XANI is a violinist, songwriter, artistic director and more. Who has given their violin stylings to recordings including Paul Kelly, My Friend the Chocolate Cake, Tim Rogers, Clare Bowditch and more. Recently working with Black Swan State Theatre Company on ‘Xenides’ – this chat was recorded at Steam Junkies in Brunswick before they headed off on that adventure.
Their latest, is ‘Three’ a recording that fans of the artist Xani Kolac have been asking for them to release and now they have on vinyl no less.
In this extended chat Xani shares their beginnings, development, collaborations and future.
To listen, click the green ‘play’ triangle…
(Transcript of the XANI chat below, check to delivery in audio)
SHOW NOTES: XANI episode
Where to find the show to subscribe/follow:
….and many more. Search “radionotes Podcast” in your favourite podcatcher.
FEATURE GUEST: XANI
- Official Site
- Three – LP (on Bandcamp)
- The Twoks (official site)
- Jerusalem Artichoke (music clip)
- Episode 83 of Chat 10 Looks 3 (podcast)
- Queen Bitch – Geraldine Quinn
- My Friend the Chocolate Cake w/ Xani on (Bandcamp)
- Stand By Your Woman (archive)
- Xenides – Black Swan State Theatre Company (archive)
- SPIRE Ensemble (Facebook)
- Rolling Stock Recording Rooms (Official Site)
- Xani- EPK (video for ‘1’/Live)
- Dark Shade of Pink [LIVE] – tune from ‘Three’ (video)
[Radio Production – notes: Feature chat across full episode Suggested tune: something off ‘Three’ though may like to In Q: 0’18″(sting) Out Q: 54’21” …there to]
Theatre – worth seeing from where I sit:
Theme/Music: Martin Kennedy and All India Radio
Web-design/tech: Steve Davis
Voice: Tammy Weller
You can make direct contact with the podcast – on the Contact Page
(for direct quotes check to audio – first version by Courtney C at Rev)
John Murch: Xani, welcome to radionotes.
Xani: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
John Murch: In your neck of the woods here in Melbourne-
Xani: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Brunswick.
John Murch: … Victoria. You’re just on the eve of releasing some vinyl, and that gets me very excited because of the kind of music you do, which we’ll get to. The release is called ‘three’, which means you’ve had one and two. Let’s go back a bit first and I want to talk about that time where you’re playing the Irish fiddle.
Xani: I was seven and I began playing violin. And as well as learning the classical violin stuff, I have very creative parents. My mom and dad aren’t musicians but they’re graphic designers, visual artists. And they like to think outside the square. So they would always suggest that I go and try playing some other types of music, so I wasn’t always just playing classical violin. Trying to explore all the things the violin could do. And they found me an Irish fiddle teacher and they used to take me to the Geelong Celtic Festival.
Xani: And I remember seeing Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, a duo. So Martin Hayes is an Irish fiddle player, and Dennis Cahill is an American guitarist. And together they just make the most beautiful music, and they play 28-minute long medleys of Irish fiddle music. And I remember being so inspired. I bought their CDs and tried to learn it note for note. And this is like at the age of 9 and 10. It’s not something that I pursued after that time. I just did it for maybe four or five years.
John Murch: But there was definitely a kernel there. Was there not?
Xani: Yeah. I think the other thing I loved about it was the rhythmic pulse, so trying to play really fast was something that I wanted to do and try to be in time. And it’s something that I love a lot in my own practice is rhythm, groove. And I think that’s where that stemmed from.
John Murch: What was happening, you said at the age of nine that was sort of coming on through. What other things, I guess, were taking up your time, your head space?
Xani: I did a lot of extracurricular activities. I was doing swimming. I was doing dance. I really loved ballet and jazz and tap. And I used to choreograph my own dances at dance school. So I loved tap as well for the rhythmic stuff there. I was also super into school. I loved school. I loved going home and doing all the homework stuff. I also really loved studying things like Japanese. So I was learning a lot of Japanese at the time, too. So I was a pretty busy kid.
John Murch: How was your math at the time?
Xani: I was already at maths, actually. I remember winning a lot of the timetables competitions, where you have to say it the quickest. I loved doing fractions for some reason. I just loved fractions.
John Murch: Did that later grow into time signatures?
Xani: I haven’t been a massive fan of irregular time signatures. I did do a bit of it at uni, actually, it was something that violinists find quite accessible, I think, because we do a lot of reading music. So when I went to uni to do jazz, irregular time signatures did become a thing. But I did drop maths when I came to VCE when I was doing year 11 and 12. So even though I had bit of an affinity for maths, I didn’t pursue it.
John Murch: We are mentioning going back to the creative household, I guess, that was there at that nine younger year. What were they doing at the time that may or may not have influenced your process of becoming a musician, composer?
Xani: Well, I think for a long I would think very literally. And so Mom was always there to help me think more laterally. She was doing a lot of different stuff. So while I was growing up, she would take my sister and I to, she was studying at TAFE doing visual art and sculpture. So we’d be there sitting and watching her. She’d bring home life drawings, and we’d try to copy her and get out charcoal. I wasn’t a particularly good artist. My sister is, but I wasn’t. But I still loved it. And then she was doing kind of children’s book writing and play writing.
Xani: So she was always trying new things and thinking outside the square, again. So I think her main influence was just always going, “Well, what about if you thought about it like this? Try this.” And she’d always challenge me. I would never have thought of it, whatever she came up with. I would never have thought of it.
John Murch: Still a rock today for that kind of influence?
Xani: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yep. And that can be difficult sometimes when you get a lot of different opinions on your music. It can make you really confused as to what you wanted. But I can actually say now with where I’m at with my music, it feels like I’ve had to go through this big journey of trying all this other stuff and really all along all I needed to do was do the thing that comes very naturally.
