I first became aware of Xan Coppinger in the nervous first weeks of Melbourne’s lockdown. Antsy and with days of free time slowly becoming a frustrating waste, I was like many searching for something new to wither my time away with purpose. With my time-worn Spotify playlists racking up countless listens, music was becoming less satisfying and seemingly wherever I looked, nothing seemed new to me. One fine morning, through a random quirk of the Facebook scrolling, I saw an Exile Radio podcast, hosted by Xan, about Indian Disco and the history of slide guitar pop up and took a chance on the curious show.
Hooked by the eclectic mix of musical and cultural history, striking sounds and sincere interviews with a treasure trove of Melbourne’s talented and culturally diverse musicians, unknown worlds and traditions were slowly being revealed for me to explore. After delving deeper into the weekly episodes, which cover such areas as; Lebanese Funk, Malaysian Punk and African Ballet, I resolved to never again let myself think I’d reached the end of my musical discovery. Xan’s show had scratched my lockdown itch.
Impressed as I was by the show’s quality, it took a couple weeks for the fog of admiration to clear and realise I even had a chance of talking to the host of my new favourite show. When luck fell my way and I managed to track Xan down, I found out that not all in the radio world were the Alan Jones type, and she graciously agreed to a friendly chat with me for FROCKUP.
Her podcast is run through Music in Exile, which she describes as “a record label and an initiative, or a facilitation of a creative space. They don’t just sign artists and release records, it’s also about helping musicians who might have access issues into recording or performing, and providing a network for them to do that. It’s about helping people develop connections and be a support and a resource.”
Keen to keep the music community connected during lockdown, and express the publics’ continued appreciation and support for the Music in Exile artists, Xan began interviewing them for the show.
“All we have is communication. It’s been really hard for many artists because a lot of their gigs have been cancelled, and the sense of isolation has been huge. This podcast has been a really nice way to stay in contact with them. I’m aware that so many of these wonderful conversations might not have occurred had we not been in lockdown.”
She explains that while there is no shortage of talented performers and artists around Melbourne, each with unique styles and artistic backgrounds, there was a need to address the intricacies of how we engage with non-western music in our culture.
“I became aware of how much there’s still this perception that if you play non-western music it can be misrepresented as ‘world’ music. It’s so othering to musicians to lump them all together into such a category.”
This understanding has informed Xan’s process as both a DJ and radio presenter.
“If I’m going to experience their culture and enjoy that part of their culture I feel like I need to do the work and understand the full story. That’s why I feel disrespectful for just playing the music without saying why I’m playing it, why I’m interested in it. It’s hard to know exactly where the musicians are coming from and to appreciate it fully if you don’t know the history and context behind [the songs].”
For her, this has meant doing extensive research into the historical and cultural contexts of the music she plays. This process has been both a joy and passion.
“[It] involves looking into each artist and figuring out how each song, and each artist, was so tied to so many other musicians and so many very specific cultural contexts. Figuring out where it came from, the intent behind it, the presentation and appraisal… you have to go down a rabbit hole to figure it all out, and those rabbit holes are often the most interesting parts for me. Realising every art piece, be it music or film or whatever, is never done in isolation.”
What makes the podcast, and label, so unique is their focus on putting the musicians, and the diverse cultures that they hail from, front and centre. Many have been celebrated musicians before their arrival in Australia. Take Gordon Koang, the South-Sudanese “King of Music” who has set Melbourne’s music scene ablaze (melting many, if not just my own, hearts in the process). He had recorded over 9 albums throughout his 20+ year career in South Sudan before seeking asylum in Melbourne, where he has joined the Music in Exile team. Ausecuma Beats is another example, a band featuring enormously talented musicians from Africa, Cuba and Australia to create a truly unique sound which Melbourne is lucky enough to have at our doorstep.
Xan claims she fell into DJ’ing “almost as an accident”. Besides from the fact that sentence is the definition of cool, it also describes her at times uncomfortable journey as a presenter and musician.
“I guess I never really wanted it to be a ‘thing’. I really like being on the radio because nobody can see me. It’s a very private, invisible, affair. It becomes way more performative, you have to supply this vibe. I don’t feel that when I’m doing podcasts or radio. It’s not about me, its about the music.”
