More than half a year has passed since the pandemic shut down the world, and Robert Plant says he’s doing relatively well. “I can tell you that I’m still breathing, and I’ve got a warped sense of humor, and I can still sing a tune,” he deadpans. “But beyond that, don’t ask me what day it is because they’re all the same at the moment.”
At the start of 2020, Robert Plant was in the U.S., planning studio time and live dates for the year ahead. He’d hoped to do some small gigs with his band Saving Grace, which he describes as a “very small, low-key, teeny-weeny setup playing ‘psychedelic folk-rock goes to the Appalachians’ style of music.” Their May tour was soon pushed to October and now it’s simply up in the air. “Obviously, we all thought maybe we can find a window and this pandemic was going to blow away, and if you think about it really, there was no earthly way that it can blow away,” he says. “So everything is moved forward, shunted, stopped, on hold.”
The singer has been spending his time reading a lot but so far, he hasn’t felt moved to write new music. “It’s very difficult to consider writing in any form for me, at least in song-speak, because there’s so many events and circumstances that we’re surrounded by, dealing with, and affected by, that the actual idea of content is so vast, and popular song is another world completely,” he says. “We’ve never been quite so assailed on so many different sides, in my estimation — at least for the last hundred years since when the Spanish flu kicked in.”
Rather than release new music, he’s doing something unusual — looking back. Last year, Plant started telling the stories behind songs from throughout his career on his Digging Deep podcast, and now he’s compiled a two-disc anthology of his post–Led Zeppelin material, Digging Deep: Subterranea. The songs, which include three previously unreleased tracks, aren’t in chronological order, and hearing them side by side shows the deep threads that have connected Plant’s solo work since 1982.
Whether finding new footings in rock music on “In the Mood,” blending musical styles from around the world with his Sensational Space Shifters band on “Embrace Another Fall,” or reworking the blues with his Band of Joy lineup on the new “Charlie Patton Highway (Turn It Up),” there are familiar shadows and inflections on each of the songs. Plant has always been a hard artist to trace since he frequently moves right along to his next musical adventure, leaving a record to speak for itself, so it’s significant that he would pause to take stock of the past.
“When I listen to it, I wonder whether the guy who was singing and writing the lyrics ever had a rest,” he jokes of the comp. “I mean, did he ever take a vacation? What on earth was going on? And why didn’t he just shut the fuck up for a while and learn something new, like applied mathematics or astronomy? But yeah [Digging Deep] just rolls with so much gusto. It’s pretty confident, except for, really, underneath it all, maybe it was never confident; it was just throwing another spanner into the works, to see where the shards would take me. None of these songs are going to match [Bob Dylan’s] ‘Masters of War,’ or something like that. They’re songs from the moment that they were born in some rehearsal room on the Welsh borders, I guess.”
It’s early evening on a Saturday in the U.K., where Plant resides, when he speaks with Rolling Stone for the better part of an hour — up until his favorite soccer team starts a game on TV — delving into the many chapters of his career. When talking, the singer, now 72, is thoughtful and prone to long ruminations on how he found his way to the present.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty here, and there’s a lot of team spirit as well,” he says of the way things look in the U.K. “But unfortunately nobody’s got the book of rules, not since the Heptones recorded it in 1973.”
What have you been drawing on to get through each day since the shutdowns took place?
I have good friends, strong family, friends near and far, but I’m living around people that I’ve known for a long time, so there’s an air of camaraderie and optimism. For me, getting through it all, I’m strong around the people that I know, and we work as communities and we’re conscientious and thoughtful about caring for people who are not quite so strong as others. So there’s an awareness that gives me sense of being, which is cool.
And I’m singing, which is good. I need to sing. They’re not all Elvis songs, because you can’t actually sing in a pub very much now. I’ve been doing some social distancing with a few other pretty voices around me, which is great. There’s nothing trivial about this shit.
Since you can’t tour, you’re putting out this Digging Deep anthology, which contains songs going back to the start of your solo career. Your solo music was so different from Led Zeppelin’s. When you think back, how did you go about moving forward after that band ended?
Well, I was 32. At that time, the media decided that people, quite rightly, at age 32 had probably better step aside and let the next wave go. And obviously Zep was more powerful than any of the individuals [in the band], so it was hard to see the whole deal for what it really is, and that is that there’s a sort of an addiction to it after a while — the combinations of people, and what they’ve got, what they’re laying down — so when you change that, a whole chemical imbalance occurs. So really, I could do whatever I would like to do. I just had to get something going, which would constantly change, so that I didn’t end up institutionalized.
