They may have laughed at first when he sat down at the lute, but Sting's audiences are applauding his current foray into the songs of 16th-century British musician John Dowland.
"Songs From the Labyrinth," the singer's recent CD of Dowland pieces accompanied by Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov, recently spent more than three months atop Billboard's classical charts. An hourlong "Great Performances" special, "Sting: Songs From the Labyrinth," premieres Monday, Feb. 26, on PBS (check local listings). And just a few weeks earlier, Sting and Karamazov played to a near-capacity crowd at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Two nights after that January concert, the 55-year-old former lead singer and bassist of the Police sits in a hotel suite, munching an oversize cookie as he and Karamazov kill time before another Dowland performance. He looks relaxed and comfortable in a blue shirt, green cargo pants and boots, although Sting readily concedes that tackling this challenging music has been a nerve-racking experience, since it takes him so far outside his musical comfort zone.
"I'm quite curious about music, and the willingness to become an apprentice is important to me," he says. "I learn by putting myself at risk, putting myself in uncomfortable situations. If you are a student of music, you have to be humble. There's always something to learn. It's important to try new stuff, and I think people appreciate the risks that you take."
This Dowland project consumed more than a year of his life, time that he and Karamazov devoted to studying this music and polishing their performances, which come from a decidedly contemporary perspective. The music is performed as written, but what Sting calls "my unschooled tenor" voice automatically lends a passion and urgency that more classically trained singers may have missed in their recordings of these songs.
"I think that as wonderful as those early recordings are, they're a little bit remote," Sting says. "It's like Dowland's music is on a pedestal at the far end of a cathedral. We wanted to get very close to the microphone, so you can hear the mouth working and hear the lute working. You're inside this music, and it's sensuous and wet. You're singing about passion and lust, and those are close emotions. These songs are designed to be sung in an intimate setting, and I think we've gone back to that.
"Nobody really knows how John Dowland may have sung these songs, because there are no recordings. In that sense, we are true to the notes on the paper, but ... I'm not a trained singer, and Edin doesn't exactly play by the book, either. What we've produced is a rather strange record, not a truly classical one, even if it's on Deutsche Grammophon."
Sting came to this music after more than two decades of having colleagues and friends suggest to him that he would be a natural match for Dowland. The singer says he thought the songs were very beautiful on first hearing, but he didn't really understand why people kept suggesting that he should learn and perform them.
"Maybe it's because my voice isn't particularly of its time," Sting says with a shrug. "I'm a pop singer, but I sing in a very 'English' way, and it sounds a bit old-fashioned. So maybe people are hearing that."
Karamazov, 41, says the Dowland-Sting pairing makes perfect sense to him.
"I never had any Police albums, but I knew Sting's voice," he says, "and it seems like the right choice for Dowland's music. Both of them are English, and both are songwriters. I find Sting's music melancholic, like Dowland's, so the two of them seem to me very similar. I really know Sting only as an early music singer. I don't know him as a pop singer.
"We worked for a year on this project, spending a lot of time researching and working on interpretations, so in the end we have an album that in one way is early music but in another I think is fresh and different."
If the notion of a wall-to-wall hour of 16th-century lute music is daunting to some viewers, the "Great Performances" special is artfully structured, interspersing Sting and Karamazov's Dowland performances with breathtaking footage of Lake House, Sting's 16th-century manor house in Wiltshire, and in the ancient gardens of Il Palagio, his home in Italy. The performers also are shown before an audience at St. Luke's Church in London.
Sting and Karamazov will be spending part of the next few weeks playing concert dates in Europe, after which the singer says he will be ready to start mulling his next project.
"I have plenty of curiosity, and not necessarily in the past," he says. "I'm also interested in music of the future, and trying to create some of that. But it's part of a continuum. You're not separate from what was written 500 years ago. If you investigate the bedrock of John Dowland or the Beatles or even me, it's English folk music underneath all of us. That connects us all."
This "Great Performances" production also has been released as part of a special DVD/CD package titled "The Journey & the Labyrinth: The Music of John Dowland." The set includes both an extended version of the PBS special, as well as a CD containing new live material, as well as Sting favorites "Message in a Bottle" and "Fields of Gold" adapted for the lute.