Visionary singer and music maker Xenia Rubinos dips in and out of genre and structure to create movingly powerful songs with her O.G. signature sound. Xenia’s powerhouse vocals are at the center of her music which grows from a wide range of influences from R&B to Hip-Hop to jazz all delivered with a soulful punk aura. Pitchfork lauded the radiant singer as “a unique new pop personality” while a profile in The New Yorker described her work as “rhythmically fierce, vocally generous music that slips through the net of any known genre.” Her record, Black Terry Cat, is out now.
(Photo credit: Amanda Picotte)
Gisela Fullà-Silvestre is a Barcelona-born, Brooklyn-based artist who records a NOIA; Xenia Rubinos is a Connecticut-born singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, now based in the Hudson Valley. NOIA’s record gisela was just released in March (via Cascine), so to celebrate, the two hopped on a Zoom call to catch up about it all.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Xenia Rubinos: I’m an only child too.
Gisela Fullà-Silvestre: Do you live where your parents live?
Xenia: So, my dad passed away a couple of years ago, and he was living in Florida — my parents separated when I was little, so they’ve been apart for my whole life, basically. And my mom lives in Connecticut, which is two hours from where I live.
Gisela: Right. Because you’re upstate, no?
Xenia: I’m a little upstate. Yeah, I’m like an hour [north of the city] — Upstate for beginners. But, yeah, the only child thing is very intense when your parents get older.
Gisela: Totally. Because they also had me when they were over 40, so they were always older. When you’re a kid, you’re like, I wish they would have had me earlier. But then, that’s also a bit selfish, because they had so much fun and so many adventures without me.
Xenia: That’s so funny — my dad was a lot older when I was born. Our age difference, and the age difference between my parents, was very large. When I was in my early 20s, he was in his 70s, and I was the only one so it was a lot to deal with. And from a distance — not as not as huge a distance as you, because he was living in the same country, but it was involving a plane.
Gisela: Yeah. I like to have one foot here as well as in Barcelona. Were you close with your dad?
Xenia: I became close with him at the end of his life. If he hadn’t been sick and I hadn’t taken such a big role in caring for him, I don’t think we would have been that close, because we kind of had a lot of friction when I was growing up. I think that because of that circumstance, I spent so much more time with him, and so in my 20s our relationship grew really close and I got to know him better. I got to know more things about him as an adult that I appreciated, like how much of a music fan he was and how much he liked art and film. That side of him, I think, brought us together a lot.
Gisela: That’s amazing. Yeah, you never know know how it ends ups… There’s always ways to find that connection. Did he, in a way, inform your last record [2021’s Una Rosa]?
Xenia: I guess. I mean, we didn’t agree musically very much. He had his taste and that was it — it wasn’t really up for debate. He liked classical music: Ravel, Stravinsky, the ballet, the opera, Lakmé. That was his world. And then also salsa, Cuban rumba, that kind of stuff. So I think part of my fascination with rumba and boleros for sure was trying to find him again. But also, it had been cooking for a while, that interest in doing a record that was searching inside there.
Gisela: Yeah. That’s why I was asking, because I discovered your music with Black Terry Cat — I was like, wow, the way it was so playful, and [full of] rage as well. Then when I heard Una Rosa, suddenly [there was] a bit more of sadness, besides that the music was also kind of connecting with more Caribbean music, [which] I felt like I didn’t hear that much on the previous record.
Xenia: Yeah. He passed a while ago, but time is so messed up — time and grief is such a strange thing, the way that it unravels, you know? So I think it took me a long time to be able to even speak on it. He passed before Black Terry Cat came out —, right when I was about to track everything for that record, which was strange. And then I went and toured and kind of was non-stop for a couple years after that. Then I had my own breakdown before Una Rosa, which is kind of what led to this reckoning and metabolizing, finally, of a lot of grief.
I’ve been listening to your record the last couple of days, and it’s really stunning. It’s really beautiful. I feel like what we do is different, but I also feel I find a lot of common ground with what you’re doing. I was curious about the song that reappears, that interlude in the middle, if that was an original or if that was folk?
Gisela: That is a poem from a Catalan poet that I like, Maria Merce Marçal. It was musicalized by this singer, Maria del Mar Bonet, from Mallorca. I just always loved her poems and Bonet’s music as well.
