NEW YORK — The first time they collaborated was such a surprise smash that the only question was when Robert Plant and Alison Krauss would sing together again. The answer is out this week.
Plant and Krauss — he jokingly calls them “Sonny and Cher” — are back with a new album of covers, 14 years after their surprise hit with critics and fans, “Raising Sand.”
“It’s great to do this again and for it to have new life,” says Krauss on the phone alongside Plant from Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville, Tennessee.
The new album, “Raise the Roof,” out Friday from Rounder Records, follows the blueprint of the first, including many of the same musicians and the producing smarts of T Bone Burnett. The recording was completed just weeks before the pandemic hit.
So much time had past between recording sessions that Plant admits he was apprehensive that if the team didn’t find the right material quickly, they wouldn’t recapture their special alchemy.
The new album has Plant and Krauss singing deep cuts by Merle Haggard, Allen Toussaint, The Everly Brothers, Anne Briggs, Geeshie Wiley, Ola Belle Reed and Bert Jansch. There’s also a Plant-Burnett original, “High and Lonesome.”
“A great song has many lifetimes,” says Plant and Krauss agrees. “You want them to have a life of their own and you have to have a very loose grip on those ideas so that they do become their own,” she says.
The pairing of former Led Zeppelin singer Plant with bluegrass violinist and singer Krauss turned out to be a surprise hit with critics and fans the first time around. “Raising Sand” debuted No. 2 on the Billboard 200, generated platinum sales and earned six Grammy Awards in 2009, upsetting rapper Lil Wayne and British rock band Coldplay for top honors.
“The main surprise was, ‘Wow, these guys actually can operate together?’ It was against the odds,” says Plant. “It’s a sharing of something, a sharing of songs, that people didn’t know anything about. It’s one of my big trips in life.”
It was “Quattro (World Drifts In),” a song by the Americana band Calexico, that finally sparked the new recording sessions into life. That song “sort of drew us into another way of actually working, looking at voices together, a different kind of attitude to it,” Plant says. “So long as we got the right key, we’re doing great.”
As they worked on the songs, Burnett — who Plant laughingly calls “the Archbishop of Cool” — insisted that they keep the sparks of the first takes and not go back to clean them up, which was especially hard for Krauss, a bit of a perfectionist. “The less precision is quite often the better, because it’s soulful stuff,” says Plant.
One highlight is a revisiting of Betty Harris’ soulful, up-tempo “Trouble With My Lover” written by Toussaint. Plant urged Krauss to sing it and in her hands, it becomes moody, melancholy and sensual. But it took some convincing.
“I was scared to death,” she says. “I was scared to do that song, but I do think it now sounds fresh. I had to go hide under the chair for a while.”
Other songs include Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues” and “Can’t Let Go,” written by Randy Weeks and first recorded by Lucinda Williams. Williams herself sings backup on a cover of Brenda Burns’ “Somebody Was Watching Over Me.”
“There’s nothing like sharing some musical thing you love and having someone get it,” says Plant. “It’s the stuff that happened in the song process last time and happened this time. It’s one of the best parts of working with people that have a completely different background — you come across great music you never would have known otherwise.”
Like “Searching for My Love” by Robert Moore, soulful in the original but slower and more needy when Plant and Krauss tackle it. Plant long adored the song and has been waiting to do it justice: “I could never find anybody who took any interest in my whole time as a singer that would actually make it stand on its own rather than it being just a kind of retro-pastiche.”
Despite the years that unwound between the two working together again, Plant says they carried on where they left off when they reunited. They’ll tour together in 2022.
“We’re very respectful of each other. But at the same time, we also know that we are quite comical people, which is a hell of a blessing, because it could be the wrong combination otherwise,” says Plant.