The recipient of 16 Grammy Awards, three Brit Awards, and three Academy Award nominations, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sting may well add to his tally soon. Teaming with Oscar-nominated composer J. Ralph, Sting set to work on a track for a film that spoke to his own heart, HBO documentary Jim: The James Foley Story, in hopes of paying tribute to the fallen conflict journalist, whose life was taken by ISIS in 2014. Speaking of the song, “The Empty Chair”—which Sting re-recorded in a different key for his latest album, 57th & 9th— the pair discuss the reasons behind their involvement in the project, the political and human resonance of the film, and the visual behind the song.
How did you both come to be involved in this project, and what made you want to come on board?
J. Ralph: I had met Brian Oakes, the director, through a friend, and at the time, I was going to score the film with them, but then there was some schedule things that prevented that from happening. But I had been on board very early on and was hugely inspired by the film. I was in Africa at the same time that the event happened to him, and the front page of the New York Times, the day that I left for Africa, it was like, “kidnapping at an all time high”… This feeling of, I guess, like brotherly relation to him was always there. After watching the first cut of the film, I really thought that there could be a great opportunity to distill a lot of these emotions and give people a bridge back to their lives, because it’s very intense emotions.
I had reached out to Sting. I just thought that his writing and his sensitivity and his voice would be a perfect compliment to helping people relate to the story.
Sting: He invited me down to his studio in Chinatown and showed me the film, which devastated me, and then he said, would you write a song with this musical setting I’ve done? I said, “I don’t think I can. It’s too devastating, and I’m not sure how a song could possibly end that thing. I don’t know what that song is, no idea.” I took the movie back home, showed it to my wife who was equally devastated by it. Then we had dinner with my family, and then I just had this idea of a family sitting around a table, and someone was missing, and how would that feel? What would you do, have an empty chair waiting for him?
Once I found that metaphor, I wrote the song very quickly, and then I took little bits of interviews, all that people had said about Jim—like, you know, he was always late for every meal, little snippets that were part of the film, and then just put it together. I gave it to Josh the next day, and he said, “You’re supposed to make this look hard.” (Laughs)I said, “It’s not hard once you find a metaphor.”
So the next test was to play it for the family, really. We performed it for the family in Sundance. And friends of his, and people he’d been in prison with in captivity. They all gave us their permission, and they said, this actually really honors Jim. It sounds like him.
Speaking to Brian about Jim, were there other anecdotes or details from his life that stood out, beyond what’s presented in the film?
Ralph: I remember Sting and I had recorded this song. I had played them the melody at first, and they thought it was a very kind of heartwarming, inspiring melody. It did not have the lyrics yet. We recorded it—we recorded it live. It was important for Sting to record it that way. It’s just piano and vocals, live—no edits, or anything like that. We really, from a production standpoint, wanted it to be almost as if this song is being sung to the audience by almost like Jim’s spirit, you know? We wanted it to be hyper-intimate, and almost as if he was in his cell. When I played it for Brian, he was sitting on the couch in the back, and the song ended and he didn’t say anything. I was like, oh, boy. Like, maybe he’s, I don’t know, thinking about something. I’m not saying anything. Then, he just kind of turned around, and I was like, “Well, what do you think, buddy?” He’s like, “It’s just…it’s so chilling. That’s my friend, and at the same time, it’s even bigger.”
It was a really rewarding experience to be able to give back some of the hope and inspiration and love to this story—we didn’t think it was prudent or helpful to focus on the negative aspects, because he’s such a great guy. This was someone that you would always want to know. By the end of the film, you feel like he’s part of your family because he’s so selfless, and he’s so loving. That was really important to us, to imbue the song with this, because his memory does live on, and the work that he did does live on.
One of the most chilling things for both of us when we met the family, and they gave us these big hugs—incredibly moving. The father took us aside, and he said, “You guys would have had no way of knowing this, because it’s not public knowledge, and you don’t know us, but the bar that he has gone to his entire life, there’s a chair with his name on it, and they keep it empty.” We were like, wow—that’s crazy. For them, “The Empty Chair”, the name of it even had a profound significance to them. It was an honor to be supporting his memory and his work.
