Record of the Week: Xenia Rubinos’ ‘Una Rosa’

Listen to the latest installment of our Singled Out series, where Xenia Rubinos unpacks the making of the track “Working All the Time”

Xenia Rubinos has recorded such multifaceted music over the last eights years that she’s often been described as blurring and bending genre, but that’s only part of what makes her approach engrossing. After growing up on the popular sounds of her own ’90s moment, along with jazz and classical music and the Latin diasporic styles beloved by her parents and grandparents, receiving conservatory training and carving out a spot first in Brooklyn’s DIY scene, then on the global indie stage, she’s improvised her own boldly animated and alert approach to mingling mentalities that are supposedly in opposition to each other. Especially now, on her third album Una Rosa, she’s made the distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities, seriousness of purpose and fizzy, pop fun, nostalgic sentiment and cutting-edge experimentation seem utterly irrelevant.

On the Record: A Q&A with Xenia Rubinos

Jewly Hight: One thing that stands out to me about your musical back story is that your interests have never been linear, really, when it comes to music making. I mean, you kind of shifted your focus from one aspect of music making to another throughout your formative years, doing some bedroom recording as a kid on keyboard, studying jazz vocals in a conservatory setting and then focusing on arranging. And you have continued shifting which aspects of music making you’re focusing on from album to album. How do you feel like that has helped kind of spread out or expand your musical interests?

Xenia Rubinos: I think early on things felt very separate, like, my interest in jazz or composition or instrumental music felt very separate from me, as a child, singing Mariah Carey songs or making beats in my bedroom. It just felt like they couldn’t really coexist, and it felt like there was a hierarchy. There was something that’s serious and sophisticated and something that’s lowbrow. And I think over time, slowly, I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t have to be either or and that it’s just music and different colors that you choose to use and different contexts that you work in and different cultures of music. But that I can be in all of them and it doesn’t have to be so deep about like, “Oh my gosh, if I do this, then I can’t do this other thing.” I think that process of kind of unlearning that hierarchy or unlearning that feeling of separation is fluid and continues today and even [while] making this album.

This is the most, quote unquote, Latin record I’ve made until now. And that’s coming off of a period where I was very aggressively asserting what my music is about and fighting back against being labeled in that music zone. When my previous album, Black Terry Cat, almost had no Spanish singing on it or almost had no Latin rhythmic things, I was really playing more in the sandbox with jazz and R&B and hip hop and sampling and live playing, live band sounds that were not necessarily correlated to that, but was pigeonholed in that. And then here I go and I make a big stink about it several times when someone is like, “Oh, Best Latin album of the year.” I’m like, “This [Latin categorization] has nothing to do with my music.” But then I turn around and I make this album, which I think could be interpreted in that [Latin] musical scene or whatever. I’m giving myself permission to do that. It was a long road to get there. I’m just following my curiosity. This is what I’m curious about, and I can do that.

JH: It’s almost expected that an artist will, while they’re doing music press and promotion, present a new project as this thing that was building up inside of them and they just had to had to express it, had to get it out. I read several interviews that you’ve done recently where you made it clear that that was not where this album came from. You started making it just because it was time to start making it contractually. What difference did it make that you went into the process a little bit distanced from it in that way?

XR: There was a distance, I mean, I had been working on music for that period between Black Terry Cat and now, and so I did have music that I was curious about, music that I was writing. I had a big archive of stuff to choose from, but I kind of fell off the train in terms of I didn’t even know if I wanted to make music anymore. And then I was like, “OK, well, this is the job. Let’s bootstrap. Let’s let’s go do this job.” At first, it felt completely impossible. But I remember in January of 2020 looking at my partner and my co-producer, Marco, and saying, “I need to make this album. I need your help. I have no idea how I’m going to do this.”

In retrospect, what I see is that being detached and coming at it from where I was was actually very freeing, and it allowed me to do things that I wouldn’t have normally done, because I was so much more open in collaboration, whereas in the past, I may have been more tied to a track going a certain way. You know, I might be more closed off to trying new things. And in this case, I would kind of just try anything, and I wasn’t tied to the idea of what it should be. I was just focused on getting through each day and putting one foot in front of the other. It also made it more immediate. It took me out of myself too. I come from a history of incubating pieces for a long time, and some of these ideas have been around for years. Coming at it in this more open way, I was also able to just go ahead and make it on the spot, and had these deadlines that allowed me to kind of keep me in check. And then the pandemic happened and lockdown happened and it was like the world stopped. It was a snow day, like, a total snow day. And I was just here trying to make this music and no one expected anything from me. It was like a gift, that time. It just allowed me to connect to the craft of making it in a way that I haven’t in a long time. Once I started to kind of heal and feel a bit better on a personal [level], I started just really enjoying the process. But at first it was like pulling teeth. It was just like clocking in and clocking out. And God bless Marco for being so patient and rockin’ with me throughout that beginning period. It was so, so rough.

