They were like a gateway into reggae music. A lot of these artists at the time were not played on mainstream radio, and they had the advantage of making music out of Britain and they brought this art form to the mainstream radio. You can imagine in Jamaica that Roxanne and all those songs were big records for us!”
Sting, too, has much more of a reggae CV than the unsuspecting interviewer might initially think. “Reggae’s been part of my musical DNA for decades,” he explains with some authority. “Shaggy’s an authentic reggae / dancehall icon, and so there’s obviously a different energy there. I know reggae, I respect reggae and I always played it with that level of curiosity and interest. I think it’s a revolutionary music form within rock ‘n’ roll, which I happen to think is very conservative. In the 1970s reggae turned everything upside down, for example the importance of the bass player within the band, which was always going to appeal to me as a bass player. The way the drums were turned upside down, too. It did a remarkable thing for rock ‘n’ roll, and that influenced me greatly. To this day it is still a part of my thinking as a musician and a composer. That reggae style underpins most of everything I do, there is always that little offbeat there – it’s characteristic of me now.”
He begins to chart his early encounters with the form. “I was brought up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and as you know we had a very influential West Indian community here, so I heard calypso every night. On the Tonight show we had Cy Grant singing, with the current affairs of the day, and we had ska and blue beat. Then Bob Marley came to London in the 1970s. That completely galvanized me in many ways, first of all with his voice, which was extraordinary, and then with his political message, his spiritual message and his social message, which was something I took to heart. He was my mentor, without a doubt.”
“I can’t believe that it works so well with two so distinct voices. We are an unlikely pair.” – Sting on his association with Shaggy
Politics can be glimpsed on 44/876 – and both authors are more than happy to have their reactions to the transatlantic climate documented. “Very much so,” says Shaggy with some authority. “First and foremost our main job was to entertain, we needed to make sure it was entertainment. We also needed to say something, and we’re at a stage in our lives where we are grown men – we have families – and the political climate is a very dodgy one at this point and cannot be ignored. Maybe when I was 25 I wouldn’t be as keen to address it, but now it’s a different situation. I think it is our duty and responsibility as musicians to use this platform to voice our opinions, attack issues and at least invoke some sort of conversation. It is our duty to do that, but here we find a way to do that where there is a little bit of hope, where there is some entertainment and some sunshine to it. Despite the darkness of the political climate there is still a lot to give thanks for!”
“I think there are two strategies when you put a political message into a song,” Sting responds. “One is anger, and there is always a place for that, but the other is through a smile, or through hope. I think that is a smarter strategy. There may be a time for anger, but we feel at the moment there is enough light at the end of the tunnel, to use Shaggy’s phrase, to steer it that way. I hope that is true.” Is the time of Trump an opportunity for musicians to make their voices heard? “I think music has a very important function at times like this to give people a smile on their face, a reason to think things can get better – because things are pretty dire. I’m aware of that, and music does have a very broad place in dealing with it.”
To lighter talk – and the first appearance of Sting and Shaggy the partnership on the live stage, which shocked the Grammys audience. Don’t Make Me Wait, their current single, was featured – as was a semi-improvised version of Englishman In New York. “It was a shock to people! We knew it was going to happen obviously,” laughs Shaggy, “but the real challenge was to keep it as a secret. I wasn’t announced or anything, it was just like Sting is gonna come, and it was only at rehearsal that everyone knew what was going on.” “A keynote to the whole project has been surprise,” says the former Police frontman. “The combination of the two of us together is surprising, and the fact we’re making a record together is surprising to people. When you listen to it though it actually makes sense. There is method in our madness here.”
Does that mean the project could have some legs in it? Shaggy is optimistic. “We had fun making it, we’re having fun promoting it, and we’re looking forward to touring it, playing these songs and being on stage together, just letting it take us where it will. It’s just going out there and taking that energy out.” “Well I was hoping to get introduced to Sean Paul so that I can work with him after this!” quips Sting. “Hey, you know what? The sequel might be me and him!” retorts his sidekick.
