Featured in Capital #85. Subscribe to get the real thing here.
Xanthe Rook talks to Sarah Lang about spiritual rituals, mental health, living in a notorious Wellington flat, and becoming an archivist.
When Xanthe Rook, 23, was growing up in West Auckland, she was interested in the occult. “My grandmother encouraged me to have a relationship with fairies and angels – and from there I became interested in other forms of mysticism, witchcraft and ritual. My mother already had books on the subject. The way I make sense of the world is naturally through patterns, signs and intuition, though I mostly keep this all very private. Through university, I brought this world of mine into the academic sphere.” She did a BA in history and religious studies, with interests in occult history and women’s spirituality – initially at the University of Auckland, then transferring to Victoria University of Wellington.
Xanthe began an honours year in religious studies. She dropped out, but would like to eventually write a dissertation. Her studies focused on women’s spiritual/ritual circles in New Zealand, including a feminist Catholic ritual circle her grandmother belonged to, dedicated to German mystic and composer Hildegard of Bingen. She wanted to compare this group with ritual circles formed by the younger generation. “I’ve always found ritual an interesting thing, especially as a pillar that binds together so much difference.”
Xanthe acknowledges that this academic, analytical treatment of her spirituality changed it: “I’m still trying to figure out how it’s going to look and operate in my life now. I don’t think I could ever rid myself of it though. It feels like the faith of my inner child.”
She says there’s a gap in research on spiritual freedom of choice, perhaps because in recent times it has come to be taken for granted. “People have an autonomy in their practice of spirituality that didn’t really exist 30 years ago. And New Zealand is an interesting melting pot as a case study.”
Xanthe grew up in West Auckland with her brother, ophthalmologist father, and high-school music teacher mother. She played clarinet, piano, bass and drums, and largely taught herself singing and guitar.
She played in various bands (mostly on drums) during high school, and was deemed to be a good “girl drummer” or “good at drumming for a girl”. In the band “Courtney Hate” she performed at the Silver Scroll Awards in 2016. “Growing up as a female musician, and going to gigs, I saw minimal representation of women and queer people onstage.”
Xanthe identifies as queer, and in recent years more as non-binary/femme than as a woman; “But I still associate a lot with a woman’s social experience, especially as a woman musician.”
“I think I probably always knew”, says Xanthe, but says she has become “more comfortable being queer in the past few years,” since she started being around more queer people. “I never felt I had to ‘come out’ because I never felt rigidly forced into any box to begin with. I understand that this experience is quite different for a lot of people. For me, it was an eventual acknowledgement that I didn’t always associate heavily with being very feminine, and didn’t always respond positively when treated that way.”
Xanthe took the train to Wellington in 2019, with two suitcases. “I wanted to move somewhere where I didn’t really know anyone – and where I could plant myself.” She was already friendly, however, with drummer Josh Finegan and guitarist/vocalist Christian Dimick.
Josh, Christian and Xanthe began writing songs together, and got a Sunday-night slot performing at the Pyramid Club.” They sought to expand the band, “with other women/queer people who had a similar kaupapa.” The lineup solidified into seven-member band Recitals. Xanthe sings and plays bass, with Josh on drums and Christian on guitar/vocals. The other members are Tharushi Bowatte (trumpet), Carla Camilleri (keys/vocals), Olivia Wilding (cello), and Sam Curtiss (guitar). Recitals’ genre-bending music has been described as “chamber pop.”
It was no mean feat to form a band, record an album, and get signed by a major record label during a pandemic – “a very strange, and disorderly time to be alive”. Recorded in various studios and bedrooms, Recitals’ first album Orbit I was released by Flying Nun in August, on vinyl LP and in digital formats.
Xanthe lived briefly at 13 Garrett Street, the three-storey concrete Morrisons’ Building beside Glover Park. “It’s a crazy old former printing-press building which had [hosted] lots of gigs and huge parties. It was a flat for 30 years. When I moved in, 11 people lived there. It was extremely, and at times overwhelmingly, social. I couldn’t do something like that again, but I’m really glad I did it.”
The building was sold, and Xanthe moved flats just before the first lockdown. In the solitude of lockdowns, she came to understand that she was more introverted than she had previously believed.
Xanthe had dealt with mental-health issues for many years. Now various pressures “compounded into this crushing force and I had a breakdown”. She realised she habitually felt she was “not good enough”. “I felt I should do more, be more productive, be a better and kinder person, help more people, achieve better things.” While the breakdown was “terrifying”, it also had its benefits. “It was like a bushfire burned everything down and I had to start again and try to find some sort of love for myself.”
She also found a career, developing an interest in heritage collections, and the moral considerations related to dealing with taonga. She’s now a collections archivist at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision.
As a child she had fantasised about archaeology, “religiously” watching Egyptian-history VHS tapes, and idolising Indiana Jones. “My interest in magic and occult stuff fused with archaeology in my mind. History became this mysterious magical thing.”
At Ngā Taonga, she is working on Utaina, a digital-preservation collaboration between Ngā Taonga, Archives NZ, and the National Library. The project is digitising Crown-owned audio-visual content (particularly Ngā Taonga’s TVNZ collection) stored on magnetic media from the 1960s to the early 2000s. Think oral histories, music recordings, broadcast news, recordings of community events.
These items are physically deteriorating, and the playback technology needed for magnetic media is obsolescent. “There’s this rush against time,” Xanthe says. An external agency digitises the material, while “we deal with it at either end.”
Xanthe is considering postgraduate studies in conserving heritage and cultural materials. But she’ll always play music too. “It’s nice having the two paths, and maybe at some point I’ll swap one out for a bit.” She’s in no rush.