English musician Robert Plant doesn’t grant that many interviews so when we were able to speak with him for over 30 minutes on the phone recently it was a rare treat. Sometimes when you actually get to meet or speak with the rich and famous it can be a disappointing experience, but speaking with Robert is a great time. He is witty, sarcastic, full of piss and vinegar, intelligent, well-spoken, doesn’t give run-of-the-mill answers, and has a unique command of the English language. It is this last skill which served him very well over the years as frontman and lyricist of the iconic rock band Led Zeppelin and now as a solo artist. Plant is on the verge of releasing his tenth solo album entitled Lullaby and…the Ceaseless Roar (official release date is September 8 on Nonesuch/Warner Bros. Records) and spoke with us from his home on the English/Welsh border about his travels, the Sensational Space Shifters and the inspiration behind his latest album.
Q: Hi Robert. Congratulations on the album.
Robert Plant: Thank you, man. How are you?
Q: I am doing well. How about you?
Robert Plant: I’m fine thank you. I think I have webbed feet as the Welsh borders and the misty mountains are absolutely submerged in rain at the moment. It’s a bank holiday here so everybody was hoping to be out in the late summer sunshine, but it’s another one of those British days.
Q: Did you happen to catch the Video Music Awards last night?
Robert Plant: No, I don’t watch tv.
Q: The artist Lorde, a very talented young girl, wins the Rock Video award beating the Black Keys and some other acts. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on that there was no representation as such from some of the mainstream rock acts at the ceremony last night. No Jack White. No Black Keys. No Arcade Fire. I’m wondering given your background if you have any thoughts on the state of rock and not being the mainstream force it once was.
Robert Plant: Well, you know I have to tread very carefully here and yet again I shall brandish and I shall skirmish. The great thing about the game that we play is that it has been broken into shards and crystals really so what was the classification so many years ago or what you could actually hang your hat on as mainstream rock has gravitated and spiraled into all sorts of small filigrees. And I think that is a good thing. Once upon a time rock has turned into a really turgent soup of reinventing itself over and over again by repetition. So I don’t think it makes any difference one way or another. A song is a song. First of all comes a song second of all comes the way it is promoted and mainstream rock acts as you call them and I have been playing the last six weeks on the European festival circuit. Even last weekend with The 1975 and the Arctic Monkeys in Japan. I think everybody just bundles along and there are a lot of other things to think about these days. Representation by videos may be a fantastic thing. I’m just working one right now for “Rainbow” which looks pretty good. Where you place it and what happens to it and how it gets streamed and all that sort of thing is in the lap of the gods. Maybe artists in the end just take a back seat and let it roll.
Q: With your band and what you’ve done on this record no sort of rigid genre or classifications here. It seems pretty wide open. I’m wondering if you want to talk about the band and why they are so sensational.
Robert Plant: That’s a very, very, very big question. Which bit do you want to know about? It’s the most prolific and free thinking bunch of guys I’ve worked with because maybe it is time that’s done this. Maybe an era. Maybe it’s a sense of maturity or experience. Travel. Other cultures. Playing through West Africa with the Tuareg into Morocco across into Mississippi. Everybody’s on the move. I would say the Bristol urban theme was running through Massive Attack moving into Jah Wobble moving in Sinead O’Connor moving into the WOMAD festival. It’s a very fluid and very, I suppose, light footed assembly of spirits really. It just dances through everything. The great thing is to pillage and to take the stuff of value and to turn it and twist it and craft it into something that isn’t expected. Or actually most importantly to knock oneself out before you try to knock anybody else out.
Q: Going into the new album what did you have in mind besides I guess it is time to make another album let’s go into the studio?
Robert Plant: Well, if you get the lyrics out I think you’ll get the answer straight away. It was about turning around having been in the big wilderness actually literally in the big wilderness down in Big Bend State Park in the Mexican border across into El Paso. All around. Kalahari in the desert in West Africa. And I think it was time to come back to the misty mountains and the whole lyrical lean in it’s about coming back and digging in again and using a lot of traces of music that can be found in Britain as opposed to that found in North America.
Q: So that is what inspires you basically these days you’re going back to where you started?
Robert Plant: No, not at all. That is just what I did to make the record. I’m inspired by so many other things. So many other musics and artists and stuff like that. It’s just where I was at.
Q: How else are you keeping busy? Is it true that you are working on a follow up to Raising Sand with Alison Krauss?
Robert Plant: (laughs) Well, talk is cheap. This band that I’m in where was I a week ago “Oh, I was in Osaka in Japan”. Where am I today in the misty mountains in Wales. Where was I a month ago? I was in the Czech Republic three weeks ago before I played in Dresden and Berlin and Northern Sweden. So, I think Alison, she’s a very good friend of mine and I think I have a long way to go yet before I go back to Nashville and start knitting a sweater.
Q: Happy belated birthday. Just curious what did you do to celebrate your birthday this year?
Robert Plant: Well, my birthday is on the 20th of August. The celebrations began on the 19th and they ran through until about two hours ago when the last people finally drove out of my gates and headed south and east back towards England. I’m absolutely exhausted. I’ve been on a beautiful 16’2” Arab stallion galloping through the Welsh hills. I’ve been fraternizing with the opposition. I’ve been trying to make sense of girls…women. And I’ve been playing with my kids who are constantly telling me where I’m going wrong.
Q: Is there a difference in how you compose songs today in comparison to the early days? And could you describe this process?
