‘A lot of women are constrained by certain stereotypes’: Xylaroo on Wild Woman

A lot can change in a year. At the start of 2020, talented indie duo Xylaroo were wrestling with turning old ideas into new music. A fresh start beckoned. And then the pandemic hit.

Like so many, their plans were heavily disrupted. But the Xylaroo sisters – Holly and Coco Chant – fought through the challenges to record songs for a five-track EP, titled Wild Woman. Released last December, the EP is a fine introduction to the group and their ability to make beautiful songs. Songs with social messages, songs that make you want to dance, songs that make you feel something.

When we caught up with songwriter and vocalist Holly Chant (pictured above left) to discuss Wild Woman last December, she was in good spirits. She had been juggling a demanding new job during the pandemic, while continuing to stay creative. Her calm speaking voice contrasts to the energetic songstress she transforms into when she sings.

Chant told us about how their Wild Woman EP came to be and its connection to her Papua New Guinea heritage, why she feels that many women are still constrained in modern society, the benefits of making music remotely, and how she hopes to evolve her own music making in future.

Fringe Frequency: Earlier in 2020, we understand you and your sister, Coco, had planned to work towards a new album, which you’d tentatively called Turis. Can you tell us some more about that? And how did it morph into the EP you have now?
Holly Chant:
So, we were going to do the Turis thing. And we recorded quite a few songs. But then, me and Coco both started new jobs, and we kind of put everything on the backburner for a bit. And then this lockdown stuff happened. And we were just decided we should just get those songs, which had gotten kind of old now, out there, so we can start working on new stuff. [We were] doing a lot of remote stuff with Joe [Singleton], our guitarist. So, really the EP is getting those recorded songs out there, so people can listen to them.

Xylaroo's Wild Woman EP cover features and image of their mother, who is from Papua New Guinea.

There’s five songs on your Wild Woman EP. Can you name them for us?
So, there’s ‘Sweetooth’, ‘Wild Woman’, ‘Tomb’, ‘Like Planes’, and ‘Yesterday’. These are kind of the older songs we recorded with a full band. And we recorded it quite a long time ago. They’re kind of like a mishmash: songs that we’ve recorded and liked the sound of, and stuff like that. But, yeah, we have them, so we might as well put them out – especially during the lockdown, when, you know, a lot of other people couldn’t record stuff.

OK. So, you want to let these songs live on their own, separately from any new stuff. Is that right?
Yes. And also, because Turis means “tourist” in Pidgin. My mum’s from Papua New Guinea, so it’s their Pidgin language – it’s a bit like patois. They have, like, 800 languages. But yes, it was gonna be called Turis, but then I thought that I want to keep that album name and make some songs that are a bit more [fitting]… It was kind of because we’ve moved to so many different countries, you always feel like a tourist in other places. You know, they’re kind of home, but they’re never quite home. And then, also, in music, you’re kind of a tourist in someone else’s thoughts and emotions and stuff. So, I want to keep that [title] for some songs that I think will be more with that theme. So, I’m going to write some songs later and hopefully make that an album at some point.

“I was thinking about how a lot of women are constrained by certain stereotypes and ways that they should act and be. And, so, the song is about wanting to escape from that and be, you know, this sort of natural, wild thing.” – Holly Chant

That’s interesting. Something we’ve always loved about your music is how worldly it sounds. You can analyse some songs endlessly, over and over, and never discover all their secrets. But then, one day, you’ll just be sitting somewhere, maybe on the train or something, and a lyric or a moment will just click with you, and you’ll think: “Wow. I never caught this moment until just now”. It’s wonderful to be able to enjoy music with these different kinds of levels. Your music definitely has that.
That’s cool. Yeah, that’s good to know. I really like songwriting. And, I guess, I’m not as interested in the “music” parts. I’ll write some quite simply with my guitar and stuff like that. And then, I’ll give it to my sister and Joe and people to, you know, make it more musical and nice, I guess. But I always like focusing on what I’m trying to say with a song and expressing some kind of feeling or emotion. Yeah. So, it’s important that the songs express something.

OK. How about ‘Wild Woman’, for instance? We were just listening to that earlier, and in the lyrics for that song, you sing: “I want to grow into something wild / Wild woman, you give me life”. What’s the song about?
Yeah, well… See, I don’t know whether this is with hindsight. Well, I can’t remember exactly when I wrote the song. But, I guess it’s about womanhood. And feeling kind of constrained in certain ways as a woman. It’s also sort of an ode to Mother Nature, and mothers as well. You know, we used our mum as the artwork [for the Wild Woman EP cover]. It’s an old picture of her.

It’s obviously about women, but anyone can feel kind of penned in or caged in – I guess we’re quite caged in at the moment with locked down. [Laughs] But, I can’t remember whether the [#MeToo movement] was happening at the time when I wrote it, or whether I linked that later. But it has those kinds of themes in it. And I feel like maybe that stuff was going on when I wrote it. I was thinking about how a lot of women are constrained by certain stereotypes and ways that they should act and be. And, so, the song is about wanting to escape from that and be, you know, this sort of natural, wild thing. Yeah.

