Xenia Rubinos could just as easily be on a bill with Flying Lotus and The Boredoms as she could with Erykah Badu and Esperanza Spalding [Tape Op #147].

Her unique genre-mixing of soul, punk, jazz, pop, and Latin music grooves has planted her firmly in a musical space all her own. Following Xenia’s first two albums, 2013’s Magic Trix and the wide success of 2016’s Black Terry Cat, combined with the extensive touring and hustle to promote them, she visited a curandero who diagnosed her with “a loss of spirit.” Though uninspired and unmotivated to make music, she was encouraged by her longtime collaborator and co-producer, Marco Buccelli, to continue working. Rubinos’ new release, Una Rosa, is her own novella. It is a rediscovery of her musical self that explores new sonic territory, leaning heavily on the use of synths and drum machines to frame her stories, reflections, and expressions.

Do you remember when your interest in music and recording was sparked?

I was always listening to music in my house. My dad was from Cuba. My mom is from Puerto Rico. They both liked salsa music and traditional folk music from Puerto Rico. My dad loved to dance, so any excuse that he had to dance salsa, we were dancing salsa. My dad was also a classical music fan. He wanted me to be an opera singer and a classically-trained pianist, which is what he always wanted to do. But I was really into Mariah Carey, and I wanted to be her. I was seven years old and would spend the entire day learning all the lyrics to every song. I didn’t even know what she was talking about, or what most of the words meant, but I would study them. My mom got me a karaoke machine and tapes of Mariah Carey songs. I would sing to these, and then I figured out that I could tape myself. As I got a little older, around 12, I started writing my own songs on this machine. I would take two blank tapes and layer voices, my little keyboard, and beats on it. I found some of these cassettes last week. They’re still somewhat playable. It’s wild. I was making beats. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I didn’t have any formal training. Music was something for myself; my own private space.

Were you bouncing these tapes back and forth, doing sound on sound?

Yeah, that’s exactly what I was doing. By the end, there was a thick layer of noise on top of everything. I had a Casio keyboard that had built-in speakers that came with some pre-programmed beats. I’d play the beats and spit on top of it. Or I’d get a pencil and play the table or the bed frame, and I’d use the karaoke mic to record it.

I’d love to hear some of that!

It’s intense! There are some that are more experimental, where I’m doing what I think is jazz. There’s one that’s me clearly trying to figure out this pop music thing. The lyrics are, “I came down here to bust a move.” It’s ridiculous. It’s so embarrassing.

But you were a kid! It’s supposed to be ridiculous.

I was 12. We might need to issue a re-master. [laughter] Get Heba Kadry [Tape Op #139] on the case and see if she could fix it!

It sounds like your parents were supportive of your musical endeavor.

They were very supportive and patient of the space that I needed to do my thing. My dad was paying for lessons early on, because he thought that I could be a child prodigy. Then he quickly realized that I was not interested. But when it came time to figure out what I was going to do after high school, I just wanted to move to New York. I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, and I wanted to move to New York, meet other musicians, and learn how to do music. That wasn’t an option. I’m first-generation born in the United States. My father escaped communism. He was a professor in Havana and came to the U.S., worked at a 7-11, and started all over again. My mom was the first person to graduate from university in her family. For me, the “no college” thing was not an option. I was like, “Okay, music school then.” My dad was saying, “You’ll never be able to do anything because you’re too lazy. And also, you’re old.” He was thinking about that young, 6-year-old violinist vibe. That wasn’t me! For both of my parents, it was important to give me the opportunities that they never had. That was their dream, to create this situation that was such a luxury for me to be able to say, “I’m going to study music,” or to choose what I wanted to do. My mom took the approach of, “I’m not going to force you to do something else and then have you grow up and hate me.”

How was your debut, Magic Trix, conceived?

Magic Trix came out of a period of time where I was urgently trying to play my music. I had moved to New York and was coming out of this jazz/composer scene. I would write music, I would write all my parts out, and then I would get people together to play it for me. I would never, myself, play it. I graduated from college and studied jazz composition; but, despite doing that, my physical writing of parts skills was not so great. I had varying degrees of success in getting my music to sound like what I wanted it to sound like, getting a band together to play it, and being able to rehearse them the way I wanted to. It was always an uphill battle to get my music played. A lot of the rhythms I was playing were easy to me, because I felt them in my body and wrote them naturally. I didn’t think it was complicated. I didn’t think it was something to argue about. All of my rehearsals would devolve into, “You wrote it like this, but I think it’s like that.” It was a nightmare to get to the point where the music sounded like what I had envisioned, and the players were confident in playing it. It was exhausting.

Eventually you did it all yourself?

