A life in music: Robert Plant on Led Zeppelin, Alison Krauss and his endless wanderlust – The Guardian

Listen – You’d Better Run

“I’m 17, full of myself, in a youth club with Noddy Holder …” It’s a warm-boned autumn afternoon in London’s Primrose Hill, and Robert Plant, 69, is luminous as a cartoon lion, a Soul Jazz records T-shirt tight over his belly, his golden mane winking in a dimly lit local French restaurant. Carry Fire, his 11th solo album (24th if you count collaborations and Led Zeppelin LPs) is just out, and with a little judicious nudging – Plant generally dislikes nostalgia – he’s looking back. We are somewhere in the West Midlands in 1966. “We’d borrow Noddy’s dad’s window-cleaning van for our gear, buckets clanking through the Black Country streets, so to have a record that was going to be pressed, have a dust sleeve – it was showing-off time.” He rears up. “‘Well, we’ve got this deal with CBS, Noddy.’ And Noddy goes: ‘That’s all right, we’ve got one with Columbia.’ And then I found out it was the same bloody song!”

The track, originally recorded by US band the Young Rascals as You Better Run, was the first commercial release for both the N’Betweens (who became Holder’s band Slade) and Listen, whose singer was Plant, although the label asked him to record their first single on his own. It was his first studio experience. “I still remember the pride and the thrill and the smell of fear; to walk in a studio and see session guys booked for me to sing. I was very, very nervous.” He did not appreciate how good a time it was for music then, he adds, and he still loves freakbeat bands: the Poets, Faron’s Flamingos and the Birds (who counted Ronnie Wood as a member) were among his favourites. “And here I was in the middle of it all, trying to create a style, looking at black soul singers and my heroes like Steve Marriott.” He still hears that nascent howl on Led Zeppelin’s debut three years later, too. “That nasal boy. It’s kind of cute now.”

Led Zeppelin – Friends

Four years later, the young show-off was an international rock god, all mane, chest and roar. But Friends marked a departure. “I realised that tough, manly approach to singing I’d begun on You Better Run wasn’t really what it was all about at all. Songs like [Led Zeppelin I’s] Babe I’m Going To Leave You …” He flinches. “I find my vocals on there horrific now. I really should have shut the fuck up!”

Friends was the first place where Plant’s interest in Asian, especially Indian, music started to shine through, although he’d first heard examples of it back in the Black Country. “My neighbours were Gujarati. Coming home, I would walk up the alley in-between our terraced houses, and turn left instead of right, and just sit on the lino with my neighbours, have a bowl of curry, listening to their music. At the top of the street, at the Fox and Dogs, there was Caribbean music, too: you’d hear Alton Ellis, the Skatalites, Delroy Wilson.” He is unapologetic about connecting with these sounds through his own music-making. “There’s something really splendid and otherworldly about trying to even touch those bigger ideas as a British rock group, to go past the idiom of singing about bars and chicks and all that crap, which unfortunately is the lingua franca of popular song. There are other dynamics of life, and we started to recognise that here.”

Led Zeppelin – Achilles Last Stand

In 1975, on a short family holiday in Rhodes in the middle of a punishing tour, Plant’s car spun off the road, leaving an elbow and an ankle badly broken; he was in a wheelchair for seven months. This was the first track he recorded, on crutches, back at the microphone. “The whole of that album, Presence, is absolutely wracked with pain. Plus, the fraternity of the band at the time was stretched to breaking point.” Years later, he played a new girlfriend this song. “The two of us sitting in a little room on the Welsh borders, and me telling her: ‘If you want to know what I was like at the end of Zeppelin, really, this was it.’ After it, she said: ‘I don’t want to be left alone in a room with that. It’s too much.’ That’s what it was in the end: too much.”

The track’s opening is also ferociously punky just before punk. Plant loved that style, especially the Damned’s first album. “New Rose, Neat Neat Neat: what brilliant songs. They quite rightly kicked juggernauts like Pink Floyd into touch for a couple of years.” Plant’s felt his own juggernaut being kicked over the years too, and that’s fine, he says, smiling. He recalls one Sylvia Patterson NME interview with Jimmy Page in the 90s which had the headline “Help! The Aged!” “That was fair enough! But it made me think: well, I’m not lying down because I’m from another time. My time can’t be the last thing I did. It has to be what’s around the corner.”

Robert Plant – Watching You

Plant’s solo career kicked off in the 80s with dreamy FM radio epics such as Big Log, but this 1990 track from Manic Nirvana underlines his great love back then: north African music. A 1972 holiday to Marrakech lit the flame, but he also loved “the beautiful, swirling orchestras of Cairo”, and the bendir style of hand-drumming, used across North Africa, which became a bedrock for many later songs. “It helps get rid of the whole rock four-on-the-floor rhythm, which I liked; it forces you away from that world. Although playing them has wrecked my thumb-bone completely.”

Plant still visits Morocco regularly, recording Berber music off pirate radio over there as recently as last weekend, but he finds western sounds cutting in now, more than he does. “I hear the chord progressions of Coldplay in Marrakech now, which I’m trying to get away from! But Berber music burrows into me, and why it does fascinates me. Why do I feel so enriched by hearing it? Can I try and do something with it that is part of me, part of the band, part of everything? So I did.” He thinks of musical influence like the process of sending off a carrier pigeon. “There’s a little idea on the leg of a beautiful bird that lands and leaves a little trace. You pick it up, you pass it on.”

