“We’re like Mork and Mindy! »Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, strange music couple | Pop and rock

More than half a century after arriving to perform his first show in the United States with Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant was in the strange position of having to explain himself to the authorities.

“I had to prove that I was helping improve the American system in some way or another, which is kind of cute, really,” Plant said of that post-containment trip to Nashville. He’s sitting in the city’s famous Sound Emporium studio with his collaborator, bluegrass legend Alison Krauss. It was at the same location that they recorded their highly anticipated second duet album, Raise the Roof, before the pandemic put the world on hiatus.

Due to various restrictions, Plant had to obtain special permission to re-enter the country for this week of preparation and promotion; Krauss, he points out sarcastically, only had to drive 10 minutes. “I had to present a form to Homeland Security and all that,” he says, sitting on a burgundy velvet sofa in one of the dark, moody rooms of the establishment. “Fifty-three years to come here… they should have my number down now.” “

A sublime reimagination … listen to Plant and Krauss’ version of Can’t Let Go by Lucinda Williams, from the new album.

Raise the Roof, the sequel to the much-loved 2007 debut album Raising Sand, could have functioned as Plant’s immigration application. Fourteen years of preparation – as long as Led Zeppelin’s entire career – is a sublime re-imagining of roots music traditions, from little-known English folk singers to modern torchbearers and lost blues gems. Highlights include a magical overhaul of the Everly Brothers ‘Love Prize, which Krauss and Plant transform from harmonica pop to a slow lament rooted in Krauss’ endlessly moving voice; an exquisite and melodically joyful version of Go Your Way of Led Zeppelin’s early influences, Anne Briggs; and High and Lonesome, an original written by Plant and their returning producer, T Bone Burnett.

It’s hot and Plant has just walked back to the studio after having a bite to eat in the street. Nashville is a city of drivers, so the 6’1 ” (1.85 meter) musician, with his silver curls thrown into a ponytail, surely would have been a roadside attraction for anyone walking Belmont Boulevard, without the mask. white hiding his face. Krauss is comfortably settled on the couch in a quilted black jacket, despite the late summer weather, a tin of tea hidden in his tote. When she speaks, she grabs the nearby microphone, as if by instinct.

The duo had tried several times to make a second record, but nothing had stuck: the title is a nod to the jubilation they feel at the idea of ​​finally reuniting the group. “You can’t wait 14 years to try to get it right and then put it under the couch and say, ‘Well, that was good,’ says Plant. “You have to shout it out and lift the roof.”

‘None of this music is rock, it’s not about power and posture’ … Plant and Krauss. Photograph: Alysse Gafkjen / The Guardian

It was a song by the American band Calexico that finally broke the creative barrier. Krauss was driving in Nashville, listening to a burnt CD – she’s not good at making digital playlists – when the song Quattro (World Drifts In) came in at an intersection. “We were sending songs back and forth, and you could hear the same song at a different time and it didn’t have the right time, for some reason,” Krauss says, “this one had such a shine. song sets the mood for everything – and that was the song. ”She immediately texted Plant. He too fell in love with the lyrics. Their version of the track opens the new disc, just as the original opened the disc to them.

Plant is as fascinated by border stories as he is by stories from the southern United States. Calexico, named after the city where California and Mexico meet, sings about immigrants fleeing all they know for the dream of a better life. “Where they live is what they play. It comes out of the ground, ”Plant says of the group, now based in Tucson, Arizona.

Since he made Raising Sand in Nashville, spotting plants has become an urban tradition in the city. There was rumor that he lived in an apartment above an ice cream shop on the east side; some people insisted on seeing him having dinner when he was supposed to be on tour. Plant seems to settle down naturally, hanging out at a traditional country-themed party called Honky Tonk Tuesdays, having a low-key Mexican breakfast at a spot recommended by musician Buddy Miller, or visiting a mural in Grimey’s record store. by John Prine, the late songwriter Plant described on social media as “the true blacksmith of words.” The last time he saw Prine, “he made a very funny comment from John Prine about me being Frodo or Gollum”. History makes Krauss crack.