I was very conscious of saying goodbye to the Seventies. There was a lot of amazing, huge dynamics in that particular decade. There was a lot of pain, and quite a lot of pleasure, but you’ve got to move on.
How did your collaborators at the time influence the sound of your early solo work?
I guess with the first two, two-and-a-half albums, maybe up to [1985’s] Shaken ‘n’ Stirred, [it was one thing and] we started changing things ’round. [Little Feat drummer] Richie Hayward came in after Lowell George passed, and then I went off with [Atlantic Records founder] Ahmet Ertegun and scooped into New York and started doing that Honeydrippers stuff — again, bringing other people in. And for me it was a huge kaleidoscope of music and the gift of all these various musicians, because I’d been in a kind of a magnificent relationship for 11 years with four people, so I didn’t really know much about how to deal with it in any other way than that. I’d been part of a secret society and cloistered, and I suppose I was removed from the cut and thrust of getting in with lots of different musicians.
I’ve mostly had pretty good alliances with musicians, and for that reason, I find it more and more stimulating to just keep changing. People come in, they go out, other people join, somebody comes back. And it becomes much more fluent. So that means you can work on projects, and nobody’s really thinking about it being there for the long haul. Sometimes you can actually really hit on great ideas and great things.
One of your first solo hits was “Big Log.” You recently said that when you wrote it, you wanted it to be big but not heavy. Why was that?
I think “Big Log” was intense, but kind of very beautiful. There was a lot of air in it. And I think I was overly sensitive about trying to move away from where I’d been before. It was a ridiculous concept, the idea of actually trying to run away from something that was so all-encompassing in the Seventies, you know, to try and get to 1982 and say, “Oh ,no, no, no. I’m not exactly Andy Williams, but …”
So I was trying every single thing that I could to make it heavy without making it that sort of … just to try and maybe go up through the gears a bit more. And I made a lot of bold and brash attempts at trying to turn it ’round, turn the whole thing upside down. Even though it might not have been, at the time, what everybody was looking for, it was the building blocks that got me as far as the last gig I did with the Space Shifters at this time last year at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco. The journey was always changing, always keeping it intense, and sometimes being a bit bullish. Just getting out there in the stream of it all, which was good.
The anthology isn’t in chronological order, but there is a musical thread that connects the songs beyond your voice. Do you hear that?
Yeah, there’s a lot of energy. It’s pretty power packed. Earlier on, I was embracing whatever I felt really moved high at the time, so the techno revolution in the Eighties is … we look back now in horror. Or maybe we don’t look back in horror. Now we look back and go, “Geez, how did you actually manage to get your head around that sort of shit, Robert?” And the answer is, “With great zest and a considerable amount of noise.” I mean, it’s very funny. But some of it worked really OK. I was embarrassed about it for a long time. Especially once I got to 1993 and Fate of Nations, which was a really big turning point for me. The thing is, you don’t have any perspective at the time, you just joyously careen through another bunch of ideas and another combination of good spirits.
You hit a turning point when you did Dreamland in 2002, singing covers of songs like Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren” and the Youngbloods’ “Darkness, Darkness,” but with great depth and a wider musical scope. What changed for you around then?
In the mid-to-late Nineties, I’d had a few journeys with the UnLedded project and then Walking into Clarksdale with Jimmy Page, and it was very evident that the big sound — trading on that big thing, no matter how original we would want to make it — had probably run its course for me for that period of time. So I was looking for a way out. I’d formed a little [covers] group called the Priory of Brion, which was sort of an escape hatch from playing to German industrial units with 15,000 people waiting for Godot. My manager at the time, he said, “This is so bad. I couldn’t even possibly dream of taking commission from you for this.” And I said, “Well that’s pretty neat, because we’re only playing to 200 people a night anyway.”
So as [Plant’s then–backing group] Strange Sensation was born, [bassist] Charlie Jones introduced me to [drummer] Clive Deamer, who’d just been working with Roni Size, and on Dummy, the Portishead album. So he had a whole different way of playing beats, and I thought I’d try and introduce that into the music. His drumming was very, very important, along with obviously everybody else. And I wanted to go back and visit the whole mood of some of the songs that I really love, and [Youngbloods frontman] Jesse Colin Young’s voice and many of his songs were not only anthems for us, in the late Sixties, but they also still carried brevity and weight. So I could try and get involved with a song like “Darkness Darkness.” And with Tim Buckley’s work, This Mortal Coil had come along out of the Cocteau Twins on the 4AD record label and they took one of his songs, “Song to the Siren,” and it was just such an evocative recording.