“He’ll come with a melody and an idea, and maybe a concept, and I will automatically bring something. It’s whatever comes out of me at that point that we build on, and that’s what you hear.” – Shaggy on working with Sting
This back and forward is a feature of the interview, which – perhaps unexpectedly – often descends into laughter. Neither party is taking themselves too seriously, especially when it is Sting’s turn to consider when he first heard Shaggy’s music. “I knew Oh Carolina, but I really got on board with Boombastic”, he says. “That was a totally irresistible record. I first heard it as an advert”. “Did you think Oh Carolina was a really cheap rip-off of the original?” asks Shaggy accusingly. “No, no, no!” replies Sting, throwing his hands up in mock horror. “It was not a cheap rip off, it was a very good rip off!” “So you didn’t think I was a one-hit wonder?” “A two hit wonder?” “I’m a FIVE hit wonder!” bellows Shaggy, to uproarious laughter. Case closed. “He’s made a lot of irresistible records,” says the beaten Sting, “and this voice comes from another fucking planet, I tell you. The surprising thing is that it blends with mine in a very sweet way. I can’t believe that it works so well with two so distinct voices. We are an unlikely pair.” Will the album challenge preconceptions of what people think of the pair? “I think that’s always the intention when you put a record out, is to surprise people”, says Sting. “I think if people have preconceptions they should always be challenged.” “Pleasant surprises”, adds Shaggy, nodding his head.
What about the Trump card – the one that Shaggy holds, having appeared dressed as the US president on The Late Late Show? “He’s keeping the blonde wig!” says Sting. “I think two blondes are better than one. I might bring the wig on tour. I think we should have a wig for Crooked Tree,” suggests Shaggy, referencing a track on the album where he plays a judge and Sting plays the accused. “Oh you’d definitely get me wearing that, and the robes.” “You’re so predictable,” says the accused. “Yeah, might as well, go all theatrical!”
Shaggy, it turns out, is reaching an important milestone later this year. “It’s the big 50 this year,” he confirms. “We’re gonna do a big birthday party, because we’re only weeks apart. We’re gonna turn up in Jamaica. There’ll be a lot of weed.” Shaggy in particular is an instinctive voice on the album, with some freshly thought out soundbites to go with Sting’s more considered approach. “It did start from a place of spontaneity,” says Shaggy, “It’s us standing there and throwing ideas out. He’ll come with a melody and an idea, and maybe a concept, and I will automatically bring something. It’s whatever comes out of me at that point that we build on, and that’s what you hear.”
“We had nothing to prove. As much as we might have our own egos when we’re in the studio together there was no ego at that point, we were just following each other – and that comes from trust.” – Shaggy
“He’s much more spontaneous than I am,” confesses Sting, “and that was something I learned from him. I had to enter that space and try to keep up with him in a sense. I’m much more measured in my creative process. We pull each other out of our comfort zones, so that we can produce something we might not have produced on our own. It’s been a sweet and heartening process, and a good one. We added one and one and we got three somehow!”
They both acknowledge the quality of musicians they are able to call on, and Shaggy is happy to namecheck them. “We both called members of our respective groups in to join in the fun, people like Dominic Miller, Branford Marsalis, Sting International, Robbie Shakespeare. There’s a couple of names.” “There were never less than 20 Jamaicans in the studio,” laughs his partner. “I don’t know what half of them were doing, but they were making a vibe!”
Sting speaks with obvious affection for Jamaica, and it is here the real inspiration for the album truly lies. “I spent a lot of time there in the 1980s, living for a while in the house of Ian Fleming. I had a lot of fun there (it’s a very nice house by the way) and I wrote a lot of very successful songs there. It has a magic that you can’t really explain. The terrain is dramatic, but the people have a self-confidence and a warmth that is irresistible. We were looking in a record store in Notting Hill this morning looking at all the records that have come out of this tiny island, looking at the music and how influential it’s been. It is quite phenomenal. I don’t know what the sociological reasons for that are, but you cannot argue with it. It seems to be the national industry – music – which is wonderful. I have a great affection for Jamaica, and he took me back there in January to do a concert for the children’s hospital, so that gave me an opportunity to revisit my old haunts. I hadn’t been in 20 years, so it was quite something.”
Was it as good as he remembered? “It’s obviously different. Kingston has developed in 25 years, but the warmth and magic is still there, even if you can’t quite explain it. But then that’s the nature of magic.”
Sting & Shaggy’s album 44/876 is out through Polydor on 20 April 2018. Tour dates and further information can be found here.