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss – Your Long Journey

Raising Sand (2007) was the record that changed everything for Plant. He discovered Krauss one night in his car, the radio singing to him in the darkness as he came from a pub on the Shropshire borders. “I remember pulling over and writing the name down: who the hell was that?” In 2004, they sang live together at a Lead Belly tribute in Cleveland, Ohio, and Plant got Krauss’s number from her manager to see if she wanted to collaborate. Their first phone conversation was odd. “She whispered: ‘Oh hi’, barely speaking, then said she’d call me back, quickly putting down the phone.” The reason was more prosaic than pretentious. “She was putting her kid to bed!”

Your Long Journey is a song by bluegrass singer Doc Watson, written for his dying wife. “I picked this one over them all, because it’s killer beautiful.” It’s also a great example of how much Krauss was in charge of the record, says Plant – a new experience for him. “I was basically tutored by Alison. She’s a very precise singer who’s done more duets than you can shake a stick at, and I was thinking: help, I’m a rock singer, no matter what I do. But, of course, I’m not: I’m just a guy that sings songs.” She’d also tell him off. “She’d hit the talkback button from the control room, lean into the microphone and say: “Robert, why don’t you sing the same thing twice?” But his voice developed here, and he learned to train it, he says. Any other vocal training rituals? “Usually cider.”

Robert Plant – Silver Rider

In the early 2010s, Plant was living in Austin, Texas. He came across the band Low in the city’s Waterloo Records – he knew the owner, who would put things aside for him – and then on the radio. “Radio is alive in America, it really is. And the way this band’s voices came out of it: their pathos, the beautiful melodies, the way she [Mimi Parker] hangs on every vocal line after she’s finished … it was so sexy and so dark.” Covering Low’s songs Silver Rider and Monkey on his next album, he sung the latter with Patty Griffin, which created its own story. “The singing was so sensual we ended up singing it to each other, and then moving in.”

Plant and Griffin parted ways in 2014, but his heart still sings for her. “She’s such a tiny, beautiful character, but she’s just enormous in her passion and her writing. Her writing’s staggeringly beautiful. And her voice … it’s heavenly but it’s wild, and that’s what she is. She’s heavenly and she carries such power. You hear that here.”

Robert Plant – Embrace Another Fall

This is a song about coming home to the UK, which Plant did after he and Griffin split up. “It’s also about guilt. Guilt about leaving. I couldn’t hack it.” The word “fall” also refers to autumn, and the emotions Plant felt on returning to the dark and mists and clouds of the Severn valley, realising he wanted to be back near his children, old haunts and old friends. “I had really missed the simplicities of that life. I mean, in a few weeks, I shall be at a cider farm outside Bromyard with a bunch of Polish people who shake apple trees all day and a friend who sells cider. That’s much better for me than being a rockaday Johnny in America, you know. There’s no respite there.”

He says this with authority: he’s seen many people fall into rock’s trappings. “I mean, I was lucky to meet Elvis at one point, and he was just such a charismatic, funny guy, able to take the piss out of himself. He saw fame for what it was. But as time went on, he got so bored. He was so trapped. It’s so important to unhitch that ridiculousness.”

Embrace Another Fall also features a last verse in Welsh, from a folk tale about a nightingale inadvertently shot in a battle, whose body is brought back on the instruction Owain Glyndŵr, the last Welsh Prince of Wales. Plant has always been fascinated by Welsh mythology, and is happy to be back near that country too – so much so that he’s an active member of the Glyndŵr society. “It’s basically me and a load of retired teachers in a coach looking for his grave.” He apes a perfect lilting Welsh accent. “Let’s pull into this layby, boys, it’s time for sandwiches!”

Robert Plant – Heaven Sent

This new track is influenced by Plant’s interest in pathos in classical music, “and beautiful pieces like Górecki’s Symphony No 3, when composers linger on one small movement of sound, to create these great atmospheres”. It’s a song about folly, Plant says, then laughs. “I’m quite often singing about my error. I just don’t quite ever get it right. But if I did, I’d probably be having a pipe and slippers and watching a box set of The Office, you know?” A wanderlust, a longing to do other things, still drives him on, he explains. “But at the same time I’m carrying fire, because it hurts. I’m scarring other people and scarring myself. But no matter how much scarring I do, or how much I run from circumstance, Wolverhampton Wanderers are still at home to Millwall on Saturday, you know? And when I finish talking to you, I shall be heading to play five-a-side back home with my friends, until the defibrillator turns up. You’ve got to carry on.”

Show me a happy writer, and I’ll show you a bad one, Plant adds, smiling. “A little part of me is always bearing that in mind. And still looking at life’s rich old pageant, to coin a very well-known phrase, just to see how it’s going.”

  • Robert Plant’s album Carry Fire is out now on Nonesuch/Warners

Robert has curated a longer primer to his work, featuring the above alongside other favourite tracks from across his career; you can listen and subscribe to it in Spotify below

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