Xylaroo are Holly and Coco Chant: two sisters, two peas in a pod, two harmonious voices cut only from the same cloth as each other. Similar to many bands, the pair (Holly aged 25, Coco 23) are a product of their own environment. What makes them totally at odds with everyone else, however, is that their environment has been constantly shifting since day one. You could say they’ve been “on the road” their whole lives. By their early 20s they’d tallied up more air miles than all the members of The Traveling Wilburys put together. Today they’re based in Canning Town in London where they share a flat with two other friends. But where did they grow up?
“Well,” begins Coco, guitarist and the more extrovert of the two. “Holly was born in Papua New Guinea where mum’s from. Then we moved to Hong Kong and I was born there. Our dad is a civil engineer so we grew up in the Philippines, then Maidstone for ten years. After, we went to Sri Lanka. Then we came back to the UK once school was finished.” Holly interrupts. “You forgot Switzerland!” “Oh yeah,” retorts Coco. “For a little bit we lived in Switzerland.” It’s no surprise then that their sound, which could loosely – but only loosely – be described as ‘folk’, transcends local open mic scenes and of-the-moment genres.
Maidstone was where the duo began gigging (“around the Medway scene where all the bands were doing ska”), but it was really island life in Sri Lanka that added a rustic, vibrant flavour to their matter-of-fact, earthen songs. People would sing a lot in their village with guitars. Coco played from the age of 9. Holly was more confident singing. “I was hesitant there,” laughs Coco. “Holly has more of a natural voice but harmonies come pretty easily – maybe it’s a sister thing.” Despite having older siblings, it was the younger Chants who decided to stick together. Everything progressed at a gradual, comfortable pace. “It’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve considered ourselves a proper band,” says Coco. “When you’re sisters you don’t take yourselves as seriously. You play around in your living room.”
Today they discuss their upbringing, musical influences and aspirations at their kitchen table, taking turns puffing on self-rolled cigarettes, poking fun at each other and making light of some pretty serious memories, including one in which one of their homes burned down. “Nobody was in it but the guy who used to own it did a lot of DIY and there was a random electrical fault in the wall,” says Coco. “That was pretty rubbish actually.” The sisters’ lightness and optimism is infectious and the fact they stumbled upon music (their family weren’t musical, but dad did play Rolling Stones in the car a lot), renders it potentially easy to overlook the fact that they’ve happened upon something remarkably salient. Via their brand new deal with label Sunday Best, they thankfully now have a platform from which they can offer a bright perspective on the world.
“Music was always our Plan B,” says Holly, an Anthropology graduate. Coco, who studied Psychology, however, was always determined to make the band thing work. Both had their musical epiphanies while getting heart-deep into the storytelling of alternative folk band Rilo Kiley, and specifically front-woman Jenny Lewis who they foam at the mouth over discussing. “Jenny Lewis writes strange lyrics that are quite personal with tinges of sadness. But she also sounds uplifting,” says Holly. As lead songwriter she also cites Nina Simone, Edith Piaf and Dolly Parton as major influences. The similarities with Rilo Kiley are there on Xylaroo’s own songs, such as first single, ‘Sunshine’ – an upbeat number about leaving life’s negatives behind and focusing on those natural rays of hope.
Xylaroo don’t want the messaging of their songs to be set in one timeframe. Rather the themes they care about – love, humanity, philosophy, “conspiracy theories” – are ones that pervade every generation, not just theirs. While Holly’s scholastic past makes her aware of political upheaval and social consciousness, she doesn’t believe in using Xylaroo for preaching. “We want to write songs that make people think without telling them what to think. I’ll read an article about racism and police brutality in America, for instance, and then we’ll write about it. But it will be subtle. I don’t believe in self-censorship. If you’re in the know, you’ll get what we’re saying. But it’s not overt.” So they’re not folk’s answer to riot grrrl? “No!” laughs Holly. “But I did listen to that for a while. It’s very in your face, isn’t it?”
The sound of Xylaroo isn’t so much in your face as it’s a comforting place for you to relax your face when you need some inspiration. Their biggest dreams at the moment are very simple: have songs that sound better than bedroom recordings, score some more free t-shirts from Adidas, continue to make each other smile. Above all, they want to tell stories – their stories. To borrow from the lyrics of ‘Sunshine’ itself: //All the good is worth the hard shit//. For these two, 2016 holds a lot of the former and hopefully zero of the rest.