John Murch: We’ll move away from the younger years very soon, but the question needs to be asked, particularly as it is your main instrument that’s played, when was and who gave you your first violin?
Xani: So I went to a school called Penbank, which is a little independent school in Moorooduc, which is down the Mornington Peninsula. And a lot of people don’t know what that is, but we’d call our teachers by their first names. A bit alternative like that. It was a very small school. There was probably like 130 kids in the whole school. This is primary school. So they had a really amazing music program. The principle of the school was a pianist. And she would start our morning meetings with singalong. So we’d always have music very much in our lives. We’d do big plays.
John Murch: You called them meetings.
Xani: Yeah. They called meetings. They weren’t called assembly. It was called meeting. The way that they operated instrumental music programs at Penbank was that if you started learning, you’d get a violin. The school would give you your first violin. And then mom and dad would pay for the lessons. And then at the end of primary school, you could take the violin with you. So I had very small violins. Yeah, it wasn’t until maybe year seven or eight where I actually went and bought my first real violin.
John Murch: But the first one-
Xani: Yeah, the tiny one.
John Murch: The absolute first one was through the school’s-
Xani: The school.
John Murch: … active engagement with your development at that level?
Xani: That’s right.
John Murch: Let’s go through to university, because I want to get that jazz out of the way. Because we could stay there for a while, and there’s so many other things to ask about. So when you were looking at the entry papers for university, what was jumping out at you?
Xani: Well, I first just will say that my mom and dad were so active in supporting me with music. So that was a big thing that I know a lot of kids don’t have. They don’t have … A lot of people don’t consider music as a worthwhile kind of pursuit at an early level. But my mom and dad were really supportive with it. So I went to the first open days for uni when I was in year nine. I knew that I wanted to go to VCA. At VCA the thing that really made me want to go there was that their jazz program wasn’t actually called jazz, per se. It was called improvisation.
Xani: So they would explore lots of different improvised musics, not just jazz, and that really interested me. Because compared to WAAPA over in Perth, it was jazz. Monash was predominately jazz. Boxhill was jazz. So VCA really made me want to kind of go there. So in year 9, year 10, year 11 and 12 I went every year to open day, ask heaps of questions and just loved the feel of the place.
John Murch: For our international listeners, that’s the Victorian College of Art, Melbourne Victoria. Who was your tribe? When you first arrived, is there someone or people that sort of stuck out at the college that you wanted to be part of, particularly musically I’m thinking?
Xani: At VCA it’s just super competitive, so they only let in a very small group of people. So in my year level, there was only 30 or so of us. So we were all the one tribe, really. In that first year, especially, we all bonded, because there was only 30 of us. We all made friends. We all went out all the time. I mean, there were little subgroups, but I don’t feel like I necessarily had a specific tribe. The other thing that was really interesting is that there was probably half mature-age students, half straight out of school leavers. I was still 17. I hadn’t even turned 18 yet. Eclectic mix of people. But everyone there played a bit part in my development and vice versa, I think. We all participated in each other’s lives in some way.
John Murch: Not to play favorites, but let’s.
John Murch: Was there anyone in that 30 that stands out?
Xani: Well, I think that my biggest memory or biggest important thing was this drummer, Manny Kechayas. So Manny Kechayas, I didn’t really know him very well, but he went to Eltham High School, which is … Blackburn High School where I went to, and Eltham High School, they were kind of rivals in the music scene. I didn’t really know Manny very well, but then we kind of got in touch because he had found out he had gotten into VCA and so did I, and we were kind of calling each other and going, “Did you get in? Did you get in?” And we were all nervous and excited, and we didn’t know anyone else who was going there.
Xani: So we only knew each other. Anyway, as we got to know other people, we still decided to hang out a bit and play together. And that’s where my duo, The Twoks was actually born. So Manny and I would jam together, instrumentals only. Yeah, he’d write stuff. I’d write stuff, and that’s where we started doing our first gigs.
John Murch: A combination of violin or strings and drums.
Xani: And drums. That’s it. I kind of started exploring loop stations and effects pedals.
John Murch: When did you start doing that? At 18?
Xani: No, that was a few years after. So Manny and I were just playing in other sorts of groups for a little while. But then we started just doing the loop station and drums in probably third year of uni. So I was mainly using an acoustic violin for the first couple of years at uni. And then, yeah, I got a loop station. Manny and I started just mocking around with that. And it wasn’t all of our stuff. It was just that it was groove. It was just rhythmic and tempo. And Manny would play with glasses and weird instruments. Yeah, we did a lot of exploration, and we had a really great kind of musical relationship.
John Murch: When did the looping come? What is the looping story that you were going to pick up on?
Xani: I think it’s interesting how many violinists and string players, cellists, go into looping. And my theory, or the reason that I went into it, the thing is is the loop station came first. I was hanging out up in Castlemaine with my violin maker, Paul Davies.
John Murch: Because we all have a violin maker.
Xani: He’s not mine, but he made my violins.
John Murch: Paul Davies, right.
Xani: Paul Davies. That’s right.
John Murch: So not the ABC scientist?
Xani: No, no, no.
John Murch: But could well be.
Xani: But a scientist of a kind, yeah.
John Murch: Yes.
Xani: He’s based in Melbourne now, but then he was based in Castlemaine. And I used to go up and get things done to my instruments and hang out. He’s very creative as well, and we have very long chats just talking about instruments and music. Anyway, this particular time he was like, “Xani, you should try this loop station.” And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know that I’d know how to use that.” Anyway, I plugged everything in, and it was pretty shocking, actually. It was pretty bad. But for some reason I was like, “This could be really cool.” So when I got back, I bought one. But the reason that I pursued it is that there’s something that is a real struggle and was always a struggle for me at uni playing jazz, and that is that the violin just struggles to cut above all other instruments.
