In an upstairs room at The Engineer gastro-pub in north London, Robert Plant is using my Minidisc player while sipping vegetable soup from a cup. He's listening to a message I've conveyed from his rock star pal, Tori Amos, a woman who once confessed that Led Zeppelin I - and Plant's Valhalla wail in particular - was responsible for her sexual awakening.
The message - "Hi, Robert! This is Tori sending you loads of love and a big, big giggle" - is hardly salacious, but it brings a hearty smile to Plant's lined, leonine face. "Ah, yes," he says cryptically. "The lovely Tori. She's quite preoccupied with the gateway to the other side."
It's been another momentous year for Plant. His travels have taken him to Essakane, Mali, where he filmed parts of The Festival in the Desert on his digital camera, and to the Nordkap in Norway, where he and his band Strange Sensation played against a rocky backdrop that gives way to the North Pole. Another 2003 milestone, one would have thought, was the phenomenal success of the triple live CD How The West Was Won, which saw Led Zeppelin top the US album charts for the first time in 24 years. When I home in on this, however, Plant is quick to redirect me toward recent solo successes.
"No. First, I had the two Grammy nominations in January for Dreamland," he says. "Male Vocal on 'Darkness, Darkness', and Best Rock Album. So, from being kind of out in the cold as far as big groups and reunions were concerned, my solo work was recognised in America. The Zeppelin stuff? Yeah, that was monumental, but the backdrop to that was that, all the time, I was working. Strange Sensation and I took a single-engine plane up the Niger with a film crew from the BBC kids programme, Newsround. We played festivals in Ukraine and Belarus, played everywhere we could."
Plant's grey-blonde hair is tied back and he's wearing chunky African bracelets on his left wrist. A natural raconteur, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music he constantly mentally thumbs through, he seems to enjoy the interview experience, coming across as chummy with the occasional flash of assertiveness.
We've met to talk about Sixty Six To Timbuktu, a new double CD that corrals Plant's best solo work pre and post Led Zeppelin. Its title is allusive, taking in the year he made his studio debut on a surprisingly soulful version of the Young Rascals' "You'd Better Run", and the location for a live, 2003 recording of the Arthur Crudup and John Lee Hooker-inspired "Win My Train Fare Home". Other goodies include demos that Plant and Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham made while they were still in The Band Of Joy, and the odd track that includes "sounds that were appropriate when Heaven 17 were at their peak".
When I praise his harmonica playing on "Operator", recorded with Brit-blues godfather Alexis Corner in 1968, it sparks an anecdote about Sonny Boy Williamson, one of Plant's harmonica inspirations.
"I remember seeing him at Birmingham town hall in 1964 on a blues tour. He'd taken to wearing a purple-and-grey harlequin suit, so he looked like a jester. He took a pee beside me in the toilets, and I piddled my trousers with delight! It was nice and warm, too," Plant laughs. "I washed my hands and dried them on my shirt and said, 'Mr Williamson, if it wasn't for you I wouldn't be playing the harmonica - could I have your autograph?' He looked down at me and said, 'Fuck off, son.' I said, 'Thank you sir. Thank you for noticing me'."
Asked to name the most arresting person he's met in 2003, Plant opts for Arthur Lee, the American singer and songwriter best known for fronting esteemed Sixties acid-pop band, Love. Both Plant and Lee played at the Canterbury Fayre this year, and their paths crossed in the lobby of the local Holiday Inn. "It was a very brief encounter," says Plant. "Arthur looked up at me over his dark glasses, and I put my hands on his shoulders and said, 'I'm really glad for you. Glad that you're back.' There were so many things I wanted to ask him, but sometimes it's fantastic just to stay a fan and not have your bubble burst. I mean, do you want to meet Captain Beefheart in Waitrose? Of course not. It was a bit like when I saw Bridget Bardot across a square in Paris at a party," Plant continues. "Bardot was dressed in black leather with a leopard on a chain. Me and Bonzo [Bonham] stumbled through this blow-up passageway and there in the distance was Cat Woman. I could hardly go up to her with my Black Country accent and ask her if she'd got a light, could I?"
Plant, now a ripe old 55, still enjoys robust good health. It's also clear that, unlike many of his contemporaries, he's still genuinely enthused about the business of making music. All that really irks him, it seems, is the constant babbling about a possible Led Zeppelin reunion. But that ain't going to happen, or at least not in the near future.
"The way I see it", he says, "there's no point in me doing endless world tours now. To keep the inspiration you've got to cherry-pick ideas. This week, Strange Sensation were invited to play at the Nobel Peace Prize presentation in Norway; earlier this year we brought the Takamba rhythm back from The Festival in the Desert, and we've used it in a new piece of music that sounds like Fleetwood Mac's "Oh Well" transported to the South Sahara.
"I think what I release next will have a strong world music influence, but it will be world music turning into something else." At this Plant pauses, then smiles at a thought that has just occurred to him: "You've got to do it right, of course. It's no good ending up like one or two of my peers, dancing with Bulgarian peasant woman on the stage at the local town hall."
'Sixty Six To Timbuktu' is out now on UniversalReuse content