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- Posted on Oct 30th 2007 12:00PM by Steve Baltin
Listen to Plant and Krauss' 'Raising Sand' album here.
At what point did you realize you wanted to do an album together?
RP: I think about three minutes after I first met Alison years ago in Ohio, because part of her character is everything is possible and assailable, even though sometimes fear and panic might be the soundtrack to the beginnings of these sort of things [laughs]. She has got it in her to do virtually anything and could present it in a humorous and charming way, which diffuses any nerves or tension when you're going into uncharted territory. [To Allison] That's 10 dollars, by the way.
What was the first song recorded for this album?
RP: I think it was put on the chopping block. I was taken to the gallows, I think, with 'Polly,' which, at that point in time, I didn't know a single person in the room. I didn't know the engineer, I didn't know anybody. I just knew Alison a bit, and I'd met ['Raising Sand' producer] T-Bone [Burnett] the day before, so 'Polly' was the first thing. And I think T-Bone -- he's a very canny and clever man -- he said, "I wonder if you could do that a little." And I'm going, "Who the hell is this guy? Do you know who I am?" [Starts singing quietly] And I found a new Robert. He got me to do something I didn't think I could do, and Alison was there going, "Yeah."
I have a feeling you probably enjoyed, as an artist, being taken to the gallows. How exciting is it for you to still be challenged like that?
RP: It's spectacular, because I wrote a song called 'Tin Pan Valley' on my last record with Strange Sensation, talking about the fact: "I'm turning down the talk shows, the humor and the couch / I'm moving up to higher ground. I found a new way out / My peers may flirt with cabaret and fake the rebel yell." I can't stand the idea of having once been a firebrand whirling vortex and then give it up for mediocrity and just paddle along through middle age going, "Hey, well, this is what we did." I want to be out there trying things out all the time forever. So I was glad to be frightened.
Alison, Robert just talked about how T-Bone brought out a new Robert. What did working with Robert bring out in you as a vocalist?
AK: Oh, I loved the spontaneity. He just improvised the whole time he was out there. It's a totally different style of singing than what I've grown up singing my whole life. And to watch somebody be so comfortable, even though he talks about being afraid, he's completely comfortable in his own skin and hearing his voice come out of his head. I sit there and I kind of labor over what I hear coming out of my head, and there he is, just lets it all go and reacts to the environment around him. He's not thinking about it before he goes out there. He just lets it naturally go down. Whether that's with an autoharp or with someone pounding the drums as hard as they can, it's gonna be whatever naturally happens with his personality.
Obviously you two knew each other's histories, but working with someone, you always get a different sense. Alison, was there anything that surprised you about Robert?
AK: I forgot all about his history when he came into the room every day and said hello to everybody. And that's not what he's about. He's about what's happening right then. I think that's an incredible quality. When you've had the attention and the success Robert has had for three-fourths of his life, he's all about finding what is new and inspiring. And I think everybody was about making this record right then and how that was going to turn out day to day.
And for you, Robert, was there anything that surprised you about Alison once you began working together?
RP: It's kind of like it was the great unknown, but having already had that experience in Cleveland at the Leadbelly Memorial Concert, I knew that Alison is amenable, and when the onus and the territories shift to areas where she's much more comfortable, she really helped me to come to terms with stuff. The way that these people in the studio were operating around Alison was they use a totally different musical-speak to the way that I work in the U.K. with Strange Sensation or, for that mater, with Zeppelin. We don't enunciate, we don't have the same terminologies and we certainly don't know -- I didn't 'cause I've never really sung harmonies -- I didn't know if a fifth was a sixth, or a seventh was a first. And I didn't know what one, five and four meant, either. It was a revelation, and she was very patient and made me feel very comfortable and told me that I was a very quick learner. That was very flattering, even though I wasn't very sure of it. And I knew after a couple of days, because of the kind of kindnesses that it was a much more gratifying experience working around these people than the kind of hubbub working in the U.K. And because the mood of the music and the actual content of the songs and the lyrics were so beautiful, panoramic, the whole thing was like, "Wow." And Alison was there in her hometown with her friends helping me through. It was great.
That sounds quite emotional, but it was... [Alison does fake crying in the background.] It could've been another way altogether. It could've been some sort of teen queen goddess who just wanted to do something with some old bloke. I met Pink the other day -- she watched me singing in Switzerland when I played with Arcade Fire and Bjork. Pink watched the whole show from the side and kept smiling and I kept thinking, "That's a nice-looking girl. Who's that?" And then she came up at the end and said, "That was amazing. And what is even more amazing is I know Janis Joplin used to look after you, Robert." That's true. And she said, "Then we'll make a record together." I said, "Too late. I've got my girl and I'm giving up nothing for her." It would've been totally different working with . . . and that other girl, "Jessica Doodle" [Jessica Simpson].
Yeah, you just did a CMT 'Crossroads' taping she attended. How did that go, because I know you guys are planning on doing a tour next year?
RP: Yeah, there are plans for us to do a tour, but we're not taking Jessica. We're in it for the long haul. She's laughing at me. I dig holes and she says, "Don't say anymore."
AK: Don't say anything more about Jessica. She couldn't have been nicer.
RP: Great girl.
AK: So nice. You forgot her last name for a second.
RP: No I didn't. I know all about it because her great-grandma married George V, no, Edward VII.