Xani: So when you’re playing with guitar, drugs, and bass, even if you’re really loud and amplified, it’s still just got a thinner tone than every other instrument. It’s not like a saxophone, which has a really wide, fat, beautiful rich tone. Violin has a beautiful rich tone, but just not against all those other instruments. So the loop station provided me with a string orchestra to play with. And that’s where violin sounds the best, with other strings. That’s the thing that gets you. You know, when you hear strings and you’re like, “Oh my god, strings.” It’s because it’s playing with other strings. So the loop station was a really cheap string orchestra for me to hire at gigs.
John Murch: This at the same time that you’re working within the jazz field.
John Murch: So using a classical-ish instrument and saying, “I’m going to use this technology to then bring it back to the jazz.”
Xani: Yeah. Well, to bring it back to improv, because I never really did jazz music with the loop station. I kept that to the traditional thing. But I did a little bit of jazz and then I knew that it wasn’t necessarily for me. And I still play jazz every now and again. And I do like dipping back into the Melbourne jazz scene every now and again, but yeah. There’s problematics with jazz as well.
John Murch: We’re currently in conversation with Xani, who I believe that’s how you release your pop releases is just under your name.
Xani: Yeah, yep. Xani. I just decided to go off and try my own thing. And what I’ve put out are three incredibly different offerings.
John Murch: Jerusalem Artichoke-
John Murch: … is one, and I knew next to nothing regarding this vegetable/fruit thing. And then I had the pleasure of listening to Chat 3 Looks 10. And Leigh Sales seems to cook it the best.
Xani: There you go. I didn’t know that.
John Murch: So what’s your connection with the vegetable/fruit, I have no idea what it is?
Xani: I guess while I was exploring … I wanted these recordings that put out under my own name to explore really different stuff. So I knew I wanted to start with the americana country thing, and I went to Nashville, and I came back and I made this first EP. Then I wanted to explore my pop songwriting and start to look at creative ways of curating an EP, rather you put instrumental into loops, and then I wanted to do a completely instrumental thing. So I could step back and go, “Okay, where’s my heart? What do I want to do?”
John Murch: And from the public’s point of view, that could be somewhat confusing, because it’s under the same name. But what you’ve done so smartly has gone, “It’s all me. This is all my sides, and guess what? There might be a few others coming though later.”
Xani: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
John Murch: Let’s go back to number one, because you mentioned Nashville and that you actually went to Nashville.
John Murch: What was the draw card of the americana for you? Because it’s very popular these days. But at the time that you were doing it, it would have still been becoming popular in Australia I’m talking.
Xani: Well, when I got to Nashville I actually noticed there’s heaps of Australians that go over there and try to make it over there. So it was definitely not a new thing when I went there. But I guess coming back to that thing that I was talking about, and it’s so interesting to me, because sometimes I have no idea what people think of the music that I make. I’m like, “What does anyone even think?” But that thing of being this jazz university, improvisation university, feeling like the violin doesn’t really fit, like, “How do I make it fit? It’s not doing what I want it to do. Where does the violin fit?”
Xani: And then having done The Twoks for eight, nine years and that being a project that is very difficult to put in a category, to describe, to give it a genre. And I was just finding it really frustrating doing all these different things that didn’t have a place anywhere. I’d try to send it to contemporary classical people, and they’re like, “It’s too pop.” I’d try to send it to pop, and they’re like, “It’s too world music.” Try to send it to world music, and they’re like, “It’s not world music enough.” So I didn’t fit anywhere. So then I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna go and try and find where the violin fits perfectly.
Xani: So I decided americana. That’s it. And just note that I have avoided my whole life learning how to play The Devil Goes Down to Georgia, because I always get asked to play it. And I was like, “If I refuse to learn it, I can’t play it for anyone.” So I still don’t know this track. But I went over to Nashville and decided to see how the violin fits in. And I took my recordings. And again they said, “It’s too pop for americana. It’s too….” But it was so inspiring the amount of violists I saw over there that were incredible that were using jazz harmony to play through these country tunes.
Xani: Every violinist was incredible. They’re not out of tune playing crappy double stops. They’re in tune playing amazing double stops. So it was really inspiring. So I came back and decided to make an americana record. And for the first time, it was played on programs like Twang, country music program on Triple R. It was played in Roots ‘n’ All kind of programs. It had a place.
John Murch: So they get excited about that. They see that you release a second release and go, “Well, what’s this?”
John Murch: And then you’re back to square one.
Xani: Yeah, because I’m like, “Yeah, it was cool. But it’s not” … My big thing is how do I innovate? How do I keep trying something new? And doing this americana record didn’t feel like I was being true to myself. I’m still really proud of the songs that I put on there, because I love songwriting. But was I giving anyone anything new? I don’t know. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll do my pop songs.” So this is where Jerusalem Artichoke came into it, because I didn’t want to write a whole bunch of songs that were just about love or losing someone or whatever.
Xani: So I decided to explore a few different things. So on that record, three of the tracks are about things that aren’t to do with love necessarily. So Jerusalem Artichoke, was just a day going to the fruit shop and bought some Jerusalem artichokes and the lady just was so confused as to why I was buying all these Jerusalem artichokes, and she was asking, “What are you gonna do with these?” And I just thought it was so fascinating that the fruit shop lady is asking me what I’m gonna do with this vegetable. So I went home and I wrote a song.
