Former Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant performs on stage with his new band The Sensational Space Shifters at Bluesfest Byron Bay 2013 in Australia.
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LOS ANGELES — For a man whose voice launched thousands of would-be rock singers, former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant remains ingratiatingly humble.
“I’m not exactly a musical talent,” said Plant, 64, recently from his home in England. “I’m a singer, and I have a lot of bright ideas,” he joked.
Plant is far more comfortable moving forward with those new ideas than looking back at what the rest of the world sees as an incredible musical legacy in one of rock’s most iconic bands.
Since Zeppelin disbanded in 1980, Plant’s launched projects far beyond his blues-rock beginnings. Unlike many of his contemporaries who’ve either faded away or are still touring the same set lists they played in the Nixon era, Plant’s never been content sticking with what he knows.
Over the past three decades the singer’s experimented with everything from electronic trip hop to bluegrass and won critical acclaim — and a Grammy — along the way.
“This big wide world of music needs to be an adventure,” explained Plant, who is already on to his next project.
The Sensational Space Shifters, Plant’s latest trek into the unexpected, continues his exploration of soulful sounds from around the globe. The band weaves a thread of West African music into those bluesy textures that have long fascinated Plant. It’s all amplified by hypnotic beats and surreal production a la Massive Attack.
It’s part of a rich musical journey that has seen Plant move from the rootsy British rock supergroup Honeydrippers to the sublime Strange Sensation to his Grammy-award winning “Raising Sand” with bluegrass / country’s Alison Krauss to 2010’s Band Of Joy with Americana music stalwart Buddy Miller.
Somewhere in between, he managed to pull off a couple of Led Zeppelin reunion shows with his old mates guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones (the late John Bonham’s son Jason played drums).
The performances generated rave reviews from fans and critics, but Plant opted out of a reunion tour, despite offers of a couple of hundred million dollars from promoters. He was more passionate about moving forward than celebrating his past, however stellar it once was.
“These journeys with all these guys leads me to other people,” he said, “and that’s the way it’s worked out in the last 30 years.”
With the Space Shifters, Plant is joined by new and old collaborators. The group includes Strange Sensation’s John Baggott (the keyboardist-composer who’s also been with Massive Attack and Portishead), guitarist-bendir player Justin Adams and Gambian griot singer-instrumentalist Juldeh Camara.
“I got this crazy, hair-brained idea of taking an African musician back to the Mississippi Delta,” he said of working with Camara. “That pre-history of music has been inspiring me long before Led Zeppelin and long before now.”
Long-cycling African polyrhythms can be heard throughout the Shifter’s sound, but it’s mixed with the deep, haunting grooves characterized by Plant’s Band of Joy.
“In my adolescence I had this obsession for a musical consciousness I couldn’t understand,” he said. “It went back to the very beginnings of the way black America had started.”
As for today, Plant recently discovered another culture — and music — to be inspired by.
It happened after he set up a second residence in Austin, Texas, so he could spend more time with a woman he’d become musically and romantically involved with, country singer and songwriter Patty Griffin. She was his vocal foil and partner in Band of Joy.
“I’ve found out a lot more about America since ‘Raising Sand’ and being on tour with Buddy,” he said. “I can’t stop reading about the intriguing indigenous people: the Comanches and the Apaches, and the stories of the European kids who were kidnapped and raised by them. It’s just amazing. It gives me a whole new America.
“I still see adventure in all these places through the eyes of a child,” he said. “I’m really wide eyed about it. I’m trying to tiptoe lightly through it. I don’t want to leave too much of a mark.”