Xavier Rudd: The Highs and Lows of Life in Music
Shaking a deep depression was no easy task for Xavier Rudd. Over the past year the affable Australian multi-instrumentalist – best known for moving festival crowds with his high-energy, free-spirited music – reached rock bottom when he and his wife of 10 years split. In this, the first instalment of 21 Questions, Rudd talks to Martyr editor Remi L. Roy about his recent trials and eventual rebound, his Canadian connection, new band, Izintaba, and the latest disc, Koonyum Sun.
RLR-You called the new record the most emotional album you’ve recorded. Was it also the most therapeutic?
XR-It was heavy in every way. There was a lot of elements in this album that were really heavy. Positive vibe, but some of it came from hard stuff.
RLR-The separation from your wife obviously impacted the songwriting on the album. Were songs like “The Reasons we were Blessed” and “Love Comes and Goes” particularly cathartic to pen?
XR- Depending on what’s happening in my life, it [music] has always been there as a way to release and a way to stay in touch with…my main route. My spirit and my ancestors on my journey, they’re ahead of me, and my music is a reflection of that. Whether it’s therapeutic or helpful at the time, I don’t know. But it definitely is later.
RLR-Do you feel it’s finally “Time to Smile.”
XR-Yeah it is. Fuck yeah (laughs). I feel like everything was meant to be, and it was a great test. Last year was a rough year. I was dealing with things that I never thought possible in my life, and I learned some great lessons and took some wisdom from it. I feel free and content, ready and new.
RLR-Where did the idea for “Sky to Ground,” the opening track, come from?
XR-“Sky to Ground” is about different cultures: The sky world and the ground world, and spiritual existence in both places. It basically pays respect to all my travels and my appreciation for the earth, for my home, for my country, the stars, the ground, the birds, the ocean and everything.
RLR-What did you mean when you said Koonyum Sun was a celebration of the “beautiful things I have in life?”
XR-I always had a really huge respect for what I do, and for the gift I’ve been given. I’ve been blessed with my music; people come and see; I’ve been well supported; and there’s always good energy around me. At the same time, the universe sent me these two incredible spirits, Tio [Moloantoa] and Andi [Andile Nqubezelo] to play with. My connection with them on all levels is fuckin’ heavy.
RLR-How influential was the imprint of bandmates (bassist) Tio and (drummer) Andi on your new album?
XR- Huge. They’re so creative, so powerful. They came along and just were a symbol of strength. It’s funny, the universe sent me these guys and they connected with me at a time when life was a bit difficult, so the music and the story all came at that time. The musical relationship was a solid foundation, and that came through on the album, because they were in touch with me, my heart, when we were recording.
RLR-Where did the idea to form Izintaba come from?
XR- I wanted a word for either triangle or mountains, ’cause we feel this is a triangle; mountains [because] when I’m playing with Tio and Andi on stage, I feel like I’m standing on a solid mountain. I ran into Andile’s wife while we were recording and asked her for some Zulu words for triangle and mountain. She came back with a few, and one of them was izintaba. It means “the mountains” in Zulu.
RLR-I’ve read you wrote many of the songs on this album by campfire, your kids at your side. Has parenthood become a muse for you?
XR-My sons are always there. I’ve got two beautiful kids and every time I’m with them, I’m just blown away.
RLR-“She moves through the trees with deadly grace and speed.” Can you undress the metaphor?
XR-It refers to the spirit of my grandmother. There are certain times when I do ceremony and the smoke starts to spin, and it means the ancestors come in. There’s a tree by my house where I do ceremony and, when the fire starts to spin like that, the leaves will start to wave. I wrote that verse because I was asking for answers and I felt like my grandmother was there sitting on the branches and telling me, ‘you gotta keep moving on, you gotta keep moving forward.’
RLR-You’ve been a vocal critic of the treatment of indigenous people in your homeland. What parallels do you see between native issues in Australia and Canada?
