Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, two of music's most accomplished singers, are still honing their voices
Voice Notes is a column where we ask artists how they developed their approach to singing.
Alison Krauss can sum up her musical chemistry with Robert Plant with one savory, succinct analogy. "We're like a good balsamic vinegar and olive oil," she says when asked how her voice, one of the brightest and most revered in bluegrass and American folk music at large, and his, that immediately recognizable tenor, compliment each other. "They're really good together, but they really don't mix, and that's why it works."
Plant feels… differently, and delights in explaining just how, and why, Krauss' voice elevates his own — all while cracking her up in the process. "I see her like a sort of statuesque magnificence, and I feel myself bringing fruit and flowers to her feet as a singer," he says. "As a vocalist, I've been sort of a weekend tradesman; I'm not a master of any sort." (More laughter follows, understandably, as this was an actual sentence uttered by the lead singer of Led Zeppelin.)
"The thing is, there are great voices around that make noise, and they have soul and spirit, and stuff like that — but are they singers?" he continues. "A song is a song, but how do you actually take it from its inception, and drive it all the way across the prairie of emotion and sensation? And so, when I lay the flowers and fruit, it's because she's a s--t-hot singer — a really, really, seriously good singer. I took it as an incredible challenge to be in her company, because she's fascinatingly, almost slightly obsessively, desperately, remarkably capable, and I sort of come in around the corner, with a dustpan and broom, going, 'Oh, hello, I'll put my vocal on this here!'
Krauss is still laughing. "It's joking, it's funny, but the bottom line is, it's true!" he exclaims. "I came through this door all those years ago, and I realized I was in serious company."
Krauss and Plant have been enjoying each other's company (and frequently laughing to the point of tears) since their first collaborative album, the Grammy-winning Raising Sands, in 2007. Fourteen years later, the duo are back with the highly anticipated follow up, Raise the Roof (out Nov 19), which sees them covering the work of songwriters they adore across generations, from Lucinda Williams to Calexico to Merle Haggard. The project allowed them the chance to not only try something new, but to treat their voices as vessels for songs they wouldn't have recorded on their own. Ahead, Plant and Krauss reflect on how the latest project, and their collaborations, have shed new insight and appreciation in their respective vocal approaches, the work they put into maintaining them, and the power of their harmony.
Every song is different, so approach it as such
Both Plant and Krauss have a decades-long relationship with the microphone: she's been singing and playing the fiddle onstage since childhood, and Plant's voice has been blasting through speakers since the release of Zeppelin's self-titled debut in 1969. With Raise the Roof, they didn't come to the studio with the same intent or plan the way they would their individual pursuits.
"We're just telling other peoples' stories," says Plant. "There's no point in looking back at what we did before, because every song requires a totally different approach. Whether or not it's necessary at any time to stoke it up and give it something hard and strong vocally, it's all and always will be its own territory. There's nothing that we can do that came from before."
Find inspiration in the uncomfortable
Renowned producer T Bone Burnett, who helmed Raising Sand, reprises his command of the studio for Raise the Roof. Krauss recalls a moment where her and Plant initially treated the album like an experiment — thereby allowing Burnett to push the veteran singers into new territory.
"We were like, 'Well, we don't know what this is gonna be like… Is this gonna work at all?'" she says of her and Plant's initial uncertainty. "The plan was to go in, have three days, and if it didn't work, so be it — it was really just for fun. T Bone had said to both of us, 'My goal is to make the both of you very uncomfortable.' It was true, because, he said, 'I don't want you to be you' — meaning, you want to remain in your identity, but the atmosphere to be new. That's exactly what he did. I was singing songs, lyrically, that were still comfortable for me to sing — meaning I never lost what I'd be comfortable saying — but the atmosphere, the musicians, the treatment of the songs were very different, for me, personally, but also for Robert."
Relish the chance to try something new — especially if it surprises your fans
"Going Where the Lonely Go" stands out to Krauss as a high point on Raise the Roof because Plant sounds so unlike the caterwauling frontman of a classic rock band fans have known and loved for generations.
For Plant, he welcomed the opportunity to harmonize with Krauss and the vocal adjustment it required. "As far as applying myself to this project, I [had] to think slower; when it comes to Alison taking the lead, the voicing of what I do, and the temperature that I apply, has to be absolutely, as best I can, be in harmony and symmetry with her performance."
When it comes to maintenance, Plant and Krauss keep it simple: she gets plenty of sleep to keep her voice in headlining shape, and he takes a page from Aretha Franklin's playbook, in that he knows extreme heat or cold can jeopardize a performance. "I don't exactly come from the land of the ice and snow, but I do come from a very temperate climate," he says, noting that the brief period in which he spent living in hot, dry Texas "really hammered" his vocal chords. But air conditioning isn't exactly the antidote. "I like it to be coldish. Funny, I went to see Aretha Franklin, at Austin's Moody Theater one time. She won't go on the stage unless the temperature is 68 degrees."
Show strength in softness
Raise the Roof's spare arrangements, which favor softer dynamics, both showcase Plant and Krauss' exceptional vocal techniques and gives an intimate perspective to such a personal, passionate project. "We have that room where you can hear the air and the breath between us in these sort of collages of the human voice," says Plant, who's used to far, far noisier faire — not only in his Zeppelin years, but with his solo projects as well.
"I'm so used to hearing a clatter or rumble around me, especially with the Sensational Space Shifters: nothing starts, really, without some overblown grand piano chord that goes on for about a week," he says. For him, the ability to lean into dynamics this way — and embrace a softer sound without losing a shred of intensity — is an acquired skill that shines in his work with Krauss. "People have said to me, if I wasn't going to sing 'Immigrant Song,' full belt, then actually I was no longer a man … if you're in that zone and that era, and there's a lot of things that go with that, a lot of late nights, a lot of penicillin. But then there are moments in that early time, things like 'Rain Song' and 'That's a Way' and stuff like that, when I was able to actually begin turning into maturity as a presenter — which has come to great fruition since we got together."