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.
His last album, Raising Sand, recorded with bluegrass bard Alison Krauss, provided his most significant shift in stance to date. It was a collection of dusty backwoods narratives that earned the pair a half-dozen Grammys, overwhelming acclaim, and a distinction for creating one of the most unexpected collaborations of the past decade.
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Plant is back with an upcoming album, Band of Joy, scheduled for release this September. With it comes a new outfit of the same name, featuring some of roots music's most esteemed players. Among them are producer/guitarist Buddy Miller (the man behind the boards for Raising Sand), renowned guitarist Darrell Scott, and singer/songwriter Patty Griffin. The new music uses an archival sound as its springboard but incorporates Plant's hallmarks of sonic diversity and experimentation.
New Times spoke with the legendary vocalist during his stopover in Memphis, the launching point for his current tour. Despite his once-fierce reputation, these days he comes across as amiable, astute, and refreshingly down-to-earth. Here's what he had to say.
New Times: 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.
Robert Plant: 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 a lot of swirling going 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 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 Out 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...
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 11 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 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."
Were you surprised by all the accolades accorded to 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!
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.
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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. 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.