Last September, musician Xenia Rubinos kicked off a tour to promote her sophomore album, “Black Terry Cat,” at Great Scott in Allston. Headliners at the college dive bar sometimes don’t get started until as late as 11 p.m., so Rubinos lurked unobtrusively at the back of the club, chatting quietly with some friends, while the openers played. When she finally emerged onstage it was without whatever outer layer had allowed her to blend so seamlessly into the shadows. Clad in a peach jumpsuit with spaghetti straps, she wrested the microphone from its stand and bounded out from behind her keyboard. She danced with the kind of exuberant swagger that implored the audience to move, and they did.
The music on “Black Terry Cat” contains hip-hop beats and funky bass lines, but it is also complicated, zig-zaggy, strange. Rubinos could be forgiven if she chose to perform it cerebrally — there’s a lot to focus on, many complex passages to execute.
And indeed, there was a time when the Brooklyn-based singer and multi-instrumentalist might have shied away from the spotlight. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, she began her studies intending to major in vocal performance, but after a year turned her focus to composition. For a while, she didn’t even really sing.
"I felt like an outcast and I couldn’t find my way," says Rubinos, who will return to Great Scott on Wednesday, June 28. “I was really into jazz music at the time, and jazz really tends to be a more male-centric, male-dominated, macho kind of environment. I felt like singers especially — female singers — were treated like a pretty girl that doesn't know anything about music.”
She describes an environment in which students jockeyed to show off their knowledge: Could you name all the players on that rare B-side from 1956? Could you solo over a time signature in seven? Rubinos resented the culture of one-upmanship, and at the same time yearned to belong. “I wanted to know all the things that the guys did and I wanted to be taken seriously and I wanted to be accepted,” she says.
Needless to say, “it was a confusing time, but also a really great time.” At Berklee, Rubinos discovered the soul-inflected experimentations of Charles Mingus and Björk’s intrepid pop. It was there, too, that she met her primary collaborator, the drummer and producer Marco Buccelli.
In 2012, Rubinos self-released her debut album “Magic Trix.” (It was re-released by indie rock/pop label Ba Da Bing! Records in 2013.) “Magic Trix” was a bare-bones affair, all sharp angles and distorted key parts. The album also contained Spanish lyrics — Rubinos traces her roots on her mother’s side to Puerto Rico, on her father’s side to Cuba — and for a brief moment it seemed as though the media was determined to understand her as a Latin artist, despite the fact that her sound connected more directly to jazz and rock.
In the intervening years, Rubinos appears to have transcended misconceptions about her music that might have undermined her. On "Black Terry Cat," which was released on the eclectic Anti- Records, Rubinos emerges as a true polyglot, gesturing deftly toward hip-hop and R&B even as she continues to rummage gleefully through the grab bag of avant-garde inflections that have long been her musical stock and trade. At the same time, despite singing mostly in English, Rubinos wears her identity proudly. “You know where to put the brown girl when she’s f---ing it up,” she intones on the tenacious, slightly zany “See Them.” “Where you gonna put the brown girl now she’s tearing it up?”
The question of her identity — who she is, where she belongs, who to claim as her people — is one that Rubinos, who grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, has always grappled with. “I've never felt like I've belonged here, but also when I've visited Puerto Rico or Cuba, which is where my family is from, I don't belong there, either,” she says. “Growing up, I wasn't white enough — like nobody looked like me in the places that I wanted to be or the places that I was.”
Rubinos says she didn’t set out to write an album about that struggle per se. But now she sees that certain things were clearly in her thoughts.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I'm thinking about my body image and how I'm seen’ — or just racial tensions, racial issues,” she says. “So Black Lives Matter was on my mind, gun violence was on my mind.”
And, for the first time, Rubinos decided to hone her lyrics — something she had always been afraid to do, without really knowing why. It was always easier to pretend that words didn’t matter. “I think part of it, ultimately, is the obvious answer of just feeling afraid to be judged or to be wrong,” Rubinos says. “Being called out. And maybe that's imposter syndrome — like you don't really know ‘that thing.’ But the way that I fought against that was to talk about things that are really personal to me. I'm not prescribing anything or telling anyone what they should do or what time it is. I'm just telling you what time it is for me.”
Rubinos’ most deeply-felt verses draw on pain — namely, the slow decline, and eventual passing, of the singer's father, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. But for Rubinos, the personal is political, too. On the singsongy “Mexican Chef,” she neatly unpacks the hypocrisies and ignominies embedded in America’s reliance on exploitable labor — immigrant labor, brown labor — in plain, devastating language: “Brown cleans your house/ Brown takes the trash/ Brown even wipes your granddaddy’s ass,” Rubinos croons. “It’s a party across America/ Bachata in the back.” And later, with brutal clarity: “Brown has not/ Brown gets shot/ Brown gets what he deserved ‘cause he fought.”
Rubinos says she did not set out to write a political song. “I was really in a moment of musical joy,” she recalls, explaining how “Mexican Chef” started out as a jokey rhyme that she made up while she was running errands in her neighborhood. Riffing on a bass line inspired by Rufus' “Tell Me Something Good,” she and Buccelli fleshed out the rest of “Mexican Chef” in the studio. It was only later that Rubinos understood its impact on listeners. “I certainly didn’t think that it would be a single on the record,” she says. There is power, it turns out, in telling things like you see them.
As rewarding as it is to analyze Rubinos’ lyrics, it can be devilishly difficult to articulate her sound. Sometimes, in my most optimistic moments, her music feels to me like a premonition of pop’s future: adventurous, unexpected and defiantly danceable.
“The aesthetic I was going for in the album was this concept of rough elegance,” Rubinos tells me. “Something that has hard edges but then is also really beautiful — or beautiful in an unusual way.”
When considering Rubinos’ artistry, it makes sense to home in on her ideas — an impulse encouraged, no doubt, by that long-ago pivot away from singing and toward authorship, that early bid for respect. Paradoxically, the move may have contributed to the diminishment of Rubinos’ main tool: her voice. Long before she was a composer, a keyboardist or a bass player, she was a singer. Her voice cannot be detached from her musicianship, of course, but it is worth studying and appreciating on its own merits, a weightless, supple thing that seems to vibrate with its own electrical current.
And so, even as her visible interaction with instruments and technology has helped her to be taken seriously, Rubinos’ greatest triumph has arguably been getting out from behind that keyboard.
"That show in Boston was one of the first times that I've really ever gotten to do that with my music. Just being free with my body, being free with my voice," she says. The pressure to prove herself, to show off her chops, has finally receded. "It's like, no — I’m a singer. I love singing. And feeling like: I’m enough."