robert plant


From Nashville to North Africa, his ears are always open

On Dec. 10, 2007, the mighty Led Zeppelin roared. The group’s first full concert since its breakup in 1980, featuring late drummer John Bonham’s son Jason filling his father’s shoes, was billed as a one-night-only tribute to the late Atlantic Records founder and president Ahmet Ertegun. But the show’s enormous success naturally stirred rumors that the band was preparing to hit the road together to rock the world once more, and promoters were prepared to offer untold riches to make that happen. Guitarist Jimmy Page was open to the idea, as was bass player John Paul Jones and Bonham. But then there was the group’s iconic frontman, Robert Plant.

Over the last three decades, Plant has amassed a catalog of solo work defined by genre-defying exploration and relentlessly forward thinking—and he was not about to start looking backward just yet. He had found a rich musical vein with 2007’s acoustic-based Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, which won five Grammys and helped to redefine him in the public mind. Now the 62-year-old Englishman wanted to follow his experiment in American music to its logical conclusion. So he entered the studio in Nashville with producer and guitarist Buddy Miller, backed by a group that included singer Patty Griffin, guitarist Darrell Scott, bass player Byron House and percussionist Marco Giovino. The result is Band of Joy (named for Plant’s pre-Zeppelin group), which draws from country, blues and 1960s psychedelia to create one more new and unexpected chapter in the career of an uncompromising musical adventurer.

How did you meet Buddy Miller?

My relationship with Buddy 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 50,000 tunes on his laptop. It’s spectacular, an absolute cavalcade of joy. Since I first saw him many years ago playing 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 goes 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.

You’ve always broken genre barriers.

Well, if you go back to Led Zeppelin, I don’t recall a great deal of continuity between Zeppelin III and Physical Graffiti and In Through the Out Door. We do have to satisfy ourselves as musicians on a creative level, but we still have to carry a punch and a dynamism that 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 an amazing journey. And so I’ve got to tap into the root of all joy, which is a great song—whether it’s one that I’ve written or one that I’ve heard that 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 that developed so many years ago. The sparkle could have gone.

Yet some people still think of you only as the singer from 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. 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. 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.

What was the original Band of Joy?

It was the band that preceded Zep. John Bonham and I traveled the country knocking on doors and saying, “Would you like to hear us play?” and everybody said no. It was really devil-may-care, doesn’t matter, “We’re going to go with this no matter what.” That’s 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, so take it or leave it.

Do you ever like to revisit musical areas you’ve previously explored?

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. I’m always blown away by that North African smoky rhythm and the great scales that are there, just as I was when I wrote “Kashmir” with Jimmy [Page] or when we wrote “Friends” or “In the Light.” They’re all 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 the Grammys?

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?!”

Were you tempted to do another album with Alison?

Well, of course, but Alison’s career for 25 years has been with her band, Union Station, 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. I have to stay here now for the duration.

What are you listening to lately?

I listen to Willie Nelson and I listen to Robert Johnson. I listen to Band of Horses. I listen to everything. How come Charley Patton was so good back then? 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.

–Lee Zimmerman

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