Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The Old New Roots

Published in the June issue of Rhythms Magazine. Excerpt below.

With the release of a new record apiece, Ash Grunwald and Xavier Rudd discuss the adolescence of contemporary roots music in Australia.

Within the space of a week, I sit down in Brunswick Heads with Ash Grunwald and Xavier Rudd.  First of all, on a sunny Thursday, at the health food shop, I speak with Grunwald – he’s bouncing off the walls, he’s excited, he’s full of insight and chat and has just come from the beach where he was surfing with Rudd.  It’s a tight-knit musical community up here, they all hang out together.

Exactly a week later, I’m sitting in the park opposite the pub with Rudd.  He’s going surfing after our interview, and he too is in an ebullient mood, more than happy to talk, to really get into where his music comes from.  He’s barefoot and looks like he hasn’t shaved for a couple of weeks, but he looks content, and says as much, saying he’s found peace over the last short while, and it shows.

These two artists, both stalwarts and innovators of the roots music scene in Australia, are similar in so many ways: they’re both avid surfers, they both draw from the blues and old American folk music, they both live for the healthy lifestyle offered up by this part of the world; the outdoors, the sun, the surf, the love of life in a place where music is as much a part of the makeup as industry and infrastructure.

But they’re so different in other ways.  Grunwald is a lot more logical and ordered in his approach to making music, whereas Rudd acts more as a conduit for his musical ideas, saying “I’ve never actually sat down with the purpose of writing a song”.  Grunwald intentionally adds more to his music, seeing his musical evolution as something that he has shaped, whereas Rudd’s evolution is “just how it happens”.  They’re so different then, but their music has had the same result – it’s been responsible for turning a younger generation of music lovers onto roots music (or various aspects of), and it’s music which has captured hearts and minds the world over.

And so it’s refreshing to see them sitting, barefoot and fancy free, in little ol’ Bruns, chatting excitedly about their new records, about life, about roots music in general.  It’s real.


Rudd has just released his seventh studio record, Spirit Bird.  Grunwald, similarly, has just released his sixth, Trouble’s Door.  Both albums are different from their predecessors and both see these two artists stretching even further, yet another boundary reached within the wide-ranging confines of roots music, something both these artists strive to do with every new release – another similarity.

Calling it the ‘confines’ of roots music is hardly a phrase which rings true however.  In both interviews, we talk about roots music being just that, the roots, a starting point from which things grow, branch out, evolve, there are no boundaries.  Grunwald, for example, began as a straight up bluesman, but over the years has successfully introduced elements of hip hop, soul, and with Trouble’s Door, dub, to his mix, whilst still staying true to his beginnings.

Roots music, technically, is the base, the ‘old music’.  The blues, jazz, folk, world music, basically anything and everything covered within the pages of Rhythms.  Rudd however, takes this notion a lot deeper, likening the term more to his roots within music, as opposed to the roots of music itself.

“I like the term roots music,” he muses.  “All my career, people have been trying to pigeonhole me.  That was always the question, ‘What do you do, what style?’.  So when the term roots came along, in my mind I thought, ‘Yeah, that’ll do’.  To me, roots is the root of my tree, it’s the roots, it’s beneath the earth, not above the earth of what the music industry is, what the music is. It’s what you don’t see.

“So it’s the spirit that comes up from the roots to the tree, which is on top of the earth, influenced by everything in the music world and the world as it stands.  In this crazy place we live in, the tree is still standing and there’s still nutrients coming up from the roots, and whether you nurture those roots or not is your own path, musically.  I feel like I’m that tree, and I’m constantly feeding my roots.”

 If you were to listen to Rudd’s 2002 debut, To Let and then his new one, Spirit Bird, this reference to feeding his roots becomes obvious; the difference in these two bookending records is marked.  There are the obvious differences, the improvements in musicianship and songwriting, but then there are the differences that come with said feeding.  To Let was simple and elegant, fuelled by American folk music with an Australian twist.  Spirit Bird, by comparison, is heavily layered and brings in elements of African percussion, samples, reggae and soul.  Rudd’s roots have been hungry, and he’s not been shy about nourishing them.


Ash Grunwald’s roots journey seems to have been a more simplistic one, although no less enigmatic.  He sees roots music in the more literal sense, the aforementioned ‘old music’, which is obvious when you listen to how his own music has evolved since his debut, Introducing Ash Grunwald in 2002, which was essentially a blues album.

“Going back to when I was on Black Market Music, I’ve always been encouraged to strip it back, really get into the influences, keep it really raw,” explains Grunwald, who is a lot less esoteric than his counterpart. “And the thing I love about that, is that I was always sure my career, musically and in terms of genre, would unfold like it has, because I was consciously keeping it stripped back.”

 At the same time though, he’s been consciously pushing it forward.  As early as Give Signs (2006), Grunwald was introducing hip hop beats into his bluesy grooves (“I was mucking around with beats and blues, like, five years before my first album,” he laughs) – by the time he got to Fish Out Of Water (’08) and Hot Mama Vibes (’10), it was just a part of his sound, barely worth commenting on anymore.

As the pair of them have continued along on these musical journeys then, they’ve been joined by countless others, fans, people who have connected with this music, and as a result, have delved back through parents’ record collections and found the early players, the ones who influenced the likes of Rudd, Grunwald, John Butler, The Waifs, Blue King Brown and The Audreys, all bands who played a part in the roots music ‘movement’ from early this century.

“Well I’ve seen it happen, I’ve had young kids come up and say they’ve been listening to Howlin’ Wolf, and I’m stoked by that,” says Grunwald when I ask if he feels he’s had a hand in introducing this music to a new generation.  “And then you’ve got the wave of kids coming through with resonator guitars and stomp boxes… and I think that’s the nature of it, isn’t it, that you have an influence when you get to a certain level.  I’m stoked by that if that’s what you’re thinking, because who wouldn’t want to do that?”

The introduction of an old music through a modern take on it is an interesting concept, one which seems more apparent in roots music than any other form, particularly in Australia.  The modern take is, to be honest, a very mainstream take, but it’s one that has true beginnings, and people like Rudd and Grunwald see that, acknowledge it, revel in it, and, happily, pass it on.

Samuel J. Fell

Xavier Rudd's Spirit Bird is available now through Universal Music.
Ash Grunwald's Trouble's Door is available now through Shock Records.

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