These pieces of music were things that I wouldn’t have been able to do prior to that, because the surroundings and the climate of the musicality and the musicians wouldn’t have lent itself to those songs. So it allowed me to start not only reacquainting myself with the music that I loved from that sort of trippy period, in the late Sixties, but I could now apply it, because I was surrounded by this landscape of post–trip-hop musicians in the U.K., which was pretty far out. It allowed me to get in the middle of it all and to present those songs. Strange Sensation are the Space Shifters, but for a couple of changes, people who ran off. The flexibility of the playing led us to translate, to revisit this music.
Something I noticed was how you throw references to Led Zeppelin lyrics in the songs. You sing of “dancing days” in “Dance With You Tonight.” And you use the phrase “sing in celebration” and “the accident remains the same” in “Great Spirit.” You even wrote a song called “The May Queen,” which harks back to “Stairway to Heaven” on your last album. Are you purposely nodding to your past?
Oh, absolutely, yeah. But the May Queen has always been important to me in our history, in our folk art, and folklore. I think the cutest one was on [Digging Deep’s] “Charlie Patton Highway”: “This car goes ’round in circles, the road remains the same.”
I noticed that.
Clever bastard. Yeah, I thought, “That’s very funny.” And as a matter of fact, it’s also very true of that day [I wrote that song]. I was up in Como, Mississippi, and heading down to Clarksdale, and I took this road. It was like, “‘Round and ’round and ’round. Thank God the sun’s out.” And I was on my own listening to the radio network down there [playing Patton’s music].
But yeah, I like the idea of doing that. I like the idea of it having the continuity — well, not continuity, but a reference in a different time. There’s loads of them. They’re all over the records.
Your song “New World” struck me as sort of an update of “Immigrant Song.” Do you see it that way?
Well, yeah, in kind. It’s true, Page and I wrote [“Immigrant Song”] following on from a show that we did in Iceland and, of course, again, because as a kid and all the way through my life, I’ve been really interested in how many different times these islands have been [invaded] and the sort of movement of tribe and culture through these islands … The whole of the North of England was an entire Viking province. In fact the Isle of Man, northwest of Liverpool, I think the last Danish kings left around 14-something. So yeah, I like the idea of that.
By the time I wrote “New World” all those years later, I’d traveled in South Dakota. I met this writer called Kent Nerburn, who wrote a trilogy; the first book is called Neither Wolf Nor Dog. And I was absolutely riveted to his work. It’s about a Native American and some of the Anglo cultures. And I mean for all the years that I’ve been coming to the United States, I thought I had some kind of idea of the complexion and the complexity of the United States. But each state is actually a bunch of cities and rural centers, with people from absolutely everywhere on the planet, so I didn’t really take everything in and start seeing the brevity and the sort of intensity of circumstances that prevail, especially in the Dakotas and Wyoming, until I’d actually spent a couple of years, mostly off the road, with a center in Austin. So I was able to become far more aware of the realities and the real landscape.
What music has been turning you on lately?
It’s very difficult now with British radio; I wouldn’t say it’s completely gone, but radio is almost obsolete. There’s a couple of great radio stations out of New Orleans where you can download the app and spend time listening to the different colors of Louisiana. I guess I keep listening to Low Anthem, and I really like that area of strong, high melody. And I keep my ears to the ground. I was in Nashville not long ago, and I heard a lot of the new singers and writers that are around. By and large it’s more or less a complete kaleidoscope of old and new music. I mean Dylan’s most recent album had such huge high points, and that opening track floored me. Just fantastic. It’s like an epitaph and a baptism at the same time, really. It’s really good.
One artist I know you’ve spent time with during the pandemic, but I’m sure you didn’t record with, is Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. You two auctioned a guitar together and posed for a photo in face masks. What was it like seeing him again?
