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Xavier Rudd Offsets Life's Challenges With Joyful Noise

Xavier Rudd would seem to have a charmed existence. Traveling the world with an arsenal of instruments and a surfboard to boot, he creates a musical tapestry incorporating aspects of each diverse culture he encounters. It's a joyous blend of folk, blues, rock, reggae, and other world rhythms borne by a troubadour who has grown steadily from the small Australian town of Bells Beach to the ever-increasing number of concerts and festival appearances that occupy him for much of the year.

"It feels like 365," the 32-year-old musician jokes when asked how many days he plays annually. "I do a lot of dates, but I feel blessed to do what I do. There are a lot of artists who do good stuff in the world and don't get the opportunity to do what I have."

Part of Rudd's draw is watching him literally transform into a one-man band. Surrounded onstage with a collection of guitars, banjos, bass guitar, bells, percussion, and a didgeridoo (an instrument unique to the Australian bush country), he captivates his audiences by deftly switching from one instrument to another seamlessly.

"It wasn't really about learning it or even really thinking about it," Rudd insists. "The music's coming through me, and the instruments just lend themselves to that. Every instrument has a spirit, has a story, has its own voice, and when I'm writing, it becomes a part of that thing, so I simply take it in stride. I just started to blend things and work out ways of playing everything that was involved, and I came up with what I use today. It doesn't feel like something I've had to practice. I just go with what's easy... It sort of feels like dancing. All my limbs are involved, and it just flows out of me."

Rudd's latest album, Koonyum Sun, released last spring, finds him in the company of his first formal band, Izintaba, a Zulu word meaning "mountain." With South African bassist Tio Moloantoa and percussionist Andile Nqubezelo, he's found ideal collaborators for his ever-evolving musical journey. "They're just beautiful songs, beautiful spirits, beautiful people, beautiful musicians," Rudd effuses. "It was time. I've been playing for a long time on my own. So it's been amazing and very interesting also. My music is always changing."

Rudd's international synthesis of sounds was first captured in the studio in 2002 with To Let, and another five studio albums and at least as many live discs have followed. Along the way, he's become a leading advocate for ecological concerns. And what inspires him? "Life in general," Rudd says. "I've seen and done a lot over the years, and I come from a pretty powerful culture back home. I've been blessed with this journey. It's not always easy, but it's powerful, and my music reflects that. It's beautiful, but it can be hard too. I think it's been ten years now that I've been traveling. I miss my kids. I miss the things that I was used to. It makes me appreciate my roots all the more."

For a guy with such an expansive worldview, Rudd remains remarkably grounded. He traces his early influences to his father, from whom he inherited his rabid appreciation for music of all varieties — from roots guitarist Leo Kottke to Paul Simon to U2 to Neil Young. "My dad was pretty cool," Rudd recalls. "He took us to some Dire Straits concerts because he had good taste in music. He was a hard-working dude, and he didn't play music himself, but he had a great voice. We didn't have a radio in the car, so if we took a ride, he'd sing Neil Young songs. Then I formed my own sort of world, and I began to listen to a lot more music."

Not surprisingly, Rudd cites Bob Marley as having a major impact on his efforts. Solace, his second studio album, included an especially emotional cover of Marley's moving ballad "No Woman, No Cry." "Yeah, yeah, Bob Marley is definitely an influence. He writes amazing music. I just did a show with Al Anderson and Junior Marvin, the original Wailers. I was talking to those guys a bit about Bob and the whole scene, and it was pretty fascinating to go back in time a little bit."

Chatting on the phone from Seattle, Rudd is unquestionably laid-back, as evidenced by an unhurried, slightly distracted demeanor, made all the more elusive by his dense Aussie accent. Although it'd be easy to tag him as a carefree bohemian minstrel, Rudd concedes that the past year has been a troubled one, due mostly to the collapse of his marriage. "I've had some personal shit to deal with, and a lot of my energy has been zapped by that," he confides. "With all the trauma, I've been forced to focus on myself and get myself right again. And so I haven't been as focused on my activities as I normally am."

That conflict took a specific toll on his activism, which has embraced not only the environment but also a fierce advocacy for the rights of Aborigines and Australia's other indigenous people. As Rudd has grown more popular, he has also dealt with a wealth of professional conflicts, including being prevented from performing on television because he's deemed too political.

"People don't like me," he contends. "The industry doesn't like me. I have that sort of shit that follows me around. While some people definitely respect me in the home country, I'm treated with caution in the music industry. Australia's a funny country. There's a lot of shame. The things I talk about have never been talked about. They've been swept under the carpet. I stand up for some sticky issues because that's what I do; it's part of my thing. And that threatens people."

So maybe Rudd's existence isn't quite as charmed as it appears on the surface, but he's learning to make it better.

"You can't do everything, and I don't force myself to," he explains. "I let things flow, and the right things come at the right time. I can't sort of fully help everything all the time. And I think that's what I was doing. I was burning the candle at both ends doing a lot for country and culture. So indirectly, I was suffering, and what I realized was that I can't handle everything. There's been a lot of change in my life, and I'm focused now on doing one thing at a time."

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Lee Zimmerman

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