JH: You named the album for this instrumental composition that had been haunting you, this melody that had been with you since childhood that you associated with one of your late abuelas. That kind of sentimental connection to a piece of music could have made for a nostalgic occasion, but that’s not what the album is. You took it to the cutting edge. Why was it so much more appealing to you to kind of push that forward?

XR: Because in a way, I think it’s like a future nostalgia or something. It’s bringing in a piece of a memory into my imagination for the future. I was chasing the sound for several years and I never could find it. It just became an obsession with me. I was listening to a lot of old Cuban rumba and boleros and I was also fascinated by the idea of that kind of Caribbean version of classical music, like a Caribbean orchestra playing a classical piece with synthesizers. And I was like, “I want to make this sound and I know that it’s there.” And I was obsessed with finding it. Then this melody came years later. In 2019, it resurfaced in my mind. I realized that it was this melody that I had heard as a kid on this lamp that my great grandma used to have. It just felt very important, and I was like, “I just need to make my own version of this.” I still was clinging to that fascination with that idea of a Caribbean classical electronic sound. So that was me doing a version of this composition.

JH: You have internalized and explored jazz singing traditions, Latin singing traditions, on your own or in a formal educational setting. And in those singing traditions, there are ways of doing grand things and subtle things with the human voice, with its elasticity and timbre and tone and phrasing. All of those things can give so much character to a performance in the telling of a story. You’ve also gotten into technological manipulation of the voice, all of these ways that you can almost make the human voice sound post-human, like a cyborg, using technology to almost transcend human emotion, or turn it on its head somehow. How are you tapping into both of those things, both the grand, diva-style performance of melodrama and also those kinds of vocal effects, manipulation of the voice at the same time in the track, “Ay Hombre”? What do you feel like they add up to when you’re when you’re doing all that together?

XR: “Ay Hombre” is a continuation of that picture that we were just describing, a process which is kind of a futuristic presentation of this Caribbean classical aesthetic. That track started with that first bit, which I thought it was going to be some R&B, groovy, mid-tempo, Nick Hakim type of song. I was playing Rhodes and singing that opening riff and I was like, “Is that the hook?” And then it turned into this other thing and we just ran with it, and I was like, “These both can exist together.” We decided to keep this intro and have it be this cinematic, maximalist opening with Auto-Tune that’s very in-your -face. But coming after this classical electronic piece, that kind of cuts it for you so that you’re like, “Oh, that’s not what I thought was going to happen next.”

And then we were just messing around and having fun at a certain point. I had never I had never used Auto-Tune before, and I just thought it was funny. Marco was just very encouraging: “Oh yeah, let’s turn this plug-in on.” He let me play with it for a little too long, probably. But then I’m like, This is dope. We should keep this.” On that section, there’s a little bit of a Kanye [808s & Heartbreak] influence. And then the story continues into my kind of homage to this melodramatic Bolero singer that my grandmother listened to. It’s totally a tribute to that style.

We started on an improvisation off of the chord changes of a classic song by La Lupe, who is the queen of Latin soul and the super heart-wrenching song. And at first, I thought it was going to be just a cover of her song, an electronic version of that. But then I ended up writing my own melody and lyrics to that. And I think it totally makes sense together. I think those two different vocal characters totally make sense, and I think they sound like they belong in the same space.

I really like the idea of when [I’m] approaching vocals on a track, that there are different characters that are coming out. I might even like name that. In the in the Pro-Tools project and say, like, “rude girl” and “drama lady” or “choir,” whatever it is. And thinking about, “What does that person sound like?” For the lead vocal of “Ay Hombre,” I was just watching clips of singers famous for singing these really tragic boleros. I would just watch her posture and try to really embody her, thinking about going into the booth to sing this track. I was also thinking about drag, the ultimate diva, and drawing inspiration from drag queens. I’m kind of marrying those worlds, you know, of “What is this representation of this diva, or what is what is this representation of the ultra femme?” It was very hard not to get caught up and feel like I’m not doing this right. But it was just fun to say, “Okay, this is not me, I’m just playing these characters.”

JH: I’m glad that you mentioned inhabiting characters. I read that as part of the process of approaching this differently and doing it from a little bit of a remove at the beginning, as opposed to going in treating it as straightforward self-expression you sometimes got into character when you were when you were doing different songs. What did that look like when you were working on “Who Shot Ya?” And how did it empower you to deliver that song?

