Wherever he travels in the world, Robert Plant always plays the radio. He prefers a local station, one that reflects the tastes not of some enormous corporation but of the people who inhabit that place. Whether he’s in rural Louisiana or the deserts of the Middle East, radio “amasses various peoples. You can have local radio that really leans into the culture, which is remarkable to me.”
For Plant it’s a means of feeding his boundless musical curiosity, but it’s also a way to hear music with fresh ears, to challenge notions so preconceived that he doesn’t even realize he has them. Recently, he found himself in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco (a place, of course, that figures prominently in the mythology of his former band, Led Zeppelin, who wrote “Achilles’ Last Stand” about “escaping the monotony of life on the road and getting back to the mighty arms of Atlas”). Driving through the region, he spun the radio dial until he found a station playing Berber music both new and old. “Immediately I switch on my phone and record some of it, so I can bore the pants off everybody back home.”
But one song in particular caught his attention and even confounded him a bit. “In the middle of it all, this girl is singing. She’s singing like she’s bringing all the angels down from the sky. An absolutely amazing voice. And then there’s a huge warble. She starts using that vocoder sound that was made popular by Cher.” Such an unexpected sound stunned Plant, who didn’t expect to hear such a Western sound — and such a deeply derided Western sound at that — so far into the Atlas Mountains.
His confusion quickly turned into delight at such an unexpected contrast. “I thought, man, that’s so good. Everybody’s into it in the mountains, people on their donkeys listening on a transistor radio to a girl who’s the keeper of the keys for me. And then suddenly …” Plant makes a loud, jagged warble in imitation of AutoTune, and then laughs at himself. One of the greatest vocalists in rock and roll history can be an endearing goof. “It’s enough to make me fall over. It’s a funny thing how technology makes its way slowly to the outer reaches of the musical world. It’s amazing how people pick that stuff up. And it was considered to be a good idea in Morocco. I would love Cher to hear that.”
For many listeners such vocal distortions, especially on a voice that is already strong and clear, might sound like a signal of inauthenticity, a lack of talent or imagination. For the listeners of that Moroccan radio station — and for Plant, after a few moments of bewilderment — it’s just one more great sound to be deployed, one more piece of technology to be utilized, one more element in an always growing musical lexicon.
While he doesn’t distort his voice, Plant carries that idea into his solo work, especially on his latest album, Carry Fire. Written and recorded with his backing band the Sensational Space Shifters, it throws everything against the wall: American folk songwriting, modern classical music, Jamaican dub, murky pop production from Bristol, rolling guitar licks from Mali, even a few veiled references to the heavy rock with which he’s most closely associated. Individually they’re all very familiar sounds, but in this context, they sound fresh and potentially as confounding to listeners as that AutoTuned Moroccan singer was to Plant.
All of these musical traditions from around the world are for Plant pieces of a puzzle that has not one solution but an infinite number of combinations. “You’ll never learn it all and you’ll never hear enough to understand even half of it.” That attitude fueled the music he made with Led Zeppelin, who famously mixed American blues with English folk, Sufi music from Asia, and even gnawa music from northern Africa. And it has become a constant throughout Plant’s solo career, growing even more intense in the 21st century.
Plant thrives on those musical juxtapositions, on the idea that all of these sounds emanate from a common creative urge in humans. “Nothing’s too far from everything else in our world of music. It’s amazing really that music from West Africa is probably only about 15 degrees away from the very early recordings of John Lee Hooker. I mean, some people say they’re into prog rock or metal. I’m into this or that. But the thing is, it’s all the same shit, really. It’s all just a little bit to the left or the right of center.”
Plant is an artist always in search of something new, and that pursuit may irk his many fans who hold out hope that he’ll finally reunite Led Zeppelin. He’s been offered millions, some say even billions to get that band back together and run through some of their beloved hits. He did record and tour with his old bandmate Jimmy Page in the 1990s, and Led Zeppelin did play one show in 2007, a benefit for Atlantic Records co-founder and president Ahmet Ertegun. (The show was commemorated on the excellent Celebration Day box set.) Since then, he has casually dismissed all offers, inquiries, and rumors of a reunion. He has, it would seem, very little time for nostalgia.
Instead, he’d rather keep tinkering and experimenting. “After John [Bonham] passed away in 1981, I did my first solo album, Pictures At Eleven,” he recalls. “I had the first Roland drum machine, which was before the TR808. I wrote a track called ‘Fat Lip’ with it and thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I thought, I’ve made it! I’ve slipped right the way through all that stuff that went on forever and ever, and here I am singing into a drumbox, which is about twelve inches cubed. It’s not very sexy, I must say in comparison to John Bonham. But I thought it was great. I dived into every single techno moment on my solo records, much to the horror of the hard-rock fans who were expecting, you know …” He pauses to find the most diplomatic phrase. “… something else to happen.”
