Photo: Copyright Kasskara/DG
During the course of nine Top 10 solo albums and nearly a dozen Grammys, Sting has proven himself a consummate artist, one who crafts winning pop melodies, pens intelligent lyrics and continually challenges both himself and his listeners by exploring a wide musical spectrum. Jazz, world beat, Celtic, classical and rock 'n' roll have all taken their turn in his sophisticated compositions, which have ranged from romantic to mournful to pure AC pop. All of this, combined with his previous success with The Police, has led Sting (born Gordon Matthew Sumner) to become one of the most celebrated English songwriters of the rock era. Considering his wide range of interests and a few common bonds, it's not a complete surprise that Sting would resonate with the music of John Dowland, a premier composer, singer and lutenist of the late-16th century. Dowland was a complex man, now regarded as the most celebrated English songwriter of the Elizabethan era.
Born out of a 20-year fascination with Dowland's alternately melancholic and lively songs, Sting recently teamed with renowned Bosnian guitarist/lutenist Edin Karamazov to release Songs From the Labyrinth (Deutsche Grammophon), a quiet celebration of Dowland's life and music — traditionally performed, but with subtle 21st-century embellishments.
British actor John Bird introduced Sting to Dowland's music in 1982. Sting was intrigued enough to seek out Dowland's work on his own, but at the time, The Police were at their peak, and performing music that was hundreds of years old didn't appeal to the emerging rock star. His next Dowland encounter came more than a decade later, when pianist Katia Labéque suggested that Dowland's songs might suit Sting's tenor. They rehearsed a couple of Dowland's songs, but no serious project ensued.
Many years passed before Dowland reappeared in Sting's life; this time, through his guitarist, Dominic Miller. Miller commissioned a lute, built by Klaus Jacobsen, as a gift for Sting, with an unusual labyrinthine pattern at the center of the fretboard. An experienced guitarist, Sting became equally fascinated and frustrated with the instrument. “[It's] near enough to the guitar to feel familiar, but different enough to really mess with your mind,” Sting said in an earlier interview. All the while, Dowland's music haunted him.
Miller also introduced him to Karamazov, one of Europe's most highly regarded classical guitarists and lutenists — or rather, reintroduced him. It turns out the two had met briefly many years before at a circus in Hamburg, Germany, where Karamazov was performing with a trio. Sting and his wife, Trudie, caught a performance and later asked if the trio would play a birthday party they were throwing. Karamazov refused, stating that they were not performing monkeys! “I had just bought my lute and was very serious about practicing,” Karamazov recalls during a 4 p.m. “lunch break” between interviews and a TV taping with Sting. “I was never much into Sting's career; I hardly knew his songs but his voice was always there. I was just discovering his music two years ago when we met again.”
The two met on better terms two years ago in Frankfurt before one of Sting's concerts. In the liner notes to Songs From the Labyrinth, Sting writes that Karamazov removed his archlute from its case and began to play Bach's Toccata and Fugue in A minor. “His performance was delivered with such passion and commitment that Bach's music seemed to wrench us violently from our time to his.”
Their backstage conversation naturally turned to Dowland, and Karamazov suggested Sting should learn his songs. He agreed, and they made plans to perform them together. To prepare, the pop celebrity sought direction from vocal teacher Richard Levitt from the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland. Levitt advised Sting on breathing techniques, how to sing a diphthong properly and other vocal practices particular to Elizabethan singing. Sting also learned how to read tablature and fervently practiced his lute. Despite his 30-plus-year career in modern music, Sting again was a novice.
When Sting and Karamazov met at Sting's home in Il Palagio, Italy, to rehearse Dowland's work, they played purely for pleasure, never intending to record an album. “I wanted to learn these songs, and out of curiosity we just kept going,” Sting said. During four separate visits, the unlikely duo immersed themselves in Dowland's work, Karamazov patiently guiding his famous apprentice, who closely listened, learned and soon became familiar enough with the material to contribute his own arrangement ideas. During the fourth meeting, Sting brought forth a letter Dowland had written to Sir Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth I's secretary of state at the time. When Sting decided to read excerpts of the letter — a tome that reveals much about Dowland's life and career — they realized they were building an album. After that point, they recorded everything.
Donal Hodgson, Sting's engineer since 2001, recorded what would become Songs From the Labyrinth mostly at Sting's Tuscan home, using his fully portable studio, Steerpike. The completely flight-cased operation comprises an SSL 4000 G Series console with Ultimation, a 64 I/O Pro Tools HD4 Accel workstation with Version 7.2 software, and an ample assortment of plug-ins, mic pre's, digital effects, mics and monitors. For 14 months, Steerpike remained parked in Italy in Sting's spacious two-room studio (a control room and live room, with a separate space for flight case storage) overlooking the Tuscan countryside, a working farm and a nearby chapel.