No disrespect to Jessica, because I've met her and she's very sweet. But I'd much rather talk about your album.
RP: You didn't know the butter queen, though, did you?
AK: [To Robert] Was she cream cheese?
RP: This is where Alison has a field day. [Alison laughs.] Whenever I mention these things from the past, she goes into remote control.
AK: I think it has something to do with the wind. We did the 'Today' show yesterday morning. We're over the mic just about to start, and he starts talking about that [laughs].
RP: It's just funny. We can laugh together. We can sing good, we can kick ass and we can laugh a lot. I've finally got a partner who speaks and laughs.
You clearly share a similar sense of humor. How much does it add to have that in common beyond music?
AK: Well, I would imagine it's easier to work when people are friendly. Robert says to me, "I want a picture of you sitting there all glum like you do" [laughs]. It could be all glum, and it's tough. But I felt like the most uptight of the three of us was me, and I had to put that aside when we were recording; just enjoy the process. The way Robert set it up too was "Hey, let's go in for three days and if it doesn't work, no hard feelings. We'll just move on. But let's explore this and see how it goes." And T-Bone the whole time said, "What, are you kidding? We'll be here the whole ten days. What, do you think this isn't going to work?" So that was great. And not that I didn't think it was going to work, but it was a completely new territory and a new way of recording for me and for Robert. That's as far away as recording one of my records, that was, as far as really letting it all go, all the control go. And my job was to support the idea.
Going back to the tour, what are some of the songs you're most excited to do live and to see maybe how they'll change in the live setting?
RP: What I'm looking forward to is actually taking what she's taught me and the sort of elements of your long journey and adding more of that, so as I can really get it down and it's not just a one-off miracle moment for me, which was sort of crafted by these people. But that we actually lean on more material, which is incredibly strict vocally, and intersperse it with 'Gone, Gone, Gone,' 'Rich Woman' and all that sort of sexy stuff. But get down into that place where Alison knows . . . I don't know that I have fourth or a fifth. I have no idea of a third or a second.
AK: One of the great things about harmony is anytime people start thinking about that, it clouds it. It gets in the way. Harmony is all about what it feels like and that's why Robert is a quick study with it.
In an earlier piece you talked about not wanting this to be a duets album, which is what a lot of people would expect from two established vocalists teaming up. What made you decide the album should be more about harmony singing?
RP: It wouldn't have been appropriate ... to have it critical and lacking in the kind of emotional and emotive aspects of our voices just to prove a point would've been wrong. And I think that obviously with 'Down From the Mountain' and 'O Brother' and all that stuff, there's so much of that beautiful stuff around that we had to go somewhere different. We couldn't really afford to be competing in that. Also, I don't think either of us wanted it to be like that. I wanted it to be occasionally ramshackle, and Alison mentioned about how either one of one our voices would tail off before the other one had finished. So you go from this beautiful little moment of two voices traveling together to just the one being left fragile. This is so idiosyncratic and anal. What it's all about for me, I'm into those nuances, and Alison summed it up and I knew what she meant and I've thought it. But I've never actually put it into words before. It's good that it isn't squeaky clean, and it's also good that I can hear Alison's humor in the way that she sings occasionally.
T-Bone Burnett had a lot to do with the song selection. Now that you've worked together though and have a better understanding of the process, are there songs you'd really like to include in future collaborations?
RP: Some of the stuff that T-Bone sent us was spectacular and unassailable. There were songs that were obviously ones I would sing where Alison would accompany me. 'Sister Rosetta' is definitely an Alison song with me doing the Dean Martin impersonation behind it. At the end of the tracks that T-Bone sent, he sent this George Jones duet with Tammy Wynette. And there were so many startling moments in that duet that were flabbergasting. And when I heard that, he was just trying to show how good something could be, but what he did was he nearly finished me off the from the project. I said, "Alison, Jesus Christ, don't let me hear things like that! That's spectacular!" And I never ever gave George Jones any time because I'd heard the wrong George Jones stuff way back. It's like saying the Howlin' Wolf stuff that he did back in 1979 or something like that, "No I can't listen to that." And then you'd miss 'Smokestack Lightning' and 'You'll Be Mine.' It's like having key holders. We three and the band are key holders. We've got keys that go into these places.
I've got to ask, what was the name of the George Jones track?
AK: We can't figure it out. We've tried to, and it wasn't one of the huge [ones]. I don't remember which one it was, but it was just beautiful.
Robert, you mentioned getting a new perspective on George Jones. You included so many great songwriters here, was there anybody else you gained a new appreciation for?
AK: Gene Clark. Those songs, I couldn't even believe it. I thought, "How are we going to do 'Polly?'" when I listened to that track on the original CD. I thought, "How in the world can we even attempt at doing this?" It was so beautiful, and I loved it so much. The performance that Gene did was so obviously true.
RB: Not so much writer as a performer -- a kind of wild-man performer in a different way than Screamin' Jay Hawkins -- would be Roscoe Holcomb, because we dallied with 'Little Maggie' but in the darkest, most remarkably fascinating way. We had Riley Baugus play a banjo, and I sang it, but I was just too English. I felt like, I've got this fake drone going on. I just couldn't do it.
How would you sum up your new venture together?
RP: We're happy. We feel good together, this seems to be a good little team. We've got a lot of great people around us, and we intend to laugh our way around the ballrooms of the United States.
Listen to 'Raising Sand'