Robert Plant on 'Carry Fire,' his love of Low and possible Led Zeppelin celebrations

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Robert Plant
Robert Plant performing at the 2014 Glastonbury Festival. (Ian Gavan/Getty Images)
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Ahead of his sold-out show at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis with his band, the Sensational Space Shifters, Robert Plant took some time to talk with The Current's Jill Riley about his latest record, his admiration of Duluth's Low and even a few thoughts on Led Zeppelin's 50th anniversary.

Jill Riley: You are listening to The Current, Oake & Riley in the Morning. I'm Jill Riley, and I'm very exciting about the guest on the phone. It's not every day you get to talk to a living legend of rock and roll, one of the best frontmen in the business with one of the greatest voices in the history of rock and roll music. And that would be Mr. Robert Plant is on the line. Good morning, how are you?

Robert Plant: I've got a lot to live up to, by the sound of it. I'm fine, thank you very much!

JR: Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters, back in town at the Orpheum Theatre. Now, if you could tell me about that band and putting that band together and the sound you were looking for, specifically with the record, Carry Fire.

RP: Well, yeah, we've been working together in a kind of conglomerate for about 16 years on and off in between other dalliances and adventures, so we have a very good understanding of individually, what our lean is musically. I'm the only real singer in the band, and I am surrounded by guys who've got great techniques, who can play a lot of different instruments, but they have a kind of remarkable empathy together to create mood and excitement and drama. It's almost like they don't really need a singer, to be honest. It's true!

They come from great genealogy: they come from Massive Attack, from Portishead, from the drum 'n' bass world, from working with Sinéad O'Connor and Cast. It's really quite an amazing variety of musical roots that bring us all together to do this thing. And we've been progressing quite well in the last four years or so. I spent quite a long time in the United States with other projects, and when I finally went back to the U.K., I made myself sort of knock on everybody's door and say, "Hey, you fancy trying this again, see where we can take it?" And we did.

The previous record, Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar, was a major breakthrough for me as a writer and as a lyricist. And also, it continued my train of developing my voice in a different way, having another little corner of expression, if you like, that I could bring in.

Robert Plant at Bonnaroo 2015
Robert Plant and The Sensational Space Shifters performing at the 2015 Bonnaroo Music And Arts Festival. (Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

So Carry Fire comes as a sort of the kid brother of that first project. We feel that we've got something going now that, if it's not eternal, it's going to last a while.

JR: Well, the new record, Carry Fire, listening to the songs on the record, one in particular, there's one called "Bluebirds Over the Mountain." You sing that one with Chrissie Hynde. Can you tell me about the choice of that song and getting together with Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders?

RP: It's kind of a teenage angst, rockabilly song from the '50s. I first heard it when I was a kid, by a guy called Richie Valens, who was a fantastic singer/guitarist from L.A. He died in a plane crash with Buddy Holly when he was about 21. His repertoire was really fantastic, and he sang covers, like I do. And he sang this song, which was an Ersel Hickey song from the '50s. When I was a kid, I used to sing it all the time. It was pretty poignant, even though it was a kind of teenage-angst ditty. It's a cool groove. We tranced it up, and we used big-time psychedelic sounds on it. It almost needs a boy-and-girl thing; not exactly Sonny and Cher or Paul and Paula, but it needed something going on where there was a call-and-response between the boy and the girl.

I love Chrissie's voice; she's got such a beautiful, sensual style. Remarkable, really. And I'd seen the Pretenders play. So I called her up, and I sent her a copy of my version of it without her voice on, just with me singing it. She sent me back a text, and she — without many expletives, explosions and stars and exclamation marks — she said, "This is where everybody should be going!"

Chrissie Hynde
Chrissie Hynde performing with the Pretenders. (Terry Wyatt/Getty Images)

"Sexy psychedelia" she called it. So she sang it in about a minute and a half. Recently we finished our U.K. tour at the Royal Albert Hall, and she came on and sang it, and I murdered her song "2000 Miles," because it was Christmas. I really wanted to do it, but it's a tough song. It's a kind of waltz time. I was practicing it in the car. We got to the sound check before the doors were opened at the Royal Albert Hall in London and [singing] da, da, da, dah, da, duh, da, duh, da-da-da [speaking again] you know, I was all over the shop — terrible! And she kept looking at me and conducting me. So when we came to play in front of a full house of cheering people, for a guy who's been around as long as me, I found it very comical to be conducted by her to make sure I came in at the right place in the song. It was very funny!

