With her eclectic musical influences–R&B, hip-hop, jazz, rock and Afro-Latin are just a few styles you can hear in her songs–Xenia Rubinos comes across like the most sophisticated of native New Yorkers. When she moved here a decade ago though, she was as wide-eyed as any newbie.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, the Village Vanguard! How cool would it be to go to the Village Vanguard?'” she recalls. “I remember going to the Vanguard. I got in a cab and I told my cab driver, ‘Take me to the Vanguard.’ And he was like, ‘What’s that?’ (laughs) I was so shocked. I was so presumptuous. Of course everyone will know where this is. It’s a landmark. (laughs) I had this very fantastical vision of New York being a music city…for me it was like this music mecca, where all the music was and that’s what drew me here.”
Black Terry Cat, her ANTI Records debut, is Rubinos’ her first new record in three years—a gap that saw the re-release of her first album, Magic Trix, via another label; an extensive tour that included Europe for the first time; and the death of her father.
It’s an exciting album that reflects her deep talent and wide-ranging influences, and the cover, which features a girl with an infectious smile, evokes the dazzling spirit of the record. “She’s sweet but she’s really fierce and she has this rough elegance about her,” Rubinos says of her cover subject. “She’s a little girl showing off her big front teeth after Sunday school. I found this great photographer, Joseph Rodriguez, who is from New York. That photo is from a series of work from the ’70s that he did in Harlem and it’s called Girl with a Blue Dress. I couldn’t think of a better spokesperson for the record than her. She brings you in, she has so much soul.”
The lyrics on the new record blend both introspection and social commentary, and Rubinos says she changed her songwriting approach from Magic Trix. “For the first time I sat down and asked myself, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity for you to say something to people,” she explains. “What is that? What do you want to say? Try to be more specific.’ For the first time I wrote lyrics first, which has never happened.”
An example that Rubinos cites of that songwriting shift is the ebullient “Mexican Chef.” It draws from her observations in Brooklyn of immigrant workers setting up the kitchen in the back of the restaurants and playing music like salsa and meringue, in contrast to the image projects in the front of the house. “I like that juxtaposition of how joyful I am when I’m singing some of those things, and how maybe the lyrics can indicate a different type of palette,” Rubinos explains. “If you’re not listening to the lyrics and just chilling to the music, you kind of not really know what I’m talking about. And that’s cool, too. I was talking about this invisible workforce in this country…a lot of them happen to be people of color from different countries. Particularly in cities, I think we see that a lot more because our service industry is such a lifeline for us in the city. We have so many amenities and in order to make those amenities possible, we need this workforce.”
There’s also a personal perspective on Black Terry Cat. “Black Stars,” a song accentuated by driving percussion and keyboard textures, conveys three different meanings for Rubinos: a visit to her father; the dying stars in the night sky, and the death of Michael Brown in a police shooting death in Ferguson, Missouri. She attempted to rewrite the song at one point to be more literal but decided to stick with her original lyrics. “It’s a complex-layered song in terms of its meaning for me, personally,” Rubinos says. “And I hope that with my music I hope people take whatever they want from it. I hope people find their own meanings in it.”
The first single released from Black Terry Cat is the hypnotic yet sublime groove ballad “Lonely Lover,” in which the singer describes a woman who is down on her luck and having a hard time. (The singer echoes Billie Holiday a bit on that track). Rubinos says she thought of a friend whom she regards as a superhero. “I got to witness her doing all of things and seeing her even on her worse days just getting through stuff and being like, ‘Hey it’s all good’–like calm in the face of disaster. I was thinking about her and that magic mojo, just this calm and trying to channel that energy lyrically. Then musically, that song was the first song I finished on the album and it became a mantra for finishing the rest of the record.”
Rubinos knew from an early age she wanted to pursue music—Mariah Carey, Miles Davis and Judy Garland are among her musical influences. She attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music on a scholarship. “I was always singing and really into just the music world,” she says. “It never occurred to me that I would do anything else. I think just finding my place in that music world has shifted over time and what I wanted to do and who I am. But I definitely always wanted to be a singer. My earliest memories are singing to the radio and making my parents sit down to listen to me sing (laughs), all that kind of stuff. It’s always been what I do.”
Meanwhile, the singer, who has previously shared stages with Battles, Coco Rosie and Deerhoof, is currently performing a couple of show dates in the States through June, including a Brooklyn homecoming gig on Saturday (June 4) at Baby’s All Right. “I definitely love to write music,” she says. “I feel that at the moment of writing something is probably my favorite feeling. But I do love to perform and I love interacting with people and bringing the music around and the physicality of that. I love performing—I also think that oftentimes it’s the best way to experience my music is live.”
Xenia Rubinos will perform on Saturday June 4 at Baby’s All Right, 146 Broadway, Brooklyn, 8 pm, $10. Her new album Black Terry Cat comes out on June 3 via ANTI.