Over the 35 years since he released Pictures At Eleven, Plant has been avoiding that something else, chasing his own obsessions rather than revisit the glory days and beloved back catalog of his old band. He may be the most stubborn man in rock and roll, but there’s something impressive about his stalwartness: Like Dylan and Nick Cave and maybe to a lesser extent Lou Reed, Plant is boldly rewriting the rules about how rock stars should age, how they should relate to their fans and to their catalog. They don’t necessarily have to be boxed in by the past, but freed up by the future. A reunion would close the books, but going solo allows him to continue to write his own story.
Just don’t expect him to literally write his own story. Much like he refuses to rejoin Zeppelin, Plant refuses to partake of that other rock-star indulgence: the tell-all memoir. “I’m going to be the only guy who doesn’t write the book,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m not just being cheesy. I gotta keep it hid.”
Passing up the easy and lucrative route, Plant has taken a circuitous path all around the world, crafting along the way a very large and multifaceted solo catalog. Especially in the last 15 years, he has steadily been releasing some of the most adventurous records of his career, starting with the covers album Dreamland in 2002 and Mighty Rearranger in 2005. He followed them up with Raising Sand, a collaborative album with Alison Krauss that won approximately all the Grammys that year. He briefly reunited his pre-Zeppelin band, Band of Joy, for a one-off album and tour in 2010.
However, his primary band throughout this century has been the Sensational Shape Shifters, whom he introduced on Dreamland and has kept around in some form or another ever since. Each member represents a different sound, a different scene, a different set of possibilities. “We’ve all got pretty eclectic tastes,” says guitarist Justin Adams, a seminal figure in London’s electro-world scene in the 1990s. “We’re all massive crazy music fans — just like Robert, who is a university of knowledge. Together, our reference points could come from modern classical or electronic or some old rockabilly record or an obscure Studio One reggae track.”
Keyboardist John Baggott and bassist Billy Fuller both hail from Bristol’s trip-hop scene and have played with Massive Attack and Portishead. Guitarist Liam “Skin” Tyson is a co-founder of the Britpop outfit Cast and “plays guitar with a Liverpool accent,” says Adams. Drummer Dave Smith is schooled in Sabar percussion form Gambia, and multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman is a Mercury Prize-nominated solo artist and a prominent figure on the UK folk scene. Says Plant, “Everybody in this fellowship or communion or whatever you want to call it is very busy themselves in their own creative ones, so more or less every guy in the Space Shifters has got little adventures that they create.”
Together, they gave Plant’s 2014’s album, lullaby … and the ceaseless roar, its world-spanning scope, but they’ve all sharpened their attack for Carry Fire. Most of the songs started as demos made by the band members: mostly rough beats or grooves or guitar riffs. They handed them off to Plant, who used them as songwriting prompts and worked them out with one or two musicians, adding band members as they went. “When you’re creating a song in the studio, you build it piece by piece,” says Plant. “You might have written it on the side of a Welsh mountain with an acoustic guitar, but things in the studio can be very spontaneous. I find it very stimulating to throw all sorts of ideas at the wall in a matter of an hour or two and see what sticks.”
It’s a process that allows a song to travel in whatever direction it needs. The upside is that it often takes the players to places they never could have reached otherwise. The downside is that sometimes a song goes nowhere. “You’re always thinking, does this feel special? Is the magic spark there?” says Adams. “We could be a year into it and suddenly that spark might not be there anymore and the song would get binned. You’re never on absolutely solid ground. You’re always wondering if you should look at a song a different way or even re-record it entirely. Should we use that rhythm we dubbed ages ago and do it in a different key? Should we mix this song with that song? Everything is open. Everything is possible. So all the way through making the record, you never know if the record is actually going to get finished or not.”
Of course, the birth of a song is only a blip in its life. It must thrive on stage as well. As Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters embark on an extensive multi-continent tour behind Carry Fire, they have been trying to figure out how to translate them to a live setting, which involves taking them apart and rebuilding them. “The songs build almost modularly,” says Plant. “When it comes to taking them from the studio into the real world, you’re exchanging and extended various parts of the song for the sake of drama and mood and even groove. They do change over time, which is good. You don’t want to be in a pop scenario where it’s all about hitting the chorus and kissing everybody good night. That to me is the ultimate tedium.”
