There might be no better image to represent the spirit of rock 'n' roll than that of Robert Plant, flailing away full-throttle at the helm of Led Zeppelin. With his tousled blond locks, bare chest, and wailing, upper-register vocals, Plant was the quintessential frontman of the quintessential hard rock band. Led Zep was the group that ushered in the era of arena-ready heavy metal and equally blustery blues, proving that power chords and volume don't necessarily negate variety, versatility, and solid song craft.
Still, it's a credit to Plant's perseverance that his trajectory didn't crumble with Zeppelin's demise. In fact, his career blossomed again when he began recording solo. Over the past 30 years, Plant has delved into a dazzling array of styles and sentiments, from modern rock and rockabilly to exotic Eastern motifs and the far reaches of the American heartland.
Crossfade: It's great to speak with you, Robert.
Robert Plant: It's good to talk to you too. It's good talking to anyone that far south.
I saw you about 15 years ago at the Cropredy music festival in Oxfordshire England...
Ah, those English folk festivals. It's a great place for alcoholic poisoning.
What amazed me was the fact that you and Jimmy Page were actually out in the crowd watching the concert with everybody else.
We were in disguise.
No, you weren't!
Well, we were nearly middle aged and no one recognized us. The thing about those folk festivals is that everybody is nearly cross-eyed with the local ale and stuff, and the music is almost an optional extra.
True. So let's move on to the present. Your new album seems to be a continuation of your last project, with further delving into Americana. You're also working once again with producer Buddy Miller.
Well, we have to be careful with terminology here. First of all, my relationship with Buddy Miller developed during the time when I was traveling with Alison Krauss. He's an expert on the great American songbook.... I mean he's got like 50,000 tunes on his laptop. It's spectacular, an absolute cavalcade of joy.
Since I first saw him many years ago with Emmylou Harris in Dublin, Ireland, I always set my sights on trying to work with him. So out of our last album, Raising Sand, came a friendship with Buddy, and out of the friendship with Buddy came this album.
It's not so rigorously attached to the more sort of smoky side of American music. There are great moments of psychedelic twist and twirl, and lot of swirling go on. It's much trippier than the previous adventure -- I can't do a review of it because it's too subjective -- but it's definitely going to another place and this is not a historical journey. It's basically a journey of feel and soul without it being black at all.
You always seem so unafraid when it comes to stepping into different genres with each album. It seems no two albums of your albums are ever the same. You're so willing to step outside your own boundaries.
Well, if you go back to Led Zeppelin -- if you go back to 1968 -- I don't recall a great deal of continuity between Zeppelin I and Zeppelin III and Physical Graffiti and In Through the Old Door. I mean, we do have to satisfy ourselves as musicians on a creative level but we still have to carry a punch and a dynamism which is recognizable, and then also change within all that. That's what I do.
I can't see this simply as a career; this is just an amazing journey. And so I've got to tap into the root of all joy, which is an amazing song ... whether it's one that I've written or one that I've heard which moved me for a period of time. My ears are always open and flapping. I hear so much great stuff. I'm going to be moving through that, I'm going to be moving through those adventures, and I have an able and fantastic company to do that with.
That's the great thing. I could be stuck in some kind of rut which developed so many years ago... the sparkle could have gone.
And for all of that, aren't there still people who will inevitably think of you only as the singer for Led Zeppelin?
Well, I don't know. That's up to them really. I've made eleven records since then and sold maybe 40 or 50 million copies of them. It's not as if I'm Mick Jagger and I keep going back to the Rolling Stones every time I have a project that doesn't work. I mean, you've got to keep moving along.
Look at John Paul Jones right now - he's in a great band - Them Crooked Vultures. I've seen them play and I've been so marveling at John's energy and his own ability to take his gift into another zone. That's what it's all about. I mean, you can't stand still. You've got to turn it on, and this show that I'm doing right now is electrifying. It's just got a different brand name.
