How did Robert Plant learn to sing

Robert Plant

September 8, 2014

"It got the cops right in the back of the head"

Interview conducted by Theresa Locker

One of the greatest rock musicians of all time, Robert Plant, has recorded a new album. He's in Berlin for a short time and feels like talking to someone, and that's us, just us. So far so great. Trance meets rock, is in the press release. Oh white I think.

The next day it is very hot, every ten minutes I get text messages with requests for autographs - first from friends, then from their parents. Exciting! The interview location in the Sofitel is a tube-like, elegantly furnished suite. First sigh of relief that the expensive stereo is even playing the manager's CD, which was burned quickly. Because the label didn't send me any music before the interview. So I'm alone for a while and listen to the new record.

A more stark contrast would hardly be possible: The music is earthy, spiritual, mystical and underlaid with Bristol trip-hop. There are North African or Oriental folk elements in every song, plus Robert Plant's much-described voice, which is pleasantly wrapped in it. The music sounds like racing clouds, Arab horses and endless plateaus. There is only one leather sofa that is much too smooth, from which I keep slipping awkwardly, and ironed, crystal-white tablecloths with tissue dispensers on top. It doesn't go together. I retreat to the double-bed-sized window sill and watch the sky over the Kurfürstendamm. The record just keeps getting better. Enter Robert Plant - deeply relaxed, in light summer clothes and with muddy eyes.

Plant: Sorry, I look weird. Yesterday mosquitoes attacked me (pulls up his T-shirt), here I have a lot of stitches and, wickedly, one directly on the eyelid.

I'm sorry, we don't have to take photos. How was your gig in Berlin yesterday?

Plant: Oh, well, it worked. These old walls ... It was a bit like a wedding. People were holding hands and things like that.

Yesterday there were also many fans in Led Zeppelin shirts. When you're on stage now, do you sometimes have fun undermining expectations?

Plant: I don't really know what people want from me. What exactly should I do? I'm not so sure about that.

Not even when they keep shouting "Whole Lotta Love"? Memories are a powerful thing. If they are beautiful, then you definitely want to repeat them.

Plant: Sure, that's true. People have memories - and so do I, of course! I would like to repeat that too, but I can't do that myself. It's a very schizophrenic state because I personally like to go to a concert, look at an artist and let myself be seduced by the story. I want to feel again what these songs mean to me, but I definitely don't want to do it myself for someone else. It's pretty unfair, this equation doesn't work out. It's not very nice.

It's okay, you want some of it too.

Plant: I can stay at home or do the really big thing, you know. I don't know either, it's kind of pretty selfish. But where would we be if we didn't create anything new? Then there would be nothing!

Yesterday you also played old numbers, but changed them almost beyond recognition. So that people are recognizable, but maybe only after four minutes. In the blues, for example, this stylistic device has been used for decades: The songs and stories that are told with it change constantly from narrator to narrator, but the core remains identical.

Plant: Sure, and the narrators then polish it up, make it exciting again. But we are not Aladdin's magic lamp. The medium itself can get a bit slippery. And if you turn into some kind of weekend handyman, or worse, a trader, then it's all over anyway, isn't it? Once you've got your gift into shape like this, you can go straight through your own rectum. Whoop! Simply by repetition. So it's good to mix it all up. And in the end I don't have any huge expectations for a large following either. It's too late for that, I've already seen that - and that was a good thing. What I like now is when people come and want to share my selfishness.

I think if it were cheesy and you compulsively wanted to start something new with all your might, people would of course be disappointed. But I didn't hear that. It was still incredibly powerful and grounded.

Plant: Ah, fine. I think it's because as a band we are a community that is absolutely priceless. I am very lucky.

I also had the impression that you give each other the space to develop - so when a nice sounding instrument is in the foreground, you really get the feeling that only this is telling something. Your voice is also very reserved, almost gentle. That surprised me a little.

Plant: You know, there's nothing worse than being typed, and that's exactly what happened to me in the last few decades, until I started working with Alison Krauss a few years ago. Then I started - well, singing like a good boy. I suddenly felt like listening to melody. I wanted to make love through the melody. Now my expressive singing on stage is a bit like 1970. But I wanted to make sure that it was traced back to a certain feeling.

And what kind of one is that?

Plant: Well, Esther Philipps once had a cut on Atlantic in 1970 that was called "From A Whisper To A Scream". That's it! This is how a good singer should deal with feelings, but at the same time be broad-based.

