Xenia Rubinos Talks Black Terry Cat And Musical Meanderings

By 07 March, 2017

Brooklyn-based multi-instrumentalist and vocalist extraordinaire, Xenia Rubinos hit the headlines last year with her latest instalment Black Terry Cat. A sophomore album showcasing her eclectic sound, you can check our review of it here. Before dashing off near and far on her BTC tour, I caught up with Xenia to chat about the album and her musical meanderings, from creative processes to hidden Colombian record stores.

Have you found the performance of this album to be different because you’re performing with more people than with Magic Trix [her debut]?

I was working on wanting to do a live show that was a little bit more freeing for me vocally and that I could have more freedom with my body to move around. I used to play primarily as a duo with my drummer Marco Buccelli and it was just the two of us kind of holding everything down, so I was behind the keyboard a lot. That limited some of the things that I could do physically like moving around, so I wanted to try something new this time. To see what it would be like if I went away from the keyboard a little bit more, so I’ve been trying a couple of different configurations with a quartet and as a trio. It’s really allowed me to be a little bit more engaged with my body, engaged in a different way with the audience than I previously was and it has been really fun! I’ve been learning a lot from it.

Have you found when rehearsing for the tour, some of the songs have undergone changes or transitions in going from the studio format to the live format?

Yeah well its always a little bit different from what it is in the studio. Especially since a lot of these songs I never performed them straight through with a full band in the studio like Magic Trix, where it was a lot about our band performance. A lot of these songs were recorded and layered. It was definitely a shift in learning and trying to figure out how to translate this live. I’m really excited and happy about where we are right now with the live set. I feel like it’s a really good medium in between the analogue feeling of a band playing and also having some electronic elements in there, I didn’t want it to feel like I was singing karaoke in a track.

For the first time I have so much more happening texturally. I have background vocals and different sound effects that drop in the middle of the song. I wanted to have all those things reflected in the live show. It has been really challenging but also really fun to find that medium.

There are songs actually from Magic Trix that have shifted a lot and I’ve changed a little bit. Like “Help” for example has shifted into a little bit of a different vibe. It makes so much sense with the music from Black Terry Cat. It has been fun to see how some of the older songs kind of fall in with some of the new stuff that I’m exploring.

I saw you mentioned KRS One in an interview. I know he likes to talk about politics, society, etc. When you perform do you speak to the audience a lot, is there a certain message you want to relay or a certain feeling you want to deliver?

No, I speak once in the show. I don’t really speak unless there’s like an emergency happening, like a fire! I’m playing the whole time. There’s music happening, there’s very little down time and when there is down time I’m trying to drink water and catch my breath. I’m also very talkative so its also very dangerous to have me speak cause then I kind of go off the rails a little bit (laughs).

I focus on the arc of the show and the music that’s happening. My main messaging is through my music. What I’m saying and what I’m feeling, a lot of times even without me saying something specifically in a song. When I’m thinking about something and projecting it, often when I talk to people after the show they’ll have picked up on something that I didn’t explicitly say. It could be a new concept that I’ve been thinking about or it could be that I was thinking about Erykah Badu a lot that day and someone will say, “you reminded me of Erykah Badu today”.

I think that the messaging that’s happening is a kind of transfer of energy where people are there with me engaging and showing me their energy and I’m giving them mine. Playing music is a really old thing and the act of going to see someone play music is a ritual, so there’s a lot in that. It’s not as much about me preaching to an audience.

On twitter you posted about J Dilla, in terms of instrumentals (a lot of his work was instrumental) do you think you can be as expressive with them as you can be with lyrics?

Oh yeah, definitely. I actually think it’s way easier for me to express a feeling wordlessly. Words fail me a lot, I’ve been saying this over and over again in all my interviews. I’ve been in a fight with words for the longest time. Maybe it’s my own ignorance with very nuanced vocabulary but I find it really hard sometimes to find the words to describe this exact feeling or that exact thought.

With music I feel that its just so much more immediate, it’s so much more nuanced, there’s so much detail in sound. That sometimes might be lost on some people and some situations. They might not get it and its gonna be different for every person and every day and every moment but there are a lot of nuances in sound and in music.

For me, a lot of the time the lyrics are the part that come last. They have so many things attached to them, they have meanings attached to them and sound has that too but its just such a more nuanced tool to express yourself.

Do you find you have much creative space and write a lot when you’re on the road?

