switched on pop

Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, ‘Beautiful Nugget’ Hunters

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

There are few hints of Robert Plant’s Led Zeppelin or Alison Krauss’s Union Station on their new album together, Raise the Roof. Instead, their collaboration sounds timeless, haunting, and melancholic. Their album follows up from their Grammy-winning 2007 album Raising Sand; both albums are steeped in Americana and roots music, favorites that the trio traded across the Atlantic over many years of friendship. Their idiosyncratic sound emerged from a kindred love of song, of tradition, and of interpretation, a process they spoke about with Switched On Pop’s co-host Charlie Harding.

Charlie Harding: The songs on this record seem to be some unifying themes: lost love, unrequited romance, and loneliness. How did you choose which songs fit this record?
Robert Plant: Well, how many times have I lost love in the last 24 hours? I mean, it’s tough out there! I don’t know. You don’t choose songs. They come and find you. All the blues stuff that I’ve collected through my time, since I was a kid at school, there’s always something going wrong, you know? And when it goes wrong, people can empathize with it. There’s a sort of common chord, a thread that runs through all of our lives, and sometimes these songs can be cathartic.

Alison Krauss: One thing I know that I’ve loved about this process is that no one [Krauss, Plant, or their producer, T Bone Burnett] is interested in anything that doesn’t have a full commitment. No one is pushing for one that another person isn’t interested in. And without trying to do anything, nothing was planned out or contrived about this project. Other than you knew the cast.

RP: There’s so many invisible forces. We can talk about the structure and the chordal progressions but the bottom line is, we just wanted to find songs, which we could really empathize with.

CH: There’s an improvisatory way that you approach song-making. I know for you, Alison, that you’ve been known for being really meticulous in the way that you use a studio to find the perfect take. How is it for you to work in this kind of methodology and approach a song?
AK: I guess the biggest difference for me is stepping back and making sure that I honor the taste of T Bone to a degree that when things start to get a little uncomfortable that I don’t stop it. Then we know we’re moving someplace different. He’s very much into capturing that specific moment including lead vocals.

CH: There is an ease in which you all move across decades and genres. We have country bluegrass, R&B, gospel, soul, folk, Americana. It seems to me, it’s the relationship between you all that unites them.
RP: It’s the adventure. We just want it to, as Alison said, get it right. It’s no great mystery. There are about another 10 million songs that we can use. If we can get over the 14-year thing, I’ve heard of the seven-year itch, but this has become ridiculous.

CH: You cover Merle Haggard’s 1982 country hit “Going Where the Lonely Go.” It’s one of the more contemporary and bigger songs on the record, but you all transform the song into something that makes it feel like an ancient, traditional piece. Like it’s just always been in the ether. Why bring this song in and how do you feel you all transformed it?
AK: In the ’80s, that was the Merle that I grew up with. The company you keep defines your borders on what to do. If I were sitting with Union Station and we were gonna look at doing “Going Where the Lonely Go,” those borders and boundaries are going to be different. I don’t know where he’s going to go from moment to moment. I don’t know what he’s going to say moment to moment!

CH: Robert, there are so many wonderful UK folk songs on here. One that stands out to me is “Go Your Own Way.” It’s a folk song performed by Anne Briggs, but also covered by the Bert Jansch as well as the English folk singer Sandy Denny who was the only guest vocalist on a Led Zeppelin record. She sang on “The Battle of Evermore.” Robert, I’m assuming that this was your pick. Why did you want to bring “Go Your Own Way” to this record?
RP: Well, I was raised listening to the Merseybeats and the Rolling Stones. And parallel to that, there was a fantastic folk scene, just as there was in your country. And I was just moved. I was a kid and I didn’t know, I never did analyze anything at all. I was just immediately moved by something or not. It’s only now, in this extended maturity that I’m trying to hang on to that I start thinking, Oh, well, of course, Anne Briggs wrote this because at that time there was X, Y, and Z going on in the world.

But for me, just listening to that whole movement of that underground. It’s just another part of the whole deal. And that was a part of Led Zepplin. So yeah, it was really not that far at all. Those songs are not that far away from stuff that you might hear in a corner of any city in the United States. They didn’t have the qualifications to break through the great pop charade. So we’re almost taking these beautiful nuggets and vignettes and bringing them out and cleaning them and throwing them up in the air. But they come from beautiful corners that have not really been explored because they don’t fit in with the way that this works: media, press critique. But they’re all there. All those songs are all there. And the roots of them are just, they’re equally as relevant.

CH: You’re leaning into traditions that don’t get noticed. Scottish folk songs and bluegrass ballads are back to back on your album. There seems to be a common tradition between the two.
RP: Oh yeah, of course you can’t elaborate on that. That’s actually a fact.

AK: It’s the survival, you know, those songs and from a simpler time, surviving a heartbreak, hard times, hard living, you know, all those things, those themes that are universal.

CH: Throughout your careers all three of you have been interpreters of songs. What responsibilities do you all bring as long interpreters?
RP: Oh, golly. I mean, we could do this really badly. It could have been awful. Our responsibility really is to each other to make sure that we both think that we’ve taken it to a place that carries our own mark. If we don’t do it very well, you ain’t going to hear it. I mean, it’s as simple as that, and I’m not trying to be trite, but it’s true.

But, this is not The Book of Kells or The Mabinogion. This is not pre-Christian Welsh history. This is two people choosing songs that they really like, singing them and laughing a lot and sometimes having a cup of tea. For us, it’s like the conquest of taking beautiful songs that are already in existence and sometimes quite obscure and enjoying them to the degree that we sit back and smile. So we can talk about the meaning of life, but it’s just great to be able to get to the end of 12 songs and go, “Look, hey, if you put them like this one next to that one, and that one next to that one, they create a weave.”

Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, ‘Beautiful Nugget’ Hunters