Into the Koonyum Sun

Up-beat and down-to-Earth, Xavier Rudd’s roots, reggae and blues-infused world music has made him a favourite on the live circuit internationally. With vocals and didgeridoos firing on all cylinders, a slide guitar howling above the beat of his stomp box and various other bits of musical gear surrounding him, his multi-instrument approach is in itself a worthy spectacle. But it’s the calibre of the songs that really impresses.

Xavier Rudd’s new album, Koonyum Sun, sees him collaborating with bassist Tio Moloantoa and percussionist Andile Nqubezelo, under the name Xavier Rudd & Izintaba – the Zulu word for mountains. Tio and Andile, both from South Africa, also add vocal harmonies, often in several different languages. “It’s the most intense musical experience I’ve had by far and I’m loving it,” Xavier reveals.

Born in Victoria, Australia, Aboriginal culture has great importance in the 32 year-old’s life: “It’s been with me strongly since I was a kid,” Xavier explains. “I pay respect to it all the time. I draw from it regularly and I feel that its spirit comes through my music.”

Merging his heritage with that of his new rhythm section, the result is an enticing blend of Aboriginal and traditional African sounds, woven among the reggae flavours. Izintaba add a fresh rhythmic variation and strength, taking nothing away from the signature style of Xavier’s earlier work. “Us coming together, the connection, the music – it’s all been pretty organic,” he says.

After the feel-good slant of his earlier albums and the out-of-character heavier tone of 2008’s Dark Shades of Blue, this latest release gives an impression of balance and insight. There is a depth of emotion in Koonyum Sun beyond that of Xavier’s five previous studio albums. A story of personal crisis surfaces, particularly in Love Comes and Goes, where he sings with tenderness about “sweeping up the pieces of a broken nest,” lamenting that there is “no other pain like losing a soul mate.”

But there’s also much celebration, with the bouncy bassline and jingly banjo riff of Time to Smile making it a likely summer anthem. Despite writing the album during a time of suffering, it has a mood of rejuvenation and is full of Xavier’s gratitude for his life. “I’m very blessed,” he acknowledges. “I’m very lucky. I have a great journey.”

There’s a sense of letting go, of trust, which binds the album. I ask where it arises from: “There’s a bigger picture,” he says. “There’s a great creator and our ancestors are very influential… I think people often lose sight of that but I feel maybe things happen for a reason.”

Mid-point in the album, the atmospheric title track, Koonyum Sun, captures this feeling of acceptance: “I must now move through this great test of patience and grief / and trust what I know, that the future will show me the reasons for some of these things…” The track also features a line sung by one of the artist’s two sons, nine year-old Jaoquin.

Xavier explains how the song came about: “We had just done an [Aboriginal] cleansing ceremony, me and my boys. We were sitting by the fire, looking at the Koonyum mountain range and I started to play a riff,” he recalls. “And Jaoquin just started to sing the line [“If you could see exactly what I could see, it would be a great mystery”] over and over again. Then, I constructed my verses around it; around the day, the story, him singing.” Xavier dedicated the record to his sons, who, he says, are a great inspiration.

Something else close to his heart is his connection with the Earth, which comes through clearly in his songs. “My music’s a reflection of who I am – I grew up in the bush and I grew up surfing, sitting by fire and looking at the stars; those are the things that shaped me. That’s what I still do now when I’m home and it’s such a big part of my journey.”

Sky to Ground is a track that makes this connection known: “This place, my home from sky to ground,” he sings, “I’ve seen the universe connected from the inside out.” The song also mentions the unpredictable events that our changing climate is causing. So what does he make of the uncertainties of our time, I ask. “These are funny days,” he responds. “We can’t assume what they mean. Our minds won’t really have the answer, but usually what we feel is right, because that’s the spirit moving through us. I think the biggest problem culturally,” he continues, “is that too many people live by their minds these days, whereas traditionally people lived by their hearts.”

This is the very approach that Xavier takes with his songwriting. “I don’t think about shaping it,” he explains. “I don’t write anything down either. I just let it come out and the songs that are meant to stay; they stay,” he explains.

He feels a sense of purpose with his music, which often voices environmental issues and advocates the rights of indigenous peoples. However, the purpose, he says, is not necessarily about having a message: “I feel that my music comes from strong spirit. I don’t understand it in my mind and I don’t try to, but it’s very strong, very real.”

Consciously or not, through his music, Xavier calls us to share in the experience of finding peace through a deeper connection with our world, recognising our blessings. “It’s important to respect what our Earth has given us for thousands and thousands of years and try to preserve it for as long as we can,” he says. “This can be as simple as going everyday and just standing with a tree, paying respect to the tree, to the great creator and to the spirit.”

Koonyum Sun is out now, on Anti and SaltX Records. Xavier Rudd & Izintaba are currently on a world tour.