I was in Nashville in January or February, and I just happened to be at the airport at the same time as him. He’d been doing some stuff to do with guitars, and I’d been doing some stuff to do with singing. And some guy came up to us while we were waiting to get on the plane to go back to England, and he said, “Yeah, man. You guys have re-formed.” I thought, “Well maybe I’ve turned over a new leaf, or he thinks that Led Zeppelin has re-formed, or he thinks that Black Sabbath have reformed,” like the guy out of Guns N’ Roses who joined AC/DC, so it looked like there’s some sort of strange game of Cluedo where antiquarians can hop from one band to the other, and the public goes, “Oh, yeah, that’s OK. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No history required there.” So I thought it was very funny, and I said to him, “Well, we could really have a hoot here. You could play ‘Kashmir’ and I could sing ‘Paranoid.'” And anyway, the joke went on, and we got the opportunity to do that fundraiser thing, which is great.
[Regarding the charity guitar auction], he’s very serious about owing his health and his revival [after being diagnosed with lymphoma in 2012] to the particular health craftsman in the hospital not too far from where he lives. So he does a lot of charity stuff like that. And I’ve been wading in with our local areas of the National Health Service, because we were taken by such surprise that most of the equipment that we’d got on standby for any kind of national condition, the likes of which we have now, there was not very much in the cupboard for these kind of emergencies. There’s a huge, huge surge over here in the U.K. of thanks and gratitude for the National Health Service and all the kind of workers who for quite a long time were working without personal protection equipment in pretty dangerous circumstances. So between us, that’s what we saw as a reason to do the auction. And, yeah. He’s a good guy, Tony. I think maybe he’s the one that got away.
We recently interviewed Cameron Crowe about Almost Famous, and he talked about showing you and Jimmy Page the film. He recalled the “I am a golden god” scene, and he said when Billy Crudup said, “I didn’t say that, or did I?” you exclaimed, “I said it.” Why did you say, “I am a golden god”?
Whatever was said from minute to minute was just sheer comic entertainment most of the time in those early Led Zeppelin days. And I think it was in the middle of some ridiculous moment, maybe even Bonzo’s birthday party somewhere up in Beverly Hills, where somebody had made John a three-tier birthday cake. We were at some event and John was showing it round the room, and he showed it to somebody, I think it was George Harrison who karate-chopped the cake. Bonzo decided that there was something that needed to be done about that, and there was all sorts of scuttling, and it was just another one of those boyish prank-type of events going on. And it just seemed that the only thing that was missing was somebody to actually round the whole thing up with even more nonsense. So I just opened my arms and just proclaimed that. And then I think a piece of cake sadly lodged somewhere on the end of my nose or something.
Last week marked the 40th anniversary of John Bonham’s death. How did you remember him on that day?
Well, it’s enormous. There’s quite a lot of people who have been close to me who are no longer with us, but he’s omnipresent in my time because we went into this venture together. We’d been on two or three different trajectories prior to Zeppelin together, which had always been chaotic and always ended in tears one way or another. But with Zeppelin, we always came back, shared a vehicle, came back from the airport, made our way back to where we live on more or less the Welsh borders, so we were still tight, to a large degree, right up until the end. We were definitely from the same bag, the same nest.
I’m still living in the area where we were both from, so he’s present and with me quite a lot. A lot of people knew him, like they know me. We haven’t gone very far, apart from a couple of sad adventures. So he’s still very present here, and it’s ironically with local people. It’s just his actual physical presence and his personality that’s remembered, but when you start listening to what he did and his contribution to the world of rhythm and drumming, he transcended all those other players, because he and Jonesy [Led Zep bassist John Paul Jones] gave the whole thing so much class, so much feel, that it really did bring us a deal of separation between Led Zeppelin and a lot of the other stuff that was around at the time, because those two guys had a crucial way of working. So yeah, it’s 40 years, and he’s still greatly lost from us, far and gone. But I’m looking up into the cloudy sky of the nighttime here. I’m sure he’s standing outside a pub somewhere, metaphorically, cracking a joke.
He was such a magnificent drummer.
Oh, yeah. Such great feel. I mean his feel was everything. We went to the Burning Spear one night in the South Side of Chicago to see Bobby “Blue” Bland and his orchestra play in this quaint black club, and we got in there, and John got up and played “Further on Up the Road” and “Turn on Your Love Light” and stuff like that, and it was insane. And all the musicians were just leaning towards him, because he’d got such feel. He was just as at home playing with Bobby “Blue” Bland as he was playing “Fool in the Rain” all those years later. It was something else.