Robert Plant on Bieber, UAE and Umm Kulthum

In an interview with The National from the Mawazine Music Festival in Morocco, Robert Plant opens up about being a rich old rocker - and loving the Middle East influence on music.
Robert Plant. Galen Clarke / The National
Robert Plant. Galen Clarke / The National

Saeed Saeed talks to the Led Zeppelin frontman at Morocco’s Mawazine Festival about his love for the First Lady of Arab song, a new solo album and a return performance in Abu Dhabi

Your last UAE gig was in Womad Abu Dhabi back in 2009. How was that experience and is there any chance of you returning?

I love going to places where I am stimulated. I enjoyed playing in Womad in Abu Dhabi. The thing with Abu Dhabi is that you are playing music for people who are working there, whether they are Tamil or Pakistani and that is just great. I am game to come back. Show me a place to come and I will go.

Your solo music career saw you extensively explore North African music. Are you familiar with any of the Gulf musical styles and could they also appear in your future works?

The thing is I am not a student, I am a thief. I absorb all of it without having a name for it. There are many musicians who have a frame of reference for the musical styles they are interested in. I am not one of those, I like what I like and that’s it. For example, I won’t be trying to go to Abu Dhabi or Bahrain for any particular reason. I just sail through life and if I like a technique or a sound that I like, I jump on it.

You recently announced that you are working on a new album with the band The Sensational Space Shifters. Considering the fact that in Led Zeppelin, you were backed by arguably some of the greatest rock musicians ever, what do you look for in the musicians when forming this group?

The whole impetus of my life as a singer has to be driven by a good brotherhood. I am very lucky to play with this band because they come from very stimulating areas of contemporary music. I have members with me (who played with) Massive Attack and Portishead. I also have a great griot player from Gambia. Most importantly, if you put all of this together, you will get a very happy and very stimulating combination. This is why I continue to do this, if it was a terrible drudgery and chore I wouldn’t be here. It’s not about money, it’s about the spirit and the heart.

Your post-Led Zeppelin career has been intriguing in that it saw you increasingly move away from that classic rock sound to more esoteric and mystical territory. Was that a conscious decision?

Well, basically I am only a singer and as a singer there are restrictions. I have been very lucky because I was born in 1948 and the music I heard when I was a kid was very straightforward American rock’n’roll. The fact that I have been a seeker and I deviated from the track of regular rock music has been a blessing and has given me great strength. I fall upon things like a bird that sees a bright jewel, or a diamond or a piece of glass shining in the sand. I come down, I take it and I fly away and put it in my little machine that comes out with different music. I am not a purist and I am lucky in that the guys that play with me in this band have more of a finite comprehension of music throughout North Africa and the Middle East.

You have been consistently releasing albums and touring. What keeps the creative fires burning?

I am a man who has been around a lot and I ask myself, do I have anything to say? Is there a song still inside me in my heart, or am I just another rich old rocker? I study life, I see mortality and what’s happening to me and I leave a trail behind me of expectation, disappointment, happiness, questions and strong relationships.

So what I realised is that I do have something to say and I wanted to put them into beautiful melodies but I wanted them to be like a trance. I wanted the new music not to be virtuosic and clever with musicality. I wanted the lyric and music to be together in this miasma of sound.

So I am getting there, it is good and strong and I am committed to it. I only believe in dealing with the present and looking at the future, but I can’t do any of that if I didn’t have this spectacular history. It is what brought me here and I am aware of that.

One of your most celebrated post-Led Zeppelin releases was Raising Sand, your Grammy Award-winning 2007 collaboration with American bluegrass artist Alison Krauss. Any chance of a sequel?

I hope one day to sing with her again because she is a very good friend and has a great sense of humour. She is more of a finite musician than I am, she does think it’s important to sing in tune and stuff like that. When I first met her, I showed her some orchestral music from Umm Kulthum because Alison is a violin player and I wanted her to hear this beautiful orchestra and she couldn’t believe it. She has been raised playing music from Kentucky and Western European music that was pushed into America, so to hear that orchestra was so beautiful to her.

Finally, you were viewed as a rock’n’roll wild man during the 1970s. What are your thoughts on contemporary music’s present wild child, Justin Bieber?

Once upon a time everyone was a Justin Bieber. We were all kids and were having a great time. That’s fine and it doesn’t affect me because I have no connection to it. But I do have grandchildren and even they play cool music. Everything is there for a reason. Justin Bieber does a lot of good for a lot of people, I just hope that he is a good boy at home.

Published: June 5, 2014 04:00 AM


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