Their shows are anything but routine. Plant is not just the frontman but also the bandleader who will, he says, “gesture to one of the guys in the middle of it all and just take the songs to some other place altogether. Being a singer rather than a musician, I think it’s good to keep those opportunities open. I can join the band with my voice at various points and send them off to the left or off to the right. Maybe we regroup or maybe we fuck it all up.”
That risk is part of what keeps these songs new every night. “It can be two-dimensional, being an entertainer. You have to mix it up. That’s the best thing I can think of to keep myself excited.”
Last year, during sessions for Carry Fire, Plant took a break from recording in order to join Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, the Milk Carton Kids, and Patty Griffin on the Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees tour. The roundtable format, which had most of the artists onstage whether they were singing or not, presented a new challenge for him. “I had to choose material that I could really believe in, because I had to sit there for two and half hours every night while each of us sang our song. I was transported into this very mellow way of singing. I sang more delicately as I learned on Tom Rush and Townes Van Zandt and Clarence Ashley. I learned to dip into that world, too, which allows me a more expressive way of using my voice.”
You can hear the effects of that experience on Carry Fire, which features some of the most nuanced and sensitive vocals Plant has recorded. He bends his syllables into shapes both familiar and foreign, often singing in a whisper — as though beckoning you to lean a little closer to the speaker. It’s a far cry from Zeppelin, where his voice was as powerful as Bonham’s drums or Jimmy Page’s guitar, but he’s still using a lot of the same elements: blues groans and raga ululations and psychedelic caterwauling and orgasmic moans. He croons sweetly on “Heaven Sent,” cajoles mischievously on the Ersel Hickey cover “Bluebirds Over The Mountain” (a duet with Chrissie Hynde), preaches righteously on “Carving Up the World Again … a wall and not a fence.”
You can easily guess what inspired that protest song, one of a handful on Carry Fire that sound angry, radicalized, uneasy about the world. Plant bemoans the intrusion of politicians and corporations that erect false borders around countries, around people, around musical traditions. “The Russians, the Americans, the British and their friends … they’re carving up the world again, it’s getting kind of tense,” he sings, sounding not outraged but certainly worried about all the inanity in the world. In the background is what sounds like the ghost of Plant’s younger self, vocalizing wordlessly in his upper register — as if to say, this nonsense has been going on all my life.
“I was talking with somebody the other day about geography and the history of different countries’ boundaries, and they told me that when the British were carving up the Empty Quarter [in what is now Saudi Arabia], they were in a gentleman’s club in London. They took a map and drew some lines left and right, and there’s one country that has a bit of a bulge in its delineation. That’s because somebody set his glass of gin on the map. So they just drew around it. That’s how fucked up things are. Not every boundary was created with a gin glass, but it could be as trivial as that when you own the world.”
In some ways Carry Fire quietly defies that geopolitical urge to carve up the world. As Plant sees it, music and the ideas it can express move freely with no regard for boundaries or walls, whether it’s a Moroccan singer emulating an American pop singer or an English rock star finding inspiration in a Malian guitar riff. Music becomes a way to reorganize the world — or, as he sings on the anthemic “New World …” it is a way to “escape the old world, embrace the new world.”
Later this year Plant will turn 70. In some ways he still resembles the rock-god figure he cut in the 1970s, especially his long blonde-gray locks that are surely the envy of his balding contemporaries. His voice has gotten lower, perhaps a little grainier, but he can still hit the high notes. And yet, on Carry Fire he acknowledges his mortality and ponders life and loss. “Out here the fire’s still burning, so long into my night,” he sings on opener “May Queen” (which may or may not allude to Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven”). Later he builds a quiet chorus around the phrase, “the dimming of my light.” “That line is basically, my opportunities are always there, but as I go on, the opportunities start to fade. And so do I.”
That fading of opportunities is the true subject of Carry Fire, the thread that runs throughout every song on the album. Older artists address death all the time, but few manage to marry those fears and insights into such lively music, so jubilant in its sense of invention and so certain that death only makes life much more ecstatic. Few artists insist on being as innovative as Plant, for whom age has lent some urgency to his creative endeavors. “It’s almost like you want to go back and see people and you just can’t make it because you’re in another situation. You’re working on the wrong side of the world. But you think about the great times you had together and that becomes a song.”
So, rather than grim, the album sounds celebratory — melancholy at times, angry at others, but excited, hopeful. Plant doesn’t have as many years ahead of him as he does behind him, but he comes across on Carry Fire as content with his lot as an aging, stubborn rock star. “I have a great time. My dog is healthy. My friends are good. My soccer team is doing really well. I feel like I’m still in touch with people. And the world is full of music. It’s a wonderful place to be.”