Robert Plant has an unquenchable thirst for music that moves him.
From his golden-haired, rock-god days as frontman for Led Zeppelin to his latest British urban, West African-inspired incarnation, The Sensational Shape Shifters.
“Try combining West African rhythms with Led Zeppelin-fired blues,” he explains ahead of his two April shows in New Zealand.
It will be Plant’s third visit to New Zealand. Speaking from his home in Machynlleth, Wales, he reveals his life as a musical nomad.
“I feel a bit like a bird in springtime, you know, I jump around a lot. I enjoy the fruits of one thing, then I move on to another one.
“I have gone from working with Patti Griffin and The Band of Joy, which was a beautiful and incredibly melodic driven-band, to this other world of the Shape Shifters, which is an entirely appropriate thing to do.”
“It’s a great place to be, to have so many different friends who love music, and play in so many different ways.”
With little memory of the 1972 Led Zeppelin concert at Auckland’s Western Springs, he is clearly surprised his last visit here was in 1984 promoting his album The Principle of Moments and its hit single, The Big Log.
“Jesus, that’s like nearly 30 years ago, it’s amazing how you can find your way around the planet after that length of time.” However, Plant has found his way – musically and geographically.
He has travelled from North Africa to the back streets of Paris.
“From playing in Marrakesh with Jimmy Page (No Quarter, 1994) to experiencing performing in the back streets of Paris with the band Tinariwen, and now playing with Juldah Camara from Gambia in Shape Shifters, they are all incredible experiences.”
It was long-time Plant collaborator and Strange Sensation guitarist Justin Adams who introduced Camara to Plant.
“Justin introduced me to Juldah Camara not long after I said goodbye to my previous group, Band of Joy.
“He was playing this far-out stuff on a one-string fiddle. I put my voice to it, glued it on and it was magic, so then I brought in Johnny Baggot from Massive Attack to bring some loops in, Liam “Skin” Tyson is from Cast, Billy Fuller came in from his adventures with Portishead, and we have Dave Smith.”
He says all the members of Shape Shifters have a special charm and kindness, and are great players.
“So what do you do – you have just got to get it right.
“I feel I can just bring my gift to the table, it sounds a bit cheesy but I’m only a contributor and the only reason you are speaking with me is because I’ve got the biggest name.”
Rock fans the world over know Plant’s name from his years with Led Zeppelin. It all came to a halt when drummer John Bonham died in 1980.
In 2007 the band reconvened, with Bonham’s son, Jason, taking his place on the drum stool for a one-off appearance at London’s O2 Arena, in honour of late Atlantic Records boss Ahmet Ertegun.
Celebration Day, a DVD of the concert, was released late last year, stirring up hopes that Led Zeppelin would use it as a launching pad to tour again.
However, Plant had already made plans to record with bluegrass singer Alison Krauss, and it was time to move on.
Plant says he enjoyed his time at the 02 Arena and agrees they put on a great show, and he was “part of something that was magnificent”.
“But after it was over, I got out of there. I am better off just doing fresh things and seeing where they take me, and that is what has happened in my life.
“The bottom line is, when you do something and you don’t expect anything to happen, which is what happened with Led Zeppelin, Band of Joy and [the album] Raising Sand with Alison Krauss, then all the better.
“So, at this time in my life, I am happy to be involved in things that intrigue me and that’s when I will have a go.”
Plant and Krauss did attempt a follow-up to the five-time Grammy Award-winning Raising Sand, but it did not work out. “We honestly did try with a second album but it just didn’t work.
“Actually, I got an email from Alison’s agent asking me do I want to do a summer tour of 25 dates with her.” Then, in a sudden burst of laughter, he says: “Well, she didn’t ask me for a start and I think that’s terrible; she should have wined and dined me and held me up against the wall and said, ‘Robert, let’s go’.”
Whether utilising his powerful and full-bodied rock vocal in Led Zeppelin, adopting more gentle and yearning, bluegrass tones with Krauss, to revealing a “British urban, West African-Led Zeppelin-fired blues-trance thing” with the Shape Shifters, Plant’s vocal remains a compelling instrument – 40 years into his career.
“The actual physical demand of singing in The Sensational Shape Shifters is much more demanding than with Band of Joy, because I am up there pushing it all the time, we are relentless.
“That’s not something I did with Zeppelin because there were spaces in the music.
“But now I am really pushing it, so it’s a good thing to know my voice still works, and it’s a good thing not to push it to the degree where you go ‘oh God, I hate it now, but leave room so you want to do some more’.”
Looking back on his 40-year career, he says it was all down to a “strange crackling on the radio” that turned him on to music.
“You know, when I was a kid, I had no idea of what was out there in the world.
“I used to deliver papers before I went to school in the morning on my bike and I got to listening to radio late at night, like a lot of people did of my generation – there wasn’t a lot of choice. But there was something out there crackling through the darkness and I heard this music.
“It was this black American music, Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy, so I got this stuff and I got the drift.
“I began to love it so much and I have no explanation for it, but I wanted as much as I could get, and I became a huge fan of the delta blues.
“In Led Zeppelin we turned the blues upside down and little did I know that this romance of mine, with this dark, beautiful music, would one day take me to Mali and into West Africa and allow me to sing in the desert at night outside of Timbuktu with Ali Farka Toure, out there in infinity just doing this beautiful stuff . . .”
“Now I am doing it with The Sensational Shape Shifters.”
Robert Plant – The Sensational Shape Shifters, with support from The Blind Boys of Alabama, play Wellington’s TSB Arena on April 9 and Auckland’s Vector Arena on April 11.