Sting — singer, songwriter, and bassist of The Police and solo musician — describes in detail his writing process for “Message in a Bottle.” This comes from a video interview in which Sting plays instruments to illustrate his points, so I highly recommend watching that instead of reading this!
Do you write when you’re on the road?
I’ve got lots of little boxes. I wrote “Message in a Bottle” on a bus on this [gestures to device], which is a tape recorder with a drum machine in. [presses play, and then plays "Message in a Bottle" riff on guitar along to a drum beat] …
So lets go in to “Message in a Bottle,” then. How did you write that?
Well, let’s go further back, even. I mean, as a songwriter, as a composer, you like the sound of certain chords, and I like the sound of, say, D-minor-9th. [plays chord on guitar] But I also like what follows it, which is A9. [plays chord[ And the combination is... [plays both in sequence] That’s good, I like that. Where do we take it from there? Go up to B, F#. [plays those two chords] And over two bars, you’ve got a sequence. And we start humming along. [plays chord sequence while humming melody]
So the music comes first, before any lyrics, then?
No, that’s not true. It comes from two different areas. You put your music hat on, and you sit and write a riff, and then you go away with your notepad and write lyrics to it. And sooner or later they meet. By using tape recorders, you can keep track of your ideas, because it’s all flying around your head.
So with “Message in a Bottle,” were all the bits there, did they all come at once, or did you have one bit–
No, it all happened very slowly. As I say, I had this sequence going. [plays chords again] By arpeggiating, you get the riff [plays chord sequence again with arpeggiation] So we stick it down– [reaches for drum machine]
So this is how you demoed it to the band?
I get home from the bus, and I stick Dennis the Drum Box on, because Stuart [drummer] is not always available. [turns on drum machine] … And then I put this riff down, just from memory. [plays riff to drum beat, messes up] Mistakes as well. Wind it back, turn Dennis off, leave it for a day. Go back to it, listen to it, play along with it, see what happens. Play some sort of harmony with it.
Before you even got to another part like a chorus or something?
Yeah. Well, I just muck around. [starts previous recording of drum machine and riff] Put a harmony on it, like… [plays harmony part on guitar along with recording] Thing is, most nights when you do it, it sounds awful. … In this case, it was good. So then you think, “Well, what should I do next?” Put Dennis back on. [starts drum machine] And think, “Right, that’s a good verse, let’s have some rock and roll in it.” [plays palm muted riff along to recording]
Would this be something you might come up with before an idea for a chorus?
Maybe. Maybe it’s in a pile of tapes … because it doesn’t fit in anywhere. And all the time, you’re sort of mumbling rubbish. And when you’ve got a sort of reasonable structure written, with a chorus, you go to the big pile of lyrics, which you write all the time. You can write them anywhere: you can write them at a bus stop, you can write them in the pub. And you just look through them, and you see “message in a bottle” … that’s an interesting title. Because I write from titles. I don’t write the first line of a song. It’s a mistake, because then you have to come up with the second one. If you write backwards from the chorus line, which is usually the hook, then you usually come up with it.
So I had this “message in a bottle.” What’s “message in a bottle” about? It’s usually about some guy with raggy trousers and a beard on a desert island.
So you’ve got the rough idea for the chorus there, and then the idea for the verse. So how, then, do you present it to the rest of the band?
Well, you join all the bits of tape together in a rough fashion. You know, with very rough parts. … Then [the other band members] learn it, and they adapt it and change it. It’s lucky to have brilliant musicians. [laughs] …
So you had four weeks in which to write most of the material for this album? Did you find it only came in the last week or something like that?
No, so I write in bits and bobs, you know — a bit here, a bit there. It is like a jigsaw puzzle. And the last few weeks [I put it all together]. …
One song I really like on the album is “Invisible Sun,” which I wrote on this thing here. [gestures to floor] This is like a foot piano, which I play on stage. [plays it with foot] That’s a bass sound. I’ve also got a synthesizer sound. [plays it with a new sound] So I was just sitting at home one night with E-flat on there, and I play this… [plays guitar along with foot piano tone]
Did Dennis [the drum machine] get involved?
Dennis was involved, like so. [turns on drum machine, and plays along with foot piano and guitar] …
When you do give the song to the band, do you go to rehearsal first, or do you go down straight into the recording studio?
In good time, we go to rehearsal. We go straight into the studio, and if it’s not happening within half an hour, we ditch it. … We’re very impatient, but I think that’s a good way. The pressure’s always on. It has to be good very soon, very quickly. If it’s not, out the window.
Do you have it live, or do you have a lot of overdubs and edits?
No, it usually has to work with the three musicians playing it and me singing, and that’s usually good enough.