John Murch: Like, “Your money’s fine, but I’m just concerned you’re not gonna actually eat it.”
Xani: Yeah, “What are you doing with those?” So I went home and wrote a song about them and then made soup.
John Murch: Oh, so it wasn’t for a film clip? It wasn’t a shot or anything else?
Xani: Well, because you know I went to make a film clip about the song, and Jerusalem artichokes weren’t in season when I was doing the clip, so I couldn’t include any Jerusalem artichokes in the clip.
John Murch: I don’t remember seeing any in there.
John Murch: I saw some lovely expressive ladies in there.
Xani: Yep. It’s lettuces, tomatoes, chocolate, spaghetti. No Jerusalem artichokes.
John Murch: So I’m trying to learn about this fruit/vegetable. Don’t get me in trouble with that thing. And there’s none in the film clip to educate me about it.
John Murch: How does one best cook or eat this particular article that I’ve never experienced?
Xani: Yeah. Well, it’s kind of like potatoes, I guess. It’s actually a sunflower. It’s the root of a sunflower. But, yeah, you just peel it and then you can roast them, then pulp them up, put them in a soup with a bit of potato as well.
John Murch: Three different releases, three different styles, but the one thing that connects all of them is you.
Xani: And a load of violin.
John Murch: Yeah, yeah. But that violin is played through of you and what you wish to express.
Xani: That’s right.
John Murch: How come it’s so diverse? Is there a lot going on that you need to work through?
Xani: I think that when we start talking about the third one, a lot of this will make sense. But I don’t know if you’ve ever felt this, but sometimes when something comes very naturally to you, you think, “Ah, well, I’m not working hard enough.” Sometimes there’s this assumption that as an artist you have to suffer. If there’s no suffering, then are you a real artist, right? So I’m not saying that I’ve suffered but that I’ve gone, “Well, I have to make something that, it has to be difficult for it be good.” So I have tried to shape a whole bunch of stuff or try to be a pop song singer or writer when I’m a violist. That’s what I’ve spent my whole life doing, playing violin, making stuff up. Yeah.
John Murch: When we get to the third release, we’ll get there. I’m sure that we will pick up those threads, and it’ll all make sense. Before we do that though, which song did you work with Tim Rogers on his An Actor Repairs LP?
Xani: Well, I played violin on quite a few of the tracks, and then did BV. So the ones where I’m playing mainly a lot of violin is Umpires Boy or Umpires Son. The Bug, that intro that starts with the vocals and stuff. So I just kind of sprinkled stuff everywhere. But really the magician behind that album is Shane O’Mara, who was the engineer and producer of that record. And I put all this stuff over it, and when I listen to it, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, he just picked the right bits and made it into something super incredible.”
John Murch: Shane’s done a number of records with Tim now. You mentioned earlier you’ve known Mr. Rogers for quite a while-ish now. What is behind the unique method is Tim Rogers from a musician’s point of view? What is it like to work with him? What is he really like?
Xani: I think that Tim has been incredibly generous and supportive of my career and my violin playing. He’s always included me in projects that I really get a chance to do my thing. And I always feel very honored when he asks me to come play with him. He’s an incredible entertainer. To see how he can, like when he’s on, he is so on. It’s really quite something. The first big kind of show that I did with him was he … I was just doing a theatre show with him at Malthouse, and that’s when I first met him. And after that finished, he invited me to come play with You Am I at Cohen Plains. And I had never done anything that huge. And we walked down to the stage and there was like so many people there.
John Murch: How many, tens of thousands?
Xani: I’m gonna admit something. My estimation of crowds is not a skill that I possess, so I don’t know.
John Murch: But it was a park, though?
Xani: It was heaps of people.
John Murch: And it was You Am I. So it’s park, was You Am I –
Xani: It was You Am I.
John Murch: … there would have been in the top five on the bill.
Xani: Absolutely. It was nighttime. They were one of the headliners. Everyone was watching. And everyone was going nuts, because it’s You Am I, and Tim loves to dish it out to people and get them all riled up. And he would hate me to say the word rockstar. He hates being called rockstar, but it was such a rockstar moment. I was just like, “Oh my god. He’s a legitimate rockstar.”
John Murch: Let’s talk about collaborations. Lucky enough to be listening to Myf Warhurst, who now does ABC local radios in the afternoon now. She was talking with someone that you collaborated on, and the way they spoke about the way you are keen to collaborate, before I mention the person and the collaboration with them, let’s talk to you about collaborations more generally.
John Murch: How do you approach your desires, your vibe on doing collaborations? Is there a switch that needs to be turned on inside you, or is it just an automatic yes?
Xani: Well, for a very long time, I decided to do no collaborating. So my career started collaboratively at uni when I started playing with a band called Martin Martini and the Bone Palace Orchestra. That was my first kind of propulsion into my career, essentially. And then I went on to play with My Friend the Chocolate Cake. And I was playing with lots of different people and had no time to refine my own thing. So I didn’t know who I was as a musician. I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue. So I decided to quit everything and just focus on The Twoks.
John Murch: Those collaborations, were they a great education teaching point, or were you just doing what you needed to do?
Xani: They were crucial. They were so important. I still think back to all those experiences.
John Murch: Because I’m hearing My Friend the Chocolate Cake.
Xani: That was incredible, because there’s a band that had been together for over 20 years when I joined. Having a band stay together for that long is quite a feat. So, yeah, it was such a big learning curve. We were touring all over Australia. We were touring internationally. I learned so much. And they let me do my thing, too. When they heard how I played, they were like, “Okay, Xani, do a solo here and improvise this.” Yeah. I was always given a bit of freedom. And when people learn to trust me with that, I think that I can contribute better. So talking about collaboration, like when people collaborate with me, the kind of more freedom I get, I feel like the more successful the collaboration is.
