It's not very often that my health problems interfere with my life, but this past week I had reason to rue them for the first time in a number of years. As a treat to celebrate our wedding anniversary, I had purchased tickets for my wife and I to go and see one of our favourite performers when his tour stopped in Toronto, Ontario for two nights. Unfortunately, as the day drew nearer it became obvious there was no way my body was going to be able to stand up to two and half hour trip by train that it would take to get to Toronto. I put off the inevitable for as long as possible, but in the end I surrendered and we gave the tickets to a young couple we know who appreciated the music as much as we would have. I figured the only thing worse than not going, was not going and having the tickets laying around the house reminding me of the disappointment.
A part of me knew all along we wouldn't be making the trip. I've not been able to make a trip of that length since 2002, so how could I have thought now would be any different. I guess I had hopped that when the time came, somehow it could happen because it would have meant so much to us. You see, there's something about Xavier Rudd's music that I've connected to it on a personal level, in a way that I never have before to any musicians work. My wife summed it up best when she said, "he always seems to be able to articulate how I'm feeling about the state of the world with his music."
Rudd released his first CD, To Let, in 2002 and has since produced four more discs and toured the world extensively. The Australian born multi-instrumentalist's initial albums and tours saw him performing as a one man band. Sitting behind a stand holding his three Yidaki (an Australian Aboriginal instrument named for the hunter who not only discovered it but whose spirit now resides within them, it's better know by the name Europeans have given it, didgeridoos) he would play either slide or regular guitar, keep the beat with a stomp box and small percussion instruments, play some harmonica, and of course sing. Over the course of the three discs that followed To Let; Solace, Food In The Belly, and White Moth; Rudd's music gradually became both more musically and thematically complex, a period of development that culminated in his most recent release, 2008's Dark Shades Of Blue.
When it had looked like I would be travelling down to Toronto to see Rudd in concert, I contacted his Canadian publicist to see if I could set up an interview. Of course that fell by the wayside when the trip fell through, and I had to settle for fifteen minutes on the phone with him. It's a somewhat frustrating experience trying to engage a person in conversation when you know you're working against the clock as you have to keep curtailing topics in order to cover any ground at all. However fifteen minutes turned out to be plenty of time for us to talk about the current tour, Dark Shades Of Blue, his music in general, and even touch upon his wife's (Marci Lutken-Rudd) art that served as cover for Dark Shades Of Blue.
A conversation like this, if you're lucky, gives you a series of glimpses into a artist's soul and from that you try and piece together a picture of the person behind the music. With Rudd, something you quickly realize is there is no separating the man from the music, for as one changes the other follows. I had started off by asking him whether the harder edge that can be heard on Dark Shades Of Blue was indicative of the direction his music was going. I had noticed over the course of his two previous recordings that each had become progressively edgier and this one had gone even further down that road.
Xavier's answer took me by surprise, because it's not too often your going to find a musician who is willing to admit, "I don't think too much of where the music comes from. It's just something that happens." Now lest anyone think he's saying he doesn't think about his music, he's talking about inspiration here, not the music itself. You see the music he's working on now has moved in a completely different direction from what was on Dark Shades of Blue – in fact, he described it as "Light and bubbly, and much brighter" Part of that he attributed to two South African percussionists he just started working with who have brought a different perspective into the mix. The other thing though is that he also sees Dark Shades of Blue as being the culmination of a journey that he had begun even before the release of his first disc.
"I was going through a really profound time and this (Dark Shades Of Blue) was a more personal album than any of the others." He continued by saying that after ten years of being in the music business he had felt like he needed to take time for self-reflection which made the disc much more introspective than anything previous. "I needed to go into the dark rooms inside myself and clean off some of the dusty shelves and this was the result."