While the film is very emotional and very human, it also has a strong political resonance. What do you think the documentary reflects about our society at the moment?
Ralph: I think the interesting thing was, I think the actual quote from the movie is that Jim’s photograph is the second most recognizable event in the world next to the 9/11 photograph.
Sting: Which photograph?
Ralph: In the orange jumpsuit in the desert, but the thing about this is that this movie is not about death. It’s about the importance of life, and how well you live your life while you’re here, and what you do with your life. Obviously it’s a very sad movie because of the outcome, but it’s an incredibly inspiring movie to see what all of us are capable of doing. I’m not suggesting or saying that everyone needs to go to Syria, but this guy made it his mission in life to make the world a better place, and to show people parts of the world and things that are going on in the world, specifically civilian casualties of war, people that have nothing to do with anything, to try to keep the conversation going.
That’s one of the other main drivers of the film, is that we hope that it keeps the conversation alive about civilian casualties of war, the importance of conflict journalists, our own hostage policy. I think everyone knows that the U.S. policy is that we won’t negotiate with terrorists. We won’t negotiate on any level, but I think very few people know that it’s illegal for the family to pay, as well. If you pay [terrorists], you will go to jail. It’s almost like a treason kind of thing. The family legally didn’t even have an option to pay, themselves, to get their son back.
Sting: Which is why his captive friends—the Australians, French, Germans…
Ralph: They all got out. I’m not making statements on the effectiveness of U.S. foreign policy. I just think it needs a much bigger debate, because the world is radically changing at a rate that I don’t think anyone ever expected. We can’t be in situations where someone is trying to help save the world and there’s no options, you know?
What does winning the Audience Award at Sundance, and taking awards at other festivals, mean for the film?
Ralph: I think, for the most part, it’s important for us to keep his memory alive, help the film, and as I said, mostly, help people find another connection to the film that’s more love-based and hopeful and inspiring. If you want to look at the story through a lens of darkness and evil, you can choose to do that, but you can also see incredible hope and beauty and the power of an individual, of what one person can do.
Sting: We want more people to see the film. We’re not here to get an award—I don’t need another award. Have as many people as possible to see an example of a real American export of power, which is soft power. It’s this compassion, this empathy that Jim had…
Ralph: And bravery.
Sting: It’s not a shoot-em-up kind of heroism at all. It’s a more empathetic, real courage. That needs to be heard and seen.
Ralph: I think the final scene of this film is one of the most gripping powerful cinematic experiences I’ve ever seen on film. It’s a level of emotion and intimacy that I’ve not really seen ever.
Seemingly, a major challenge taken on by documentarians like Brian is getting people to identify with, and connect to these profound tragedies, in place of an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
Ralph: Well, I think documentary now is what independent cinema was. It’s where a lot of the progressive artists and filming techniques and just the whole guerilla aesthetic of it all is. I think if you were to talk with younger kids, you won’t find them saying that they’re making a film or writing a script. They’re generally doing a documentary, because I think that they’ve, at least for me, realized that the magnificence of incredible people is right in front of you on a daily basis, and when you’re done watching something, as Sting was saying, you really get to experience what real bravery is, what real courage is, what real sacrifice is—what true, tragic loss is. In order to recreate that, it takes world masters and a focus that is incredibly hard to deliver the same level of emotion.
Having used your art as a tool to promote awareness of a number of pressing humanitarian issues in the past, where are you looking now?
Ralph: I just like truth and I like sincerity, and I think you’ll find that commonality, even though all of the filmmakers are different on all those projects, all the themes are different on all those projects. Whether it’s autism or species extinction or the dolphins or war, it’s the sincerity of the protagonist and the truthfulness and the vitality of the message. I’m just taking a page from Sting’s book, anyway. He’s been doing it a lot longer than me.