You certainly have a great band. You call it band of Joy, but wasn't Band of Joy your original group before you joined Zeppelin?
Well, it was one of them. It was the one that preceded Zep. John Bonham and I travelled the country, knocking on doors and saying, "Would you like to hear us play?" and everybody said, "No, fuck off." It was really like devil-may-care, doesn't matter, this is fantastic, we're going to go with this no matter what. That's kind of the way I feel about everything on a creative level. It was appropriate to use that banner for its original principles which were that this is fantastic! Take it or leave it!
You've explored so many different sounds but you're always moving on. Do you ever have the desire - or the time - to revisit any of these areas?
Yeah yeah yeah! Last year I was playing in Abu Dhabi with a one string fiddle player from Guinea. If you go on YouTube you can find that stuff. And there's some great polyrhythmic stuff I did with some Algerian guys from Paris.
Yeah, I'm always blown away by that North African smoky rhythm and the kind of great scales that are there, just as I was when I wrote "Kashmir" with Jimmy or when we wrote "Friends" or "In the Light." They're all kind of leaning towards that culture and that music.
So I haven't left anything behind. I'm just doing this and I want to stay with this. This whole sphere incorporates rockabilly and it's all there. It's 21st century.
Were you surprised by all the accolades accorded Raising Sand? Did the six Grammys take you by surprise?
Yeah. I mean, who knows where the time goes, as Judy Collins once said. Who knows what on Earth is going on? You make a record with a whole bunch of people you never met before, you laugh a lot, somebody gives you some ribs - welcome to the South! - and you get a bunch of Grammys and triple platinum discs and stuff.... I was having breakfast with Alison up in Nashville two days ago and we were saying, "What was that all about?!"
After that kind of phenomenal success, was there a temptation to do another album with Alison? What was the divide that had you go off and do it this way? It must have been tempting to want to go back and do it all again.
Well, there is of course, but Alison's career for 25 years has been with her band Union Station and all those guys, so it's understandable that she works with them. I might have gone back to my other band Strange Sensation if I thought that was the place to go, but having met Buddy and that opening the window to Darrell Scott and Patty Griffin, I couldn't go back to England, and musically I have to stay here now for the duration.
Do you ever go back and listen to the stuff you did with Zeppelin and kind of ruminate on it all?
Yes, absolutely. I also listen to Willie Nelson and I listen to Robert Johnson. I listen to Band of Horses.... I mean I listen to everything. And I'm very proud of what I've been associated with along the line.
I'm also thinking about, how come (blues musician) Charlie Patton was so good back then? Because he didn't have a press agent, he didn't have phone interviews, he didn't do this, he didn't do that. He stood on a street corner and let it come out and he changed the world.
Your love and admiration for '60s West Coast outfits like Love and Moby Grape has also been well documented.
Oh yeah, you'll hear it on this record. They're so pastoral, and yet there's so much device behind it. [Love leader] Arthur Lee's game was so amazingly obtuse, it was fascinating. Fascinating!
There's a new book out about Arthur Lee that you really should read. ("Forever Changes, Arthur Lee and the Book of Love" by John Einarson)
One last question. One of the best songs of your 40-plus-year career --
-- 10,000 years actually!
-- was a song called "Far Post." It was a B-side and now a bonus track on the CD version of Pictures at Eleven, but it was never originally included on that album. It was on the back of "Burning Down One Side...."
It's such a joke because at the time we couldn't put it on the vinyl because we had too much time of music to press onto vinyl without the record jumping. I mean, we've just been going through it with this new album, trying to press up the vinyl sides of the record. So we couldn't put it on the original Pictures at Eleven.
Why wasn't it included in your solo anthology, Sixty Six to Timbuktu?
Gee, I never realized that. What a klutz! I thought I'd got it under control!
Well, we're glad to be able to point that out. Maybe you can rectify that omission somehow.
I hope so. Anyway, very nice to speak to you. Have a happy day and I'll see you soon. Bye bye.