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In Conversation With Robert Plant & Alison Krauss: Grammy Noms, Third Album Potential & Working With People ‘Who’ve Got a Big Heart’

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When two of the most singular voices in music history first came together 15 years ago, it’s not surprising that alchemized harmonies and pure, uncut vibe came as a result. Upon melding their vocals on the 2007 collaborative album Raising Sand, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss translated traditional Americana into mainstream consciousness by force of personality, expanding on Krauss’ extensive repertoire within the genre and furthering the work in the sound for Plant, whose own predilection for Americana had been a benchmark of popular music since he first lamented, “I can’t quit you baby,” 53 years ago on Led Zeppelin‘s cover of Willie Dixon’s Delta blues scorcher.

But in a testament to Krauss and Plant’s respective popularity, as well as the delicate yet tantalizing sound they’d created, Raising Sand transcended well beyond fans of folk, bluegrass and blues, becoming a sort of blazing anomoly across popular music at large. The LP hit No. 2 on the Billboard 200 (where it spent 72 weeks), secured the pair a headlining spot at Bonnaroo, and earned them the 2009 Grammy for album of the year. “In the old days, we would have called this selling out,” Plant said in his acceptance speech, “but it’s a good way to spend a Sunday.”

Then the project went dark, disappearing in a puff of smoke as quickly as it had arrived, as Krauss returned to her longtime band Union Station and Plant worked in the studio and on the road as a solo act and with his own outfits, Band Of Joy and Sensational Shapeshifters. But just like the many listeners who considered Raising Sand a new classic, Krauss and Planet were aware the project was special, with considerations of a reunion occupying their minds during the long hiatus.

“I really wanted to get back to it. I love it,” Plant, 74, tells Billboard, calling from the United Kingdom, where he can be heard puttering around his house during what is there late afternoon.

“Harmony singing is my favorite thing to do,” Krauss, 51, dialing in from mid-morning Nashville, adds of what she and Plant do so especially well together.

So get back to it they did, with the stars realigning last year year for Raise The Roof, another collection of covers by acts as disparate as Calexico, Allen Toussaint and The Everly Brothers, all rendered in a twangy, incandescent style built around the union of Krauss and Plant’s voices. The album — which, like its predecessor, was produced by T Bone Burnett — debuted at No. 1 on the Top Rock AlbumsAmericana/Folk Albums and Bluegrass Albums charts, and at No. 7 on the Billboard 200. This past summer, an attendant tour included a main stage show at Glastonbury and a performance in London’s Hyde Park (“Basically we were just passing time until the Eagles came on stage,” Plant says of that opening gig), along with three dozen other dates in the U.S. and Europe.

And now, as a surprise to precisely no one, Raise The Roof has garnered some Grammy nominations — three total, for best country duo/group performance (for “Going Where The Lonely Go”), best American roots song (for “High And Lonesome”) and best Americana album. The nods add to Krauss’ mythology as the second-most-awarded woman in Grammys history (after Beyoncé) with 27 wins and 45 nominations. Meanwhile, Plant has eight wins and 18 nominations, the first of which came in 1969 when Zeppelin was up for best new artist. (They lost to Crosby, Stills and Nash.)

“The very fact that it’s has been recognized that we’ve had a good time,” Plant says of this latest round of nominations, “is more than I could imagine.”

Plant: Hello. Good afternoon.

Krauss : Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!

Plant: Hello Alison! How are ya?

Krauss: Hey, I’m fine! How are you doing?

Plant: Okay, I think we may actually be getting into a place now here on the Welsh borders where it’s starting to get chilly. We had the longest, longest, longest beginning of an autumn, but it’s beautiful. The weather’s good. Things are good. I’m looking forward to going to have a look at this little puppy dog next week, and I’m actually living a normal life, finally.

Krauss: Wow.

Plant: I hate it.

I’m curious about this puppy!

Plant: Well, you know, when I was a kid, my mom was allergic to dog hair and stuff. We never had a fluffy pet or anything like that. So over the last so many years, I’ve always prized these beautiful running dogs. They’re a combination of Greyhound and a terrier.

And the traveling folk, the gypsies and the travelers — you always see them with them; they’re just really beautiful — they’re this kind of dog you see on all those medieval paintings and stuff. There’s always somebody standing behind the blinds with a beautiful animal.

I lost my best dog after 14 years about two or three months ago, and I said I would never have another dog, but life without a dog is difficult for me. But it’s got nothing to do with “Stairway To Heaven,” thank god!

I mean, if you don’t see a connection, there isn’t one.

