For Xavier Rudd, music is all about making connections
January 15, 2008
ASPEN ” There is a gentle, practically innocent, almost naive quality to Xavier Rudd’s music. On his latest album “White Moth,” released in June, Rudd opens with “Better People,” which addresses the world’s do-gooders: “You people saving whales, giving your thanks to the seas / My respect to the ones in the forest, standing up for our old trees,” he sings, in a tone that sounds like a prayer. The rest of the album, Rudd’s fourth, follows in similar fashion, with earnest, optimistic expressions floating on waves of a folk-reggae beat.
In Rudd’s case, such bright-eyed hopefulness plays particularly well. His 2004 album, “Solace,” was certified platinum in his native Australia. He spent much of last year touring as the opening act for the Dave Matthews Band, and has been on the bill at most of the world’s major music festivals, including, in the States, Bonnaroo and High Sierra. Rudd plays a two-night stand this week in Aspen, Tuesday and Wednesday, at Belly Up Aspen. Tickets to both shows are sold out.
One way to explain the popularity is that Rudd is a talented and unique instrumentalist. On his current tour, he plays most of the show solo; Dave Tolley, a Canadian drummer and percussionist who appears on “White Moth,” joins him for roughly half the show. But Rudd is anything but a simple, stand-up guitar-strummer. Set up onstage amidst an array of tools and toys, Rudd plays slide guitar, stomp boxes, harmonica and percussion, many of them simultaneously. When he does play acoustic guitar, he employs a technique that lets him play bass lines as well as finger-picked melodies.
Rudd is 29 years old, which gives his sunny outlook an untainted feel. But probably the fundamental reason his optimism doesn’t have a saccharine taste is that he doesn’t pretend to know everything about the world. His songs can be insistent: on “Footprints,” from “White Moth,” he sings “There are leaders who lead / Our leaders prefer to deceive.” But more often than not, there is a questioning, searching tone to the lyrics. On the bubbly “Twist,” also from “White Moth,” he asks “Everybody can you lay back together, stargaze together,” and it is a request, not a demand.
Rudd is not even so sure about his own path in life. He talks often about his journey, one that clearly includes respect for people and the environment. But the core of his quest has to do with connecting to Australia’s Aboriginals. “White Moth” features contributions from several singers descended from Australia’s indigenous tribes, and Rudd’s recordings and live show prominently feature the didgeridoo ” or Yidaki, as he often calls it ” a signature wind instrument, usually made of natural wood, of the Aboriginals.
But Rudd isn’t clear how he was set onto this path. It wasn’t the didgeridoo that originally called to him; after singing constantly as a young child, he finally tried his lungs on a wind instrument ” the end of a vacuum cleaner. “It worked pretty good. But my mother told me to stop that,” he said by phone from a tour stop in Santa Clara.
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So he moved on to the didgeridoo. The instrument is associated mostly with the north of Australia, while Rudd was raised on the southern coast, in the town of Jan Juc. Still, the didgeridoo was a fairly familiar sight and, moreover, there was a visceral attraction.
“It’s born into me. I just had a connection,” said Rudd, speaking softly, almost in a mumble. “It’s a part of my whole journey, a connection to my journey.”
That journey begins with an actual spirit. Even as a child, Rudd felt himself joined by another presence, that of an older woman. Rudd says it is something difficult to talk about ” possibly because the subject is, by its nature, so ethereal, and partly because he just doesn’t know many of the particulars of this spirit being.
“I’m not too sure where she came from. She may have come from the place the Yidaki existed,” said Rudd, adding that he has suspicions that the spirit may be that of a great-grandmother of his. “There’s an old woman who I’ve understood as being with me since I’m a boy. She’s Aboriginal, I think.”
Any ties between music and this elder spirit are equally cloudy. “I’m not sure whether the Yidaki is a way for me to connect with her people, or if it’s just part of me,” said Rudd.
Rudd is, however, convinced that the woman’s presence is an essential part of him. “Elders” in different places have said they have seen the spirit in Rudd. “So people are able to see her,” he said. “But not me. I just feel her.”
And Rudd takes the presence seriously, examining it in his songs. “Whispers,” from “White Moth,” opens by noting “I’ve seen you somewhere before,” but the singer concludes, “It’s been too many moons / My mind is too young and I can’t place it.”
He also takes the spirit as a sign to work on behalf of the Aboriginals. “Land Rights” pleads for recognition of their ancestral territory. Outside of music, Rudd is an activist for Aboriginal rights He says he feels motivated to “make more connections with this special journey I’m on. In Australia, there’s a lack of understanding of our original heritage. That spirit is still strong, probably stronger than [that of native tribes] in the U.S. It’s critical to pass that education on before it’s too late. So any opportunity I get, I try to make that awareness.”
Another apparently big influence on Rudd is reggae. Some of his rhythms seem lifted straight out of Jamaica, and the spiritual element is akin to roots reggae. There are even hints of Jamaican dance hall.
Rudd acknowledges the influence: “The brightness, the sunniness comes from that,” he said. But he says he is largely unfamiliar with the culture from which reggae sprang, and thus doesn’t claim it as a visceral influence.
“I haven’t been exposed to it at the right place and the right time, to the spiritual connection, the culture and the religion,” he said. “But from my basic understanding, it seems to make sense.”