John Murch: When did the yes switch come back? Was there something where you went, “Actually, I can continue doing my stuff, but I can also dip my toe in these waters”?
Xani: I had kind of hit a point where I felt very … It was a really difficult time. I had had a really tough year. A lot of things had gone wrong personally. It was a time when I decided maybe I would give up music, and I was gonna go into sonography.
John Murch: Remind me what sonography is. It’s not where you-
Xani: Ultrasound technician.
John Murch: Okay. It’s not when you snuggle people.
Xani: No. I just decided that I was gonna go and do that. And I started going back and trying to learn math methods. So I had bought a textbook and I knew that I had to get these units done. So I went, I was fully like, “That’s it.” I had tried so much to make something work, and it wasn’t working. And I felt like a lot of the light had gone out in my career. Because I’d put all my eggs in one basket. Anyway, I decided maybe I should … It was kind of where I decided to do my own thing. I was like, “What if I do my own project, and I only had myself to kind of rely on to collaborate with other people. I’ll have to go out and work with others.” And my relationship had fizzled out, and that was really difficult. When I started feeling this again, I was empowered, and working with other people meant that I was back in the scene. I was back talking to other musicians more. Because I had been isolated, I realized, for maybe five years.
John Murch: Had you actually tied your music, your life in music, to the personal life?
Xani: Yes. Yes. But I don’t know which died first. Yeah. It was very complicated and messy and everything was intertwined, and I just couldn’t … Really, when I look back on it, it was myself standing in the way. And that’s often been the theme. When I look at something and I go, “Why isn’t this happening?” It’s because I’m there in the way.
John Murch: Now, is that in the way of the creative process, the musical output, is that what we’re talking?
Xani: No, no. In the way of over-complicating something that doesn’t need to be complicated, like when I got to recording three, as I will get to.
John Murch: Oh, yeah. We’ll get there.
Xani: Yeah. We’ll get there.
John Murch: So you’re saying you were going completely on a different field. But then you came back, a switch, said, “I need to do my thing, but also collaborate?
Xani: Yes. Yeah. Someone said to me, because at this point I was like, “Maybe I need to move to a different place. Maybe I need to go to New York.” And when I went to Nashville, I was looking whether I should relocate to Nashville. It’s like, “I’ve got to get out of here. I gotta go somewhere else. Where should I go?” And I was telling this person about this, and he said, “You know, I sh*ts me about Melbourne musicians. It’s all the good ones end up leaving. And then Melbourne loses another musician. And that made me feel, “Yeah, this is my home. It’s always been my home. It’s my community. And it’s an amazing theme for musicians. Why don’t I try to do everything I possibly can by engaging with the community again?”
Xani: And now I think the most important thing to me is the community that I’m a part of. The switch came when I decided to actively seek collaborations, to be the one who asks someone to collaborate with me. And I guess I’ve got this weird thing in my brain that’s like, “No one’s gonna want to work with me. Why would anyone want to work with me?” Which is ridiculous.
John Murch: There wasn’t an ego thing that, “I’m too good for them.” It was the other way around.
Xani: Yeah. Well, I wanted to pursue my own thing definitely, and that comes from a, “I want to do it this way,” because I’m very controlling. But I also was very scared starting this new thing of initiating collaboration, because I didn’t think that anyone would want to work with me unless I was paying lots of money.
John Murch: Right. I’ll get back to this yarn. So I was listening to Myf Warhurst. She was interviewing someone for the Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
John Murch: And they had name dropped, the guest had name dropped how wonderful you were.
Xani: Oh, that’s nice.
John Murch: And other beautiful things. The person I’m speaking of is Geraldine Quinn. The show is Queen Bitch. How did this come about though?
Xani: Actually, this is a perfect segue, because artists have a bit of insecurity sometimes like we put it all out there, and Geraldine was posting on Facebook one day about needing musicians to work with on her show. And the guy who recorded my album that I’m releasing, Myles Mumford, tagged me in it. And she wrote this comment and was like, “Obviously, I would love Xani to do it, but she would be way too busy. She wouldn’t want to do it,” like, “Why would she want to work with me?” And I was just reading it like, “What the shhh=i…?” I was like, “Of course, Geraldine. I would love to be in your show.” As it turned out, there was only one show that I could do, and it was awesome of her to be flexible with that.
Xani: So that would have been really difficult, because it’s a comedy show. It’s scripted and there’s music, and she was still like, “No, I still want you to be involved with me,” can I make this one show? I’m quite inspired and in awe of Geraldine. I think that she is an incredible storyteller, singer. She’s got a multiplicity of talents. I’ve seen her do stuff for a long time. She used to do the Asylum Seeker Resource Center gigs, and that’s where I first met her, Casey Bennetto and stuff. And so she’d always be there. She was inspiring as well as from the perspective of being a strong woman.
Xani: I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to do what I could to help her to … It was just a nice feeling to go, “I can help someone like her by being a part of this. And she is amazing to work with, too. Even though it was coming together like quite … She was like, “Don’t worry, just trust me. I’ve got it. It’s gonna come together.” And I never felt like, “What are we doing? What’s happening? I don’t know what you want.” She just was so organized.
John Murch: In simple terms, it may not be simple, what did she give Xani?
Xani: I love seeing someone’s idea come to life. And when I feel like there’s a space to do so, I am very vocal about what I think about a project. I’ll go, “I don’t know if that makes sense. I don’t know why you’d do that.” And Geraldine would open that space up and just to see someone … I think it was an inspiration thing. I was just like, “Yeah, that’s how you put something together. That’s how you put on a show.” She works very independently most of the time. That’s tough, but she works really hard.