Plant: No, there isn’t one there. I just had to stop talking about dogs.

Okay, let’s talk about your album then. November 19 marked the year anniversary of the release of Raise The Roof. I’m curious if your relationship to the music changed in any way over the last year, particularly as you’ve been touring it.

Plant: I think that Alison and I became — I mean, we’re partners in every sense, professionally. And we’ve shared every single element and every single part of the creation of the record from the get-go, from the song selections to creating the atmosphere, and we take it into the studio together; we use it when we’re coming up with artwork. I think we’ve just grown a lot tighter and a lot closer, and we share a lot of lighthearted humor, but at the same time I think we’re pretty, professional about how good we want it to be. Would you say so, Alison?

Krauss: I don’t think that there’s a different relationship to it. I mean, you’re always looking for things that speak to you in a truthful way, whether you’re telling someone else’s story, or you’re relaying a message or telling your own story. I don’t think that that’s changed. The fun thing was to pick this up again — like, to have something be so fun and be a total surprise, then get to come back and and get to do it again. To me, when we went back in the studio together, it was like no time had gone by, especially with T Bone. It was a lot of fun. We had some new faces in there, but the energy was very generous, which it always was. So I don’t know if there’s a different relationship to it, just happy to revisit.

Plant: We had no idea how it was going to pan out, and going back together after such a long time was, well — there was a lot riding on it. Were we still able and amenable to exchanging ideas? With material and song choices, a lot runs on how we can perform within these old songs. So yeah, it was interesting to get the ball rolling again and to blow away the cobwebs. But as I said, in that kind of oblique answer, we grew closer, if you like. We were able to take the actual songs and embellish them and develop them for a live show, which made them, I think, quite tantalizing, and there was another energy to them as well.

I saw you guys in Chicago this past June, and it seemed like the vibe onstage was often mellow, and sometimes almost contemplative. What does it feel like to perform these songs live? What mood are you in?

Plant: Well, contemplative, I don’t think so — I think it’s just the nature of the song. You weave in and out of the original form of the music as you heard it, even before you recorded it. The songs have a personality. I just think that we’re very adaptable — we just go into character and we just sing the best that we can within those character settings.

Krauss: I also think this wouldn’t be appealing to us if it wasn’t natural. So I don’t feel like there’s any headspace we have to get into. It just kind of fell into place. It was a natural friendship, and it just translated — we both have a love of history and traditional music, and all the people in the band are the same kind of historians. So it was a natural thing. It didn’t feel like we had to pump ourselves up for it, if that makes sense.

Plant: No, exactly. And I think there’s a kind of melding, a kind of a great coming together on stage, especially with the way the musicians have developed the songs with us. It’s quite a liberation. We’ve been through quite a bit in the last 12 months, with working through the United States and then into Europe. We became real rolling musicians. It was something to behold, because the group personality got more and more, I suppose, charming. And also there was sort of a little bit of a warrior feel, going from country to country to country, through Scandinavia and down into Western Europe and across even into Poland. I do believe we grew more and more into the gig.

Were you able to do things at the end of the tour that weren’t happening in the beginning?

Plant: Sure, yeah. You find a groove that works, and it’s genuine.

How do you maintain the stamina required for such a massive and far-flung tour?

Plant: I think it’s just the will, isn’t it? To want to do it.

Krauss: It helps to be fun!

Plant: Yeah. We do laugh a lot. I mean, it’s not a competitive thing. It’s just such a magnificent and unexpected surprise, to be able to be from such different worlds initially and find that we have our own world. We’ve got our own place.

I read a relatively recent article that described you two as an “odd couple,” and didn’t feel like that description was entirely accurate. How do you feel like you two fit together at this point, after this long collaboration?

Plant: I just think that we’re really, really firm friends. And we confer and listen to each other when we have options. It’s really good, because we don’t tangle. Obviously life off the road is — we’re so far away from each other that these moments of hanging out or telephone conversations, or we’ll be coming back to Nashville in April — all those sort of things is all stuff to look forward to. So we’re never around each other long enough to get tired of anything. It’s just a growing condition, really. 

Krauss: Yeah, I mean, it’s a really nice cast of characters in that band, and we enjoy them, and it’s a pleasure. We were happy to get to do it and happy to be going back. It’s something we talked about putting back together for years. It was a really nice idea, and sometimes those things are just a nice idea, but this one [did some back together]. I just feel really grateful. It was a surprise, from start to finish.

Why was last year the right time to come back to the project, after releasing your first album together in 2007?

