"I was always intrigued by any instrument as a child," says award-winning Australian singer-songwriter Xavier Rudd. "I never considered myself a guitarist. My music was my little intimate thing that I did on my own. I didn't feel the need to play it for people ... it's sort of funny for me."
In concert these days, Rudd, 31, stays anchored at center stage on guitar and harmonica, surrounded by a three-tube didgeridoo contraption (of different keys), a stomp box, and various percussion instruments.
"I always played everything," he says, speaking to City Paper last week on a day off on his Canadian tour between festivals in Québec City and Nova Scotia. "I'm just self-taught as a musician, and whatever was around, I just played. I don't think I was really drawn to anything in particular, but with the guitar thing, it was easy to strum some chords and support the melodies of the songs rolling around inside my head. Somewhere, I started gaining confidence. I started exploring times and instruments and went from there."
As a top-selling, critically-praised world-music/pop artist, Rudd has toured across the continents in recent years with the Dave Matthews Band, Jack Johnson, Ben Harper, and many others. In June, he and his band embarked on a major tour winding from Texas to Canada, through the eastern regions of the U.S., and onward to the West Coast. They headline the Music Farm in Charleston on Thurs. Aug. 6 in support of Rudd's fourth album, Dark Shades of Blue.
"It can be exhausting at times, but the positives really outweigh the negatives," Rudd says of the constant travel. "I love what I do, and it doesn't matter the venue. I love the energy of the big outdoor festivals, but sometimes it's cut a bit short. I think we've sort of finished the Dark Shades of Blue cycle. We've toured pretty steady for two years on it. But now, I've started doing something new."
Rudd's U.S. label Anti- describes Dark Shades of Blue as a mix of "guitar-driven jams that expand on a sound only hinted at on previous releases ... and distortion often supplants the squeaky-clean guitars heard on earlier works." With a new band behind him this year, one wonders what the blend of skills and influences might produce on the next collection.
"I just call it roots music, you know," says Rudd. In the American South, music fans toss the term "roots music" around as they describe old-time, blues, and country — anything from the fiddle music of the Appalachians and Jelly Roll Morton to the Carter Family and Woody Guthrie.
Rudd approaches the term more figuratively. "I do think the word 'root' defines it well," he says. "I think 'world' is a good description, too. I feel that it comes from the roots of a tree and the spirits that come with me."
Invgorated with spirit, song ideas, and remarkable experiences, Rudd's especially excited about moving ahead. "I'm working on brand-new material while we're touring, and we plan to record it on a new album and release it all in October," Rudd says. "That's where my head has gone, and it's really inspiring. I'm just having a blast."
Stepping away from his more solo-oriented style, Rudd's clearly excited about his current three-piece configuration with two new lineup additions from South Africa — bassist Tio Moloantoa and drummer Andile Nqubezelo, both of the late world/reggae singer Lucky Dube's backing band. Moloantoa and Nqubezelo also worked closely with players from Paul Simon's critically acclaimed South African band from the Graceland album and world tours in the 1980s.
"I gotta sort of pinch myself at times, playing with these guys," Rudd says of the new lineup. "I saw Paul Simon play during the Graceland tour when I was a kid. I remember that vividly, being touched by that show. Now, to sort of look back, and to play with people from the same school, it's pretty amazing. I'm just blown away by that."
Rudd's previous tours included percussionist Dave Tolley at most of the shows. "Dave and I played for a long time, and he had his own style of playing," says Rudd.
"He was the first musician I played with, outside of my solo work," he adds. "Dave was leaving, so I just sort of had my eyes out for new players, I came across these guys at a festival in Austria, and we just really gelled. We had a rehearsal in Australia, and it was just powerful and fell together. They're singers as well, so on this next album, it's gonna be pretty interesting ... it's going to be powerful and I'm really looking forward to it."
With the extra players on hand, ironically, Rudd has great opportunities to create more space within the songs. Despite the additional bass and percussion instruments on stage, the musical interaction between the songwriter and his new bandmates remains sensitive enough to allow for a unique sparseness.
"I still do everything I do, with the three-piece built around it, so it's a really solid sound," says the bandleader. "But I'm also a bit freer because I always wrote my guitar parts with bass in mind, 'cause I always played without a bass. Having a bass player now, there's more freedom for solos, which is cool."
Fans should expect some tasty solos, a variety of low-end grooves, a few psychedelic-jam leanings ... and exotic, gurgling, droning sounds from those didgeridoos.