XR: I was living in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and it was the summer of protests there, and it was the height of the lockdown. I had just gone to my first real protest for Black Lives Matter. It was after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor [were killed], and it was a very particular moment in time, where every night it would just be eerily quiet on the block and you would just hear helicopters and fireworks and you would text your friends and everybody would be like, “Oh, I’m going to this protest.” I just never lived anything like that. Also we were ramping up to the presidential election. The temperature was boiling hot and it was just like a pressure cooker. It was really poppin’ off. I had this beat that we had been working on for a minute and I just got in and started just making vocal sounds, just feeling angry, just feeling rage. I was like, “I think I need to go get my grillz.” I had these gold grillz made for my teeth the year before for this other character I was working on. I put the grillz in and it totally transformed my way of singing. The vocal sound I’m looking for, it feels like you have a lot of teeth in your mouth. You can hear the spit. Performing with the grills on, embodying this character of rage and telling you to get off of me and don’t put my name in your mouth, that completely transformed my vocal approach.

Those kinds of things, like dressing up or changing the light in the room, I used to [not] take them seriously. I kind of thought, ‘This is silly.” And probably some of that comes from being in this very, honestly, patriarchal, white supremacist, like lane that can be the music industry, that was the jazz scene that I grew up in, that’s kind of belittling some of these aspects of performance or a vocalist or a woman who’s a vocalist. And realizing, “Yo, this is actually so important and completely transforms my performance, and it’s fun.” It’s actually serious; it’s actually a technique to use. Part of making this record was exploring performance, exploring character, dressing up, getting visual references, you know, making an archive of visual references or YouTube links or links to visual artists, taking that seriously.

JH: During “Don’t Put Me in Red,” which is really a stunning track, I feel like the very different singing styles and even the different languages that you’re singing in showcase the irreducible potential of your vocal ideas, what you can do, what you can try. But you’re also singing about perceptions that are limiting and actual imprisonment of people from like the Latin Diaspora and South America. How did you work your way to that combination, singing about such radical limitation and imprisonment, but in such an expansive way?

XR:  It came from the experience of touring as an opener for quite a while and playing tons of shows. When you’re an opener, you get maybe 15 minutes to soundcheck and plug it in and get your thing together. And like the lighting tech would just kind of throw red light on the stage and peace out. I was playing like all these rock clubs and it was very white dude-type of vibes. I was the only person of color and often one of the only women, certainly the only woman working there. I started to feel a way. I was like, “Oh, is this your Latino lighting for me? You’re just throwing red on?” It was really bothering me. So I would go up to the lighting engineer every night and try to find them and say, “Hey, please just don’t put me in red.” And I just kept saying that over and over again and I was like, “Yeah, don’t assume these things about me just by looking at me. You don’t know me.” The track came from that feeling and was wordless for the longest. I couldn’t figure out, because there were no words that could say what I felt. It just felt too heavy, so I kind of let it be for a while.

I wrote this extended intro on bass that was just kind of singing wordlessly, and I had planned to write words to it, but they just never came in. That intro is kind of me singing to you without words what I’m feeling. And at the end, there’s this section of singing, this ascending line, and it’s like me [with] people chasing me, down a hallway, like a nightmare. They’re after me.

The unblocking of the lyrics came from necessity. We needed to finish this record. I was just staring at a map of Puerto Rico that I had in my studio, and I just started singing the cities that I saw on it, and that helped unblock a melody, and a singing style for that verse. And I came up with this image of these three sisters that are smushed together, like standing very close together, singing this harmony. It helped me to separate myself, so it wasn’t me telling you, “I feel like this.” It felt right to have them singing in Spanish; that vocal sound of that language just felt round and warm in a way. And then I felt like I wanted to switch into English in the second verse and expand on what I had just said. You can hear the change and timbre of my voice, when I’m singing in Spanish and I sing in English.

That improvisation on singing was what unlocked that lyric, that storytelling. And then just not thinking about it and fooling myself. I just always do that if I’m getting really anxious about talking about [serious issues]: “Have you thought about kids in cages,” and, “This is how I’m feeling discriminated against.” I think too hard about it. Or I think, “This is final,” or “I’m like speaking for everyone.” Then I’ll just never write anything. I just have to I just have to say, “Oh, this is just what you’re writing for now. You could always throw it away. You don’t have to show anyone.” That’s been helpful for me, and knowing that not everyone’s going to agree and someone’s going to think it’s stupid, and if someone doesn’t get it, it doesn’t matter. I’m just making stuff up.