07.01.06 THE SUNDAY EXPRESS


He's famous for tantric sex and befriending rainforest Indians. Now Sting is pursuing another unusual enthusiasm - releasing songs by a long-forgotten Elizabethan lute player whom he believes was England's first singer-songwriter.

Sing is fascinated by John Dowland, a 16th century contemporary of Shakespeare, and is convinced he has a strong spiritual connection with the musician.

Now the 54 year old rock start believes he can finally bring Dowland the acclaim he deserves - producing an album of his work which he describes as a "labour of love". The CD, 'Songs from the Labyrinth', is due out later this year and is Sting's tribute to the musician and composer he admits has been "gently haunting" him for more than two decades.

Sting's interest in all things Elizabethan led him to spend 2 million pounds buying 16th century mansion Lake House in Wiltshire in 1991. But it was his growing fascination with the music of Dowland in particular that spurred him to seek out Jacob Heringman, one of Britain's top lute players. Heringman, who has since worked with Sting on a number of occasions, said: "He has these legendary Christmas parties every year at Lake House and I go along with two or three colleagues to play 16th century dance music. It's the type of stuff that would have been played in that house whilst the nobility were having their dinner. Eighteen months ago, Sting told me he was getting "seriously immersed" in Dowland. I didn't think any more of it until now."

Lake House needed renovation when Sting and wife Trudie Styler, 51, moved in, and Jacob says the couple spared no expense in achieving the exact detail of an Elizabethan abode. And he believes the atmosphere of the house has had a profound effect on Sting. "It's not a Disney version" Jacob said. "It's a living, breathing Elizabethan manor house. Living there and fixing it up, he will know the place intimately - and it's from Dowland's heyday. Sting really loves the culture of that period and the music goes with that. People ask me why I play music from 500 years ago: it's a way of understanding how another culture felt and thought." Jacob added: "It takes a long time to get the feel of the lute. Modern instruments are hit, the lute should be stroked. But Sting writes such great melodies, very similar to John Dowland. He's the prefect star to revive the music."

Pictures of Sting at Lake House depict him cross-legged like a minstrel or lounging on a hammock, a guitar in his lap. But the first public acknowledgement of Sting's obsession came in 1999 when he and Trudie put on a benefit convert for Tibet at London's Globe Theatre, the faithful reconstruction of a Shakespearean theatre. Jacob played as singers Lulu and James Taylor performed songs from Shakespeare's plays. Actors Miranda Richardson and Paul Schofield read sonnets and Sting experimented with Jacob's lute.

However it was in 2004 when his interest in the instrument became all-consuming. The singer said recently: "About two years ago, my long-time guitarist, Dominic Miller, gave me a gift he'd had made for me - a lute, a 16th century instrument with lots of strings. I became fascinated with it and immersed myself in lute music. It rekindled an interest I've had for a long time in the works of John Dowland, who was really the first English singer-songwriter that we know of, and so many of us owe our living this man."

What Shakespeare was to the play, John Dowland was to English song, the first in a long line of gloomy romantics, lamenting the loss of their latest girlfriend that manifests itself still in the world of James Blunt, Coldplay and myriad other sensitive young British men. His most famous song, 'Flow my Teares', includes a typically morose pun "Dowland, semper dolens" ("Dowland, always grieving").

Chris Goodwin, of the Lute Society, said "Four hundred years really isn't a long time ago. People are the same now as they were then. It's life as poetic drama. Dowland's songs are sung in the first person. The generation before him tended to write annoying, moralising poetry - universal statements rather than personal stories. Dowland wrote the first pop songs that people could really relate to."

He could, of course, be talking about Sting's own music, whose albums have taken on a distinctly lovelorn hue of late.

Ever since 1993's distinctly old worlde-titled 'Ten Summoner's Tales' - a pun on Sting's real name, Gordon Sumner - Sting's music has appeared unashamedly romantic in the classic Dowland tradition.

'Like a Beautiful Smile' from 1999's 'Sacred Love' album is the most striking similarity and is in fact Shakespeare's Sonnet 18 set to Sting's music. He stumbled upon the words in Lake House's library one evening, the book of sonnets mysteriously catching his eye as he searched for inspiration. Sting opened the book to a random page and found that Sonnet 18 fitted perfectly with an instrumental track he had devised. The strange coincidences continue because Dowland may have written with the Bard too. "'Flow My Tears' is reckoned to be the inspiration for the "If music be the food of love" speech from Twelfth Night" says Chris Goodwin.

Dowland (1563 - 1626) was hugely influential in his day, composing around 80 songs released in four books. His first collection in 1597 spared a craze for the lute that lasted 20 years. But Dowland was notoriously bitter because he was never granted the one thing he wanted - a full time job at the court of Elizabeth I. He put this snub down to the fat he was a Roman Catholic, which would have been unacceptable in the staunchly Protestant court of the Virgin Queen. However, he was feted in the courts of Europe, lived lavishly in their palaces and was employed by the King of Denmark. "He was frustrated" says Chris Goodwin, "Dowland knew he was the best player around. But it was only later that he finally landed the job at James I's court through the influence of the Howards, the premier Catholic family in England."

Certainly, if the restless spirit of Dowland is looking to ingratiate his music with today's nobility, he has chosen the right person. Sting is possibly the best-connected rock star in the business, close friends with the likes of Bono, Elton John and Madonna. No one knows whether Dowland ever visited or played at Lake House - but his presence can certainly be felt there now.

© The Sunday Express

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