The following article appeared in an October 2006 issue of The Globe & Mail...
Sting has picked up the music of John Dowland, writes Robert Everett-Green. It's centuries old, but loaded with pop hooks.
Lots of rock stars cover old songs, but hardly any go quite as far as Sting. The tunes on his latest album are all at least 400 years old, and were well known to the first English queen named Elizabeth.
'Songs from the Labyrinth', just out on Deutsche Grammophon, is almost entirely devoted to the music of John Dowland, a composer and lutenist who died in 1626. A giant in the eyes of music historians, Dowland was also, according to Sting, the first English pop star to have an international career.
"His songs were famous all over Europe," Sting said, on the line from New York, where he had just performed at Lincoln Center with Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov. "At that time there was little difference between high-art and popular music. The songs are all about three minutes long, which is the length of a pop tune. They're loaded with hooks, and they were written for a mass market." He does 11 songs on the disc, including one by Robert Johnson, another composer-lutenist of the period. Sting also plays a bit on the lute, reads excerpts from a famous letter written by Dowland, and yields the microphone to Karamazov for several of the composer's pieces for lute alone.
Sting didn't go looking for Dowland; he was sent after him by friends in the classical world. The pianist Katia Lab?®que suggested he try some of the songs, and accompanied him on fortepiano at a few private events. The guitarist Dominic Miller gave him a lute as a gift, and introduced him to Karamazov. They began to experiment with Dowland's music, and Sting learned the lute well enough to get around a few of his compositions.
"It wasn't really meant to lead to a record," he said. "It was a labour of curiosity and love. We'd look over a few things, and Edin would go back to Dubrovnik for a few months, and then we'd review what we'd done." The turning point came when Sting came across Dowland's letter - a long, plaintive missive he wrote from Germany to Sir Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I's secretary of state. In it, Dowland recounted his travels around Europe, offered intelligence about Spain's military ambitions, and tried to dispel whatever suspicions had prevented him from getting an important job at Elizabeth's court.
"I didn't think it was a record till I discovered the letter," Sting said. He realized that Dowland was offering him a narrative line to hold the songs together, and to provide some kind of context for people who knew nothing about the composer and his milieu. England at the time was essentially a police state, with an extensive spy network at home and abroad. It tortured and killed its subjects for all kinds of perceived crimes, including Roman Catholicism. Dowland had become a Catholic during his years in Europe, fell in with some seditious English Catholics in Italy, and came close to being taken up as a court musician by the Pope, till he realized that such a step would make it impossible to return to England.
It's an open question whether the streak of melancholy that runs through Dowland's songs was due to thwarted ambition, personal disposition, or the fashion of the time. Sting believes it's a combination of the three, with a strong tilt toward thwarted ambition.
"We wanted the record to sound almost like the soundtrack to a movie," he said. "His life would make a fantastic spy movie, with all kinds of plotting and intrigues. I think it's incredible that he navigated through this very dangerous political climate and still managed to write this amazing music." He said the decision to record the songs with lute wasn't so much a choice as an organic result of the way he was introduced to the music. But he never thought of trying to sing them the way a classical singer might.
"I knew I didn't want to pretend to be an opera singer," he said. "I also knew that these songs were written 100 years before that technique was invented." He sings them like very focused pop songs, with the diction of a rock star on best behaviour, and the accent of a man born near Manchester 55 years ago. It's almost as if he's singing folk songs, which he said was part of the point. But he also said he didn't want do anything blatantly foreign to the music. To that end, and to get a few technical pointers, he consulted with Richard Levitt, a singing coach in Switzerland whose students include the countertenor Andreas Scholl, who also recently made a record with Karamazov.
"I wanted Richard there to make sure I wasn't going 180 degrees from what was seemly," Sting said. "...[But] we didn't particularly want to make a polite record. 'Can She Excuse My Wrongs' isn't a polite song, it's actually very angry." (The bitter lyrics, by the Earl of Essex, supposedly target Queen Elizabeth, who later had him executed.)
"I think Dowland felt like an outsider," Sting said. He admitted that as a dairy-man's son and a northerner, in a country that still maintains a hierarchy based on social class and geography, he feels an identification with Dowland that goes deeper than the similarity of having made a name and fortune by creating music that a lot of people know about.
He doesn't expect the record to reach the Billboard charts, and purposely gave it a small-scale feeling - the miking is so intimate, you can hear Karamazov breathing while he plays. Sting's readings from the letter all come with atmospheric backgrounds, including bird calls and (in one instance) his own efforts on solo lute.
What his performances lack is the variety of tone and phrasing you can get from a well-trained classical singer - somebody like John Potter, for instance, the English tenor who made an innovative Dowland record for ECM six years ago that included arrangements with saxophone, violin and string bass. But Potter's disc never got much outside the classical mainstream. Sting could make a name for Dowland where only a few fans of John Renbourn and Elvis Costello (who covered a Dowland song on the recent expanded version of The Juliet Letters) have gone before.
© The Globe & Mail by Robert Everett-Green