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‘You gotta put your crash helmet on’: Robert Plant on working with Alison Krauss

The pair take risks on a new album of lost nuggets, follow-up to a 2007 collaboration

Robert Plant is in especially good form, and an amused Alison Krauss is finding it difficult to keep up with him. The pair are in a room somewhere in Nashville, Tennessee, ducking and diving (invisibly – this Zoom call is audio only) between questions that are primarily focused on their forthcoming album, Raise the Roof. It is the official follow-up to 2007’s collaborative debut, Raising Sand, and continues their collective search for the heart, soul and personality of folk, country, blues and Americana. They are, says Plant in one of his less skittish moments, “just two people looking for some clues that may not have presented themselves naturally in the past”.

“We’re just following on with the tradition that we started to create about 15 years ago,” he adds. “Once we found the time and had finished with the other stuff we had committed to, we could then see what we had to offer and how much trawling we needed to do to come up with the right songs. We sent each other beautiful songs, old and new. We would just throw ideas around and decide on what we would hit first, second, third and fourth, and so on. We were looking for something charming and evocative and challenging, and we made space for that.”

Alison Krauss and Robert Plant at the Grammy Awards, 2009. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty
Alison Krauss and Robert Plant at the Grammy Awards, 2009. Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty

“It was very easy and obvious when we were looking for material,” says Krauss. “There was never any argument among the three of us – that is, me, Robert and T-Bone Burnett, the producer, the ringmaster – as to what did or did not work. There was no rallying for any one song because when we brought them to the table, we didn’t know who was going to sing any specific one. It was a gut-level instinct for each of us – you know, when it’s right, it’s right. No confusion, I would say.”

Plant and Krauss make for a fascinating pair, and it isn’t just because of their respective backgrounds. At 73, the former is rock music royalty courtesy of his time as the hip-thrusting lead singer of Led Zeppelin, the British hard rock behemoth that strode the earth from 1968 to 1980, and which (despite their reputation for pulverising, overtly masculine material) drew on a wide range of genres that included soul, folk, blues and country. Krauss, who turned 50 in July, is a bluegrass and country music virtuoso who has 27 Grammy Awards (and the rest) to her name. Neither artist required the other for a raise in profile or a commercial dig-out, so what first drew them together in 2004 was, simply, a mutual love of exploring music.

Curatorial intuition
It took three years to piece together Raising Sand, a 13-track album of a dozen covers and one original (Please Read the Letter, a revised version of a song written by Plant and Jimmy Page from their 1998 album, Walking into Clarksdale). The album, released in winter 2007, swept the pair into a sirocco of success: a rake of five-star reviews, hugely successful tours, too many awards to list. A swift sequel was assured – but then nothing, until late 2019.

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss . Photograph: Larry French/WireImage
Robert Plant and Alison Krauss . Photograph: Larry French/WireImage

Over the course of time, and Covid-19 restrictions permitting, throughout 2020 the song selection fused into a potential album’s worth of material that, says Plant, “would be evocative for us and our style as a duo, which is probably quite different to how we are individually in the normal cut and thrust of our time on stage. Because of that, you need to try and find stuff that you can see and feel coming into our zone.”

The blend of songs on Raise the Roof (lost or hidden nuggets of country, blues, folk, R&B) reflects not just the first record’s subtleties and eclecticism but the pair’s curatorial intuition.

“I didn’t want to have anything on the album that Robert or T-Bone didn’t want,” says Krauss. “It would only work if it was unanimous.” Eventual unanimity, however, can often require a degree of conflict resolution, but that wasn’t necessary here.

“We know each other well enough by now,” says Plant, “to have a decent relationship where there’s no pouting or ego anywhere at all, unless it’s for a camera. We are in this thing together, and you can hear what the music sounds like – it’s refined at times and there is an air of it being relaxed. It takes a lot to make it sound like that, and so we have to know each other quite well.”

Did the other’s music background rub off on them – a bit of brash rock’n’roll on Krauss or some downhome bluegrass on Robert? If you grow up singing three-part harmonies in bluegrass music, says Krauss, then veering off into unknown realms annoys people. “Robert is very much off the cuff, and so singing with him, gigging with him, has a much more spontaneous atmosphere than it ever has from where I come from, musically. I was on edge watching him and where he was going to go, and that makes for exciting shows.”

Mopping up
As for Plant, he says he has long been at the point when the last thing you need is to always know what’s going to happen next. “We are both capable of dancing in the wake of error, and that’s what I really like about this. Alison has got such a fantastic voice and she’s game to try stuff out, which obviously wouldn’t work if she was playing with other people that are locked into the same established harmonies. I don’t agree with playing safe, and so our approach is to just go somewhere and, if needs be, to mop it up afterwards. You gotta put your crash helmet on sometimes.”

What about learning from each other, as artists and people, from the first record and their associated live shows to the new album? Familiarity is firmly in place, suggests Plant. “We just get on really well, even if I have to wait for her to get ready all of the time.” Krauss cracks up at this. “We have our own worlds,” he resumes, “and there are no egos involved. What we have here is a special treat. I know that some duos have problems, but with the way the world has changed since we began this second album, it has taken tenacity and endurance. The different swerves we had to take just to hang on to get to this part of it have been significant.”

“When we went back into the studio for this album,” says Krauss, “it was like no time had passed. It felt very comfortable and the best you could hope for. That’s inspiring, and if you stay inspired your work has real validity, it doesn’t get old, and it really represents a place in time to you.”

We can’t see if a wrist has been silently slapped or a look of caution given, but Krauss’s reflectiveness has muted Plant’s occasionally more devil-may-care approach. “You can’t look back without going far enough forward to actually have some perspective,” he says. “You have to hang your heart on stuff and go with it. Believe it or not, that is what brings us to this room today.”

Raise the Roof by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss is released on November 19th

ROBERT PLANT AND THE 1980s: THE WILDERNESS YEARS
“The bottom line, I suppose, is that I made some clanky records with people who were on a mission. I felt no sacrosanct need to think that I had come from a great tabernacle on high – that is, Led Zeppelin – and that I must always respect it. I just wanted to kick ass and do stuff, and while it was great to be embracing the technology of the time, the trouble is that now the music just sounds ‘interesting’. But what had I got to lose? I was in my 30s and I was unemployed, so I didn’t care. Listening to the music now, some of it sounds like I was also on a mission, and some of it sounds like a miss is as good as a mile, but at least I was doing it without trying to stay on the same trajectory. Led Zeppelin had made its point and had gone its way. That was the end of that, so I was just flying. As for the records back then, do I feel bad about them? Sometimes they sound like total confusion, but I know I was happy in the middle of it all.”

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