The following article appeared in an October 2006 issue of The Daily Telegraph...
Sting has exchanged his guitar for a lute, returning to the renaissance for inspiration. He tells John Allison why melancholy and self-reflection are the new rock'n'roll
'Melancholy is no bad thing' says Sting. His cat Carbonnel dozes on my lap as we sit having a quiet talk at Lake House, the singer's Elizabethan pile in Wiltshire. The backdrop is fitting, for we are discussing his latest project - obsession, really - and his most unexpected album yet, 'Songs from the Labyrinth'. It features such Elizabethan classics as 'Come again: sweet love doth now invite' and 'The lowest trees have tops', songs by one of the greatest of all English composers, John Dowland.
The uniquely doleful sound of Dowland has been close to Sting's heart for longer than anyone could have guessed - and now, thanks to the rock star's advocacy, countless people who have never heard Dowland are about to be exposed to music that has previously been in danger of languishing in the 'early music' ghetto.
'It would be nice if more people could appreciate it. I think it's beautiful, special and timely in a way. For me it's the music of self-reflection. The world has become less reflective - we don't have self-reflective leaders any longer: we have people who think they're right, whatever they do, but never look at the judgments they've made. So, yes, this music could be timely. The result of self-reflection is melancholy, and that's beautiful, a useful human emotion. I feel this music has nurtured me as I've been immersing myself in it. I've felt supported by it.'
Many of Sting's own biggest hits have been songs written at periods of emotional turmoil - the break-up of his first marriage, the death of both his parents within a year of each other. He has spoken in the past about his need to channel emotion - 'disguise it as pop music'- in a way that's left him wondering where people who don't write songs put their feelings. And now that life's so apparently perfect - he combines membership of rock's ruling elite with being a multimillionaire superdad to six children, living in seven homes and enjoying what seems to be the happiest marriage in showbiz - he evidently has to find his melancholy fix somewhere. Dowland is it.
The project taps right into what Sting calls his 'earnest, eternal-student' side. A singer-songwriter in today's terms, Dowland (1563-1626) was one of the most accomplished lutenists of his time, so celebrated in continental Europe that he became known as the English Orpheus. And yet, for all his success, he was tortured by his failure to secure a post at the court of Elizabeth I - failure he attributed to his Catholicism.
On the album, Sting reads extracts from an autobiograpical outpouring Dowland wrote in 1595 to Sir Robert Cecil, Walsingham's successor as Elizabeth's spymaster. In the letter, Dowland tries hard to convince Cecil of his loyalty to his 'sovereign queen' as well as offering intelligence that will have come as no surprise: 'the Kinge of Spain is making gret preparation to com for England this Somer'.
Although Sting and his virtuoso lutenist, Edin Karamazov, originally from Sarajevo, have been working together only since May last year, Dowland has been at the back of the singer's mind for almost a quarter of a century. 'It's been circling me - at other people's behest. It wasn't my own idea originally, I must admit.' He remembers the actor John Bird mentioning Dowland backstage during a 1982 variety show in support of Amnesty International. Sting was intrigued, and the next day sought out a record of Dowland, sung by Peter Pears. Years later, the pianist Katia Lab?®que mentioned him again, 'suggesting the music would suit my untrained tenor. We performed a few songs at soirées. Persistently, people were saying, "You must sing Dowland".'
Finally, Sting's long-time guitarist and friend Dominic Miller commissioned a lute for him as a gift. 'That, combined with meeting Edin - another Dominic introduction - made me finally realise that there was something in this. Edin and I spent a weekend together here, learning some songs. I thought, let's take this further, to the next stage, without ever knowing quite what that next stage would be. Or the end result. But the process of learning something new is always good for me.
'Until the very last minute, I wasn't particularly confident that it was a record. Yet when we started to piece things together, and then added in the Cecil letter, I thought, OK, this sounds like a record. It has a context now, one to which people who've never heard 16th-century music before would be able to relate.'
For all his hopes of reaching a new audience, Sting knows that the traditionalists will need convincing. He has already enjoyed the support of such period authorities as Richard Levitt of the Schola Cantorum in Basle and the distinguished lutenist Anthony Rooley. 'I didn't want a turf war. I didn't feel like defending my right to sing this very English music. I'm a singer-songwriter - so there's an authenticity there that I feel justified in claiming. This music is for everyone, for any kind of voice.