The duo brought together some musicians from Raising Sand sessions, including guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Jay Bellerose, as well as new forces, such as Miller and famous jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. Burnett insisted that no one familiarize themselves with the song choices before entering the studio, to get “the freshest idea with the most life,” as Krauss puts it.

She remembers walking into the Sound Emporium for overdubs and seeing Ribot with a set of car keys, strumming them alongside her instrument – far from bluegrass traditions, but she loved it. On the previous record, Burnett suddenly appeared in a robe, wielding a toy piano.

“They all have the combination of being both so crazy and so tasty,” Krauss says. “Shocking. It’s shocking.

“See, I can’t buy into this,” Plant said, doubting the nuts and the good taste could coexist, at least in the kind it came from. “I’m British and a rock’n’roll singer.”

Plant and Krauss both enjoyed the exercise of trying to shake off what they’ve become – she the traditionalist, he the flamboyant frontman. “No decisions were made other than the lyrics and the melody,” Krauss says. Blues isn’t her default style, but she wears it well. Plant, meanwhile, tried not to step into character or use comfortable tricks and vocal signatures by default, but there is one song on the album that – thankfully – is particularly Plant. While the track, High and Lonesome, conjures up images of Hank Williams’ early days and tears on acoustic guitars, it sounds a lot more like Led Zeppelin than tearful acoustic country.

Even outside of their comfort zones, the disparate worlds of Krauss and Plant overlap perfectly. A previous interviewer, Krauss says, was determined whether they were arguing. “It was so funny, just: are you fighting?” she said laughing. “Did any of you fight? Did T Bone fight?

Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on stage at the Grammys in 2009
“Alison and I have something to live for”… Krauss and Plant on stage at the Grammys in 2009. They won five awards. Photograph: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images

“We’re like Mork and Mindy,” Plant says: a strange but harmonious couple.

They have proven that all musical traditions can meet halfway if you dig far enough back. When Raising Sand came out in 2007, it was an outlier in a landscape fascinated by watered-down arena people. His songs, such as Let Your Loss Be Your Lesson by blues singer Little Milton and Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us by alternative rock singer Sam Phillips, were a reminder that the roots of roots music were far more diverse than the genre could possibly be. emerging American. persuade.

Raising Sand has won five Grammys, including Album of the Year, beating Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Coldplay’s Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. The concept of Raise the Roof is the same, unearthing lesser-known artists such as Louisiana’s Geeshie Wiley, as well as influences closer to Plant, such as Briggs and Bert Jansch. Plant laughs that when he plays their Go Your Way cover for Briggs, “she’ll probably give me the middle finger about a stolen piece of timeless folk history stolen by a guy with long hair and boots. cowboy “.

He continues, “Alison and I have something – theoretically – up to the task, in terms of how it used to work. But the most important thing to do was maintain a really interesting variety of song sources. Because what do we do in our quietest moments, when we have a music machine? We go to places that really, really make us feel good.

And who doesn’t want to feel good after months of lockdown and restrictions? Krauss remembers how at first she even had trouble listening to old bluegrass; Likewise, Plant couldn’t hear new music – he spent the worst months of the pandemic looting his own archives, finding cassette recordings that he plans to not release until after his death. They promise that the next collaborative album – if there’s another one – won’t take that long, however. “I can’t wait 14 years,” says Plant, who is 73. “Otherwise, it’s going to be a bit risky for me. “

For now, he is taking advantage of this long detour. “None of this music is rock, it’s not about power and posture,” Plant says. “How remarkable it is for me to be able to leave the ship so long ago now. But I have a jetpack on my back in case I want to go back.

That person is still there, after all. Upon exiting the studio to meet Burnett and musician JD McPherson on the other side of town, Plant stops and makes a joke on his “viking finger.” “If I’m from the land of ice and snow,” he said, a little mischief in his eyes, “I’ll be fine.”

Raise the Roof releases November 19 on Warner Music. Plant and Krauss will tour together in 2022

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