Australian musician Xavier Rudd has been singing and performing for more than a decade now. Best known as a kind of one-man band, appearing on stage surrounded by an array of yidakis (digeridoos), a guitar across his lap and his feet pounding out the rhythm with a stomp box, his latest album, Nanna, released in May of 2015, saw him working will a full band, The United Nations, for the first time.
While there have always been hints of reggae in his music, Nanna saw him embrace the genre wholeheartedly to great effect. While he’s never been shy about throwing his heart and soul into his music before, it seems reggae has given him the means to take everything to a higher level. Anyone who has been listening to his music for any length of time will quickly realize how this album was a natural progression in his musical evolution.
Currently, Rudd is on his second tour of the United States and Canada with United Nations and I was able to catch up with him on the phone on October 12, 2015. Considering how some of his material deals with the mistreatment of indigenous people, especially the Aboriginals of his native Australia, the irony of talking to him on what’s called Columbus Day in the U.S. (Thanksgiving in Canada) wasn’t lost on me.
This is the third time I’ve talked to Rudd over the course of his career, and each time I’ve come away impressed by how open and sincere he is. There are plenty of musicians and actors who, after they’ve made it big, throw their names behind causes, but those whose output is an organic extension of their beliefs are few and far between. With Rudd you quickly realize the music and the beliefs are one. There’s no disconnection between who he is and what he sings about. Even better is how well this translates into music that moves both your heart and feet.
The time constraints of the journalistic interview don’t allow for much more than scratching the surface, but hopefully this little introduction to Rudd will encourage you to both check out his recordings and go see him during his current tour.
How has the transition been from basically a one-man show to a band? What have the differences been?
I guess musically the biggest difference was I got use to taking up real estate by myself on stage and in the music, making sound as fat as I could. I had to learn to keep my parts thin but creative – to give enough room for everyone else. Then playing in the band, and all the members, such a powerful and interesting experience, something I’ve always wanted – and this was something special. The connection to the others while playing was great. It may not last for a long time, probably just this album, but I’ve felt really honoured to play with these people.
What is it about reggae that appeals to you so much?
I’ve always liked it, the bass, the vibrations, and the expressions of unity and all love. I love where it puts people and how it brings people together. It’s also a good platform for expressing various thoughts and ideas. I’ve brought people from different cultures together, from all over the world, for this band – our ancestors decided to have a cup of tea together – that music was the right platform for this meeting.
When you’re bringing that kind of story, the story of struggle and rising up and displacement in modern culture – bringing that discussion to a musical forum – reggae is a good base for that – a good easy base. It’s like being able to talk to grandma because she’s soft and easy, while you can’t talk so much to grandpa because he’s hard and stern.
Where do you draw the inspiration for your songs from?
Life in general. Spirit. I never sit down and try to write a song; they just come through me. They’ll come through thick and fast and almost write themselves sometimes. I don’t write them down. The ones that stay with me are the ones that stay with me and become songs. The same thing with the lyrics. They are usually attached to part of something on my personal journey – or spirit.
Why are the themes of respect for indigenous peoples expressed in your songs so important to you?
Honestly, I think it’s because my great grandmother disappeared. No one knows what happened to her – she vanished – we don’t know what that story was. It’s a big black hole in my father’s family. I genuinely feel there’s been an old woman with me since I was a little boy. Her spirit rests somewhere inside me.
I went to Canberra (capital city of Australia) to a register of Aboriginal people and I put her name into a computer. The only listing I could find was for a woman who was murdered in 1951 – the killer was never found. I don’t know if that was her or not. A lot of aboriginal people just disappeared like that.
I think a lot of my music comes from that space. My understanding of Australian society and the oppression of a people.
At this point I mentioned to him how the day before our interview I had come across an article about one of the iconic photos of the civil rights movements in the U.S. from the 1960s, John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving the Black Panther salute upon accepting their medals at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The picture shows a third man as well, a white man, silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia.
It turns out he supported and encouraged them, and joined them in wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights patch on his uniform. As a result he was shunned by the Australian government when he returned home, and in spite of owning the Australian record for the 200 sprint to this day, he was erased from their history books and never allowed to compete again. It wasn’t until 2012, six years after his death in 2006, the Australian Parliament apologized to his family. In 2006 Carlos and Smith travelled to Australia to be pall bearers at his funeral.
Rudd wasn’t familiar with the photo, nor did he know who Norman was, but he thanked me for the information. All of which led us to the next question about West Australia and its current treatment of the Aboriginal population.
Is the grab for indigenous homelands still going on? Have the people been evicted?
It’s still going on; it’s all about natural resources. Western Australia is one of the last great wildernesses areas of the planet – we were able to band together and stop one of the biggest gas operations a while back – but under that same land there’s everything you can think of resource-wise.
The Western Australia (state) government, I got in trouble for saying in a Canadian paper they’re corrupt, so let’s just say their dodgy government is all about resources – all about land grabbing. They’ve been using political moves to trick or convince aboriginal people to give them their land for development. People were moved forcibly from their homelands, with comments made to the press about rampant alcoholism and abandoned home[s] to make it seem necessary.
How do you deal with what seems like so much antipathy towards the changes your music expresses? You sing about people coming together and all the time politicians are playing up fear and hatred to win elections.
I don’t really care. (We laughed) My interests are deeper than that. My interests are in creation; our earth is a lot stronger and greater than we give her credit for. Politicians and what we do are small little grains of sand in creation. Sure I get frustrated and upset by what’s going on around but doing something like sitting with a tree, keeping connected to the planet helps remind me of what’s important.
There was a time when we were energetically connected to the land in order to survive. In a lot of people’s minds that seems like a fantasy, but it’s what reminds us of our place in existence. If everyday one or two humans connect to the earth and remember this, there’s always hope. She will take care of us if we let her; the planet is a big thing – it’s much bigger than you can hope.
You know I was in San Francisco and was in Golden Gate Park and the Blue Angels were doing an air show. They were doing their fly pass and it was really loud. They were doing their acrobatics, and they’re really good, and all these people were standing and watching them. But I couldn’t help thinking these things cost I don’t know how many millions of dollars and were the types of planes which dropped bombs on people.
They flew through in formation and then flew out again, and while people were waiting for them to come back a flock of birds flew through in perfect formation – one of them dived down to scoop up a fish. I remember thinking, no matter how expensive those planes are, none of them can do that – dive down and pick up a fish. Nobody else seemed to notice the birds.
So I saw Surfer Dude a few years ago, and was surprised to hear your music in it. How did that come about?
Matt (Matthew McConaughey) contacted me and asked if I would do some music for the film. I chose some songs from various places, but to be honest I sort of lost interest in the project. There was this music producer who added stuff to my songs which hadn’t been there to begin with and I ended up never even seeing the movie. It was an experience. [END]
And that was all we had time for. We had talked briefly about me having seen Peter Tosh in 1980 and the Toronto reggae scene of the late ’70s and ’80s and touched on a few other areas of mutual interest, but that was about it. Xavier Rudd is one of the most genuine people I’ve spoken to, and he believes what he says with his heart and soul. However, in neither his music nor his words do you ever get the feeling he’s preaching or trying to convert you. This is just who he is.
Information on the rest of his North American tour can be found at the tours page of his web site, but he’s currently making his way up the North American West Coast before heading to Canada.
If you have the chance go and see him you won’t regret it. The music is great and it will be an experience you won’t forget.
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