Right. That’s great to know.
Yeah. And I was also thinking about that song that goes: “born free, free as the river” [‘Born Free’ by Matt Monro], so it was a bit influenced by that. But, yeah, it’s about being free. It’s crazy how many [firsts are still to come for] women. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago when women couldn’t vote and women were getting paid a lot less than men. Now I think it’s a bit better, but these things are quite recent. I think we’re moving in the right direction with things. I feel pretty unconstrained as a woman, I think. But I know a lot of women around the world don’t feel that.

“I think it’s very easy for us to just switch the channel, or not think about it, and not think about the decisions that our leaders are making and how they are actually ruining other people’s lives.” – Holly Chant

Totally. How about your song ‘Tomb’? Do you have anything to say about that? To us, this is the other side to your music, haunting and chilling songs. It kind of felt to us like it was almost like an ode to youth dying or maybe the briefness of life?
Yeah. Well, it’s sort of about war, I guess. I was thinking about the Middle East, sort of imagining what it’d be like for a person living in some war torn country, or before the war happened. And then the song goes through as they lose people and get angry, and stuff like that. So, the Middle East, but also the other half of the island where my mum’s from, West Papua, which is still experiencing genocide.

But, yeah, the song is sort of about war but it is about that youthfulness as well. The beginning is like when [the character in the song is] young and carefree. The chorus is sort of supposed to be like a lullaby that parents sing to their child. And it’s about life carrying on despite the destruction. But then, the verses are sort of about the destruction of war, or even just something bad that happens, you know? Yeah. And some parts are like a funeral march, and then the chorus is more like a lullaby. I guess that was what was behind it. I think I’ve always been quite angry at the way that countries, like England and America, just go off and bomb other countries and stuff like that. Yeah, that song was sort of about the human cost of war.

Mmm. You’re making important comments. As we’ve seen this year, some people in the world lack empathy, which is very sad.
Yeah, it really is. Especially now. I mean, when you think of World War II: where the war came to people’s doorsteps, people could see it, and it was there. And they knew the graveness of it. And then the wars we have now are so far away. I think it’s very easy for us to just switch the channel, or not think about it, and not think about the decisions that our leaders are making and how they are actually ruining other people’s lives. And then making them angry so that [later] new conflicts arise and, you know, we take out governments, and then, worse ones come in! Yeah, I just think it’s a bit crazy. So, I guess that song was about that. And even though it’s not overt, it’s subtly about that.

Tell us a bit about the song ‘Sweetooth’. That’s one we’ve been playing over and over and over. You played that at your concert at The Jago, too. The recorded version is really something special.
Yes, ‘Sweetooth’ is just a bit of fun. That was the name of our [debut] album. [When I started,] I was just playing around with our keyboard and then sang the first bit. It’s sort of about liking things that you shouldn’t like.

On our first album, [the title] “Sweetooth” was was about much darker and deeper things. But this one’s like a light-hearted dispersion. It’s sort of like toxic love, but in a fun way, you know? It’s kind of like: you haven’t really learned your lesson with a bad relationship or something like that. But, yeah, that one’s mostly just a bit of fun, really.

And it is fun to play as well. I wanted it to be sort of like an old rhythm and blues sort of song. And the guys just went with that and did a quite classic rhythm guitar and bass [arrangement]. But I like it. I love the bass.

What are you hoping listeners take away from your Wild Woman EP?
Mmm. I mean, mostly, I just want them to listen to it and enjoy it. And it depends. I mean, the sounds are quite different. It’s a bit of a mishmash of different songs. There’s not a particular theme. But I’d like them to listen to the lyrics and enjoy the eclectic nature of the EP.

Cool. Finally, what’s next for you two?
It’s kind of up in the air. I think it’s weird, because my sister is planning to move [aboard] at some point. So I’m not sure. I mean, we were gonna keep making music, because I have been doing a lot of remote stuff with our guitarist. I think we have to see exactly what’s going to happen.

I mean, the Psalms one [‘Psalms 23’] I did actually by myself. What I was hoping to do is be a little bit more flexible and quicker with releasing stuff, and get my sister involved when she can be involved, get different musicians involved, and just do something a little bit more free and experimental. For a little bit, I guess, just to sort of have a stretch. And just try out a few things and stuff like that. Because we’re not with the label anymore. So, it’s nice, we can just do whatever we want. And, yeah, I don’t want to be tied down with thinking: “I have to do it this way, or get this out at this time”. I just want to do it however I feel like, and however my sister feels like.

Wild Woman by Xylaroo is available to stream now. Since releasing their EP, Xylaroo has released the singles ‘Isolation’ and ‘Wild of Desire’.

Images: Hailey Atkinson