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Robert Plant: Born In England; Made In America

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Robert Plant: Born In England; Made In America

Robert Plant: Born In England; Made In America

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

DAVID GREENE, host:

And Im David Greene.

And today, in our series highlighting "50 Great Voices," an iconic voice of rock: Robert Plant.

(Soundbite of song, Rock n' Roll)

Mr. ROBERT PLANT (Lead Singer, Led Zeppelin): It's been a long time since I rocked and rolled. Ooh-ooh. It's been a long time since I did the stroll. Ooh-ooh...

GREENE: Robert Plant talked with our co-host Melissa Block about that powerhouse voice in Led Zeppelin and beyond.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's urgent. It's acrobatic. It's pulsing with raw sexuality. It is unmistakably Robert Plant.

(Soundbite of song, Rock n' Roll)

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) It's been a long time. Been a long time. Been a lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time. Yes, it has.

BLOCK: Robert Plant - just 19 when he joined Led Zeppelin in 1968. He was already known as the Wild Man of Blues from the Black Country, 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, especially American blues.

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) Waiting on the long, black train. Blues fell down a child of rain...

The entire complexion of this adventure, really, it's definitely made in America. Because as a kid and all the way through my time - and most of us British musicians, in all of our times we felt the resonance of American music, and the influences within that. Whether they be from, you know, the Mississippi Delta and all the journeys I've made down there where I, you know, Im looking for ghosts, really.

BLOCK: Hmm.

Mr. PLANT: 'Cause I can hear all that stuff that affected me and made me quite emotional when I was a kid - the great voices down - you know, all that great stuff. Mix it and twirl it around, if you like, with the - kind of 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 kind of side of - the sweet side of the sound.

(Soundbite of song, "Falling in Love Again")

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) I think of you all the time. Oh, darling, please be mine. Yes, Im falling in love again...

BLOCK: Whats going on in there?

Mr. PLANT: Well, Im getting kind of woozy with somebody I haven't met. I mean, it's just abstraction, you know. And just getting so far into the song that if I never fell in love again, it wouldnt matter cause I know how to say it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Huh.

(Soundbite of song, "Falling in Love Again")

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) And I do know for certain why it happened this way. I promised myself yesterday. Im falling in love again. Mmm-mmm, yes.

BLOCK: You know, Im wondering what makes songs new for you as a vocalist now, because youve done so much for many years - how you find some new path to something.

Mr. PLANT: Well, I hear so many songs that years ago, I would have thought unassailable. I mean, when you're 20 years old and you're - making points with volume and dynamism is a fantastic thing to do. But just to enjoy an adventure in restraint, it's like - you know, what don't you do to make it work?

BLOCK: You were talking about restraint in a song, and Im thinking of the song on this new CD, "Silver Rider," which must be about as restrained as you can get. It feels almost like a whisper, really.

Mr. PLANT: Yeah.

(Singing) At times I see you, you silver rider. Sometimes your voice is not enough.

BLOCK: Well, Robert Plant, back when you were - when your voice was becoming what it was in Led Zeppelin, back when you were a kid - an emotional kid;- you said getting emotional listening to those songs from America - how were you doing that? What was going on with you and training your voice? To the extent that you were training it, what were you doing?

Mr. PLANT: Nothing.

BLOCK: At all?

Mr. PLANT: No, 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. And I got the original pressings of James Brown "Live at the Apollo," where The Hardest Working Man in Show Business, the man who gave you "I Go Crazy," ugh; "Try Me," ugh; "You Got the Power;" "I Dont Mind;" "Dont Leave Me Bewildered" - you know, a voice that is absolutely unbelievable.

And then, whoop, some crackling radio set underneath my pillow gives me Smokey Robinson singing "Way Over There" and "This Girl" - what's this? This is what it is. This is people actually just letting every single breath that they've got out. It's just too much. I had to just try and get there.

(Soundbite of song, "Whole Lotta Love")

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) You need cooling, baby, I'm not fooling. I'm going to send you back to schooling. Way down...

I mean, so many great white kids, English kids - we had no culture. We had no points of reference, really, apart from these kind of hazy radio signals that faded in and out depending upon the weather over your mom and dad's house. So we just ate it up and just tried to get it like that. And we all failed miserably.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLANT: To be honest, you know.