Now, in case your worried that this sounds like a bunch of self indulgent twaddle, you only have to listen to the disc once to know that the last thing this guy is going to do is engage in a fit of public naval gazing. Sure, he might have been re-evaluating where he was at the time, but the material has universal appeal. If you've ever spent anytime looking inward you're sure to be able to identify with a great deal of what's being expressed on the recording. Anyway, if you were at all worried about him getting overtly serious, don't be. Rudd has to have one of the most irrepressible spirits going – it may have feeling the weight of working nearly non-stop for ten years while working on Dark Shades Of Blue but now…
"I'm coming down the other side of the mountain on two wheels" is how he described it. "What I'm doing now is not only brighter and lighter, it's also sweet and spicy, full of life. Having the two new percussionists cross my path right now has been great. Before setting out on this part of the tour I had taken six months off, and that was the longest break I had taken in ten years from either touring or recording and so it really feels like something fresh is happening."
That might have sounded silly or funny coming out of someone else's mouth, but there's something about his excitement and sincerity that evoked an image in in my mind's eye of him popping a wheelie at the top of a mountain and riding down on two wheels in the bright sunshine of a new morning.
If you look back to where I was talking about the instruments Rudd plays, I've mentioned an aboriginal one called the Yidaki. It was Rudd who told me the story of the instrument being named for the person who discovered it and also asked that I refer to it by it's proper name. Aside from the fact that he plays an Aboriginal instrument, he has featured both Native Canadian (Marci is a Canadian) and Australian singers and musicians on a couple of occasions on his discs, and some of his songs have been about their circumstances. So I was interested in finding out if his song writing had been influenced by either Native Canadians or Australians.
It turns out the influence is a lot more direct than I thought as he is of Aboriginal descent through his father's family. Now I've met more then my fair share of folk who are something like 1/32 native blood who try and make out that it gives them some sort of special connection to creation that makes them superior to the rest of us. What I heard in Xavier Rudd's voice, first when he talked about Yidakis – asking that I make sure to call them by their proper name in this article – and then again when he talked about the cultural inheritance passed down to him through his father – was respect. Respect for how they give voice to the spirit of their country and for the part he plays in letting that voice be heard through his music.
One of the ways he lets that voice be heard is through touring and Rudd tours a lot. Part of that is of course because he's from Australia and if he wants people elsewhere to listen to his music, he has to spend time in North America and Europe. With the music industry it's very much a case of if you're out of sight, you're out of mind. However, when I asked him about the difficulties involved with having to be out on the road so much he simply said: "I know a lot of people would give anything to be in the position I'm in. I feel blessed to be doing this and touring is a part of it all". Naturally that led me to asking him about touring and performing…
"A concert is like a ceremony", he said, "people come to the shows to celebrate the good stuff in their lives and use it as an opportunity to let go. All the energy they produce I channel and give it back to them so that it becomes a real exchange between us. It's a very powerful situation that shouldn't be taken for granted by looking on it as only an opportunity for making money, which given the nature of this industry is something that happens far too often." (The tickets I bought for the Toronto show were the most expensive at $32.00 each. Compare that to the close to the $100.00 your liable to pay for anyone else and you really begin to appreciate his commitment to keeping his music accessible to as many people as possible.)
My time was running out and I'd already dropped a couple of questions I had wanted to ask Xavier. I had been really intrigued by the artwork his wife Marci had contributed for the cover of Dark Shades Of Blue so I quickly raised the topic of her work and any interconnection there might be between their two fields. While they don't work at the same time there's still a connection between their work according to Xavier.
"Her artwork was important during this time because of what it meant in regards to our journey together and she selected the piece that was used for the cover." Unfortunately, we didn't really have time to explore the question of Marci's art work much more than both Xavier and I agreeing how wonderful it is and for him to add, "While we don't directly inspire each other there is a connection between our work because of the energy we both bring to what we do and how its part of us."
So then there was only time to ask what was up and coming for Xavier Rudd and to learn that he was going into the studio in October with the two percussionists from South Africa, who are currently on tour with him. He's feeling incredibly rejuvenated and "ready to be busy".
Fifteen minutes isn't very long to spend talking to anybody, and you sure won't get to know them intimately in that time. However after spending fifteen minutes on the phone with Xavier Rudd I feel like I have a clearer image of the man responsible for creating the music that has moved me more than anybody else's in the past five years. He's touring across Canada and the U.S. for the rest of the summer – check his website for the remaining dates – and if you get a chance to check him out do so. Only, do me a favour and don't tell me about it, because I really don't want to know what I missed out on.