Unboxed: Genre-Hopping With Xenia Rubinos
Courtesy of epitaph.com
Onstage, Xenia Rubinos can give off different auras: the soulfulness of a Fifties jazz chanteuse, the edginess of an open-mic emcee. Such was the case when she played last month at Elvis Guesthouse, a brightly colored basement bar in the East Village. Clad in an elegant one-shoulder romper and silver hoop earrings, her signature puff of curls springing as she moved, Rubinos guided the audience through an early presentation of her new record, Black Terry Cat, which arrives June 3. Opening with the single "Lonely Lover," she coaxed the crowd into a trance with smooth vocals over an equally supple bassline. Later, she bulldozed her way through the dancefloor, climbed onto a booth, and straddled it to belt out "Black Stars." Her energy was like a flame: fitful, glowing, and fiery. Her voice was, as always, a multifaceted wonder.
Offstage, Rubinos is friendly but armed with a piercing gaze. She's good at reading people and has said that clairvoyance runs in her family. But she's downplayed those sorts of claims in the run-up to Black Terry Cat because, as she tells me, those have "more of a Magic Trix vibe," a reference to the cheeky mysticism of her 2012 debut. At a quaint French restaurant in Greenpoint, a few blocks from where she's lived for five years, she arrives sporting a bomber jacket and dark leggings. Her curls were still out, though, looking splendidly unruly.
The bistro's walls are hung with paintings of the French countryside, and the staff is mostly white. I ask Rubinos if this room inspired "Mexican Chef," a guitar-driven jam from Black Terry Cat, which opens, "It's a French bistro/Dominican chef" and goes on to recognize the unheralded people of color who keep cities running. "I wrote the song as I was walking around Brooklyn and I was seeing all these people setting up for the night shift at restaurants, cleaning," she says. "Inside the restaurant there are these hipster waiters playing indie music. But the kitchen doors were open and the workers were blasting bachata and rancheras."
She pauses to sip a mimosa, then continues. "I feel really complicated about this whole 'Latina' thing in my music." On Magic Trix, Rubinos sang about half the songs in Spanish, but interviewers seemed to forget that she did anything else. "They always want to talk about where I'm from and that I'm Latina, but they don't talk as much about my music, which is interesting to me."
Not that she isn't proud of, or interested in, her heritage, which she's researched in depth over the past few years. Her mother is Puerto Rican and claims descent from the Taíno, an indigenous Caribbean population wiped out by Spanish colonists in the early sixteenth century. Her father was Cuban, and his father Spanish. "But my great-great-grandmother was black and had Afro hair," says Rubinos. "[And] my last name comes from northern Spain and used to be [written] Rubiños, which perhaps meant 'los rubios,' or 'the blonds.' It's a complicated family history."
Rubinos herself grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. Music from Fania Records, New York's pioneering salsa label of the Seventies and Eighties, and rumba abounded in her household, but so did the works of composers like Prokofiev and Ravel. She began playing piano at four, and throughout her childhood she would write scores for made-up films and "drag" her parents to the living room to present them. "There was nothing else that I wanted to do but make music," she says.
As a pre-teen in the Nineties, she was enthralled with hip-hop's inventive wordplay and r&b's soulful grooves; Mariah Carey, Missy Elliott, and Busta Rhymes were her idols. In middle school, she developed a crush on a trumpet player who introduced her to Miles Davis, although her obsession with jazz quickly outgrew her infatuation with the boy. By high school, she was taking music lessons regularly, accompanied by extracurricular explorations of John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Betty Carter.
While studying at Berklee College of Music, Rubinos met Jeremy Loucas, who would later record both of her albums. Even then, Loucas was impressed with Rubinos's extensive musical knowledge. "Xenia has always been a very innovative artist," he says. "Not only does she connect to her Latin roots, she also draws inspirations from everywhere else. She fuses all of these things together into her own style." When Rubinos graduated in 2006, she moved to New York, where she reconnected with Loucas and Marco Buccelli, a drummer friend from Berklee. She collaborated with both of them as she began to write what would become Magic Trix.
On that record, Rubinos showed a skill for making offbeat pop, her songs laden with idiosyncratic rhythms that tangled elegantly with skittering melodies and her ever pliable vocals. It was a playful record, her bilingual lyrics chronicling quirky tales of magician buskers, receding hairlines, and too much caffeine. But critics found it hard to describe, something Buccelli says has always irked Rubinos. "She is influenced by so many music genres and cultures, [so] she struggles when a label is put on her." Pitchfork settled on "a startling lightning bolt"; the New Yorker said it was "vocally generous music that slips through the net of any known genre." The message was clear: Everyone who heard it liked it, but it was too fringe to gain much of an audience.
That obscurity has disappeared on Black Terry Cat. Rubinos has largely ditched the bilingualism and overt playfulness, although she's no less malleable or nimble. "I like taking myself out of my element," she says. "In this album, I'm exploring hip-hop and r&b, leaning more into that direction." These inclinations come through on the heavy beats of "Black Stars" and her raps on "I Won't Say." Her jazz roots show more subtly, although she does kick off "Lonely Lover" with the same castanets that open Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain. If her first album was her cherry-picking an assortment of randomized goods from her many interests, then Black Terry Cat is her devouring them and spitting out a more fully formed creation.
In 2015, during the recording of the album, Rubinos's father died of complications from Parkinson's disease. Rubinos had stepped in as his primary caregiver when he became unable to manage his finances, even though the two had been estranged for years. "We had this whole relationship that we wouldn't have had if it wasn't for his illness," she says. "I could have gone the rest of my life without talking to him. I would've missed out on so many things about myself."
Buccelli, her drummer, calls the resulting album more of a reflection than an elegy. "I don't think Black Terry Cat is a sad record, but obviously Xenia went through a really hard time," he says. "She decided to use the struggles that she was going through as an opportunity for growth."
That's what Rubinos says she wants, too: space to grow and experiment; a way to acknowledge her roots and her influences without being defined by any of them. "I wish we could find a different vocabulary to describe [my] music," she says. "It doesn't have to fit neatly into a box."
Xenia Rubinos plays a release show for Black Terry Cat on Saturday, June 4 at Baby's All Right.
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