Eclectic Breakout Artist Xenia Rubinos Wins "Fight With Words" on Black Terry Cat
Xenia Rubinos speaks with mesmeric confidence, dances like La Lupe, has the swagger of Erykah Badu, and sings like an indie Mariah Carey. Her music has indisputable undercurrents of soul and R&B, flecked with punk-rock guitar riffs and hip-hop verbiage. She discusses her newest album, Black Terry Cat, with unrestrained pride and excitement while maintaining a level of self-awareness that’s not often found in the music business. She doesn’t want to add to the “noise,” as she calls it, so while she talks swiftly about the creation of her second album, she also maintains the ability to shrug her shoulders and admit to not having all the answers.
Westword: This is your first headlining national tour. Are there some things you’ve learned in your years of touring that you’re hoping to apply to this one?
Xenia Rubinos: I learned a lot about problem-solving under pressure. On stage during performances, things are gonna go wrong — it’s inevitable. I had to learn that it’s a living, breathing thing, and it’s not about not having problems; it’s just about how you deal with them in the moment. I used to freak out a lot when things would go wrong: I had a keyboard that broke down on me several times throughout tour, and I used to kinda panic when that would happen. That’s not to say that I never panic anymore; I just have a new view of what it means when things go wrong.
Anything new planned for this tour?
This will be my first time mostly just singing during a set. I used to be playing a lot of keyboard and triggering a lot of samples — kinda multi-tasking a lot on stage. But with this new setup, I have a band that’s playing the instruments so that I can be freer and focus on my voice, my body and my performance in a new way.
Are you worried about, like, figuring out what to do with your hands?
Even when I was playing keyboard, I tend to gesture a lot to the audience. If you look me up, there are all these really funny pictures of me making weird gestures. But I will have to figure out what to do with my body. And sometimes I get really out of breath. I’m not on the Beyoncé level of being able to sing scales on a treadmill.
Okay, but nobody’s really on that level except Beyoncé.
[Laughs.] I have been rehearsing jogging in place to simulate how out of breath I’ll be…so we’ll have to talk again at the end of the tour and see how I did.
I’m sure you’ll be at the Beyoncé level by then.
Maybe in a couple years…a couple decades.
Let’s talk about your sonic journey from your first album, Magic Trix, to your most recent one, Black Terry Cat. The latter seems to address much deeper subject matter than your first. How did that come about?
In Magic Trix, I was using lyrics more as a texture. In Black Terry Cat, I wanted to challenge myself to be more specific about what these words mean and give them significance outside of sound and texture. So in the writing process, I was trying to peel back my own fear of lyric-writing; in some sense, I’ve been in a fight with words for years, and this album was the first step in reconciling that fight. The subject matter is just what was on my mind: personal, reflecting of the stuff that I was going through. It’s talking about love. It’s talking about cultural identity and reflecting on the gun violence that was happening at the time and that’s still happening in the U.S. There’s a lot of different themes that you could say are heavier or more literal.
How exactly did you take on this daunting task of having your “fight with words”?
I have the problem of speaking in absolutes and saying that my truth is the only truth, but I don’t believe that. We do the same in our social-media worlds — any questioning or any kind of introspection is seen as doubt and as weakness. In Black Terry Cat, I’m posing all of these questions to myself and maybe to the listener: How do I feel? Who am I? What is my place in this country? How do I define my culture? I’m not necessarily claiming that I have the answers for those questions, but just asking them and trying not to feel like that’s a weakness.
Did you find any sonic inspiration in attempting to answer those questions?
I found the resourcefulness of hip-hop, R&B, funk, soul and styles that are known as “black” music really inspiring, and I tried to figure out ways of finding my place within that and asking how my cultural identity plays into that legacy. I set out to make my version of an R&B-, hip hop-, soul-inflected record without being any one of those things. In this reality, we’re often limiting our definitions of ourselves and others. We sort of cut things out so that we can get to the point quicker; we all want to get somewhere really fast. And you lose a lot of the complexity of people when you do that. People are complex! I’m a lot of different things, and that’s reflected in my music.
In the track “I Won’t Say,” you recite an excerpt from Abbey Lincoln’s 1966 essay “Who Will Revere the Black Woman?” How do you still find relevance in that piece fifty years after it was written?
In the essay, she’s talking about treating the black woman as a disposable object and how her body is seen as inadequate. The idea of the black woman being this “other” that doesn’t quite fit in can apply to so many different ethnicities outside of just a black woman. You can apply that to so many other realities: to sexuality, to gender. I was stuck writing the lyrics of a particular song and was feeling shy. I didn’t want to add to the noise or speak out of turn or be misinformed. I was looking for a mentor in the moment and found that piece and thought, “Oh, that’s it."
There’s a commanding sense of dichotomy in Black Terry Cat — a feeling that you both love America but also resent it, for instance. Is that an accurate speculation?
There’s a song on the record called “Just Like I” that is a good representation of that love and hate. I kept thinking of that phrase “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” That imagery kind of stuck with me through the lyric-writing process. That song is commenting on this hyper-commercialization of everything — the American “supersize me” economy. So, I eat the food that you give me and I buy the shit that you sell me and I’m constantly working for you, but the things that I’m constantly working for are also the things that are killing me.
Was it a conscious decision to make political statements about social issues such as this?
I hope that on this record people can enjoy the music first and foremost — to have fun in it, and that it’s inviting to listen to. As far as sparking some ideas or questions — if that happens, that’s cool, too.
Xenia Rubinos plays the Moon Room at Summit Music Hall on Sunday, September 11, at 7 p.m.
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