Sting also has never made it about himself. He’s always looked to use his platform to help so many causes and so many people, and that’s really I think another commonality. You look at Jim and you’re like, “Wow, I can relate to that”—and that desire to want to help to want to expose a wrongdoing. I was working on Virunga—that’s how I ended up in Africa in the first place. Everyone here told me, “You’re nuts to go. Do not go. It’s crazy. It’s a war zone there.” So, I talked to my photojournalist friends. I said, “Is it really crazy?” They said, “No, that’s Western propaganda. You’re going to Mali. You have no idea how big the continent of Africa is.” It would be like saying, “I’m not going to New York, because I heard they have earthquakes in California.” Literally a few months after I left, the hotel where I was staying, ISIS came in and shot up the whole hotel and took over the whole place, killed all these people.
I realized when I got back to Paris from recording in Virunga, and I got back the same day that the photos of Jim were released. I realized, like when I was stopped on the road in Africa in the middle of the night when a truck pulls up, and five dudes jump out with machine guns and they start banging on the window…That was a fifty-fifty chance that it just happened to be the good guys. It so easily could have been the bad guys. I don’t know if you’ve been to that part of the world, but it’s a strange place. It’s a beautiful place, but there’s craziness going on right now.
I left my wife at home, eight months pregnant, to go help with the Virunga story, thinking that I was invincible and nothing could happen, you know, and like, come on, it’s just in the movies.
Sting, you’re releasing a new album on November 11, 57th and 9th, which has been heralded as your return to rock. What do you want to share about it?
Sting: You know, this album, there’s no concept. There’s no overriding connecting tissue to the album, apart from me. I’m the connecting tissue. It’s 10 very separate short stories about my work last year, one of them being that song with Josh which closes the album, but that was a very thoughtful, reflective ending to a rather frenetic record. I just thought it was a way to calm people down. I just talk about climate change in a very ironic way, which is not my normal strategy. I’m normally on a soapbox. I thought I’d be ironic this time. There’s a song about mortality.
There’s a song about the migration crisis, called “Inshallah. It’s just an exercise in empathy. I’m not offering any political solution to the issue, but to imagine yourself in a boat with your wife and your kids, sailing from Turkey to Greece, for example, in a storm…Any solution has to be grounded in some kind of empathy. It was merely an exercise in that, and to try to put myself in that boat. I don’t know what the answer is. I really don’t. Stop the war.
And you recorded a separate version of “The Empty Chair” for your new album, 57th & 9th?
Sting: Yeah, I did. The key changed, and a little bit of the arrangement changed, but I played it on guitar, because piano is not my first instrument. Sort of just a different color.
Ralph: It’s an interesting study to see both of the versions because the one for the film is this kind of very solitary version, and then the one from the record is warmer, because guitars are naturally warmer. The one from the film is a pretty unique recording of Sting because it’s in a lower register, and I remember we were trying to figure out the key—a higher key would have drawn more attention to Sting, and I remember him saying, “Let’s keep it a little lower, more mellow. I just feel like I’ll kind of fade away more, and the song, and the emotions of the song can kind of just live on its own,” which I thought was really astute suggestion because he does happen to have one of the greatest voices ever put on the Earth.
Sting: Ahh, shut up.
Ralph: We didn’t want to make it be this kind of confident song, if you will, because it was a very intimate song. Since his voice is so signature, setting it ever so slightly in a different key let you sit back and almost feel like he was singing it to you.
Sting: Part of your job as a singer, a lot of the time, is not to sing yourself. It’s actually to be an actor. We’re playing a role. In this thing, I’m playing Jim—at least what I know of him—rather than “Sting, the rockstar.” Maybe the key was important there. Even my version, it’s still not me.
As an artist, what drives you to continue to experiment so much with different forms, even within the context of one album?
Sting: Well, I’ve never been one to sort of just plow one thorough. I’m a bit of a gadfly—I’m curious about music. I feel I’m swimming in an ocean that doesn’t have any edges to it, or any bottom to it. I enjoy that freedom, and I’m curious. I’m still a student of music. I’m not done yet.
What’s next for you both?
Sting: I’m going rehearsing. I’m rehearsing my show, which I will do next year. Whatever’s next will have to be a surprise to me, first of all, and then to the general public as secondary.