Robert Plant turns 70 this August, but he doesn’t have the wherewithal to slow down.
Instead, Plant describes this point in his career as “being on the blades of an amazing boomerang.” While many veteran rock stars create staple tours out of their best hits, the iconic Led Zeppelin frontman isn’t one of them. Long before Rolling Stone readers ranked him as the greatest lead singer of all time in 2011, Plant set out to craft a brand of global old and new musicology, ultimately resulting in a poignant career revival.
Plant has spent the last three decades pushing his musical boundaries, whether joining former Zeppelin bandmate Jimmy Page in ’90s project Page and Plant, collaborating with Alison Krauss for the Grammy-winning 2007 album Raising Sand, and Patty Griffin in Band of Joy, or dropping Carry Fire, his 11th solo album, in 2017.
Recorded with the Sensational Space Shifters and produced by Plant, Carry Fire’s diverse instrumentation finely intertwines tambourines, Moog, brass arrangements, t’bal, slide guitar, cello, and fiddle.
“With eyes wide open, you walk through your own life; you can’t hide from your condition,” Plant says. “My condition is that I’ve had the amazing luxury of a particularly adventurous life. [On Carry Fire] everything you hear comes out of the creed of how we are as musicians. The music needs directing, taking pieces like a jigsaw and moving them to create a sort of … epic feel. I could make a straight rock record — but I must make a record that combines all of those musical muses.”
Carry Fire combines his muses beautifully. Painted in shades of bluegrass and dripping in Americana country, the album finds Plant as commanding as ever. The record’s laced with intoxicating psychedelic guitar and streaks of classic rock that call to his Zep roots. His once blues-oriented wails have aged into something smokier, crooning.
You could argue that, since the end of Page and Plant, the frontman has tried hard not to sound like Led Zeppelin. However, Plant’s method is all about embedding his decades of cultural experiences and work with artists like Buddy Miller and T Bone Burnett. For instance, he developed a new way of singing during the creation of Raising Sand. And his innovation didn’t go unnoticed. The album took home Grammys for Album of the Year, Record of the Year, Pop and Country Collaboration with Vocals, and Contemporary Folk/Americana Album in 2009.
“I was very fortunate of having worked with Alison ... and then with Patty Griffin [in Band of Joy], who to me is the most remarkable songwriter — female, maybe even male — because the probing qualities of her songs are phenomenal,” Plant says.
He says one of the wildest things he’s encountered in his career was the challenge of adapting his voice stylistically while working with Krauss and Griffin.
“I’ve really had to learn a different way of adapting my voice,” he says. “So that was a tough thing to do, but I really wanted to do it. And it’s given me enough of a vocal personality to break away from the old days, but still be able to visit them.”
Between songwriting, recording, and touring, Plant is quick to say that writing is the most demanding.
“If I don’t write something substantial that is relevant to my own time and life, then I don’t record it,” he says. “It’s not all misty roses and sweet chocolates ... but it’s where a man gets to when he has adventures like I do.”
“Truly, I’m on a beautiful learning curve that I haven’t finished yet.”
Plant reflects on witnessing generations of musicians rise to stardom, and what he wishes he knew at their age while on tour. The most important thing he's learned? “When to go home!” Though he feels he could’ve handled himself a little better from time to time in his younger years, he does admit to going home early from tour for other more, ahem, serious reasons.
“Leaving England when my team is doing amazingly well .. in all my years of watching this bloody football team, I’m thinking ‘why am I on tour now?!’” Plant laughs. “There were a few times with Led Zeppelin where I mysteriously got a bad throat a few hours before the match, and was able to return to watch them play ... and miraculously repair by the next day!”
Reminiscing about how touring has changed over the last half-century prompts more serious thoughts. After all, Led Zeppelin basically invented the large-scale touring industry we know today. “Once a new artist receives a commercial response, there’s a magnificent network of hell that breaks out around them,” he says of newer acts. “We were lucky back then. There was nothing pre-meditated, and we weren’t even aware, because the whole media circus didn’t exist. Our name was resonant, but we were invisible until we got to town to play.”
That might be difficult to understand in the age of YouTube, Spotify, and constant touring, but it also created a magical rock movement — one that many musicians feel hasn’t been replicated since.
“It was a fantastic subterranean movement that went along with the pop mainstream. It felt like we were really a part of a new movement, of youth culture all around the world,” he recalls. “It was exotic to find ourselves at a festival playing with The Doors and Janis Joplin, who all seemed to come from some veritable, genuine, non-pop place, yet pulling in like a quarter-million people.
“ ... Where’s this next movement?”
This year marks Led Zeppelin’s 50th anniversary — along with anniversaries of several other seminal cultural and musical happenings. And only time will tell what it brings musically. But it will bring the release of a Led Zeppelin book created by the surviving members, as well as previously unheard music from the legendary band. Plant and Page have even mentioned in separate interviews that some anniversary “surprises” are slated for 2018. “It’s all up in the air. I’m looking forward to seeing the guys again soon one day,” Plant says. “And not a stone will be unturned.”
In the meantime, Plant is touring the world, frequenting intimate and large venues alike, promoting Carry Fire. “Truly, I’m on a beautiful learning curve that I haven’t finished yet.”
But Zep fans shouldn’t despair. Plant is known for jamming out acoustic versions of “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” or “Whole Lotta Love” during his sets. Because sometimes, you gotta get the Led out.