Before Sting decided to reunite The Police for a high-profile summer mega-tour, the eclectic musician tackled a much more low-key project: interpreting a set of lute-based songs by Elizabethan 16th-century composer John Dowland. The resulting CD, Songs from the Labyrinth, became a surprise hit on the classical charts. Tonight, Sting channels Dowland once more on PBS' Great Performances (check local listings), an almost spiritual hour of music and conversation that shows the singer in a more intimate setting than the stadiums and arenas he'll play in a few months. We spoke with Sting just days before he and The Police opened this year's Grammys.
TV Guide: How'd you first hear of Dowland?
Sting: Various people at various times in my life have suggested that my voice would suit this material. I was always a little too busy to investigate it, but it was always in the back of my mind that one day perhaps I'd have the time to do it.
TV Guide: What was your label's reaction when you said your next CD would be Dowland-based?
Sting: I said, "I've got good news and bad news. The good news is I'm going in the studio. The bad news is I'm recording a set of Elizabethan songs about death!" [Laughs] They're very patient with me. They've given me a lot of leeway to follow my muse. And I think people expect me to do surprising things every now and then.
TV Guide: This project was clearly a labor of love for you....
Sting: Love and curiosity. [Laughs]
TV Guide: And you didn't know how it would fare commercially, yet it went to No. 1 on the classical charts.
Sting: I was completely bowled over by the reaction to this record, both critically and also commercially. I really didn't expect to have such a successful record. It's not what it was designed to do. You know, I always try to make the best record I can, but I was very, very happy when the results came through.
TV Guide: The Great Performances special has a very old-world look to it. And the "four Stings" effect at the table in "Can She Excuse My Wrongs" is quite trippy. Did you enjoy filming it?
Sting: Oh, it was fun, especially that song. I didn't have the luxury of having a vocal group, so I did all the parts. I thought it would be fun to sit around a table, because Dowland designed a music system where one piece of paper could furnish four people in four directions. So the bass parts are written in one way, the altos written in one way, and the tenors in another. He wanted to point out that you could play this music sitting around a table, informally.
TV Guide: At times the harmonies almost evoke the chants of Benedictine monks, nearly religious in a way. Does that surprise you?
Sting: Well, the songs are very secular. Dowland sings very rarely about religion, but the tradition of music within the church obviously is a powerful one. And very true in Dowland's day. You had to align yourself with one of the churches to get a gig, or a royal house. So, no, it doesn't surprise me. But music for me is a form of religion. In fact, it's my religion. [Laughs] It's the way I connect with something higher.
TV Guide: Would you do more Dowland?
Sting: I think I'd certainly like to explore that area again, but I've got "another project" this year you may know about. I'd certainly like to look further into the repertoire. I enjoy the lute very much. It's a very interesting instrument.
TV Guide: The special airs on PBS. With MTV and VH1 edging away from music programming, is public television the last alternative?
Sting: I'm a big supporter of PBS. I think it's important. Culture remains alive on television, so PBS is probably the last vestige of that in every field, not just music.
TV Guide: You were on Studio 60's show-within-a-show, with your Dowland collaborator Edin Karamazov. Are you a fan of the NBC series?
Sting: I love the show. It's very clever. I was surprised that they would choose two guys playing lutes [Laughs] as their musical act, but I was very pleased as well.
TV Guide: How about American Idol?
Sting: Not particularly, no. I actually feel a bit of compassion for [the contestants]. You're out there with your dreams, and your dreams are shattered by one comment. That's tough.
TV Guide: You reworked The Police's "Message in a Bottle" for the lute. Did that song lend itself easily to that interpretation?
Sting: Funnily enough, yeah. Some of the harmonies are very Elizabethan, but that shouldn't really be a surprise. What's embedded within English music from Dowland on through Benjamin Britten to the Beatles is folk music. It's the same bedrock that we've all dug into.
TV Guide: So will you be playing the lute [on the reunion tour]?
Sting: Um, no. [Laughs] My lute is banned from the proceedings. But [the tour is] going to be fun, too.
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