Robert Plant: Born In England; Made In America
It's urgent. It's acrobatic. It's pulsing with raw sexuality. It is the unmistakable voice of Robert Plant.
Plant was just 19 when he joined Led Zeppelin in 1968. He was already known as "The Wild Man of Blues From the Black Country" in the area around Birmingham, England. His new album, Band of Joy, is named after one of his earliest bands, and you can hear a lot of the same influences now as then.
"The complexion of this adventure -- it's definitely made in America," Plant says. "As a kid -- and most of us British musicians -- we felt the resonance of American music. It's all the stuff that affected me and made me quite emotional when I was a kid. All that great stuff -- mix it and twirl it around if you like with the more glossy American doo-wop/pop, which you can hear on Band of Joy. If you listen to the Kelly Brothers song 'Falling in Love Again,' you hear that sweet side of the sound."
With 40 years of music behind him, Plant has been exposed to much music. In an interview, All Things Considered host Melissa Block asks how Plant finds new paths to songs.
"I hear so many songs that many years ago I would have thought unassailable," Plant says. "When you're 20 years old and you're making points with volume and dynamism, it's a fantastic thing to do. But just to enjoy an adventure in restraint, it's like, what don't you do to make it work."
On Band of Joy, Plant's cover of "Silver Rider" by the indie-rock band Low is about as restrained as you can get.
Inspired By American Radio
I wanted my voice to be a tenor sax, really. I wanted to be Coleman Hawkins. I wanted to be Dexter Gordon.
For Plant, there was no training his voice -- just singing.
"I used to deliver newspapers, and I got enough money to send off to King Records in Cincinnati from Worcestershire in England, as a 13-year-old," Plant says. "I got the original pressings of James Brown's Live at the Apollo -- a voice that's absolutely unbelievable. And then, whoop, some crackling radio underneath my pillow gives me Smokey Robinson singing 'Way Over There' -- 'What's this? This is what it is. This is people letting every single breath that they've got out.' It's just too much. I had to try and get there.
"So many white kids, English kids -- we had no culture," Plant says. "We had no points of reference, really, apart from these hazy radio signals fading in and out depending on the weather over your mom and dad's house. We just ate it up and just tried to get it like that. We all failed miserably, to be honest."
The voice of "Whole Lotta Love" failed miserably? According to Plant, he was too invested in academia and doing what his parents asked of him. He hadn't hit those "subterranean grooves yet." But he says that when he listens back to those Led Zeppelin records now, he hears a "precocious" kid, "looking into the crowd and wiggling his legs about and wondering what's for supper" -- metaphorically, of course.
Glorious Failures And Magnificent Moments
There are so many instances when Plant's voice entwines with Jimmy Page's guitar. Block wonders if that guitar influenced his voice.
"The kind of vocal exaggeration that I developed was based on what key songs were in," Plant says. "Lots of songs would be in E or A, which you got to get up there if you're going to sing in E. Some nights it was great and some nights, live, you had to run for cover. I'd like to pretend that the PA had broken sometimes, because I set myself huge challenges to try and be consistent. And some of those vocal performances were, you know, real tough. And some of them we cheated, you know, used vari-speed and got up there. Here and there you can hear, [they] slowed down the tape and then [I'd] sing over it and speed it back up again, you know ... Mama, mama, mama, mama! 'Cause it fitted. Back in those early days, I was flying by the seat of my pants quite a lot, and there were glorious failures, and there were magnificent moments."
At some point, Plant's voice became an instrument, but he doesn't quite liken it to Page's guitar.
"It's a weird thing to do, because the voice doesn't have that kind of flexibility," Plant says. "I wanted my voice to be a tenor sax, really. I wanted to be Coleman Hawkins. I wanted to be Dexter Gordon. I just think that certain instruments have so much more chance of following the electric charges in your mind. When you're listening to people play the post-bebop stuff, you can hear this great instrumentation. But for a singer, you've got to work with syllables; you've got to work with themes and lyric. I've got to learn to play something soon."
Considering his range and wail, it's amazing that Plant has a voice left at all.
"I never stop and think anything, and that's why talking to you is quite a revelation," Plant says. "I never even think about these things. When you're in a recording studio and you've got a microphone, and the tape's rolling, and everybody's playing, you just do it. You go into this place that makes sense for the moment. I can't think about it in a straight line and say, 'This is how I did this or that or the other,' because even within a [Led] Zeppelin album, there was so much variance, and that's what makes a career, a passage of time, a great gift. But my voice -- how did I ever know I could do it? Listen to it now -- I sound like Hoagy Carmichael. I feel good about what I'm doing, so I guess if I shut up for a couple of days, I can sing good again."
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