I think both [of our] records — for what I see, you love pushing forward sonically, like a lot of synth and audio manipulation. I think I’m also a bit like that, in a way. But then obviously, all of that love for more traditional stuff — the stuff that I’ve heard in my house always. When I hear your records, there’s a lot of vocal harmonies, and I can tell you love jazz. It’s so rich. But then in the last record, it’s also connected even more to your background. So I can see how you see that.
Xenia: Has that always been part of the music for you? In terms of [featuring] that poem, or how the opening track and the last track also have a feeling that… feels almost like a song that’s always existed.
Gisela: The first song is a bit freeform, but it’s a “Vidalita.” You know how flamenco has different palos? Like seguiriyas, bulerías, alegrías, milongas. Vidalitas are one of those, called Cantos de Ida y Vuelta, which were [developed] through the connection of Spanish Folklore with Argentinian and Colombian music, so then it went back and reinformed some parts of flamenco as well. So some palos, [like] la milonga y la vidalita were informed by folklore from Latin America.
That one is sung by Mayte Martín — she sings it a little bit like that.
Xenia: Oh my god, I love Mayte Martín. I’m a huge fan.
Gisela: She’s from that generation — Mayte Martín, Miguel Poveda — I feel like they really did a great job at keeping flamenco pushing [forward] in a very elegant way. And I love that they are queer. A lot of the flamenco and traditional music in Spain now is being made by queer people, which for such a traditional music scene is kind of cool.
The last song is a Portuguese fado from Amália Rodrigues. I guess this record was also kind of… In the last two years, first my mom was dealing with her cancer, and it was a bit heavy because there was not a lot of hope either way. And then my dad got sick. Obviously, I didn’t know my dad was going to die [Gisela’s father passed away in April], but I think all of that has informed a bit of the sadness of this record. And I think that’s why there’s a lot of more contemplative soundscapes, and stuff like that.
I took a note the other day that I want my next record to be less contemplative, and more punchy. Which is something that really attracted me when I heard your music first. I remember I was like, Damn, it’s like the White Stripes, but sometimes the melody is more like Beyonce. But in the Destiny’s Child era, you know?
Gisela: [Laughs.] That kind of playfulness always struck me. Your music feels so fresh sometimes, that I wonder how much of your process is by yourself and more internal, [or how much is] jamming with your collaborator, Marco Buccelli?
Xenia: That’s really sweet. It’s cool to hear how you hear it. But, yeah, it’s been a different journey for every record. I come from an improvisation background, so a lot of my stuff is coming from a background of jamming on a rhythm or on an idea, and then seeing where it goes, and kind of writing in that process. So I think most of the time, that’s what I’m doing.
Black Terry Cat was the most meticulous demo process I have ever done — and I don’t think I would ever do something like that again, because once it was time to make the record, every song was demoed so much that it was like, What’s the point of this? It was so hard to beat the demo and almost forget what that was, or make it as good as that. But in the end, we were able to make a record that I don’t think sounds that way. I don’t think it sounds overcooked, somehow, but I think it was overcooked. I think I overthought that record a lot.
[Una Rosa] was completely different from my other records, in that I did some writing solo, but a lot of it was in the moment, in the studio with Marco, which I’ve never done. Usually I have a long period of gestation with the music before I share it, and I can be very precious about it. I can be very, don’t talk to anyone, don’t show anyone, because I don’t know what it is yet. But this was the opposite of that. Every day, we would just show up to the studio and work on something, and the idea was that anything we tracked was possibly final. So it was more jamming, although we were not playing as a band, really.
How is it for you? Because you’re self-producing your stuff — what’s your process?
Gisela: I think I’m still in that cocoon way of producing, which I want to get out of. On this record at least, I started inviting people to sing.
Xenia: I love the collabs on this record. They’re awesome.
Gisele: Thank you. I was like, I hope I can get a bit more out of my lonely way of producing. Because my day job is as a sound designer and composer for film, so I’m in Pro Tools or Ableton a lot, and then I would just do my own thing… I don’t know, I want to collaborate a bit more, and not be so precious about my own stuff. I feel like if you get confident in your vision, then you are more allowed to be playful with other people, because you’re not so afraid that your own vision will disappear the moment you collaborate. I think it’s really beautiful that you have that with Marco, because it’s rare.
