‘All the old gods are long gone. But still…” An interview with Robert Plant

Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin, his solo career and more...

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The idea of disappearing into the hills – or certainly, changing locations and perspectives – seems central to Plant’s peripatetic nature. It is also implicitly connected to Plant’s desire to avoid, at any cost, what he calls the “tedium of repetition”. A case in point is the Priory Of Brion, the folk-rock band he formed around the millennium with Kevyn Gammond, an old friend from the original Band Of Joy. Plant describes it as a direct response to his dissatisfaction for the tour with Page to support the Walking Into Clarksdale album in the late-Nineties. “It was basically a glorious, silly knee-jerk reaction to doing one huge indoor ice hockey arena too many with Jimmy. We were already on the same old chunter round the big venues again. You didn’t know where you were, who you were, what was anything, what it was all about, and was any of it coming from the soul. So I made a break for it. I played in restaurants in Oswestry, coming through the emergency exit while people were having their strawberries and cream. I was singing Billy Fury covers at the time, so I didn’t expect anyone to be enamoured by it. I was just on the run. I escaped.”
As Plant repeatedly makes clear during our time together, “There would be no point in any of it if it was just falling off of the conveyor belt, spewing.” Indeed, if anything, the trajectory of Plant’s career has been about fulfilling his insatiable artistic curiously. Even during the Zeppelin years, the group’s blues-rock foundation was supplemented by folk music and the kind of exotic North African influences that have continued to inspire his solo career. In the early 2000s, he recorded a pair of albums with Strange Sensation that drew heavily on desert blues and West Coast psychedelia. “I needed my music to be a long way away from everywhere I’d been before,” tells Plant. “Otherwise, it’s like you’re a jobbing musician and you’re gonna do the same thing forever. I wanted to go to some new places. Through Transglobal Underground and their endeavours I met [Strange Sensation guitarist] Justin Adams. I think that was a major turning point for me, to find a guy who could be so lyrical as a guitar player, and to have such amazingly beautiful roots of appreciation of music, and to have already been out there in Mali recording the first Tinariwen album.”
Seven years ago, of course, Plant found himself with an unexpected runaway success on his hands. Raising Sand, another marvellous excursion, this time into American roots music, recorded with Alison Krauss and producer T-Bone Burnett. “It was an instructive time for Plant: “I was singing for the first time ever with another voice,” he confirms. “That opened a whole portal for me. I had to learn restraint. I had to remember when harmonies were coming.”
For a follow-up, Plant convened a new iteration of the Band Of Joy, whose line-up included Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller. Plant continued to explore American musical history on their self-titled 2010 album. “It’s very difficult for me to explain to you what it’s like to have spent this time working with amazing American musicians, who took me to a totally different place and exposed me to amazing music,” Plant reflects. “I was very young when I started playing and singing, and found an alternative to accountancy. I was very driven by the music of West Coast psychedelia, delta blues and all that stuff. I never even thought about this other side of white American music. I now have to listen to George Jones once a day. Amazing singer. What a singer. So the American time for me was a revelation. I was learning about music that I’d never even touched. So why would I want to write in that genre? All I wanted to do was sing those songs. But Buddy and I have written a separate album, which is on a shelf somewhere, with [Band Of Joy drummer] Marco Giovino, of all original songs. We recorded it at Buddy’s house. It’s strong and powerful music, but I didn’t see it as having the same life expectancy as a project.”
During this period, Plant took up with Griffin, splitting his time between the UK and Austin, Texas. He seemed, perhaps, to be settling into comfortable domestic and musical arrangements. “I’d been in the same village most of my life, and I’d never really struck out,” he says. “I really did like the whole idea of West Texas. It’s such an amazingly deserted and yet darkly and sometimes sinisterly beautiful place. Down on the Mexican border, down into Big Bend National Park and across into Marfa and Fort Davis, where they’ve got the huge parabolic telescope going on.”
Plant moved back to the UK permanently last September, leaving his relationship with Griffin behind. It’s possible Plant’s decision to return to his roots was motivated by a desire not to let his Americana adventures become repetitious. But it seems there were other factors at work, too. Plant talks about how, during his days in Texas, he would often find himself speculating about what his former cohorts in Strange Sensation were up to. “I came back from America a few times, and when I got back I went to see Justin [Adams],” Plant elaborates. “He was playing in JuJu with [ritti player] Juldeh Camara at the Hay on Wye festival along with [bassist] Billy Fuller and Dave Smith on drums. I went, ‘Wow!’ I loved the joy in this. I missed that. Because I am pretty much of an expansive guy, I shall probably just one day explode and turn to dust and crochets and quavers. So, yeah, I came back. I said, ‘I’m back and I’ve gotta be back. I love my kids, my grandchildren and I like to laugh. I drink apple juice until I can’t see…’ I’m not a particularly profound guy. I just tried it and embraced it.”
Plant is understandably generous when discussing his current band mates – now reborn as The Sensational Space Shifters. “There’s no real boundary to where we can and cannot go,” he enthuses. “There are cues within the songs and yet the contributors are all the players. It’s not like a band, where there’s a guitarist and a bass player and a drummer and singer. The give and take and exchange is magnificent.”
The first sign of activity in the Space Shifters camp was on May 8, 2012, when they played a 400-capacity gig at the Gloucester Guildhall, followed by a show in London and one at Womad, then two in North America and 12 dates in South America. Plant is typically effusive as he recalls those dates. “I enjoyed seeing Juldeh flying and swirling with that ritti, and thinking to myself, ‘I can sing in the middle of all this and I can get some of the old voice. But at the same time, I gotta laugh.’ And I laughed and laughed. It was like none of us had been away from the font. We just had so much fun.”


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