At 69, and after creating some of rock’s most iconic songs of all time, Robert Plant could easily rest on his laurels. Instead, the restless artist has built an acclaimed, deep body of work as a solo artist, even scoring an Album of the Year Grammy Award for his 2007 collaboration with Alison Krauss, Raising Sand.
His eleventh solo LP, Carry Fire, continues the sonic excursions he’s embarked upon with his trusted backing band, the Sensational Space Shifters. “It’s been a great adventure and a departure for me,” Plant tells EW of the album, which fuses his bluesy Americana with styles from vintage trip-hop to Malian blues.
He also says this his collaborators pushed him to deliver the best possible lyrics on Carry Fire. “My game is sporadic,” he explains. “I have to run at it, as a singer and a lyricist. Maybe you can create a beautiful melody, but what are you going to say? I can’t sing about truck-stop women and railroads and stuff — I’m British! You’ve gotta cut through to how you feel and what you’ve been observing more recently.”
The beloved singer connected with EW to discuss Carry Fire‘s bold lyrical messages, recording in 2017, and reviving “the psychedelic dream” with the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How has recording albums changed in your career? Do you find new methods to be liberating or do you sometimes feel they represent too many options?
ROBERT PLANT: Structurally, songs can build in a totally different way to how they would’ve been in the ’60s and ’70s. You can add a piece and at will take it away, put it back, try it sideways, upside down. You can make it into a little potpourri of approaches. Some pieces can be played as a group there and then on the spot with all the recording and the sound committed in one move. Other pieces you can construct and create beds [of] cello and viola. I have no particular favorite way of doing it. If you’ve got something really spontaneous, great!
Sometimes, that spontaneity can come just from a repetitive loop. There’s a track on the album called “Keep It Hid,” which was basically a keyboard loop and I just started singing the melody to it. It’s such a naked track. So you can do that, build it up, in a very short space of time. Some of the greatest songs on the planet — nothing to do with my life and times, but other people — can arrive in four minutes.
I love “Keep It Hid” and your other Carry Fire collaborations with Massive Attack’s John Baggott. Can you tell me about working with him?
I was very, very lucky to come across John’s work when he was working with Massive Attack. The whole Bristol scene that he comes from, with Massive Attack and Portishead, there’s a hotbed of dark techno keyboard loop mongers in that town, down in Bristol. Once it was full of pirates and now it’s full of this great other way of doing stuff, musically. He’s always submitting, constantly, more and more beautiful pieces. His piano parts on “A Way With Words,” he presented to me and I couldn’t even imagine where a vocal would begin. John is a beautiful musician because he is totally engrossed in his game.
Tunes like “Carving Up the World Again…. a wall and not a fence,” “New World…,” and “Bones of Saints” have striking lyrical messages about topics including immigration and imperialism. Why did you feel it was important to speak out about these issues?
They’re universal issues that have no particular time of beginning and don’t look like they’re ever going to end. They’re the events of our time, but they’re the events of our forefather’s time. You can’t ignore them. You can only comment on them.
As an artist who has been active for a number of decades — who was making music during the tumultuous ’60s, for example — how discouraging do you find it that some of these issues persist?
My father was at D-Day, the great move into the European mainland during the Second World War. His father was in the trenches in the First World War. And my great-grandfather was in South Africa in the Boer War. There’s always some event some chain of events that runs through everybody’s families, I think.
Carry Fire‘s musical motifs are so worldly and fascinating. How did you develop this blend of genres?
The great thing about the way [the Sensational Space Shifters and I] work is that everybody in the band, every member including myself, goes off and works on other projects and comes back to this home — it could be called a mothership. Justin Adams and Liam “Skin” Tyson, our two guitarists, took me and my boy to Mali and we played in the desert north of Timbuktu with Ali Farka Touré and Tinariwen. They’re good friends. From Jack White to Tinariwen, it’s all the same, really, just people letting it out.
You covered Ersel Hickey’s 1958 folk “Bluebirds over the Mountain” for this one. How’d you arrive at your interpretation and what led you to collaborate with Chrissie Hynde for it?
When I was a kid, I didn’t hear Ersel Hickey’s version. I listened to the version by Richie Valens. When I was a kid, it was one of those types of mantra songs. On the last tour, we were playing Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” and we were starting it off half-time, with a big, crunching backbeat and a big keyboard loop from John Baggott. It was probably about 24 bars of intro and I just was choosing different songs from night to night. I got to singing “Bluebirds over the Mountain” a lot, and I really love it. I thought, if we’re ever going to do a cover, we might as well do a cover we all know — and let’s see what we can do to it.
Instrumentally, we got it sounding good. I could’ve put a harmony on it, but it really did need another voice. I sent Chrissie Hynde, who I’ve known over the years, a copy of what we were doing. She was really, really positive and enthralled. She said, “So, the great psychedelic dream comes alive again!” I drove out, picked her up in my car, and we went off to the studio. It’s nice — a sort of psychedelic Sonny & Cher.