On Black Terry Cat, the new album from Xenia Rubinos, the Brooklyn-based musician tries to find a coherence in the many musical, cultural, and political forces swirling around her and all of us. She wrangles the effects of soul, rock, jazz, computer blurps, rap flows, romantic longing, racial perceptions, consumption, lethal police force, and much more into a powerful sum. To get a sense of where her head was during the making of her first effort for Anti- Records, we talked to her about the invisible forces that connect us and the visible cultural divisions of New York City restaurants.
A lot of times when people have an album coming out, the artist talks about the musical influences, but I’m curious what some of the major societal or cultural influences on this album were. What was going on in the world that shaped what you wanted to do with this album?
I wrote this record over a period of two years. This was the first time for me to focus on the lyric writing a little bit more and to ask myself what I wanted to say and being more specific. In some of the lyrics I’m grappling with my own space in this country and the way I want to move in my ethnicity.
One of the things that stood out [during the writing of the album] was a lot of the gun violence and the racial tensions that were coming to a head. I’ve been talking about the Michael Brown case [in Baltimore] that was happening the summer I was finishing “Black Stars.” That kind of redefined the meaning of that song for me.
Did you change the lyrics or was it more of a feeling?
It was more of a feeling. I was going through a couple rewrites of that song, there were a couple different versions, but I ultimately decided to stick with the original lyrics that were a bit more open ended and a bit more abstract. I wrote another version of the song with a chorus that was a little bit more traditional and little bit more specific. It felt disingenuous. It felt like I was trying too hard, so ultimately I decided to go back to the original lyrics. Ultimately I am inspired by my surroundings and what’s going on around me, but I wish people would just take away whatever they’re going to take away [from the songs]. I have my personal interpretation of that song in that moment, which will continue to change over time as I play it live and move through time.
How important is the cross-cultural pollinating that inevitebly happens in America to your music?
Being American and living in New York City, I’m used to being around people from all different cultures. This country is a country of immigrants, and in music today, different cultural reference and different musical references being thrown into a work is pretty fluid, it’s not an uncommon thing. I don’t think that it’s as shocking or as uncommon as some people might suggest. More than this cross-cultural pollination, in music I’m interested in mashing up things that might not belong together and seeing how they work. Some of my favorite musical moments happen when you’re bringing different sounds or different textures that you wouldn’t think belong together, but then they do and they create this new hybrid sound. That inspires me. But I’m not sitting down and trying to write a song and saying, “Okay cool, I’m going to use some blues form, then I’m going to mix in this other thing.” I’m not consciously trying to make a cultural statement in that sense, I’m just working with different sounds.
There seems to be a strengthening political movement in conservative America that tries to pretend that we aren’t really a culture of many intersecting cultures, or that this hasn’t been the reality in America for a very long time. I think some of those ideas play a bit into your song “Mexican Chef” with it’s chorus “French bistro, Dominican chef/ Italian restaurant, boriqua chef/ Chinese takeout, Mexican chef.” Can you tell me how that song came about?
I was walking down the street in New York running some errands and I saw a lot of restaurants setting up for the night, and in the back, all the chefs and the folks that work in the kitchen were blasting ranchera and bachata, then in the front of the restaurants, all the waiters and the hosts were spinning pop or indie music. I thought that was a funny split universe in one place. I kept walking past all these places that were essentially doing the same thing while setting up for the night. So I started mumbling these words and by the time I got home I had the whole song. I thought it was a little rhyme or poem or story or whatever, so I just wrote it down and was laughing about it. Then I started jamming with my drummer Marco Buccelli and we just demoed the song in two hours flat. We had so much fun. We were inspired by Daptone’s recordings and their recording technique. I was also listening to a lot of Rufus and Chaka Khan at the time, so that inspired the way I’m singing on that track and playing bass.
Speaking socially, that song is a commentary and I don’t want to say I’m writing a protest song. It is in some sense socially conscious, but it’s also coming from a joyful place. I’m poking a little fun of that reality of an invisible workforce that we don’t really see as much and that we don’t really talk about that is keeping our cities and countries running. But at the end of the day it’s coming from a joyful place and not an angry place necessarily. I like to play with that contrast when maybe saying something that people might not so comfortable talking about.