John Murch: You’re also the creative mind of an all female backing band.
Xani: Years ago I was invited to perform for a concert that was celebrating women in music, female singer/songwriters.
John Murch: Great.
Xani: Actually, first I was like, “Uh, why are you asking me?” Because I’ve never really called myself a singer/songwriter. I’m a violinist and I sing my own songs.
John Murch: So putting women to the front, which is great. Performing songs their own original compositions possibly?
Xani: That’s right. Yeah.
John Murch: Right. So you’re in.
Xani: Great. Yeah. So I was like, “Absolutely. I’d love to do this.” Anyway, I was performing and there were these three other women, Ali Barter, Sophie Koh, Leah Senior. Got up to play, and I just remember at a point I was looking back at the band and like, “Wouldn’t it be better if this event had female musicians in the backing band?” because they were all guys. Great players, great guys, but they had kind of put the thing together. And I was like, “Well, we need females in music. We need more women in music. But not just as the singers/songwriters. We need to make sure we’re acknowledging the female instrumentalists as well.”
Xani: So I was like, “Ah, I wish someone would do that.” Then I was like, “Oh, maybe I should do that. Ah, okay. Cool. Let’s make this happen.” So I was like, “Great. What do I want to do?” And my original idea was to have all female band and only male singer/songwriters. Wouldn’t that be really cool if these guys could look back at their band and it was all women? But I’m gonna need some high profile names. I don’t think I can do this by myself. And I haven’t been very good in the past for asking for favours. I try not to do it, because I don’t want to be annoying.
Xani: But anyway, I rang Kenny who is a producer at Renegade who did the Rockwiz shows. I called Kenny, and I was like, “Look, I’ve got this idea. Do you want to help me? I was thinking of putting it on at Bennet’s Lane,” which is this small Jazz club in the city. It’s not open anymore, but it was back then. So Kenny was like, “Love it. Great idea. Leave it with me. I’ll get back with you.” I was like, “Oh, okay.” Anyway, he called me. Turns out Kenny had gone to the art centre, pitched this idea, and he had organized a date at Hamer Hall, like the biggest concert hall in Melbourne.
Xani: And I was like, “Oh, Kenny. I don’t know. This is my little idea.” He was like, “Nah. We’re gonna make it happen.” So I called, started calling people. I called Tim, and he was like, “I’d love to be involved. I’d love to support you, Xani.” I called Harry Angus from The Cat Empire, and it was amazing that I could call these people that I had worked with and that they were into it. And we had Jen Cloher, Frazer A Gorman, Kate Ceberano, Kate Miller Heidke, Davey Lane, Steve Kilbey.
John Murch: Now, these are no small fries.
Xani: No, these are massive names.
John Murch: Of course Kilbey there of Kilbey Kennedy and of course The Church.
Xani: Yep. Yep. So I was shitting myself essentially. Tex Perkins as well. So I took it upon myself to put together these 14 piece all female band. So four piece one section, string quarter, and then-
John Murch: 14 piece.
Xani: 14 piece female band. And then I had 20 songs that I had to arrange for a 14 piece band. And I’ve never arranged for this kind of band before. I have never been so stressed in my life. I was having a panic attack because I was having a panic attack. And I put this thing together and it went incredibly well. It was called Stand By Your Woman. And anyway, it went so well that I decided to make this a permanent collective. And I called it SPIRE Ensemble, because we did our first gig at the Arts Centre, which has a SPIRE, and it stands for sound and performance inspiring recognition and equality.
Xani: These women now want to be a part of this collective in doing the arranging. So I don’t want it to be a hierarchical theme where I’m doing all the direction. The women in the group do arranging as well. So I’ve done quite a few gigs now. The beautiful thing is that from there, the guitarist in the band now works with Kate Ceberano. Other girls in the show, like the drummer went on and played with Jess Ribeiro who we did a show with. So from this, and this was my main objective that the big name artists would see these women instrumentalists and employ them.
John Murch: The artists that you’d organized to be at the front, male and some female, turned around to an all female backing unit and went, “I want you.”
Xani: That’s right. Yeah. Because a lot of the time the reason that women don’t get the gig is because these artists don’t know they exist. Right? But they do exist, so you just gotta create a forum for that to happen. And since then I feel like it’s done that. And so, yeah. I expanded it to make it, no, not just men singing at the front, also women, because women need to see that, too. Women need to employ women as well. It’s not just men that need to employ women in their bands.
John Murch: We’re currently speaking to Xani. Her latest release that you can get, which is also now on vinyl is called 3. It’s the third one. And so we’ve mentioned previously in this chat that it’s different than the other two. But what’s the first ingredient for you when it comes to actually putting some music together? Is it the experience that you engage with? Is it the actual rhythm? What is it that comes first?
Xani: Well, I think that it’s important to know that all the recording projects I’ve done, I haven’t had a lot of money. So money means that you’re restricted in kind of how you can approach the project. So unlike composing or gigging, you can practice it. You can try new things. Recording, you have to pay up, and you go in and you just hope for the best. I’ve never been in a situation, like in a position where I can go in to a studio and go, “Okay, what am I gonna do? What am I gonna write? Am I gonna write first? Am I gonna do this?” And I try different things every time.
Xani: I also believe in the spontaneity of music. And I always get demo-itis. So often I’ll record something at home and I’ll go, “Yep. This is what I want to record,” just on my phone, something shitty. And I love that version. And then I go and record it, and it’s nothing like it. I haven’t got a trusted tried and true way of going into the studio. In fact, I’m not a massive fan of going into the studio. I prefer to play live. And I don’t think that I’ve nailed how to go into the studio. I don’t think I’ve nailed any part of it. I’ve worked with lots of amazing people, and they’ve all done an incredible job. But I still haven’t ever heard back what I want to hear back until 3.