You didn't start this tour here, but in Rabat, Morocco. How did you perceive that, especially against the background of the regional upheavals of recent years?

Plant: 'Misdien possessed': It was wonderful. I have been traveling to Morocco again and again for 40 years, but never that far north. When I was 20 I was once in Tangier, but I've always been more in the south. It's a very sophisticated, contemporary Morocco.

Which did you like better? I would say that the untamed is more your thing, right?

Plant: Yes, I prefer the rugged, the disheveled. I like the guts of a people who are passing through. On one street you find medieval attitudes and zeitgeist thinking, all of these things happen at the same time. I find it incredibly exciting to sit at an intersection and soak up this mélange in the middle.

What do you take with you in your music?

Plant: I think about whether attitudes towards life run parallel or collide. When you are part of this society, you may be even more aware of where you come from and how far you are from it. Transition movements are an exciting thing that I enjoy working on right now. But still I have to admit: Actually, I have absolutely no idea what is going on around me. I only ever see tiny details.

Is that often the case when you travel? I mean not only privately, but also in the context of a tour - can you still classify all of this or locate yourself?

Plant: Nope.

Surely there are moments when the carousel is stopped - when you don't feel as if you are constantly on the move, but only here in the moment?

Plant: The question is difficult. I don't think it's possible to fully grasp where you are or to fully exploit it. It would be wrong for me to think that I have any idea about anything but my own home. And even that is personalized to a ten-kilometer radius in which I wake up.

Is that such an old thing? When you're 22 you think you know how everything is going ...

Plant: That's great too, but of course it's not true at all. Plus, we all have built-in preferences in our psyche that make us believe how things should be. And that then colors how something actually is.

So when I go to the Robert Plant concert with the Led Zeppelin shirt and really want to hear 'Black Dog' ...

Plant: (grin) ... then maybe you will just remember it later, yes.

Okay, and when you come back from a trip now, on the one hand you will appreciate more what you left behind - and on the other hand, your travel experiences will also change that exact place, right?

Plant: That's right, especially for artists. The great gift of foresight and centuries of experience of coming and going lead to a totally fucked up, wrong view. That's why musicians are very bad mouthpieces for the circumstances in which they operate, I think.

It doesn't matter, that's what they make music for.

Plant: Yeah, but talking about music is just not a great idea. Of course, it depends on the approach, but if we were only to talk about instruments and text modules now, it would be boring. Because no matter how we try, you can't look into my head any more than I can look into yours.

I understand, but we can also talk about your new music without talking about it in detail. To be honest, I would prefer that because I've only listened once and would rather know what happened before than which instrument was used where. It's more about the experiences before and about traveling. OK?

Plant: Yes, gladly. The thing about traveling is: I'm kind of a battering ram. Zack, I'm leaving my home and going into another world. So this is my new morphine, but actually, it's a very shallow high. My entire infrastructure was floating and floating, there were no roots. When I think of these songs on the new album now, I find that they embody the absolute perfection of the place I come from. So the spirit and soul of this place. I come from this ten-kilometer radius, this little spot.

Well, and I've been around the world a lot, I said: Yep, now I'll buy an old American police car, paint it dark blue and drive it out into the desert, to Texas and on and on, on, on. And suddenly I stop and think: Nah, I can't do that - where are Odin and Arthur? I have to go back, goodbye everyone! And I leave a huge vacuum and a trail of people who ask themselves: "Well ... what went wrong there?"

Nothing went wrong at all.

Plant: No! Everything was great. I just wasn't home.

"I looked like a shrimp against him"

When you were recently driving this old car, you said you wanted to try to characterize the south of the USA using radio music - did that work?

Plant: Well there is a song called "Turn It Up" on the new album, which is about the right wing, fascist, extremely conservative AM radio stations. For the gullible and naive, these are incredibly tempting and natural. There's a huge vacuum in society, it's really scary to listen to this bullshit. And then the whole thing is also sponsored, so companies offer their products around it - it's creepy. Anyway, Mississippi had a lot of loose ends to life.

People can't look far back before the pain reaches them. The arrival of those who are now called African Americans, the fall of the native Americans. As a Briton, I was aware of this through songs - I could imitate it, I could tell you the story of Robert Johnson and how many days he spent poisoned on his hands and knees before he had to die, but I had no real clue about of society there. All I had was a little vignette, a tiny window when I was there. I've been down there on the Mississippi a thousand times. But this time I hadn't planned any concerts or visiting friends, so I started listening to this white life soundtrack. I just turned on the radio and saw this strange world - and the will to live together well or not.

