“I was at WOMAD the other day,” says Robert Plant. “I walked past this guy sitting in a fold-out chair reading a music magazine, and it had a photo of us as nubiles. I said, ‘Who’s that, then?’, and he looked up at me. I had sunglasses on and my hair was up in a top-knot. He said, ‘That’s Led Zeppelin.’ I said, ‘Ah, okay – and who’s that guy?’ He said, ‘That’s Robert Plant.’ I said, ‘What does he look like now?’ The guy shrugged his shoulders, so I lifted my sunglasses and said, ‘Look!’ It was a lovely moment and we were chortling away like two Laughing Policemen. The tears were rolling down our fat old cheeks.”
Plant and I have met at the Hyatt Regency in Birmingham, where the valets know him simply as “Planty”. Quotidian as our co-ordinates are, they have resonance: my interviewee says that it was 800 yards from where we are sitting that he first saw Bukka White and Son House, and of course it was at another Hyatt – the one on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles that Zeppelin dubbed “The Riot House” – that much of the debauchery linked to the band allegedly took place back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Today, there will be no riding of motorcycles down hotel corridors, just Plant, now almost 66, enthusing about works by Rubens and Caravaggio he recently saw in Dresden, or telling how he once disturbed Bob Dylan putting a sock on to ask him about “Spider” John Koerner. Plant is a relaxed and attentive conversationalist, not one for protocol. “It must be strange for you to wonder what you’re going to say to a guy like me,” he says at one point. “So many things have happened.”
What’s happened most recently is Plant’s 10th solo album, Lullaby and... the Ceaseless Roar. “It’s my life; it’s all of our lives, really,” he says, when quizzed about its title. The record sees him backed by The Sensational Space Shifters, a sonic brains-trust now augmented by the new recruit Juldeh Camera, a Gambian griot and ritti (single-string fiddle) virtuoso.
Though there’s a genre-hopping, intercontinental bent to the music, lyrically the record is a reflective and deeply personal work about coming home. For the most part, the priapic Golden God of old draws upon “the restraint and quietude” he learned while singing with the bluegrass artist Alison Krauss on 2007’s Grammy-grabbing album, Raising Sand.
Songs such as “Embrace Another Fall”, the extraordinary piano ballad “A Stolen Kiss”, and “House of Love” (“Leaving was so hard,” it begins) are key, Plant addressing his 2013 break-up with the US folk singer Patty Griffin. The pair had set up home together in Austin, Texas, after collaborating on Plant’s 2010 album, Band of Joy, but “culturally and slightly spiritually” Plant began to experience a troubling disjunct which he says led him to “swing the wheel right around”.
As the gritty, febrile “Turn It Up” details, Plant’s sense of alienation didn’t dissipate when he drove east of Tunica, Mississippi, to commune with the ghosts of the Delta blues greats who first inspired him: “I’m lost inside America/ I’m turning inside out/ I’m turning into someone else/ I heard so much about/ I’m blinded by the neon/ the righteous and the might/ I’m stuck inside the radio/ Turn it on and let me out.”
“Patty and I tried a sort of zig-zag across the Atlantic,” says Plant, “but she didn’t share my penchant for cider and she used to marvel at the Black Country character I became after four pints of Thatchers. My feelings are very much ones of sadness and regret, but I also disturbed myself. I had to come back [to Worcestershire] to find out just how much I valued what I’d left behind – it’s an old song, I guess.
“John Bonham [Zeppelin’s late drummer] and I used to drive back here after every event in Led Zeppelin. Before the motorways, we’d do it in his mum’s Anglia van, making our way up through Oxford and Stratford and Alcester. We had families here. They all spoke the speak, and there was no point in going to elocution lessons. My grandfather, who was the leader of a brass band, used to say to me [drops into thick Black Country accent], ‘I am what I am and I couldn’t be more amererer!’ And that’s just it, I think. There’s restlessness, and then there’s home.”
What, specifically, did Plant miss?
“A lot of stuff I’d taken for granted. Particular hilltops and views around here and in Wales. Sadly for the readers, there still is a feeling I get when I look to the West [laughs]. I was dug-in in Austin for about 18 months, and when I came back home I saw how everything had grown. I thought, ‘Wow – everything is on the move except for me.’
“Just this week I’ve been relishing the cave houses around here; all the places that I went with me dad when we used to cycle. You don’t have time to think about that stuff when you’re bringing up your kids or when you’re running out of drugs, but now I see so many unframed masterpieces around me.”
Elsewhere, framed – or at least acclaimed – masterpieces prevail. October sees Led Zeppelin’s deluxe reissue program continue with expanded versions of Led Zeppelin IV and Houses of the Holy. With them comes inevitable speculation about a reunion. Back in May, Jimmy Page told The New York Times that Plant was “just playing games” with him, but the singer’s quip about his supposed availability in 2014 was likely just a flip attempt to de-fang an excruciatingly tiresome question. I have no intention of asking it, but Plant pre-empts it anyway: “It’s not going to happen – you’d have to exhume.”
But if Zeppelin is a definite no-no, less clear-cut, it seems, is the question of whether Plant will work with Page again. In a piece published in Uncut the day after our interview, Plant revealed that, about two years ago, he made a “hands across the water” gesture that the guitarist “walked away” from: “I said, ‘If you got anything acoustic, I’ll give it a whirl.’”
Page and Plant’s complex relationship seems coloured by their very different attitudes towards Zeppelin. “Jimmy’s the fulcrum and the curator,” says Plant, but the singer himself, you sense, is subject to a more complex meld of emotions when he considers his time in the band, proud of its legacy though he clearly is. The nature of the ambivalence he seems to feel becomes clearer when we talk about “Somebody There”, another song from Lullaby and... the Ceaseless Roar.
“It’s about removing that tough exterior we all developed when we got into the game,” says Plant. “As adults we have to put our shoulders back, but when I was a kid I saw everything as being absolutely beautiful – there was nothing but wonderment. In the early part of my time in Zeppelin I wrote naively, but I loved all that mystery of the dark past and the Queen of Light. Unfortunately, I had it taken away from me bit by bit.”
One of the events that helped him see Zeppelin anew, Plant says – one of “those few magic moments that hit home” – came when he, Page and Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones were gifted “lifetime contribution to American culture” medals by President Obama at a Kennedy Centre Honors bash on 2 December 2012.
It wasn’t the gongs that did it; rather, it was a gospel choir-elevated cover-version of “Stairway to Heaven” led by the sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson of the American rock band Heart.
“After all the years of hearing the song misinterpreted and played backwards and all of that nonsense, I never thought someone would tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘And by the way, that was a lovely piece – and to prove it here’s another way of looking at it,’” says Plant.
“Barack looked over at me, frowned a little bit, and shrugged his shoulders. I looked back and thought, ‘It’s always been like this, Barack. You can get it wrong a million times, but nobody mentions me and Page floundering our way across the Atlas Mountains with a Nakamichi tape-machine recording Berber tribeswomen.’
“Still, who’s to know? And who’s to care, eh? All I can tell you is that, whenever I play a good gig with my current band, all that stuff sorts itself out again.
“And maybe this new album is the end now for me,” adds Plant, bringing things back up to date and taking me by surprise.
Really? The end of what?
“Of this musical wanderlust and the wonderful carousel that I’ve been on. It’s like a kaleidoscope: you hold it up to the light, rotate it, and the pieces fall beautifully in different ways, but this record feels different. It’s a consummation of all those bits from Son House to Roni Size to the Gambia and it seems to have some sort of finality.”
‘Lullaby and... the Ceaseless Roar’ is out on Nonesuch/East West Records on 8 September