Q&A with Tierney Sutton: Scoring the Film Sully & Interpreting Sting

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Singer Tierney Sutton has a new album, The Sting Variations, and she helped score Clint Eastwood’s film Sully, which arrives in theaters Sept. 9.

(Photo: Tatijana Shoan)

Tierney Sutton has had a productive summer. In between appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival and SFJAZZ, the acclaimed vocalist was busy recording an adventurous album that is an homage to British rock legend Sting.

Sutton’s new disc, The Sting Variations (BFM Jazz), will be released Sept. 9. That’s the same day Warner Bros. will release director Clint Eastwood’s film Sully, about pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his emergency landing of a disabled plane on the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009. Eastwood, a longtime admirer of Sutton’s music, recruited the singer and her band to contribute to the score.

DownBeat spoke with Sutton about Sting’s place in the jazz canon and the various challenges of musical interpretation.

Your previous album, After Blue, was an homage to Joni Mitchell, whom you’ve acknowledged as a role model and influence. Did Sting have a similar influence on you?

You know, it was a little different with Sting because Sting was more part of my musical coming of age, my DNA. The Police and Sting’s music was such a big part of the culture during my high school and college years. And I really listened to a lot of that music. It was the cultural zeitgeist.

As a jazz musician there are certain pop musicians that come into your consciousness as being connected to jazz and being very respected by jazz musicians. They’re the kind of people that have deep roots in jazz, and you can sense that in what they do. I think just as jazz is whispering in the ear of every great American songwriter, it was whispering in Sting’s ear, too.

Sting has such a distinct voice and vocal style. Did any of his vocal mannerisms or techniques influence the way you approached this recording?

The thing about Sting is that he is very literary. He was an English teacher at one point. And he’s a smart guy, and he makes references to different things that are very cool. “Consider Me Gone” has this little piece that’s taken from a Shakespeare sonnet. And so to kind of get inside someone’s lyrics and sing them with a certain amount of intelligence—you gotta know you’re singing. And with Sting it’s not always self-evident. You’ve gotta dig a little deeper. And I really, really like that.

It’s nice to cover a male singer because you don’t worry about feeling like you’re trying to sound like them!

Is it harder to make a standard feel like a pop tune or a pop tune feel like a standard?

In a sense, the process is the same in my mind. I’m an interpreter of other people’s stuff. I write a little bit, but mostly my career has been interpreting other people’s things and hoping to do something with it that illuminates something in the song that you didn’t think about before. And my band’s theory is that if something’s been done a million times one way, better to do it a different way. Not for the sake of being cute, but for the sake of illuminating something that may have gone unnoticed in the lyrics or in the harmony or in the melody of the song.

So that could be taking “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and making it swing—because nobody does it that way. Or, it could be taking “Funny Valentine” and making it into a funk tune. Whatever it is, when you take the bones of something that people have heard a million times one way and you put those bones into something else, it shows different things—and that’s fun. It’s like scratching a little itch.

Of the songs on the album, which one do you think underwent the greatest transformation?

The one on the record that I think is the most stunning in that regard is “Every Breath You Take,” because we changed the perspective to a mother singing to a child. And the very first lyric I sing is, “My child is grown up and has left home.” But it’s not about a person stalking his lover, which is the way the original song was perceived. Suddenly the bones of the song tell a different story.

I’m guessing your ability to tell stories is one reason Clint Eastwood tapped you to compose the score for Sully. How did that partnership come about?

You know, I had heard from some mutual friends that he was a big fan, to which my response was, “Yeah, right.” I’ve been living in L.A. for many years, and you hear lots of things like that. But eventually we did some shows in the city—three nights at Catalina’s—and the second night the maître d’ came into the dressing room and was all atwitter. He said, “Clint is coming to the club tonight! He hasn’t been to the club in a dozen years!”

So we do the show, and afterward, Clint’s girlfriend tells us that he’s a huge fan, and that they may come back the following night. … So they came back that next night with a list of 10 songs they’d like us to perform, and over the course of the following month, we did a private concert for Clint at his country club up in Monterey. He tells us, “You know, I’d love to show you and [pianist] Christian [Jacob] the music that I’ve put into my film.”

Basically the day after we did the session for The Sting Variations, Christian and I went down to Warner [Bros. Studios] We were taken to a screening room and all the producers were there, and they screened the whole thing. The only music that had been put into the film were two a cappella cues of me singing and one cue of Christian [playing] solo piano.

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