I really don’t actually. That’s probably the part of touring I like the least. I really don’t have time, maybe it’s that I don’t have the discipline to do it. But often it’s that I don’t have the physical and mental energy to write anything just because of the way that I’m currently touring. It’s a lot of long rides, it’s a pretty lean touring machine. Really doing it all ourselves, I don’t often have days off when I’m on tour. Like the fall US tour I had one day off and I did press the entire day and ended up performing and DJing.

I’m really spreading myself thin and not trying to get sick the entire time and trying to enjoy myself as much as I can. When you’re in that kind of physical exertion mode, for me at least, it’s really hard to be able to find time to be creative to write. Unfortunately a lot of the time what happens is that I’ll have all these ideas but I can’t put them down or I can’t record them.

But I am gonna bring my bass with me on this tour and I’m hoping that I’ll be able to work. There’s some ideas that Ii’ve been working on over the last couple months that I wanna keep working on.

In terms of your creative process, do you have a certain recipe for creativity? Do you think “right I’m gonna go for a walk in the park and maybe I’ll see something and write a song about it”

Yeah it’s usually more spontaneous. I’m not really on the disciplined track, I wish I was more disciplined. I keep saying this, maybe if I keep saying it enough it will happen. I’m pretty spontaneous, especially when I sit down and think I have to write something right now, that’s the most difficult thing for me. I like to diffuse the pressure off a bit and just tell myself I’m exploring and improvising.  I usually just start singing or start playing a bass or keyboards, or tapping out a rhythm or vocalising. So it’s just musical time, musical experimentation time.

It’s not a pressure about the now, it’s more about researching. Sometimes when I’m stuck and I feel like I’m not writing, the best thing I can do is to research something that I’m curious about. Musically something that I don’t know about, like reading about dembow or what is the origin of reggaeton and what are all the derivatives of that.

Have you got any dream place or venue that you would like to play in?

I really would love to play in South America. I have been to Colombia, I played a festival in Bogota which was really fun, but I’ve never played in any other places in South America. Mexico is a huge one for me, I really wanna go. It has been something that has been in the works and hasn’t worked out in the past for several reasons but I really want to make that happen. Mexico, Brazil, but all of South America. I would love to have any musical adventures there, that’s like on the tippy top of my list right now.

In South America, have you got any records or genres or experiences that are particular favourites of yours?

Ah, that’s caught me off guard. Well, when I was in Bogotá I found this record store. A friend of a friend took Marco and me to this incredible record store that’s a shoe store in the front, a zapateria. But then in the back there was all this vinyl and if you hang out long enough and if the owner doesn’t think you’re creepy or weird (you’re able to make him smile or something) he’ll show you the real stuff. Which is this addict room with all this vinyl that is meticulously organised and he knows every single cover. That was a really cool experience.

I bought a bunch of vinyl there which I still haven’t even finished listening to. There was this one record with all these party jams from Colombia and it never stops. It’s vinyl but it fades from one song to the other. It’s a record from the 80s, I can’t remember what its called right now. That was pretty awesome. 

I don’t think in terms of genres too much. I’m very curious about dembow and reggaeton and dancehall reggae rhythms, where all of those rhythms are coming from and the evolution of them. Things that are constantly being explored, all around the world but also in South America. I’m just an open book, I don’t really know and I’m curious to find out, you’ll have to send me stuff to check out.

Any collaborations of artists that you would like to work with?

I just met Ladybug Mecca for the first time the other day. She’s an emcee from a group called Digable Planets that was around in the 90s. Also she does her own solo work and she just started a new group called Brookzill, which is kind of like a cross between Brazilian music and east coast Hip Hop, basically a super group.

Anyway I met her and I love her flow and love her energy and when we met it just felt like I had known her for a long time. I had been listening to her music for a while so it was really cool to meet her and feel this energy connection. 

Although honestly collaboration always scares me because writing music is so solitary for me so I’m really nervous to see what that is like. But we talked about it and actually in a lot of ways she feels the same way as me about collaboration, so I’m like “oh maybe this could actually work out”. But I dunno we’ll see if it happens, I would love to work with her in some capacity, and yeah collaboration is definitely something that i’m curious about.

The fear of the unknown right?

Yeah I was definitely like a fan girl a bit, like super nervous to meet her.

Xenia is currently on a worldwide tour, taking in the USA, Canada and Europe. You can find more details of her tour dates at xeniarubinos.com.

Read our review of Black Terry Cat here. You can buy the album from Amazon UK, Amazon US and iTunes.

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