‘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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Sitting in the pub garden, Robert Plant loudly slaps his left thigh with the palm of his hand. He is emphasizing the importance of The Sensational Space Shifters in what he calls his “adventures in music”, and pontificating on the wider musical possibilities they offer. “Last night, I was at home approving the vinyl, the test pressing,” he begins, referring to the first fruits of this latest endeavour, lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar. “Of course, the vinyl is always going to sound better, but I thought, ‘Wow, I actually did it. And the substance is new. All of it, it’s new. That’s quite a place to be, really. The laurels that I can lean back upon are so far back now that it’s gotta be just about what this is today. The present is everything.”
Although Plant talks about the album as a new concern, its roots nevertheless lie in an older project. He originally attempted the album’s opener, an old folk song called “Little Maggie”, while he was making Raising Sand. “I’d always tried to attack it as a song,” he begins. “I was listening to a lot of Roscoe Holcomb, and he had this frailing banjo and I said to Alison, ‘Let’s try and do this, because if we get it right…’ Of course, it was disastrous, funny beyond all belief. If it were to be included [on Raising Sand], I was to sing the main vocal on it. Alison was gonna join me on some lines here and there and play the fiddle. We knew we were going nowhere because T Bone suddenly appeared wearing a red dressing gown down to the floor, playing a tiny kid’s piano with his fist, saying, ‘We’ll put this on it, too.’”
Plant, however, has high praise for the version he and The Space Shifters have recorded for lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar. It’s a typical blurring of musical lines, exploring the congruence between Celtic folk and African music and taking in dub and rock along the way. “I like the tease on it kicking off like you’d expect it to be if we were playing at Telluride at a Bluegrass festival,” he explains. “By verse three, our keyboard player Johnny Baggott comes in round the corner with the full force of his loops. So in the first two verses, I might have been nominated for an Americana award by Jed Hilly in Nashville, and by the end of it I’m castigated, thrown out, and I can no longer go to the Ryman. Which is exactly how it should be. I only stop for a second in any genre and keep going.”
If “Little Maggie” is indicative of the album’s wide-ranging musical sensibilities, there are other, self-penned songs that find Plant tackling his recent past. “Turn It Up”, in particular, seems crucial in addressing Plant’s decision to leave America. Against a thick, snaking riff and thrusting rhythms, he sings of being in a car, “Somewhere east of Tunica” and “close to giving up”. Is this specific to him leaving America?
“‘The car goes round in circles / The road remains the same’,” he quotes. “‘The song remains the same’? Yeah, yeah, definitely. Patty was recording American Kid across the border from Memphis with the North Mississippi All-Stars. I used to pop in every day and listen. But I didn’t want to sit in some studio listening to people recording. There’s nothing duller than that unless you watch a nil-nil draw with Aston Villa. So the rest of time, I had a car and I was moving through the hill country. I had the radio on and I realised I couldn’t find anything substantial. I just heard religious claptrap and right-wing stuff down there on AM radio, sports radio, phone-in programmes… it’s a very poignant song because I was turning into someone else I heard so much about. I suddenly became a hero with people, instead of ‘Planty down the road’. I come and go in the game that I play, and I have the audaciousness expectation to be invisible most of the time. Because I just like to sing.”
One of the album’s central themes is the idea of Plant the explorer returning home – the record contains references to “my island home”, “brought me home again” or being “out upon the Shire”. It often seems as if Plant is trying to write himself into the mossy nooks and crannies of his beloved Marcher lands, with their own deep history and magic. A lot of the songs, too, are written in the first person; has Plant ever written about himself so openly before?
“I’m at the time in my life now where I can’t really sing about a girl in a bar room,” he considers. “I can’t go into familiar music terminology like you would hear on so many other songs, and I can’t sing about love as an absolute pure and relative condition. Because there’s way more to it than that, and the way I’ve crashed through my life and everybody else’s life…
“You know, I had to give so much away to come back,” he admits. “My relationship was out there. But what could I do? I could sweep it all under the carpet and pretend it doesn’t exist. But I subscribe. Sometimes, some of the choices you have to make are bitter.”
Like moving back to the UK?
“Yeah, like realising that I actually am from here. I see this is where it is for me, but I’m always coming and going. I’m a trader, really. I go and I come, I have a cargo of madness that I keep dumping into venues. I’m glad I can do because I celebrate my gift. There’s no point in fucking about and pretending.”

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