Xenia Rubinos’ complex music is infused with simple messages about big ideas.
The music of Xenia Rubinos is complicated in all kinds of lovely ways. Take her complex rhythms. They’re difficult to dance to, but you may still be tempted to try. Like this, a 7/4 time signature in “See Them.” Or her song “Right”, from her latest album, Black Terry Cat. It’s actually a traditional 4/4, but subdivided into strange poly rhythms that are hard to pin down. But for all this rhythmic complexity, she’s not counting.
Xenia Rubinos: I’m not really thinking about, you know, the time signatures or anything like that. I’m just kind of feeling, my writing starts from improvisation and singing, mostly. A lot of times, the beats come first, you know. I’ll sing a beat, or I’ll sing some kind of a groove, and I’ll add lyrics later on. Lyrics were always the last thing for me when I was writing a song. This time around I wanted to challenge myself to grow and to be a little bit more specific. And to not shy away from being literal, which I used to find trite or corny or cheesy to be literal, and I just wanted to try and see what it would be like. So I think some of the lyrics on this album are much more literal than I have been in the past. You know, ultimately, I love making music, and I love writing songs — and lyrics are a part of that, but I do see them as another texture. And I just see them as, you know, just as important as the bass line is or a drum groove is, or the sound of a vocal.
Xenia studied jazz composition at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, and it shows! Expect in one regard, her songs are about social issues instead of more traditional statements like love and romance.
Rubinos: Our culture right now is, it’s not so much into the subtleties of romance. I don’t think that it will ever go out of style, I don’t think it will ever be obsolete, because that’s impossible. You know, we’ll always, I think if anything we really need that now, romance and subtlety. And I think it’s very hard to do in this culture to create something with that sweetness.
Rubinos discovered another kind of sweetness when she reconciled with her father, a proud older Cuban man who she says was often baffled by his little girl, particularly during her teen years. When she was 20, Xenia became his primary caregiver as he battled a degenerative illness.
Rubinos: That whole experience was about 10 years of just learning how to deal with that. And throughout that, I was in my early twenties myself, a lot of times I just didn’t know what to do. But I learned a lot from it, and I told him, and I’m happy I told him this, and I believe it today, that I was grateful for that opportunity, actually. I feel that even in the scope of everything that was going on and his illness, it actually brought us together. And I don’t think I would’ve known my dad on that level if it weren’t for his illness. “Black Stars” came out of some of that period of me taking care of my dad and kind of, just being emotionally pretty raw and exhausted. And it was just a trip a couple years ago, and I came back to Brooklyn, and that piano part was the first thing that came out, and there were no lyrics, really, but then I started singing that “Black Stars” lyric.
You’re a million black stars
In that fearless black night again
Rubinos: Just learning about the fact that if you look up at the night sky you might be seeing a star that’s already gone, but you still see the light shining. And the Mike Brown case was happening also at that same time I was finishing the song, and thinking about telling my dad, like, “you’re gonna live forever,” and you know, “we’ll never die and we’ll always be here,” and thinking about the loss of all of these black lives and what their family must be going through.
Like an evening star on that evening sea
What you’re feeling what you’re feeling’s all over
Like a midday sun on that midnight sea
Now it sounds like “Black Stars” have very specific purposes, Xenia Rubinos says that sometimes her songs take time to reveal their true meanings, even to her.
Rubinos: Sometimes I’ll write a song and, you know, four years later I’ll find something out through that. But ultimately, all of this writing and all of this and playing and meeting people and talking and traveling, all this, is constantly facing, what it’s doing for me is constantly facing myself and things that I’m not good at or things that I wonder. Facing others. And that’s the ultimate process that is, I think, helping me to try to be a better person or a person that I aspire to be.
AJC: So tell me something that you have learnt about the world, that you believe to be an absolute truth.
Rubinos: There’s a lot of good people in this world, and I think a lot of times we lose faith in each other, in people, and we judge each other, and we judge people in different circumstances. But what I found is that people want you to succeed, people want you to be good, and people want to love you and people want to be loved. And they want to succeed, and they want to be good and happy, you know.
And it’s with this unflinching faith in the goodness of humanity that Xenia Rubinos continues to forge her own unique path to happiness.