John Murch: What is 3?
Xani: 3 is a release that I didn’t plan on making. I didn’t plan on it being like this, but saying yes to more collaborations and I had been trying all these different EPs and different types of music. And then I thought, “Look, just as a bit of fun, I’m gonna go into the studio by myself and I’m gonna record me just improvising with my loop station.” I know that this is just ridiculous because it’s something that comes very naturally to me. And it’s coming too easy to me, then it’s not worth doing. But I guess I was trying to find music that I really loved out there, and I wasn’t finding it. And what I wanted was violin, cool grooves, sounds, looping.
John Murch: Which comes direct to what I was gonna say to you before. Even if something does come easy to you, isn’t there some value in that expression being shared to the world for the world to do what they want with it?
Xani: That’s right. That’s what I had not thought of. And I was-
John Murch: Where was your mother when you made it?
Xani: Mum’s been trying to tell me this for years. She’s like, “Uh.” And when I came out with it she’s like, “Oh my god.” Because I’d been listening to Andrew Byrd, I’d been listening to Zoe Keating, and I loved all of it, but it just wasn’t what I really wanted to hear which was just violin, just awesome, just energetic, free, lots of bowing, lots of notes, all that stuff that I do all the time. And I just thought, “Well, I should just record it, because people keep going, “Hey, do you have anything that has this on it?”
Xani: And I was playing heaps of solo shows and doing my songs and then popping in a made up instrument in the middle, and they’re like what’s that instrument? And I’m like, “I don’t have a recording of that.” So I started thinking about this recording. I booked it in and I thought, “I better write some stuff down. I’ve gotta prepare for this.” Anyway, I was getting closer and closer, and I just was having no inspiration plan anything. And it was stressing me out. Then I just decided, “You know what? I’m not gonna plan anything. I’m just gonna go in the studio, and I’m just gonna make everything up, and if it doesn’t work it doesn’t matter. I’m just gonna go in, spend two hours playing whatever I think, and I’m get it filmed. It’s all there in case it turns out all right.” So I went in-
John Murch: A little bit of optimism.
Xani: Yeah. Like, go on in and I had my friend come along and film it. I had all my setup, and I turned the lights off. And then for like two hours I just played. I just made stuff up. And it was so fun. It just gave me everything that I wanted out of music.
John Murch: So music was fun.
Xani: Music was fun.
John Murch: And a little while ago you gave it up because it had suddenly become very dark.
Xani: Yes, yeah. That’s right.
John Murch: Time equals-
Xani: Yeah. That’s right. I’ve kind of had to go through all of that to get to this point. And then I sat with Myles, and we mixed it. That was fun. And usually, like I said, I don’t like going to the studio because I’m like, “Ah, so sterile and” … Known Myles since uni days. He was working as an engineer at VCA for a little bit. He was actually the one who said to me, “Why do Melbourne musicians leave and go overseas?” So he’s always been around in my career, and I hadn’t really done very much with him. I thought he’d do a really good job, because he just opened up his studio, Rolling Stock Recording Rooms in Collingwood.
Xani: So I listened back, and I was like, “Ah, I love this. This is great. Listen to that. I can’t believe I did that.” Because when I improvise and make stuff up, I kind of go in to a bit of a … I get very absorbed in the music, and it’s a state for me. And then I come out and I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know what happened,” and then I listen back and I go, “Oh, that’s cool.” I was like, “Great, done.” And I gave a copy to Mum and Dad, and they were just like so emotional like, “This is who you are, Xani.” They were saying, “This is who you are. This is what you should do.”
Xani: And I was still so uncertain about it, but then I thought, “This is something that I really love even after I’ve recorded it. No demo-itis, because I hadn’t done it before. And I thought, “I’m gonna put this on a vinyl. I’ve been waiting to put something that I’ve done on vinyl, but I didn’t want to put something I wasn’t super happy with, and this I was.
John Murch: What was in your mind as your were playing this?
Xani: Nothing. I was just playing. And I had no pressure because I hadn’t told anyone I was gonna do this. I was only in there for a day, so I wasn’t gonna break the bank. There was just no pressure on me. I hadn’t written anything. I was just completely free. I got to feel the feeling that I feel when I perform onstage, and that’s the feeling that I love.
John Murch: This has been released on vinyl. Very excited for them. Where is the vinyl connection? Here’s the warmth of vinyl come from?
Xani: The first vinyl … I bought a vinyl player when vinyl was starting to come back in, and was like, “Okay, I’m gonna go and be a vinyl collector now. And the first one that I bought was Joni Mitchell live, the song that I wish I had written years, A Case of You. I didn’t hear Joni Mitchell’s version first. I heard Dianna Krall’s version first, and I loved it. I really loved it. A lot of people would be like, “Oh, Xani, you can’t say that,” but I don’t care. I loved that version. And then I heard Joni Mitchell’s recorded version, and I didn’t like it.
Xani: Anyway, I bought this vinyl and it was her doing that song live, and oh my god. It was so beautiful, but made even more beautiful because I had just bought new speakers. It was on vinyl. It was from back in the day when vinyl was pressed really well. So from there, I was like, “Vinyl is really special.” I didn’t want to just put anything on it. I thought, “When I put something on vinyl, I want to put something that means a lot to me that I’m really proud of.” And I don’t know if I’ll put anything on vinyl again. I just wanted this one thing.