Did it work?

Plant: No. I just felt and saw fear. Fear of the other, of the unknown. And you know, maybe the problem will be over in three to four generations.

But that's what you always say when you don't want to deal with solutions during your lifetime.

Plant: Yes, but then America will be much darker than it is now. I would love to be there to see this ... My kids are dark skinned. Some of them are Indian and have always had to listen to a lot of shit - you know, so behind the scenes.

How corrosive. On the other hand, you are hardly noticeable in the southern hemisphere, which can also have advantages.

Plant: Yes! I was in the Atlas Mountains with my older son and visited a rural market - near Astne on the way to one of the passes. So I gave him a Jelawa to try on, complete with a hood and all the trimmings. And all the Moroccan farmers came by and drew air through their teeth in appreciation, began to pluck his face and asked him lots of things - how old, which village, already married? I said to them in my broken Arabic: "No ... he's English!" And he just said: "Dad, get me out of this shit thing! Give me a damn chance!"

How do you work the experiences and feelings while traveling into your music?

Plant: I'll close my eyes and go through all the feelings again.

Do you keep a journal when you are traveling?

Plant: No, I'd rather not. And no scrapbook either, I'm not a ticket sticker when I travel. I try to keep everything very short, I make tiny little notes, they are not even a paragraph long. That's enough. The rest is imagination.

Going back to that particular pain that could be felt in the Mississippi area ...

Plant: Nobody really talks about it. But the communities are just not moving forward, there is not much movement left in terms of migration. This means that you know each other from birth to death and have a common history. And the majority of people make the best of it and try to get over this hesitation and distrust. So - there might be a little dancing, as I can tell. I have a friend who organizes the Tennessee Williams Festival every year. She is a retired journalist and a great mediator between black and white communities there. What I learned from her is this: In the end, everyone wants to be happy. Even the nastiest motherfucker wants to smile at the end of the day.

How is this feeling conveyed in the local music that inspired you for the new album?

Plant: A lot is always about hanging on to the cent and the dollar. There's a lot of juke joint grind there. Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys did a bunch of remixes on Fat Possum Records with the old boys a few years ago, with R. L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. He took a flickering, incessant black blues, overdriven it, and then cut it into pieces and turned it into something completely different. That was a good thing because it allowed the old guys to enjoy another day in the sun. But actually it was thanks to Dan, he teleported the whole thing and twisted it a bit.

The slightly ironic slogan from Fat Possum Records is "We're trying our best". They are playing with their trash image.

Plant: Exactly. But otherwise - well, there is a lot of black show-off music there, it comes from somewhere else. That has to be ... they have run out of ideas.

How well do you know the area?

Plant: Pretty good since our first visit in 1970 when they gave us the keys to the city of Memphis. And three times!

If you lose a couple?

Plant: You gave us the keys to Led Zep times. The cops were pretty tough on the kids back then and when they jumped up at our concert to scream and jump a bit - there was so much enthusiasm, an insane energy in those youth - the cops hit back hard and walked on them off with their batons, just like that. (leans back pleasantly)

But I was pretty good at throwing the mic just enough to hit the cops right in the back of the head. So they turned around and wanted to give it to me right, with the same sticks. While we were still holding the keys to Memphis, I was almost arrested! Since then, I've kept coming back to Mississippi. First when I was in school to play washboard and accordion - and then to look for Robert Johnson like everyone else. And I found him, in a way.

His mind?

Plant: His story, definitely. The North Mississippi government has just approved and subsidized these huge casinos everywhere. At first it meant that the people were busy with the construction and then later these things also needed staff. Really great. Before there was just cotton, cotton, cotton everywhere, nothing but these farms and small settlements for miles. They then extend into these vast bodies of water full of big, bad snakes and the occasional dead skunk on the street.

And Robert Johnson's great-grandson plays blackjack there?

I went there exploring a bit and asked a guy on a tractor who was spraying cotton: "I'm looking for someone who could have been a child in the 1930s". He knew the then limousine driver of the plantation owner, who owned everything around here. When I knocked on him, there was a gigantic guy in the door - I looked like a shrimp against him!

