On Sept. 11, 2001, despite his reservations, Sting performed a scheduled concert at his villa in Tuscany, Italy.
"I was convinced by the members of the band and, indeed, the audience that they needed some kind of event to make them feel better," he recalls, "and so I agreed to sing."
The next day, after everybody left, Sting began working on what would become "Sacred Love," his eighth solo album since his band, the Police, broke up in 1984.
"I was left on my own," Sting, 52, says, "to meditate, really, and question my being, question what it was to be a singer in such a world, a songwriter. Did I have any purpose to fulfill? Was it any good what I did?
"I didn't get any immediate answers, to be honest with you. But that feeling of emptiness and of doubt was the beginning of this project."
Like its predecessors, "Sacred Love" is an earnest, stylistically broad work that examines big themes -- war, religion, relationships -- in digestibly human terms. "I need to begin small and in miniature so it can have a truth to it," Sting explains by phone from London, one of several cities around the world where he keeps a home.
But as the 10 songs for "Sacred Love" came together -- including a duet with R&B singer Mary J. Blige ("Whenever I Say Your Name") and a collaboration with sitarist Anoushka Shankar ("The Book of My Life") -- he was able to identify a greater theme that coursed through the album.
"I wanted to try to redefine the world love," Sting says. "I think the word has been abused and misused; in pop music, love tends to be a little sentimental and violins playing and birds tweeting. But love can be a very aggressive and violent emotion, too.
"It needed to grow in my head into something bigger, something scarier, something more all encompassing. The whole thing about love is if you ever want to be loved again you have to take the risk that you can be destroyed by love -- and be willing to because the reward is worth the risk."
Sting -- born Gordon Sumner in Newcastle, England -- is well-versed in both risks and rewards. With the Police and on his own he's enjoyed multi-platinum sales despite an appetite to challenge his audiences with chameleon-like musical explorations, sampling rock and jazz, country and blues, R&B and varieties of world music.
He's taken his act to the stage in "Threepenny Opera" and to the big screen in "Dune," "Stormy Monday" and "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels." His philanthropical bent has been exhibited in support for Amnesty International and the establishment of the Rainforest Foundation with his wife, actress-director Trudi Styler.
The rewards for his creative daring have been plentiful -- and beyond just album sales. This year Sting was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Police, while Queen Elizabeth II named him a Commander of the British Empire.
"It was pretty amazing," Sting says of the latter. "You don't set off from Newcastle with a bag of songs and a guitar case and expect to be a Commander of the British Empire one day."
Ultimately, however, he claims -- with a chuckle -- to be nothing more than "a humble singer of songs," and he plans to do plenty of singing in support of "Sacred Love." After some promotional performances during the bulk of 2003 Sting plans to hit the road in early 2004 for a world tour he says will last the better part of two years.
Sting isn't planning to do a car ad to push this album's sales -- as he did with Jaguar for his triple-platinum 1999 set "Brand New Day" -- but he makes it clear that he'll do whatever it takes to get some love for "Sacred Love."
"I want this record to be heard by as many people as possible," he acknowledges. "I'm very proud of it. It's a positive record that has a positive message, so I'd love to hear it on radio and in clubs -- everywhere it can be heard, really."