Robert Plant: Well, there is no process really. I carry a book around with me everywhere I go and a very good, sharp graphite pencil and I have a sharp tongue to go with it. I guess my senses are still pretty fine so I listen and hear and watch every kind of anecdote and repartee that you get around you and all the kind of folly and write it all down. With these musicians, with the Space Shifters we have this kind of weave of music it’s not so much about where the guitar solo comes it’s about where it doesn’t come. Where you get these pieces of music that are like almost like a transfection of music that gives me a great opportunity to write melodies atop of it. So it’s a good place to be and the difference is that the whole approach is more frivolous now. It’s a lot more easy going. A lot more fun. And with contemporary recording techniques you can mess about and very quickly you can develop structures and also very quickly you can dump them.
Q: A lot of older musicians lose their voice and have trouble crafting songs that people actually want to listen to. You clearly have not lost either of those skills. You sound better than ever and the songs are great. I’m just wondering what do you do to keep your voice healthy and are there any challenges to keeping your voice strong? And do you think there is still a lot of music inside of you that is going to come out? Can you see yourself doing music for the rest of your life?
Robert Plant: As far as my voice is concerned I think in the last 18 months I must have done maybe 110 shows. So what I do to keep my voice as far as live shows go I just keep working. I was joking with Peter Gabriel recently about the workload and stuff and a lot of my peers think I must be absolutely nuts because I do work lots. But I have a great time doing it and I’m in really good company. So my spirits are high and I don’t believe there is anything that I can’t do. I can readapt. I can visit a career that’s pretty long now. I can modify. Some people get overtly creative about it. Some people get a little negative. But I have a good time. I see the way people like Neil Young work and guys who have been around for a while who do the same thing and I think that is the place to come from. Just keep reinventing. I sing with optimism.
As far as the second point about material and the consequences of life as long as I’ve got something to talk about that fits against a pretty chord progression I should write songs. This most recent collection of songs is very personal to me and it comes from a place that I could have never imagined arriving at or passing through.
Q: They say you can never go home again but you have in many ways, haven’t you? Literally, figuratively and metaphorically on and off this record. To go home again what was it like to go back for you to dig in?
Robert Plant: I’m British so I guess wherever I went I had a yearn just like you guys. Everybody needs to know where they come from. I think that in the old world here, the Europeans we don’t get wistful about great grandfathers that lived somewhere in Scotland. We actually either live in Scotland or we don’t. I’ve always lived here very close to the black country as they call it, on the Welsh borders, and I did a lot of traveling and I will travel a lot. This year I’ve been to maybe twenty countries playing. But I was never really coming back to say “I’m coming home”. My home was somewhere I visited maybe every three or four months for about two or three days, so I made my mind up it was time to come back. My dog was getting hungry and needed to be fed.
Q: You’ve said that this is a celebratory record. In what sense? Or what ways?
Robert Plant: I think that I’ve just suddenly embraced my homeland. I think I ran away from it for a while. A lot of my friends were starting to close down their lives a little bit sooner than I intended to close mine down so I just took off. I found the deserts of West Africa and maybe south Texas to have a little bit more promise than scouring the neighbourhood after 9 pm to see if anybody’s got their lights on.
Q: I saw that you only have one date for Canada so far in Toronto. Do you plan on doing more cities like Montreal or Vancouver?
Robert Plant: Pourquoi pas? Exactement. To begin with we are just visiting a little place here, a little place there. No cities. I think there are eight shows and then we come back and do a British tour. Ultimately we will be playing throughout Canada and the United States starting about May 10th, I think. So those shows are being tightened up right now.
Q: Cool. So we can expect shows in the big cities in Canada?
Robert Plant: Absolutely. Yeah.
Q: Can you tell us more about the Sensational Space Shifters and how they can capture your vision of music?
Robert Plant: You’ve got the record already, I guess. Well, then there is the capture. The capture is in the sound. And also my friends work in very varied musical outfits like Massive Attack, Jah Wobble, Sinead O’Connor so people are coming from other environments coming together to bring their gifts and to make a mélange. That’s what it is, it is a masala of musical themes coming from throughout the British contemporary music scene. It’s a kind of very fertile and virile place to be coming from. It allows me a really good tapestry and a great canvas to work my side of the deal.
Q: You’ve spoken about it being harder to get inspired to write lyrics in recent years versus perhaps in your 20s or 30s or 40s. Why would that be? That’s an interesting concept. Why would the words possibly have flowed easier for you when you were younger?
Robert Plant: Well, I retract that now. I take it all back. Because what I was writing about when I was 20 was what you were thinking about when you were 20. And what you write about when you are 40 is what you were thinking about. I didn’t write lyrics for the previous two records cause I was with Alison Krauss and I was with Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller doing different stuff. Beautiful songs from the North American songbook. I have a lot to say and I think a lot and I write a lot so I guess I was scared. I didn’t know how to open up or pick the lock or open the door that gave me this record. Now as the door is open and everything is flowing beautifully.
Q: Putting aside Led Zeppelin, where from the solo catalogue do you think there was a definite opening of the creative doors that lead you to a record like this which is very creative? Where did you first start to widen things within the solo career?
Robert Plant: I think by the time I got to 1991 State of Nations was a collection where I was able to deal with various topics. I wasn’t creating little pastiches which I had been on maybe Manic Nirvana. I was always moving across. My sensitivities were developing. 1991 takes us to 23 years ago so how old could I be? 42. Yeah, I was just waking up. Also if you go back in time, back to Zep some of the songs are from all stages of my time as a writer carried far more importance than others. The music gave me a place to land with something more intense or more dramatic to put across.
The second half of the interview will be up on the site on Sunday, August 31st.