I urgently needed to play. I got a [Boss] Loop Station. It was when Tune-Yards [Tape Op #88] first came out. I thought maybe this could be a way for me to make my music without other people. I also was shy about playing instruments that were not my voice in public. I was coming out of this very jazz-centric scene, where it’s like, “Do you have the chops?” I started looping and playing keyboard. That accelerated everything. Some of the songs I started developing became Magic Trix. Then some of the songs, “Los Mangopaunos” and “Ultima,” I had been playing with my instrumental group – more on a composer tip – became more developed songs. All of a sudden, I had all this music. I was sharing it with Marco, who had been playing with me all these years, and he said, “You should make a record. Record this.” We made [Magic Trix] in my basement studio with this great engineer, Jeremy Lucas. It was very much live playing. It was my first time ever making a record. I had no idea what I was doing. Marco and I started our own little LLC to put out the record. A year later, Ba Da Bing Records, a small independent label in Brooklyn, re-issued it.

How about for Black Terry Cat?

For Black Terry Cat, it was the same team again. It was Jeremy and Marco, and it was in my basement again. But we also got to work at Sear Sound [Tape Op #41]. That brought it to a whole other level. We had so much more access to different gear, synths, and equipment that I didn’t have on my first record. We also had a little bit more time, and I had a budget for the first time. It did have a lot of the same spirit in that with Black Terry Cat. I was also playing a lot. I wrote the record on bass, which was a new thing for me. I picked it up out of necessity: I had to record a paid gig, and the bass player didn’t show up. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go to Guitar Center, buy a bass, and I’ll return it.” I ended up keeping it and writing a record on it. Those two albums have a very similar aesthetic, in that they’re “played.”

Your music is so syncopated and non-traditional, in terms of an “indie rock record.” I can imagine that’s from growing up with music from Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Yeah. It’s like, you just dance. I was trying to play this Ghanaian xylophone called the gyile many years ago. I met a master who was trying to show me a pattern, and I was freaking out. They said, “No, just dance. Grab the mallets and dance on it.” They taught me the pattern and said, “Okay, now don’t think. Just dance it.” I feel that way about the rhythms in my music. I’m just dancing. But it’s also a challenge. Because whenever I make something up, it obviously makes sense to me. Then, when I’m inviting someone else into it, they’re going to hear it a completely different way. A good turning point for me – Marco helped me realize this – is that it doesn’t matter where the one is. We can analyze it and make it this way, or we can make it this other way. It’s not that how I wrote it is “wrong.” I would always write my charts for my songs, and they would always start on one. Whatever the first note was, that’s one. There weren’t pickups. It made sense to me. It’s the way I organized it in my mind. “This is rhythm number one, rhythm number two, and rhythm number three. That’s it.” I’m not a fan of counting above four. If it’s going to be more than that, let’s count in on one, or count in on three. Keep it simple. The craft and the tradition and the science of this music is super valuable, and it’s extremely important to preserve knowledge of how these came to be. Analyzing them, translating them. I definitely don’t want to undercut the study of all different musics and traditions. I do think that the ethos around it, as well as some of the dynamics in that [academic] world, is very damaging.

It’s not a competition.

In that jazz environment at Berklee, I wanted to prove myself. I felt I had to. I wanted to be respected and treated the same as anybody else. I didn’t feel that way because I was a girl. It was because I was a singer. I didn’t come in blowing chops on saxophone. I immediately was discarded as, “Oh, she’s a singer. She doesn’t even know what key she’s singing in.” The effects of that took me years and years and years to unravel from, and say, “ I don’t have to prove myself to anybody.” I had to reevaluate what was important to me, and what was important was making music. I had to say to myself, “Okay, girl. You’re not here to be the most chops-y vocalist. You’re not here to scat a solo that nobody else can do.” That wasn’t the tip. The tip was to grow as an artist, make music, and share, and to grow and learn that way. That’s it.

I think that’s all part of the process; a a valid one for artistic growth at the end of the day, even if it was painful.

Yeah. On the other hand, that environment also made me discover a lot of music that I may have missed otherwise. I became super dorky. I could tell you what bass player played on that take on the alternate take of side B of whatever Charles Mingus record. I can’t remember any of that now, but I was obsessed. I spent a lot of time digging up records, and listening and trying to remember everybody’s name, learning, checking out all this wild music and trying to write that wild music myself. It opened up my ears a lot. That was, perhaps, the most valuable thing that happened. I got to meet Marco, too, who would become my collaborator for my life.

When Black Terry Cat came out it got all sorts of accolades. But then in that time between Black Terry Cat and Una Rosa, I know that you consulted a curandero and were diagnosed with “a loss of spirit.”