(Soundbite of song, "Whole Lotta Love")

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) I want to give you my love. Im going to give you my love. Oh, whole lotta love. Want a whole lotta love. Want a whole lotta love. Want a whole lotta love.

BLOCK: Well, what do you think you were doing wrong? If you're doing it wrong when you were a kid, what were you doing wrong?

Mr. PLANT: Well, I was paying too much attention to the academia and my studies. I was doing what Mom and Dad said. I didnt kick into these kind of subterranean grooves yet. I didnt have three or four girlfriends going at the same time. You know, I didnt have mistakes to enjoy quite so much. I was just beautifully na�ve and so were we all, you know. It was wonderful - wonderful and dull.

(Soundbite of song, "Black Dog")

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) Hey. Hey, momma, said the way to move going make you sweat. Going to make you groove...

BLOCK: So Robert Plant, when you're listening to that now at age 62, what are you hearing in there?

Mr. PLANT: Well, Im hearing a guy whos really quite precocious. He's trying it on, and he's having a good time. And he's looking into the crowd and wiggling his legs about, and wondering what's for supper.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Metaphorically?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLANT: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of song, "Black Dog")

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Oh. Oh. Oh. I got to roll, can't stand still. Got a flaming heart, can't get my fill...

BLOCK: There are, of course, so many times when your voice is twinning, really, with Jimmy Page's guitar. How much of the way your voice developed, do you think, is because of Jimmy Page and what he did on the guitar?

Mr. PLANT: Well, I think a lot of it has got to do with - the kind of vocal exaggeration that I developed was based on what keys songs were in. You know, lots of our songs would be in E or A, which, you know - you got to get up there if you're going to sing in E. Some nights, it was great and some nights live, you know, you had to run for cover. I'd like to pretend that the PA had broken sometimes, 'cause 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 with anyway. I used a vari-speed and got up there. So that...

BLOCK: Really?

Mr. PLANT: Yeah, here and there you can hear - they slowed the tape down, and then sing over it and speed it back up again. You know...

(Singing) Mama, mama, mama, mama.

You know, pretty - 'cause it fitted. But yeah, back in those early days, it was flying by the seat of my pants quite a lot. And there were glorious failures -and there were magnificent moments.

(Soundbite of song, "Stairway to Heaven)

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than our souls. There walks a lady we all know, who shines white light on words that show how everything still turns to gold. And if you listen very hard, the truth will come to you at last, when all are one and one is all, to be a rock and not to roll.

BLOCK: Do you think you started thinking of your voice maybe as an instrument in the way that Jimmy Page's guitar was an instrument in Zeppelin?

Mr. PLANT: Yeah, it was a thing to play off, definitely. I mean, it's a very weird thing to do because, you know, the voice can't actually - it doesn't have that kind of flexibility.

You know, I mean, I always wanted to be 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, you've got so much more chance of actually following the electric charges in your mind.

When you're listening to people play the post-bebop stuff, you know, you can hear this great instrumentation. But for a singer, you know, what can you do? You know, you just, there's only so many - you've got to work with syllables. You've got to work with themes and lyric. So it's just - I've got to learn to play something soon.

(Soundbite of song, Immigrant Song)

Mr. PLANT: (Singing) Ah-ah-ah-ah. Ah-ah-ah-ah. Come to the land...

BLOCK: Do you ever stop and think: I'm amazed that I have a voice left at all?

Mr. PLANT: Well, I never stop and think anything, and that's why talking to you is quite a revelation because I never even think about these things. And I don't see them scientifically or because it's basically, you know, when you're in a recording studio and you've got a microphone - like I'm looking at now - and the tape's rolling and everybody's playing, you just do it. And 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 Zeppelin album, there was so much variance. And that's what you've got. That's what makes a career, whatever this is called - a passage of time with 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've been talking that much lately. You know, but 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.

BLOCK: Well, that's great; I'm glad to hear that. Robert Plant, it's great to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. PLANT: Thank you, bye-bye.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Robert Plant's new album is called "Band of Joy." You can hear an extended version of our conversation, and a live performance, at nprmusic.org.

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