John Murch: This album, 3, is extremely, as we’re hearing just from the time, very important to you.
Xani: I was really worried, because I think that the music that I make, it’s not a standard type of music. So for an engineer, they can’t just do all the tried and true stuff. They have to think about things differently. Same with the mastering engineer. Same with the people who are cutting the vinyl, because there’s so much dynamic in it. So when I got it, it started feeding back, and I was like, “Oh my god. Oh my god.” There were heaps of crackles. I was like, “This is not sounding good. I can’t put this out. I can’t put this out.”
Xani: Anyway, it turns out that I had my speakers too close to the thing and all this stuff. And I was like, so that was my first feeling. And then I was just like, “This is the beginning. I can’t believe it’s taken me long to get here, but this is the beginning now for me that I have decided” … I haven’t found my voice. I thought that I was looking for my voice. I haven’t found it, I’ve just gotten out of the way and let myself speak.
John Murch: Easy way as well.
Xani: It was so easy. I don’t know where I got this idea that it has to be hard. When I did my first solo show, I tried these songs out just to see how they went. And I was like, “Is anyone even liking this? I don’t know if anyone’s liking this.” And afterwards, even Mom and Dad were, they’ve been to every gig that I do, and they were like, “It was great. It was you.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s all I need to do, just be myself.”
John Murch: What’s the next decade looking like for Xani?
Xani: I want to give this solo violin thing a big chance and I think one thing that can kill a project is when you forget about the artistry. And so my approach with this has been to always just think about that first and foremost. So I want it to be fun the whole time. I want it to feel good and natural and not push it to be anything else. So I don’t have necessarily a plan for it, whereas for everything else I’ve always I’ve always had a plan. This one I’m just like, “Let’s see what happens.”
John Murch: Do you sense by not having a plan, are you confident within yourself, and I feel you may well be, but I don’t want to put words in your mouth, that now that you’ve got this record called 3, you’ve got your work. You’ve got a body of work on a record that you know what you are and who you are as a performer that you’ll be able to get through some other things because of that?
Xani: Yeah. And I kind of made a deal with myself that rather than … Because I often take on a lot of big projects and they’re challenging and new and stressful. And then I don’t take on other projects that are easy and fun. So now I’ve decided there has to be balance.
John Murch: A bit of a theme.
Xani: Yeah. That I have to, even when I take on a hard thing, I have to take on an easy thing.
John Murch: Because by doing that, you’ll have a representation of, let’s not call it easy if you don’t mind.
Xani: Yeah, yeah.
John Murch: But of an achievement that’s actually you that is an expression of you. Which it happens, that expression is easy, because you’re talented.
Xani: Well, it’s me speaking.
John Murch: It’s embracing your talent.
Xani: It’s me, yeah. Yeah, exactly. And I think I’ve also opened up my career doing the SPIRE project I’m doing a lot more music direction. I’m writing music for theater now. I’ve also got The Twoks that I do. Then I’ve got my solo thing. And then recently I’ve just been, I went back to uni and did a bit of study. I studied indigenous studies and I found my love for writing again. So I feel like I’m in a place where the next decade is just gonna be exciting because I’ll have a balance of stuff that I love.
John Murch: Going back to study to do indigenous studies?
Xani: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
John Murch: Missy Higgins gave up music to do indigenous studies.
Xani: So I did my course for 12 weeks. I just finished. It was full-time study while also doing full-time music. So it was-
John Murch: Busy.
Xani: … a super intense time. And I think that I’m now done with study. But I had wanted to indigenous studies for a long time, but where I was studying you need to have 100% attendance or something like that. So I couldn’t be away on tour at all. And it was the first block of time in a long time that I’ve had to do it. And I went to do it to educate myself, because in the Australian curriculum when it talks about Australian history, what we get taught is actually completely wrong. And I knew this, but what I didn’t know is how wrong it was. You can’t know what you don’t know until you go and do it.
John Murch: Did you feel there was a lie in your mind that there was some mis-truths that needed to be answered?
Xani: Yes, yes, yes. I knew that for sure. I was like, you know, you learn some things and you do your own research and reading. So I went and I studied it and there’s so much more to learn. But the thing that really struck me is that when I’m doing these things like curating all female bands, I learnt to really critique white stream feminism as well. And having been a feminist for a long time, I thought that feminism was this amazing thing that had nothing wrong with it. And then I kind of learnt how it’s excluded people, too. So when I put on these events, I’ve got to really make sure that I have knowledge about what my role is in putting together these events.
Xani: So now I have to think about that. And I want to embrace that, and I want to do it in a responsible way, so that if I do curate an event and there are indigenous women who I am having involved that I’m doing that responsibility and am sensitive to what I’m supposed to do or how to learn or how to listen. And the biggest thing I learnt is how to have dialogue with people rather than have debates. And that’s something that I think is really important as well going forward doing music direction and doing creative things.
Xani: I went into this course and I just listened. And it was incredible. It was something I really needed to do, because as a white female I’ve gone through life holding guilt, holding shame, all these really non-useful feelings. And now I feel like the feelings are more of responsibility, listening, dialogue, engaging, trying, failing but improving. And I think that’s what Australia needs. We could be an incredible country if we weren’t so much in denial about things that are part of our history. It was the best thing that I’ve done, doing that course.
John Murch: Is it gonna influence release number four of this story?
Xani: I thought it might, but no. I think it’s something different. It’s something for my own growth and being a responsible citizen rather than something that I’m gonna use for my music.
John Murch: You’ll educate the performer, but not the performance.
Xani: That’s right, yeah.
John Murch: On that note, Xani, absolute pleasure.
Xani: Ah, so good. Thanks for having me. So good to chat.