Robert Plant looks forward to headlining Bluesfest
ROBERT Plant is deep into another chapter in the continuing saga of his rock'n'roll life as the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin looms.
The 69-year-old singer and songwriter and veteran student of music claims not to have been aware of the impending milestone.
"I didn't know anything about that until everyone started pointing it out," he says from his home not far from the Welsh border.
"We didn't put our first album out until '69. We did play in '68. Jesus wept!"
No, there are zero plans for a reunion to commemorate the golden anniversary. His musical devotion lies elsewhere, with the Sensational Space Shifters, his cohorts on stage and in the studio for the past six years.
He released his 11th solo album Carry Fire - and his second with the band - last October to universal acclaim and will introduce it to his Australian fans on a national tour, including a headlining performance at Bluesfest next week.
The album's opening track, and its lead single, The May Queen, seems a deliberate full circle between the Plant of now and his Led Zeppelin days, referencing the lyrics of their most famous song Stairway To Heaven.
That rock classic and the similarities to a riff in Taurus, a song by the band Spirit released in 1968, three years before Stairway, became embroiled in a copyright case that Led Zep won in 2016 but is still the subject of an appeal.
Plant says the May Queen isn't so much a nod to Stairway as it is an ode to his youth and tradition linked ancient tree worship as much to the ritual of a young woman wearing a crown of flowers who would lead the May Day parade in English villages.
Both songs were written in the environment of the Welsh mountains that inspired Plant and Page in the early days of Zeppelin and again now since he moved back there from Texas about four years ago.
As he penned the May Queen, summer was coming.
"It depends on the culture you come from. First and foremost, when I was a kid the May Queen was a sign that summer was coming when the May Queen was crowned," he says.
"That song you are referencing from the 1970s ... the lyrics (to May Queen) extend that idea of a preparation for summer, for change.
"When I was writing this stuff, it was the beginning of May and outside my window, this beautiful hawthorn tree just smiled at me and said 'Look, it's coming again, get ready'.
"I don't have the copyright to the May Queen, it's an ancient totem. The May Queen starts off with 'lay down in sweet surrender'. It's a time for lying down."
It is also a time for love and Carry Fire brims with romance.
Yet Plant seems uncomfortable with the notion he is writing love songs.
He relocated back to England after the ending of his relationship with American folk goddess Patty Griffin, who had toured with his previous musical incarnation Band Of Joy.
The legendary singer and songwriter speaks of Griffin adoringly and while she may be a muse for some of Carry Fire's songs, he isn't going there.
"The songs aren't so much about an individual character but the whole essence of romance," he says.
"The whole joy and communion and celebration of that is everywhere; you see it on the street with kids.
"You just see the splendour but the way it turns out to be is a different story.
"I can write about stuff like that because I read a lot and see a lot and experience a lot. I'm not trying to be oblique about it."
But he does admit the mysticism of love and romance and heartbreak offers more profound songwriting inspiration than his favourite soccer team.
"Sometimes I wonder (if) I could write about my soccer team. Would I have as much vocabulary and the answer is, no I can't."
As well as his sonic collaborations with the Sensational Space Shifters, whose ranks include Massive Attack keyboardist John Baggot, Plant enlists another duet partner on Carry Fire.
The Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde joins him to sing Bluebirds Over the Mountain, a song previously covered by the Beach Boys and Ritchie Valens.
Plant has collaborated with more brilliant women in the past decade than in previous chapters of his musical life, kicking off with the Grammy-winning Raising Sand album with Alison Krauss in 2007.
"After all these years of writing songs, I never really had sung with anybody else until the gates opened when I got together with Alison Krauss," he says.
"The whole idea of singing as part of the duet style came to fruition with Patty and the Band of Joy.
"It has been a good thing with Chrissie, she's such an alluring character and such a beautiful voice. And she shoots from the hip which is a really buzz to be around."
As well as performing the songs from Carry Fire and Lullaby and ... The Ceaseless Roar, his first record with Sensational Space Shifters as backing band, Plant does revisit Led Zep in his concerts.
"I obviously revisit old songs but not to the degree Bob Dylan does where you have to go outside the room and then come back in to figure out what the song is," he says.
"The whole idea of bringing back old stuff is just really to sing it out. It's crucial to have a new take on things. We move things around."
- Robert Plant performs at Bluesfest, Byron Bay on March 30.