Xavier Rudd talks relatability, revived songs and our collective heritage ahead of his South African tour

Xavier Rudd isn’t the best at staying in touch with people, in general, but he stays in touch with the music. 

“I listen to a bunch of different South African music on different playlists, like eclectic stuff. Tio [Moloantoa] and Andile [Nqubezelo] who I made a record with, are from South Africa,” he says over a riotous dusk chorus of Australian birds. It’s getting dark over there, even though it’s mid-morning in South Africa, and a tree-lined skyline is silhouetted on my Zoom screen. “So yeah, I feel like I have a connection to South Africa in a way.”

The lauded Australian musician is set to return to South Africa in just two months. His third tour on this side of the pond – although his last one was back in 2016. At that time he was my first high profile interview, I was a green, keen music journalist and he was a kind, engaging interviewee. He smiles obligingly, now in 2023, and says he recognises me, which I appreciate but doubt. 

The last eight years have shifted things for him – pared in the middle by the pandemic, whose influence still lingers in spite of the relative normalcy the world has returned to. Xavier has gone largely solo for the first time in years and is enjoying it. 

“It’s just going to be me on this trip. [The performance] will be very different from the last time I was in South Africa,” he says. “It’s a lot more than I ever did – it’s very busy. I’m using more stuff than I did in any band.” Xavier Rudd on his own is a tour de force – in recent tour footage he shifts seamlessly between a clutch of didgeridoos, a drum kit, the microphone, and an array of guitars. It’s hard to believe he can pull anything else out of the hat, but he does so continuously. 

His last album Jan Juc Moon saw him bringing synth into play for one of the first times, marrying his trademark acoustic variety with electronic influence. Marking two decades of his career, the album also felt like a shift into something new for him, deeper and richer in terms of its spiritual scope. 

“[Jan Juc Moon] was kind of part two of my Spirit Bird album for a lot of reasons,” he explains. The title track was written around Spirit Bird’s release but he didn’t include it. Life happened, he found some answers (“It’s a long story,” he says fleetingly and I get the feeling there’s a lot to it) and he came full circle in releasing it in 2021. It’s a deeply personal track, as much as it feels universal, sampling Xavier’s unborn son’s heartbeat in the opening bars. 

Most of his music has that quality to it – simultaneously personal and universal. I probe him about the influence of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia in his sound; a quality I feel is what makes his music so transcendent. He’s both heartfelt and insouciant. 

“It’s part of my music – the spirit of this land is very powerful, as it is in South Africa,” he says. “We come from a similar place in that sense, where the indigenous history is old and ancient and very centred around being part of the landscape, rather than owning the landscape […] It’s more about borrowing and existing with, as opposed to owning.”

For him there is no disjunction between himself and the people who walked the land before and it’s something he works into his sound inherently. 

“My albums are a reflection of time and place and experience.” he goes on. “As we go as human beings we learn and grow, we draw from things and we look backwards and look forwards. And my music is all of that. Our energetic connection to the planet is absolutely relevant and the energetic connection is our old people, our ancestors. So it’s absolutely important, and it lives and breathes in music.”

This is what makes Xavier’s music so relatable across the globe, even when it feels fiercely Australian: a genuine authenticity, a commitment to represent all facets of who he is, and a driving ability to carry this across in his music.

With a grin and a promise to play “Spirit Bird” on the tour we part digital ways. See you next year, Xavier.

Feature pic supplied by artist