On September 9, Xenia Rubinos will perform at the 27th-annual Rosslyn Jazz Fest. This much-anticipated event draws over 5,000 music fans to Gateway Park for a day of dynamic, free performances. Rubinos recently sat down with the Rosslyn BID to chat about her music. Her sound is amazing and we can't wait to hear her perform live!
The music and meaning of Xenia Rubinos
By Mary Dallao
When you first hear Xenia Rubinos' "Mexican Chef," your initial impulse is to dance. A steady drumbeat and dominant bassline undergird her staccato rap and softly flowing voice. But listen closely to the lyrics and you'll realize that this is much more than a good song for dancing: Rubinos is singing about the hidden and often undervalued people of color serving as the cooks, nannies, house-cleaners, dog-walkers and taxi drivers who help keep the American economy on track. These same people, her lyrics say, are getting a raw deal in America, and in "Mexican Chef" she also calls out the immigration battles, conflicts with law enforcement, and health struggles they may face.
In another song, the exuberant and wildly unpredictable "See Them," she sings about being "a brown girl in America."1 It's one of her favorite songs to perform, and while she hasn't yet devised her set list for the Rosslyn Jazz Fest, where she'll take the stage at 2:20 p.m., she says it's highly likely she'll sing these songs here.
"'See Them' is a challenge to perform live, and it was also a challenge to put together for the album because the song has a stream-of-consciousness structure," she says. "The idea for the arrangement was a little bit tricky to communicate, too, but I feel really happy about what we ended up with."
She also enjoys singing "Laugh Clown," a song she says is "very intimate." She told Bandcamp Daily it's partly about her father, who cultivated her interest in music when she was a child.2
"Mexican Chef," "See Them," and "Laugh Clown" are all tracks from Rubinos' second album, "Black Terry Cat," which was released on ANTI Records in June 2016. Critics have called it "adventurous, unexpected and defiantly danceable"3 and "a fiery combination of jazz, hip-hop, R&B and punk influences."4 The Guardian says Rubinos "addresses issues of identity with firework-bright energy"5 while Pitchfork calls her "a unique presence, with a sharp ability to make pressing issues about identity and society into funky, exhilarating music."6
"As an artist, I'm just trying to make work that excites me . . . work that I believe in, and that has substance and will outlast me," she says. "Making music is my favorite way to try to figure out what it means to be here and how to interpret the world around me . . . to use my imagination to problem-solve."
Rubinos' musical roots
The daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a Cuban father, Rubinos, 31, lives in Brooklyn and grew up in Hartford, Conn. She identifies herself as Afro-Latina, based in part on the heritage of her grandparents and great-grandparents.7
As a child, Rubinos says she always enjoyed music and singing. Her dad was a great music lover, and he took her to musicals, symphonies and operas in the hopes that she would share his passion for the same sounds. "I think he dreamed of being a classical pianist but was unable to do that," she says. Rubinos didn't necessarily fall in love with Beethoven or Brahms, but she knew she wanted to sing more than anything. To help her learn more about music, her dad enrolled her in a program at the University of Hartford that included a full scholarship to take flute lessons there.
"I was 7 or 8, and that's how I learned to read music," she says. "I didn't really pursue the flute, though. I quit after a while . . . . I was just, like, 'When do I get to sing?'" Eventually, Rubinos joined a choir, which enabled her to do what she loved most. After graduating high school, she went on to attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she earned a degree in Jazz Composition.
"As a teenager I really just wanted to leave Hartford, move to New York and listen to and play music," she says. "My parents weren't really down with that idea . . . so I went to music school. It was my way of still exploring music and making my parents happy."
Her father comes up frequently in conversation. He passed away from complications of Parkinson's disease in March 2015, and he's the subject of another notable track on "Black Terry Cat," "Black Stars."
Rubinos told Bandcamp Daily that this song is about "telling each other that we're going to live forever." Although she played it in concert a few times before recording it for "Black Terry Cat," she intended to change the lyrics because she thought they weren't specific enough. As she was working on the song, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American young man, was killed in an encounter with a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. "It was all people were talking about," Rubinos told Bandcamp Daily. She realized, then, that the lyrics "were exactly what [she] meant to say."
The words are beautiful, poetic: "You're a million black stars in the fearless black night again/I know this one's not too fine/Can you tell me which way to run?" Rubinos told Bandcamp Daily that in writing about black stars, she was thinking about how, when we look up at the night sky, we might be seeing stars that are already dead. "I like the idea of a thing that keeps living on in different times, and you can still see it," she said. "I was thinking of mortality, with Michael Brown being gone, and dealing with loss in my life . . . That image was the perfect explanation of these bigger things I was trying to make sense of."7
Rubinos comes to Rosslyn
Rubinos says she's excited to perform at the Rosslyn Jazz Fest, and hopes the audience enjoys her music. She's also eager to meet new people and discover some new music herself.
"I hope the audience has fun with me," she says. "If they feel inspired to dance around, that's always a plus. I like it when people find a way to move to my music. I hope they come away feeling inspired in some way."
When she wrote the songs for "Black Terry Cat," Rubinos says she was in the midst of discovering some '80s and '90s hip-hop and "kind of messing around with the idea of sampling" and "letting in some of [her] jazz influences." Audiences will hear these sources of inspiration in her music.
Rubinos says she's proud of the record as a whole, which she describes as having "rough elegance." She feels this is reflected in the record's title, which was inspired by a real-life black cat who startled her one evening when she was sitting outside at twilight. At the time she was taking a break while stuck on something she was writing.
"This big black cat raced right in front of me and scared me and really startled me and took me out of what I was thinking," she says. "And then I just scribbled down 'black terry cat' and started thinking about a wild animal that is just doing what it has to do to survive in the city, and it's rough but also really elegant and I just liked that image and the way the words sounded: black terry cat. It sounded like a rhythm I was working on for the record. So, I just kept writing it down in my notebook and one day I said, 'Oh, okay. I think this is actually the album title.' It was just a phrase, but then it made a lot of sense with what I was working on and the idea of the album . . . the idea of rough elegance and something that's a little jagged around the edges but also really beautiful in an unexpected way."
To learn more about Xenia Rubinos, like her on Facebook or visit her website.
You can hear her perform live — for free! — at the Rosslyn Jazz Fest September 9.
1, 5, 7 Read article from The Guardian where these quotes come from here.
2, 7 Read the Bandcamp Daily article where Rubinos makes these statements here.
3 This characterization appears in a WBUR Radio review that you can read here.
4 This quote appears in a review from The Telegraph that you can read here.
5 Read the Pitchfork review where this quote appears here.
Photos courtesy of Xenia Rubinos. Photo at top by Camillo Fuentealba. Photo on homepage by Shervin Lainez.