I was very tired after Black Terry Cat. I toured a lot, and I was very grateful that the album was well-received, at least critically. It opened me up to a new audience. I was finally getting to do all these things I had always dreamt about. But then I got back and felt really drained. I was detached from music-making, and from myself. The last two years, pre-pandemic, was one of the hardest periods of my life. A lot of things compounded. I made Black Terry Cat just after the death of my father. I never stopped to grieve. His passing was super traumatic for me; it happened quickly and very intensely. I was on my own with it. I threw myself into that record. It was the most prepared I had ever been for anything. I’m on Anti- [Records]. I had a budget, a studio, and I’d demoed every song. I was so prepared. Then this tragedy happened, and I was away for a month. When I got back, I was a ghost; I was completely shut down. Instead of taking a minute and taking a beat, I threw myself into the record. I spent months in the studio, and it was great. It was awesome being able to spend time making music, but everything had changed. It was a very “before and after” experience in my life. I’d made the record and was very proud of it. I went on tour, and it was just non-stop. There was a part of me that was abandoned. I left it untended to for a long time. Eventually it catches up and boils up. Then my studio flooded; the basement where I made Magic Trix and Black Terry Cat. That completely sent me into a dark moment and brought a lot to the surface, in regards to needing to take care of myself and needing to reconnect. I didn’t even know if I was going to keep making music. I knew I had another record to make with Anti-, but I was really stuck. I released a string of singles between Black Terry Cat and now, and I was getting into a more electronic zone. I released two songs “DIOSA” and “BUGEISHA,” making music that was more in-the-box, electronic, and dance-y. Then I was working with performance art and character work with this character I made, XENIA2020. I was making a film about her, workshopping and trying to figure out what was next, but I hit a wall and had a breakdown. It turns out I needed to break down in order for me to come out the other side. I’m very grateful to be on the other side, feeling well, feeling healthy, and healing. I started making Una Rosa totally obliterated. I was so emotionally detached. I got into the studio with Marco, and he was so patient with me. I had my archive of ideas, beats, and songs. He painstakingly went through every single thing with me, and we chose what to work on for the record. I was so detached. He’d say, “Hop on that synth for this.” I’d say, “Okay.” He’d ask, “Don’t you think that sounds good?” I’d say, “Okay.” I was probably the worst collaborator. This was during the pandemic, and I had this record to work on. I would show up every day to the studio. We knew we had to finish it and make it happen. Slowly, just by the act of doing it, I came back to life. The craft of it brought me back. A lot of these ideas had been lingering in different forms. I had all my [Avid] Pro Tools sessions that I would write in and have different degrees of production that I had done on my own, but the majority of this record was written in the studio, right on the spot, which I’ve never done before. It was that state of being detached emotionally and everything I’d gone through. I was trying to stay alive. That opened me up to new possibilities. I had been so controlling with my music. “This is how it has to be. This is what the song is doing. This is what that section is.” I was much more specific about how I wanted things to go down and what they were going to be. In this process I was so open, and it led me to making music that I probably wouldn’t have made otherwise.

Una Rosa feels like a totally different record. It’s way more electronic.

It was kind of rough. Marco said, “I guess I’m not playing drums on this.” There are two tracks that have his drums on it, but mostly it was the [Sequential] Tempest [drum machine]. Tempest beats, all day long, every day. It was a different vibe. Marco would usually dial in sounds that we were looking for, and we had a blast making these beats. I think it was a culmination of music that we had both been listening to separately, combined with different projects he had worked on. He had just finished making a record [Pantame] with this band Crudo Pimento from Murcia, Spain, that to me sounded like a film. There’s a lot of Tempest on that record and I loved it so much. I was like, “I want my record to sound like this. I want to make music that sounds like a movie.” It excited me to think more visually of the music. It removed that aspect of the physicality of playing everything myself. The ideas weren’t coming from me sitting and playing. It was coming from me imagining or seeing an image and thinking, “How do I put fireworks on this track? How do I make it sound like the music where someone’s chasing me down a hallway?” That was incredibly exciting to me. With Black Terry Cat, I was digging into sampling. The studio was a playground with this album. I got to make the record in the studio, which I had never done. It had always been a private and a sacred space when I would write my music.

It’s interesting when machines, gear, and instruments laying around can be part of the calculation for inspiration.

Totally, yeah.

It sounds like working with Marco is a key collaboration for you.

I’m so grateful that I got to work with Marco on this and on my other records. He’s grown so much as a producer. I’m my own worst enemy a lot of the times. It’s joyful when I can collaborate with other people on my art. It doesn’t make it any less “my message” or what I wanted to say. It’s making it so much richer. A great collaborator is adding to your vision and taking it in another place that you wouldn’t have gone. That experience of collaborating with Marco in this new way made me grow. We had never made a record like this before.

How are you incorporating visuals into the creative process?

All the visuals I make are just as important as our production process. While we were in the studio, both Marco and I were collecting images, or little clips from movies, and throwing them in a Google Drive. We kept referencing those visuals when we were stuck. I find it interesting to bring in those different art modalities, like visuals, choreography, and dance, into the process of making the work. It helps me imagine things in a different way. To do things that I might not have.

Xenia Rubinos

It makes you feel something.

And it’s communication, too. Sound is super abstract. I’ll say, “I’m trying to get to this sound. I’m trying to get to this feeling. I don’t have the words to tell you what it is.” That’s what sound is. When we bring in visuals to that, it helps. Una Rosa was mixed by Chris Tabron, who’s a super badass engineer. He took the visual component so seriously. He asked us, “Do you have any visual stuff? I like to print it out and put it around me in the studio when I’m mixing.” He received my huge archive of visuals and links. He took it so seriously, and it helped me to underline that this is not just me messing around and getting into a YouTube rabbit hole. This is actually part of the process. Chris is a professional at the top of his game, and he does this too. The more images, the more info I could give him about the context of what we were going for with this music, it was a way to communicate and get what we were looking for.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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