I asked him excitedly, "Did you know Robert Johnson?" And he replied: "Somebody asks me that every week. Most of the time it's Swedes." He said he lived over there next to a church that hit a hurricane, was a good boy, and so on. And then suddenly he said: "But who was absolutely not a good boy was Sonny Boy Williamson!" And I: "Oh wow! Sonny Bonny Williamson! He's my hero!" I found his tombstone in the weeds next to a farm church in the bushes because he was such a bad guy that they didn't want to bury him on the street. The stones were half sunken. Someone from New York had been here before and had paid for some kitschy paraphernalia: a stone relief of his face, a few ugly plastic flowers, and a small poster with his largest plates.

Everything is overgrown with thistles, and you have to take a tiny path into the undergrowth to get there. I really wanted to go there, and I'm terrified of snakes and other cattle. And when I finally got to his grave and saw his harmonica on the floor next to empty liquor bottles, and thought - yes, there he is! - suddenly a huge army of flying ants attacks me.

These were his troops!

Plant: Yes! And of course I fled first, but it wouldn't let me go. Next time I went back; this time it was hornets! This is because I stole so many ideas from Sonny Boy, and he probably stole them from others too. So, there's this chain of natural phenomena that comes back to bite your ass.

And now the mosquitoes, see ?!

Plant: Yeah, yeah. They came because I wanted to be Kurt Vile in Berlin yesterday, or wait a minute - who did I want to be again last night? Marlene, I think. Well, things like that happen all the time. It's crazy to think I would ever give a damn, but ... you're in the middle of nowhere and suddenly a couple shows up on the side of the road. You're fair skinned, I'll shut the window and they know me - they're from Scotland and they're looking for Robert Johnson. Things like that make me think more and more.

"I'm an incredibly feminine guy"

Would you describe yourself as spiritual?

Plant: Yes, possibly. More every day. Maybe that's why I returned to England to touch the Green Man, to get closer to the forest spirits again.

Then you can tell yourself a lot of stories with the North African musicians from the Sensational Space Shifters, right? I read that the blind father of one of your Ritti musicians was allegedly tutored by a ghost.

Plant: Oh yes, from the Griots, for example. A magical people! They also say that Robert Johnson made this deal with the devil ...

... the devil taught him the blues in exchange for his soul, a kind of Faustian pact ...

Plant: Exactly, only these stories all come from the religions on the west coast of Africa. There's a lot of juju involved when someone tells you: I put this guitar in the bush and it came out fully tuned - it's a great selling point! Johnson wasn't the first guy to do that either, it goes back to the beginning of all time.

Things that cannot be are just much more fascinating than reality.

Plant: And if, conversely, you don't want anything anymore, then the whole world loses its magic.

Speaking of supernatural, have you heard of Oum Kalthoum?

Plant: Ohh, the greatest Arab singer of all time! She is amazing and everyone, everyone in the region loves her. "Alf Leyla wa Leyla" is my favorite song, even if it is over an hour long. Imagine I met your accordionist who plays for my daughter. She teaches Arabic dance. When she performs with her troupe in London, she sometimes invites people from Oum Kalthoum's ensemble to join them.

A few months ago I went to their performance and congratulated the accordion player: "Wow, you play so intensely, I almost have to cry sometimes!". And do you know what he said? "I always cry when I play!" Hahaha! But he's right, if you can get the right sound reflections in a room with an instrument, then it almost kills you. Unfortunately, I never saw her myself.

Even on the worst recording, she still has magical characteristics in her voice. And she only sings about love that cannot be. I looked at ancient concert recordings from Cairo, from the 50s. You can see how the audience almost faints in their fine evening suits, jumping up and screaming when they sings the words "my life" in a very specific way. It seems to tear people apart.

Plant: And then you have to imagine that it happened at the same time in Baghdad, Jerusalem and Tunis because the monthly concerts were broadcast on the radio. In 1981 I played in Australia and then went to a Fairouz concert there. Her voice was wonderful at this point, round and uniquely beautiful. She held onto a note for what felt like five minutes, looped it again and again - and all of a sudden she let it drop. And the hall went crazy! There was almost a riot. And I just thought, shit, I'm Anglo-Saxon, how did that happen? I want to be able to do that too! I need the forest spirits, but also that kind of magic!

Who says you can't do that? I was just about to ask if you might have picked up something from such voices ...

Plant: I've definitely copied a lot. I am a thief who can tune into other emotions well. And I am a voyeur. I have a huge amount of water in me. I am an incredibly feminine guy. Every woman who knows me well says that I am more of a woman than most of the other women they know! I love drama and beauty you know It's all beautiful, you can't hide it. It makes your life so much richer. I mean, I'm not in love with other men, but just totally in love with love, passion, emotions. Maybe this is my capital.