Xenia: Yeah. That’s been a journey, because I’m very protective about my stuff, even with someone who’s my partner in life and who so intimately knows me. Somehow even there, it’s like, “Maybe this would work better with somebody else.” [Laughs.] But it’s a big confrontation. We’ve been working together for over a decade, and only on this last record did I feel like it was a better collaboration, like [I was] more able to let go. And part of it was because I was a little bit incapacitated, and somehow that helped me to let go. When he’s like, “Oh, let’s try this thing,” instead of being like, “No!” I could say, “OK, let’s try it.”
I really admire a team’s work, and I’ve started to appreciate it more and more as time goes on. And I realize that it’s not that you work with people because you can’t do it by yourself, or you don’t have an idea yourself, but because it strengthens whatever that idea is and you end up doing something that you wouldn’t have done on your own. It also pushes you to confront yourself constantly. But also, I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, about what’s important to keep private. Because collaboration is such a game changer, but I also do think that there are some things that need to be kept for us.
Xenia: I think there’s a balance to take care of.
Gisela: I got to a point two years ago where I was like, I’m just going to share works in progress on my Instagram, just like beat making. And it kind of felt good, but at the same time, there’s that lack of ego that you really need when you want to make truly honest music, [and] that really benefits from having no mirrors in front of you. Which is really hard, because sometimes we are making music and already thinking about, how will it be understood, or appreciated?
There can be a lot of overthinking — is this cool in a Oneohtrix Point Never kind of way? [Laughs.] It’s a very fine balance.
Xenia: Yeah. When I’m making shit, it’s like I’m battling five different voices in here. There’s the one that’s very Business Barbie — she’s the very ambitious girl who’s like, And then how are we going to sell this? And we can make a book, and we can make the show, and then we can pitch it to this… Like she’s always trying to sell shit. And it’s fun and useful, but also sometimes I’m just like, Yo, I didn’t even record this yet. Can we chill? Also, not everything has to be a product.
And then there’s the voice that’s like, Is it cool? Is it corny? I’ve been trying to battle all of the voices, but is it cool still is a major thing for me. Maybe a more intelligent, sensitive question for me to ask of myself is, Is this too obvious? Is this the way I want to say it? A lot of this “cool” thing, I think it’s robbing us of some genuine feeling and truth — like what you just said about vulnerability or that you need to be without a mirror, without a spectator. I think that as an artist, we can rob ourselves of this exploration sometimes, because we’re afraid of what we are going to look like, or what we want to look like. You know what I’m saying?
Gisela: Si, because we are all also our own audience — we want to make the music that we want to hear, but we also want to be perceived [a certain way]… It’s a hard thing.
Some songs on my record I made with my friends. During the pandemic, we would do this songwriting challenge in which we would meet on Zoom, and then we would say, “We’re all going to write 20 songs for the next 12 hours.”
Xenia: Oh my god.
Gisela: Obviously no one [did] — only my friend Autre Ne Veut achieved 20 songs. I never would. I would arrive at eight or something. But the good thing about it was that you wouldn’t be able to overthink anything. Most of [the songs] were shitty, but also you cannot think about it, you know?
Xenia: It sounds like a colon cleanse — it sounds like a way to clear your system, just get all the shit out. Did you keep any of them?
Gisela: Actually, yes. There’s a at least two songs on the record, or three, that partially the first demos came from that. And I’m super happy about it. I was like, Wow, that was really good use of my time.
Xenia: How does it feel now after you’ve released the record? Because there are some people who release a record and they immediately start making the next record — and I hate those people. I’m jealous. I want to be this person.
Gisela: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I’ve been working on my live performance for the past few months with a movement artist, and I think finally have a live show that I’m proud of. I just want to tour this record a little bit and feel the catharsis of playing live. I also want to be that person that is already working on new material, but I also have a lot of… I don’t think grieving is something that I can plan on, but I think it’s something that is going to show in different ways right now. So, I don’t know. All I think I can say is that I want to at least learn from this. I hope this record for me is just a portal of trust of being like, Yeah, Gisela, maybe you should put more love into music-making, and not let yourself just say yes to work always because you think that that’s what defines you. I think a lot of artists already have that very clear in their heads, but I hope I can get there.
(Photo Credit: left, Max Lakner)