While supplying the vibe may not be an issue (her vibe is absolutely okay FYI), the issues involved with playing other cultures’ music can be.
“With my positionality as a white person, [I have] an outsider’s perspective. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t playing music and having it as a very observational ‘oh look at this music from India, how interesting.’ I wanted it to be well researched and respectful. Because I feel like otherwise I’d just be projecting my own idea of what’s happening. If I’m engaging with another culture, I need to do the work and understand the full context; not just the side I want to see.”
“That’s not something you can get on a club dancefloor” she says, laughing. If only we could let informational flyers on artists and genres float down like confetti at a parade, or slime at a Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards. The problem of respectfully presenting performers’ cultures and work does not end at doing the research itself. Xan has increasingly tried to take her own voice almost entirely out of her shows.
“I realised it’s not even about me saying where the music came from because I’m an outsider. It became more important for me to let the artists do the talking and let them tell the story that they want to tell. They are obviously more privy to their own history and culture than I am.”
However, she concedes this absence of her own voice can also be fraught with danger, a lesson learnt from a TV show that’s not always known for its ethical teachings. “Watching Bachelor in Paradise has really taught me how you can misportray a situation by not giving context to where someone is coming from and what they’ve been asked.”
So where did Xan's eclectic taste and deep respect for all this music come from? As a newcomer and mutual fan of Highlife, Afrobeat and non-western folk music myself, in no small part indebted to such programs as her own, I had to ask. What were her influences, and how did she discover this expansive reservoir of genres and styles?
“I was born in South Africa, and my parents had a really huge collection of music from North, West and East Africa. My Dad is hugely into music, he introduced me to most of the music I really love and admire. His CD collection is mammoth. My mum gave me her mix tape collection from when she was in South Africa and it was the biggest insight into her listening-scape as a 20-year-old. But over the years I’ve developed an interest in so many different genres. I developed my electronic music knowledge by virtue of the fact that I’m a long-distance runner. I needed the BPM to keep me going.”
As Australia’s political leaders keep telling me, living through COVID-19 is also a long-distance marathon run. Maybe this overused analogy is an insight into why Xan has been so good at dealing with this period. Not only has she been churning out an episode of Exile Radio a week, but also presents two weekly PBS shows; ‘Sound and Vision’ on The Breakfast Spread
and ‘Solaris’, a late night eclectic dance music show Co-Hosted with Clancey Balen. Sound and Vision explores the world of cinema and their soundtracks, a deep dive into the many different elements, contexts and ideas that make up a film. As Melbourne’s International Film Festival rages in its new-look, online based form, Xan has been busily watching, illuminating and lovingly critiquing them on the show (she tells me ‘The Letter’ is very worth the watch, so get on it!). We discussed how moving into film analysis expanded and strengthened her love for cinema.
“I give every film I watch so much more time now. I go in so much more present. I enjoy it more; figuring out the context of the art when it’s not directly presented to me.”
It hasn’t all been work, work, work (Rhianna et. al., 2016) for Xan. Apart from the “indulgent amount of me-time” and immersion into extensive “iso-listening holes”, a recent discovery of a housemate’s old iPod lead to a pleasant trip down memory lane.
“For some reason, the band Phoenix was a big one for me. It reminds me so much of my teen years, in a nostalgic, almost sad way. But it was also such a joy, that song holds all the memories of being 14. It’s so much more immersive than seeing an old photo, listening to a song and remembering everything you felt at that exact time. It’s all stored in that one song that you can access whenever you want. But I still think I need a few more years before I can safely listen to Phoenix. Lisztomania is still a very dangerous song for me during iso.”
Amongst the tediousness and isolation of lockdown, Xan’s tireless work sharing music and film, and engaging with the artistic community, much like the Highlife she enjoys listening to, has been a burst of sunshine. I hope everyone gets the chance to take a trip down the well-curated rabbit holes that she explores, and remembers to steer well clear of your old iPods in case they bring up the wrong kinds of memories.
Check out the Exile Radio podcast here: https://musicinexile.com.au/radio
And the Music in Exile label here: https://musicinexile.com.au