ON a Warner Bros. Television sound stage, Sting is perched on a stool, singing a plaintive, urgent ballad to an absent lover. No surprises here -- except that the song, "Come Again," is more than 400 years old. It was composed by John Dowland, a contemporary of Shakespeare who is considered one of England's greatest songwriters.
If Dowland isn't exactly as well-known as the former Police frontman, Sting's new album, "Songs From the Labyrinth," to be released on the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label Tuesday, and his Oct. 16 appearance on NBC's showbiz satire "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" may change that.
What's a 54-year-old rocker doing going back to works written in the Elizabethan era?
"For me, they're pop songs, written in 1603 or whatever, and I relate to them in that way," Sting says during a late lunch break in the TV taping. "They have beautiful melodies, fantastic lyrics, great accompaniment.
"Dowland was probably our first alienated singer-songwriter, so he has a kind of modern resonance. He toured, he played popular songs. So there are parallels between my kind of world and his. I didn't have to travel by donkey between castles, nor am I privy to any kind of secret intelligence that my country may need as he had. But at the same time, I have an affinity for him."
The songs have been haunting him, he said, for nearly 25 years. He first heard them after a 1982 Amnesty International benefit concert and began immersing himself in the period after he bought a 16th century mansion, Lake House, in Wiltshire, England, in 1991. A custom-made lute from his longtime guitarist, Dominic Miller quickened his interest in 2004; Dowland was a lutenist and wrote for the instrument. But the final piece of the puzzle fell into place when he began to work with lutenist Edin Karamazov, his Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina-born album partner, about two years ago.
The two spent a weekend at Lake House, pouring through Dowland's songbooks, originally published between 1597 and 1610.
"It was really an exercise in curiosity," says Sting. "We just carried on from there. But was it a record? I didn't know. It wasn't a record to me until maybe a month or two before we'd actually finished it. Before that, it was just a process, it was just me learning something."
Karamazov, who also appears on the "Studio 60" show, sheds some more light on the project. "It took almost a year for us to put it all together," he says. "In the beginning, it was more like me giving him ideas and bringing new songs to him, but slowly, with time, he helped me to change some things in my playing, to improvise in certain parts."
Sting credits Karamazov for doing more than bringing him songs. The rocker says that Karamazov inspired him to play the lute, and in fact several duets appear on the album, "with Edin's indulgence."
"I play the difficult parts," Sting says with a laugh. "A lie. That was fun to do that. Also, to learn the lute is to understand the songs at a different level than just being a singer. You play the harmony, you understand it. It becomes part of the song. So that's an important part of the process.
"But as a guitar player, I had to reconfigure a lot of my -- you know -- synapses. The normal things I just fall into don't work any more. So in a way it's a recreative kind of chaos that this thing has caused, and I've immersed myself in it for a year or 18 months now, and I'm feeling very much obsessed with it."
Sting also sings four-part harmony on some of the songs.
"I just thought the album needed another color than just voice and lute to make it sustain interest. I don't think we overused it. It's not like a barbershop quartet. It was fun. I do that in pop records. That's what I like to do: I sing harmony, be my own choir."
Dowland wrote all those parts, he says. "And he wrote them in a very special way. On one page he would have the bass part facing this way, the tenor part facing that way, the altos here and so on, so you could get round a table and read a song. It was a very good invention."
WHAT turned Sting's experiment with old songs into a workable project, he said, was finding a long, rambling letter Dowland wrote to Sir Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth I's powerful secretary of state. Dowland was petitioning Cecil for a job in the Protestant court and trying to prove his loyalty to the crown. As it turned out, though, he was unsuccessful, and he believed the reason he didn't get the job was because he had converted to Catholicism.
Sting reads excerpts of Dowland's letter between songs on the album. "The letter provided a context which not only told about Dowland's life, his history, but the politics of the time, the mood, the social stuff that was going on," he says. "So in a way it was an ideal context to present a kind of radio play for his music, like a soundtrack to a movie.