'Whether or not the Peter Pears style was for me when I first heard it, it was an interesting introduction to this music, and I've listened to a lot of different interpreters by now - not least to make sure I wasn't aping what's already been done.'
Dowland's very natural style doesn't necessarily require an operatically trained voice. Sting's warm, slightly hoarse rasp, so familiar in other contexts, fits well. 'I certainly didn't feel I had to alter much of my singing style. I haven't needed to project into a massive auditorium. The songs were designed for an intimate setting, so my relationship with the microphone is probably the right one. It doesn't normally work for pop singers to sing "classical". I've chosen this particular pitch because I think it's a battle I can win. It's not about technique, it's not about vibrato and production: it's about melody and lyric.'
In the process, Sting has himself learned to play the lute, and two non-vocal tracks on the album feature him in duet with Karamazov. 'Not the most difficult pieces, but I can keep tempo!' The lute may be an ancestor of the guitar, but it requires a very different technique and is played on the flesh of the fingers. Sting's hands look craggy as he caresses his lute, but he is reluctant to put the instrument down. 'I've got hands for plumbing or punching - they're not very delicate. The lute feels so delicate. When I play bass, it's as if I'm pulling pipes by comparison.'
Not many rock musicians have immersed themselves in the arts of the late 16th century, but Sting is no stranger to the period. Shakespeare has been a constant in his life, as his 1987 album 'Nothing like the Sun' attests.
'I see what I do as part of a longer legacy than just rock 'n' roll. I'm a popular singer, but popular song goes a long way back. Dowland was one of the key people in that legacy. So in a way I'm repaying that debt. I like the idea of the English renaissance continuing to give us life. We owe these people a great deal.'
And there is nothing incongruous about seeing lutes strewn around Sting's house: indeed the star might himself pass for the perfect Elizabethan courtier once you've mentally replaced his jeans with a doublet and hose. There's a definite period feeling to everything - true, the servants are not in costume, but none the less¬Ö And even the 'rose' on the soundboard of Sting's first lute is based on the labyrinth in the 60-acre grounds.
'I first came across this labyrinth design a number of years ago in San Francisco, and found it very beautiful. It was based on the labyrinth in Chartres Cathedral, originally designed as a meditational tool. So I did a meditation, and felt something - something hard to explain. I was fascinated, and with this huge lawn outside thought it would be fun to build one here. It took about three years, and now we have this thing that looks like a neolithic earthwork. It calms me down, and I try to walk it every day. It's also become a metaphor for my journey in music. I'm constantly drawn towards the centre of things, but you get moved away.'
This recording will not be the end of the journey, for Sting and Karamazov have already been looking tentatively at the music of Thomas Campion and Henry Purcell. Sting's own music has embraced everything from reggae to Bach ('Whenever I Say Your Name') and Prokofiev ('Russians'), and he still listens widely.
'Now if I'm on a plane or have an hour at home I tend to listen to classical music. I adore Bach, I listen to a lot of Lutoslawski. I see music as one language. If one musical form eats its own tail it dies. So it needs to be a mongrel, it needs to be hybridised. I hate the idea of crossover, but if you identify your sources, and are respectful of them, then something new can come up. I've no interest in playing Mozart with a drum machine ¬Ö'
Sting, who turned 55 at the beginning of the month, has been accused by some of going soft ever since The Police disintegrated in 1984. What will people say now? 'I'm very intrigued by what will happen. I really don't know. I'm used to selling millions of copies, so perhaps I'm barking up the wrong tree here. I'd certainly like it to do respectably well, and there's a great deal of interest from places where classical music doesn't get a look in.'
As for potential sales, it is he, not I, who makes a connection between 'lute' and 'loot'. For the world's most famous former teacher, some punning habits die hard, harder perhaps than any pop star ego: ever the Renaissance man, Sting has immersed himself in this music as deeply as anything in his long career.
'Songs from the Labyrinth' is available on Deutsche Grammophon
© The Daily Telegraph by John Allison