USA TODAYOctober 02, 2006
Centuries before the world came to know a rock star called Sting - or any rock star, for that matter - another English troubadour traveled the globe, playing songs about love and yearning, isolation and despair.
"John Dowland was our first alienated singer/songwriter," Sting says. "A totally conflicted man but a genius musician. We're just following in his footsteps."
Mind you, Sting offers little evidence of personal conflict on this pleasant afternoon. The 55-year-old pop icon, whose early hits made him a poster boy for existential angst, chooses a chair on the sunny side of a garden in The Cloisters, a Metropolitan Museum of Art enclave showcasing works from medieval Europe. It actually was during the Elizabethan era that Dowland made his name as a composer and master lute player.
On 'Songs From the Labyrinth', due Tuesday, Sting teams up with a latter-day virtuoso, the renowned lutenist Edin Karamazov, to perform a collection of Dowland's work. Sting plays the archlute and reads excerpts from a letter Dowland wrote to Sir Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth I's secretary of state in 1595, after the musician, a convert to Catholicism, left England to seek his fortune elsewhere.
"Dowland had wanted the gig as the queen's lutenist," Sting explains. "When he didn't get it, he put it down to the fact that he was Catholic. This may or may not have been true, but he was disgruntled."
The letter was written after Dowland was implicated in a plot to kill Elizabeth. "In it, he's basically pleading for his life, saying that yes, he's Catholic, but he's loyal to the queen. It captures the mood and the political terror of the time."
Parallels between that age and the present weren't lost on Sting, a former altar boy who can still say the Latin Mass if prodded. "With all the religious conflict at the moment, I wonder if we've learned anything.
"There is something timely about this music. For me, it's music of self-reflection, which leads to melancholy, which is different from depression. Depression is a terrible, clinical disease, where melancholy is actually a beautiful, useful emotion. To look at ourselves and the world and feel a kind of sad beauty about it, that's good for us.
"I think more leaders in the 21st century need to reflect in that way. Dividing things into black and white, good and evil, the bad guys and the good guys - that's so far from reality as to be absurd."
Several colleagues and admirers had suggested Sting might find a fellow spirit in Dowland.
Guitarist Dominic Miller introduced Sting and Karamazov - formally, in any case. Years before, Sting had heard the Sarajevo-bred Karamazov play with a group in Hamburg, Germany, and was sufficiently impressed to pass on a request that the group perform at a birthday party he was throwing with his wife, Trudie Styler.
"I said, 'Why go to England to play for a rock singer? I'll sit here and play my Bach,' " he recalls.
Karamazov concedes that he "hardly knew any of Sting's songs" before they started working together. "Now I know two. One I knew before, 'Message in a Bottle', but he had to teach me the other. One day he said, 'Let's do 'Fields of Gold'.' And I said, 'Fields of what?'
"But I had heard Sting's voice as a boy. The voice was always there. And to me, that voice feels close to Dowland, because it is so pure and beautiful. And because he's Sting, there is now a chance the larger public will hear this music."
Not that Sting expects Labyrinth', which he describes as "a modest little addendum to my career," to take the top 40 by storm. "I can't imagine hearing it on rock radio," adding he is now "fired up to write my own music again. I've immersed myself in this other man's songs for two years, and it's time to dust off my pen."
What happens when the dust settles remains to be seen, and heard. "I don't really follow any logical agenda except, I suppose, to take risks and follow my instincts. And luckily, people have learned to trust my instincts. They think, 'Whatever he's doing, maybe it will work.'"
© USA Today by Elysa Gardner