JR: If I ever get to talk to her, I'll have to ask her about the time that she conducted Robert Plant onstage! But Chrissie Hynde featured on one of the songs on the record Carry Fire from Robert Plant, who's back in town at the Orpheum Theatre tomorrow in Minneapolis. It's going to be a full house. From Carry Fire, the first song that we heard from that record would be "The May Queen." And as we were talking about the song and listening to it for the first time, just kind of thinking, "OK, 'The May Queen,' where have I heard this before?" Well, for a lot of us had that light go on, this is "The May Queen," we've heard that in "Stairway to Heaven." Was that an intentional throwback to that song?

RP: Yeah, the May Queen in a tree, and it's basically heralding the beginning of summer. That's why we have May Queens ourselves, the girls that dance around maypoles, and the whole idea of encouraging the warm days when you're in northern Europe — well, you know what it's like there, geez! You can't wait for those blossoms to come out on a tree that is known as a hawthorn, obviously grows where you guys are, too. But it's kind of an old-fashioned folk term.

The tree has healing properties. The old men where I lived on the Welsh borders when I was younger, they used to chew the flowers. The May Queen, actually, has always been with us in Britain, and she's always been known as the May Queen; she is, in fact, the hawthorn tree. And when I was singing this song and making the whole thing up against the track that we created, I was always looking out the window, and this tree was like neon in the sunlight. It was just pumping color and flower and the beginning of the warmth of the year. So I like the warmth of the May Queen.

JR: You're listening to The Current, talking with Robert Plant, back in town at the Orpheum Theatre tomorrow. The new record is Carry Fire. This year, the year 2018, will be the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin. And I've read about a few things that you guys possibly have planned. Jimmy Page had mentioned working on, well, he had done those reissues, and then possibly having some unreleased music. I know there was talk of some kind of book coming out. Can you talk a little bit about some things you guys will be planning for the year 2018?

RP: Well, we're planning to get together and talk about it. Basically, it's very difficult to find stuff that still is unheard, and not only will it be 50 years, but it'll be, next year, 38 years since John [Bonham] passed away. And the great thing about Led Zeppelin was that we didn't chronicle ourselves; we just kind of went from town to town and sang songs and played guitars and stuff. And then went about our lives. The whole idea of chronicling the life of people in bands … In a way, I wish that we had more stuff to look at, but there will be a book of photographs and stuff. But some of it will be particularly interesting, I think. Beyond that, musically, there's bits and pieces lying around, but not an album or anything like that. But there will be a celebration, I'm sure, somewhere. A cork will pop! [makes sound effects]

JR: I'm talking with Robert Plant. The show is tomorrow night at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. Welcoming back Robert Plant to town and the Sensational Space Shifters. It'll be nice to have you back in the Twin Cities. Do you remember First Avenue or seeing a show there?

RP: Yeah. I saw Sun Ra playing a long time ago. It was very, very good. Just amazing, really.

portrait of jazz musician Sun Ra
Influential jazz composer, keyboardist and bandleader, Sun Ra. (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images via NPR)

JR: It's great to have you talk about these connections to Minnesota. You know, one that we really enjoyed a few years ago, when you covered a couple songs from the band Low from Minnesota.

RP: Oh, yeah! I was living in Texas; I'd just finished working with Alison Krauss and the Raising Sand tour. I'd said goodbye to T Bone [Burnett] and Alison, and I hung on to Buddy Miller, hung around with him, the great guitarist, great producer. I said, "Buddy, I don't want to go back to England; I want to make a record here with these people who are great around Nashville" and all that stuff. So I went looking for material, and Low, that particular album [The Great Destroyer, 2005], which had "Monkey" and "Silver Rider," it's just one of the greatest sonic experiences that I've ever had, really. What a great sound! When you have a crescendo in music that kicks off, normally it's associated with a lot of physicality and a lot of kind of head movements and lot of sexy sort of ring in the changes of the music. But they have this amazing delivery. And they went on — and they still carry on — making great records. "Plastic Cup" was really good.

JR: Yep. They were pretty excited that you chose some of their material to include on that record that you put out a few years ago, the Band of Joy record. Well, Robert Plant back in town this week here in the Twin Cities, Orpheum Theatre, it's going to be a full house. Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us this morning. I know we've run over our time a little bit.

RP: That's OK, my dear. It's nice to talk to you. Keep the faith. See you soon.

JR: All right. Thank you very much.

RP: Take it easy.

JR: That is Mr. Robert Plant, here on The Current.

Audio produced by Anna Reed; transcription by Luke Taylor.

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Robert Plant - official site

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