"I can't be smug about it – I know it's wonderful," Robert Plant says, blunt and cheerful as he talks about his first solo album of new, original songs in almost a decade. "It's fucking great."
Released by his new label, Nonesuch, on September 9th, Lullaby and . . . The Ceaseless Roar is the ex-Led Zeppelin singer's first studio effort with the Sensational Space Shifters, his Afro-psychedelic-blues touring band of the past two years. The album is also a return home. Plant, 66, recorded it in his native England after a few years of living and working in America, mostly singing folk and blues covers on Raising Sand, his 2007 hit with Alison Krauss, and 2010's Band of Joy.
"The onus wasn't on writing so much as dipping into the real American songbook," Plant says of that time. For the Space Shifters, he reconvened British musicians from his 2005 album, Mighty ReArranger – including guitarists Justin Adams and Liam "Skin" Tyson, and keyboard player John Baggott, who has worked with Portishead – and added Juldeh Camara, a griot from Gambia, who plays the ritti, a one-string fiddle. "We bring in all the aspects of being European, leaning on Africa and the Delta," Plant crows. "It's pretty virile stuff, and it has come from our countless hours of trudging the endless highways. If we'd just met in a room somewhere, we'd have never gone anywhere near this."
By that, Plant means the dense, integrated blur of North African riffing, heavy-blues grind and electronic looping in "Turn It Up" – a memoir of driving through Mississippi, transfixed by the music on the radio – and "Little Maggie," a drastic rearrangement of a 1948 bluegrass landmark by the Stanley Brothers. "Robert is open to spontaneity," says Adams, who has produced records for the Malian band Tinariwen and worked with Plant since 2001. "He'll leave things slightly undercooked, preferring a rough, early take because it has energy and simplicity."
Plant can also be specific in his choice of sources. Adams recalls a phone call early in their association: "He started talking about the guitar playing on the Doors' 'The End' – 'Do you know what I mean by that?'" Adams says, laughing. "Yes, I did."
There is a profound, reflective grip to Lullaby and . . . The Ceaseless Roar (named after a line in one song, "A Stolen Kiss"). In the overcast Celtic-folk flair of "Embrace Another Fall," Plant underscores his lifelong affection for Wales – where he vacationed as a child and later, in a remote cottage, wrote Zeppelin songs with guitarist Jimmy Page – by incorporating part of an old Welsh ballad, "The Lark's Elegy," sung in the original tongue by guest vocalist Julie Murphy. She says Plant told her "Embrace Another Fall" was "about coming back" – specifically, "to the drizzle, a particular type of rain in Britain. He said he'd been in the desert, these hot places, and he was returning after a long journey."
In this conversation, Plant refers to his old band with elliptical care, never mentioning Led Zeppelin by name and ably dodging the irrepressible reunion issue – the public howl for a tour after Zeppelin's 2007 show in London (with the late John Bonham's son, Jason, on drums) and Plant's steadfast no. But Plant performs a high percentage of Zeppelin songs with the Sensational Space Shifters, and he has been involved in this year's Page-directed series of Zeppelin reissues. It was Plant's suggestion to redesign the original covers in color negatives.
"This propagation of myths and anti-myths will continue forever," he says of Zeppelin. Still, a roundabout question about his relationship with Page outside of Zeppelin matters gets a hearty laugh. "I'll ask him at dinner tomorrow night."
Plant characterizes his immediate future with the Space Shifters as more playing, more travel: "We're getting questions like 'How about Lollapalooza in 2015?' Juldeh wants us to go to Gambia, which is a nice idea. For me, the whole deal is about setting sail for two or three different idioms and calling it a dream come true."