Plant: I’m not in control of my own time, I just find the momentum in a project and go with it. There’s only a particular lifespan from record to record. In the old days, that was how it worked — if you’re really buying into this as a life, which we are — then as it used to be that there was a cycle of events where you would write or create a record, and you’d follow it through with the usual rigmarole of touring and stuff like that. It always used to be something like a three-and-a-half or four-year thing, from start to finish. 

So when we left Raising Sand and said a tearful farewell, we went on to do other projects. And if I’d finish something and I was really looking forward to doing something fresh, maybe Alison was in the middle of one of her projects, and that’s how it was. It was no negotiation except for with the calendar and with time. I also had been on the road a lot with with my friends Sensational Spaceshifters, and this [project with Alison] was just promising to be — offering to be — a totally different experience, or a different feel. I really wanted to get back to it. I love it.

And every night when we sing, two or three of the songs where Alison takes the lead, I always find it such an adventure to join and contribute to her personality as a lead singer. I love that. I didn’t have that for several years. So once the opportunity arose, and we were both free and ready — and free to fail actually, I think would be the term — it’s quite tenuous really to go back in after such a long time, but it worked. These are different days as far as the music biz is concerned, but they’re not different days for us. We’ve got it down, and we know what we’re doing, and we like it.

Krauss: Harmony singing is my favorite thing to do. And he is a…

Plant: Steady. Be careful.

Krauss: [laughs] He always changes in those tunes, night to night, and it keeps me on my toes. I was listening to a show we did in Red Rocks, and the differences and changes in the tunes night to night — the show sounds so good, Robert. It’s just fun, because they really evolve, and it’s a much different environment than what I grew up doing, which is very regimented harmony singing where the whole gig is perfecting it. Like, you don’t go to prom because you’re working on your harmony. This is just a totally different animal, and I just love the way the tunes have changed, even throughout this past summer.

Plant: And all I did was go to prom. I still am! Life could be a dream sh-boom! That’s what happened to me. When I used to open the show for people, you know, stars in the early and mid-60s, I used to go, “Wow, this is so exotic. It’s just amazing.” When those big old stage lights came on in the proscenium arch theater, my whole heart leapt. I couldn’t wait to get to the next place to see somebody else do the same thing. And so I didn’t study anything, except for trying to be as good as Terry Reid, or Steve Marriott, or Steve Winwood, or so many people who are extraordinary singers.

Krauss: One big prom! [laughs]

Plant: But I think that’s part of the really big thing about you and I, Alison, is that we’ve leapt into each other, and it’s given me a great departure from finding myself typecast and in being challenged, which, despite its changes from time to time within the shows, just makes for a really good ride, I think.

Krauss: It’s never dull. [laughs]

Plant: I could be sort of far too serious about myself and sit in my dressing room with a star on the door, but that’s not why I do this. I do this because I only work with people who’ve got a big heart, and this is it. So it’s never dull. But if it’s dull, I’m not sticking around anyway.

You both have many previous Grammy wins and nominations. Do these awards matter to you? Does getting nominated enhance the project itself or make it more meaningful in any way?

Plant: I’ll leave that to you, Alison.

Krauss: I just think it’s always unexpected. You don’t figure it’s going to happen, that you get nominated. Like I always say, every record you make is like the only one you’re going to.

Plant: Yeah.

Krauss: And so it’s really nice to get that acknowledgement that people have heard it and like it. It’s always a relief.

Plant: And also the idea of us being considered to be a country duet is fascinating. The thing is, a nomination is a nomination — the very fact that it’s been recognized that we’ve had a good time is more than I could imagine. I didn’t get many Grammys… so to be nominated as a country duet is out of my normal radar. It’s great. I love it, and I also know that we did a pretty good job. I learned a lot, and continue to learn, which is what I want to do. I do think that’s pretty cool.

In 2009, Raising Sand won the Grammy for album of the year. Nominated in that category this year are artists like Lizzo, Beyoncé, Coldplay. Do you feel connected to those kinds of acts, or are you more at home in the country category? What’s your relationship to mainstream pop stars?

Plant: Not a lot. [laughs] It’s different worlds, isn’t it? That’s all it is. It’s just like, do you like this, or do you only appreciate stuff that come out of the Mississippi Delta or New Orleans? We’re all musicians; we all do what we do. You have to appreciate everything from where it stands in its own world.

Is there any chance of a third album from you two?

Plant: I can’t see any reason why not. I suppose if we wait another 14 years it could be a bit dicey for me, to be honest. I might find it a little bit difficult hitting a top C. But we can say it really works well, and we enjoy each other and that’s a great thing — so it seems like a great idea.

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