XR-Well it’s the same story. Timelines are exactly the same. The murder rate is fairly similar. Canadians seem to be a little more open to it, a little less racist. Australia as a whole is a pretty racist country and there’s next to no effort on a big scale – from a government, education point of view – to rectify, to pay respect and to reverse the oppression. Canada’s a little more ahead in terms of paying respect, but it’s still not enough.
RLR-As an artist, do you feel a responsibility to shed light on these kinds of issues?
XR-Yeah. Music is being connected with culture and people and oppression and starvation and joy, since the beginning of time. To be able to travel around the earth and play music is a great gift and I’ve grown to think it’s important to respect the roots of the places I’m playing.
RLR-Though, as you write, “many, many people (are) still listening to the earth,” are there enough naturalists to reverse the planet’s current trajectory?
XR-I don’t think reverse it, but I think the earth will sort itself out. It’ll cough us away and rejuvenate, which would be cool. We’re in a position where we can preserve it for longer if we do change.
RLR-On a lighter note, is there any particular reason you don’t wear shoes?
XR-I grew up in a barefoot situation. If I wear them for a half-an-hour, I feel claustrophobic in shoes. I don’t have any problem with them, but I’d lose ’em (laughs).
RLR-I used to work in a record store, and in the weeks following your performance last year at (Ottawa) Bluesfest, Xavier Rudd albums started flying off the shelves. To who or what do you credit the success of your live set?
XR-I think I’m just lucky because I have good, passionate people who have a great understanding of what the music is, beyond just music. At my shows, it feels like it’s more like church. It’s just a whole group of us celebrating and it’s not really me performing. It’s more like I’m channelling energy and it’s just a big, circular celebration. It’s more religious than anything.
RLR-Why are Canadians particularly drawn to your live shows, and music in general?
XR-I wish I could remember what I wrote last night. I was breathing in Canada for the first time – these are my first footsteps on her since what I went through last year – and she’s calling me. I’m just sort of connected to Canada: My kids are half Canadian; there’s some ancestors that I’m sure are floating around here; I actually just met a woman who I had a really good connection with – she’s Canadian; my management’s Canadian; half my crew’s Canadian. Canadians are great!
RLR-You live in Bells Beach and are managed by a company in Vancouver. What prompted you to sign with Thompson Management, rather than a company in Australia or the States?
XR-Because Christi (Christi Thompson, president of TM) is amazing! She just goes all in and has the whole world dialled in. It’s more of an international thing now – we probably play in Australia less than anywhere.
RLR-If you could play ONLY guitar, harmonica, lap steel, banjo, drums or didgeridoo for the rest of your days, which would you choose?
XR-Only one? That’s a horrible question (laughs)! I’d probably say guitar.
RLR-In 2007 you won PETA’s “World’s Sexiest Vegetarian Celebrity” award. Are you disappointed you haven’t been able to reclaim that title?
XR-I think they got it wrong. Initially, I don’t think it was me. And, no, I’m not disappointed. It was embarrassing.
RLR-You live in a custom-built, self-sustainable environmentally-friendly home. Is it important to practice what you preach?
XR-Sure it’s important…I don’t wanna be full of shit. Even though it’s a house, it’s still a fairly big mark on the land. I often reflect on the land [on which the house was built] and I sometimes feel like it was better when I was just camping there.
RLR-Do you feel building the house has enlarged your ecological footprint?
XR-I just remember camping there and now I sort of look up at the house and wonder whether I should have left it. When I’m old, I’ll be happy to have it.
RLR-You told Lynn Saxberg (of the Ottawa Citizen) “I just feel blessed…to have my music and this journey that I’m on.” Where is this journey going to take you next?
XR-I’m not one to think – I don’t have goals – I just take things day to day and follow my heart as best I can. I don’t know where I’m going. After what I went through last, I’m not going to begin to try and figure it out. My strength is tested, and I came through it, so I feel like as long as I stick with it, it’s cool.
All Photos: Alexander Vlad