The duo initially planned to record live in that chapel to evoke a traditional Dowland performance; however, the old chapel had soundproofing issues, which resulted in cicadas and farm tractors humming in the background. “I said, ‘Well, let's just try it in the studio,” Hodgson says. “We got the most intimate vocal sound that way. Sting is so used to being in the studio from the pop world, so he was much happier.”
To record Sting's vocals, Hodgson employed the one-two punch of a BLUE Bottle 9612 microphone and Manley SLAM! stereo limiter/mic pre. He recorded straight into Pro Tools using Prism ADA-8 converters, and used a UREI 1176 when monitoring Sting's voice. Throughout the recording process, the veteran engineer listened through his own ATC T16s.
Sting's engineer, Donal Hodgson, recorded mostly at the artist's home.
Hodgson miked Karamazov's delicate lute with two DPA 4006s in A/B stereo placement, positioned about a meter and a half off the ground and tilted at a 30-degree angle. He then placed a Neumann U87 on the sound hole and an AKG 414 at the 12th fret. The DPAs ran into a Focusrite ISA428 4-channel mic pre, and then into a UREI 1178 to Pro Tools. The U87 ran into a Focusrite 439 Producer Pack, and the AKG went into a Focusrite ISA220 and then into Pro Tools. “I wasn't trying to enhance anything,” says Hodgson. “I wanted a cleaner, more natural sound that was totally representative of the music being played.”
Hodgson discovered that the lute could have easily sounded too natural. “The lute is a very quiet instrument,” says Hodgson. “When it's played properly, it sounds beautiful, but recording it and making it sound clean at the pop level is quite challenging. As soon as you turn up the gain, you turn up the noise floor. You can't compress. The frets are made of sheep's gut — they're pieces of twine, really. It moves and it creaks and it makes its own sounds, and the frets move and make funny noises. You try to get rid of some of that, but it's difficult when there's nothing to disguise it.”
Separated by booths built from Taytrix StackIt gobos, with Plexiglas windows to maintain full visibility, the vocalist and lutenist could perform naturally together with minimal bleed. The challenge, Hodgson discovered, was to capture the lute's inherent nuances while downplaying Karamazov's. “Part of Edin's sound is his breathing,” says Hodgson. “As good as that is, I was trying to avoid recording it because it overtook the sound of the lute. With so many tracks at our disposal, I would take as many as I could and then hit the Mute button.”
Karamazov agrees that he gives himself fully to the performance, whether onstage or in the studio. “When I record, it's giving everything to the microphone — as if I'm seducing the mic. Then I feel more comfortable. You could hear everything, which is good, because that's what I hear when I'm close to the instrument.”
Nearly all of the album's 23 tracks were recorded live, with Sting and Karamazov playing together. Occasionally, they would run through a song a few times and Hodgson would edit together the best parts. Sometimes the team would then challenge each other by saying, “All right, let's try and better that in one take.” Sting overdubbed his lute parts for the duet “My Lord Willoughby's Welcome Home,” and later added four-part harmonies to three songs. “I really enjoyed singing in my own choir, if you like,” Sting said in an earlier interview. “Edin helped me a great deal in reading some of the counterpoint because it was quite different, some of it. I think it gives a different color to the record, a sense of relief in that there's the lute and suddenly a choir appears at pertinent moments.”
When Sting recited excerpts from Dowland's letter, they brought in Kipper Eldridge, Sting's keyboardist and frequent co-producer, to add some moody synth parts in the background, which gives the tracks a modern edge.
Hodgson mixed the majority of the album at Steerpike, and then took the project to Metropolis Studios in London to add Sting's harmony parts and mix a couple tracks. Working in Studio B, which offers an SSL 4064 identical to Steerpike's, Hodgson used only a subtle amount of the board's EQ and compression, and a touch of Alan Smart C2 compressor on the stereo mix before giving it to Metropolis' Ian Cooper for mastering.
Sting's tribute to one of Europe's first traveling pop stars, if you will, may take fans of his full-blown pop productions by surprise. At the same time, the care with which he treats Dowland's words, combined with Karamazov's commanding performance, may also win the approval of the classical community.
“It's wonderful to share this music with someone who feels the same as you,” says Karamazov. “I always try to stay as humble as I can and be honest with the music — to keep the fascination I had the first time. And so does Sting. Working together, looking to each other and seeing the music develop was just a wonderful experience.”