Xenia Rubinos | The Family Interviews
Meet Xenia Rubinos
Hailing from New England, this Brooklyn-based powerhouse wields her affecting vocals and classical jazz training to challenge genres and convention. Her work is poignant, her sound potent, and her passion palpable. Hot on the heels of her recent release, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, we called up Rubinos to get the scoop on her background, thumb-wrestling prowess, and Mick Jones’ seal of approval.
Where did you grow up?
Harford, Connecticut. I lived there for 18 years.
What made you want to pursue a career in music?
I actually was around music a lot at home. My parents listened to music all the time. My mom is from Puerto Rico and my father was from Cuba, and both of them love music.
My mom liked Boy George and Madonna.. she loved Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. [She] bought me a Mariah Carey CD, and I started obsessing over that music.
And my dad was a classical music fan. He grew up in Havana and used to listen to the radio there, and one of his favorite radio stations was a classical music station, but he couldn't listen to it when his dad was home because his dad said that basically people like my father “shouldn't listen to that kind of music”... let's just put it that way. Like ‘boys shouldn't listen to that kind of music’, and especially not boys like my dad...So he would prohibit him from listening to it when he was home, so [my dad] could only sneak around and listen to it when he wasn't around. And when he was a kid, [my dad’s] life dream was to be a concert pianist.
What was the first instrument you learned to play?
What was your first performance or show like?
My first memory on stage, there's a picture of it, is me in a flapper costume wearing tap shoes. I think I was five... I took ballet and tap from this old lady who was very kind and said all these words in French.
She was famous in Hartford. I can't remember her name, but she was dope as fuck. And I always wanted to go to her house because it was huge and she had classes in her house. [I was] like, "This is dope." And she had these mirrors and you could just dance and that was cool. Yeah. That was the first show I had.
What does your family think of your music career?
My dad passed away a couple years ago when I put out Black Terry Cat, my second record. He never heard it, so I'm not really sure what he thinks about it. But he didn't like my music. He didn't want to listen to it, really. He's coming in with different tools and different life experiences. For him, it was like either I'm Maria Callas, I'm Leontyne Price, the most famous opera singer in the world, or I'm not. So he said some things to me when I was growing up that that kind of stuck with me about me being too lazy to be successful or [that] I wasn't diligent enough in that I started too late in life to be successful.
But he was just using his tools as what he knew at the time, and what his lived experience was, and was [just] assuming that that's what it was. [He] didn't know any better, but it still really hurt me. And my mom has always been super, super, super supportive.
She's “momager” type of vibes -- the type of person who comments on every single thing. [She] would be at every school play, like every recital .. she’d never miss anything. And if she did miss it, she would really suffer. [She] worked a full time job and put me through school, and sent me to private school...I don't even know how she did that.
Where did you study music?
I went to Berklee College of Music.
I studied jazz composition. I learned how to write for big bands there. I learned a lot about writing music there, but not much about singing or being an artist or life stuff [which] was pretty challenging. There are many reasons for that as well, [but] the main one is capitalism and selling people -- being in the business of selling music education or like things that are not being in the business of selling things that shouldn't be sold like education, you know?
You recently released a cover of “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”. What drew you to The Clash and such an iconic song?
My friends Armando Croda and Lindsey Cordero have a film that's called “I'm Leaving Now (Ya Me Voy).” [It’s] a documentary about an undocumented immigrant, Felipe, who has been living in Brooklyn for many years...and [now] he has to decide whether he wants to stay in the U.S., or whether he wants to go back to the family that he really no longer knows.
And so [Felipe’s] grappling with this [and] he really wants to see his son...You see them talk several times a day, but they're virtually strangers and he's trying to figure out whether he should stay or he should go.
And so my friend Armando was saying, "Can you do me a solid? I really think it would be amazing if we could get this song for the film because it's the title of the film," and I'm thinking to myself, "This is never going to happen. Dude, that's such a hard song to get a license for. They'll never give it to you."
How did you end up recording it?
We recorded it [on] a day off from tour because [Armando and Lindsey] needed it right away, and I would do anything for those guys [because] they are family.
So my collaborator Marco Buccelli (producer/ multi-instrumentalist) and I just went for it. Marco played almost every instrument [and] I sang it, but I was losing my voice because I had been on tour every day singing.
I knew the song but I never played it.
I had to sing it in the original key, which is very high for my range…[but] I just did it, and I was thinking to myself, "No one's ever going to hear this. This is never going to come out anyway, but I'm going to do the best that I can because I want to help my friends."
Fast forward a couple weeks later in Mexico, a friend of Armando and Lindsey's was at a music festival and saw Mick Jones backstage and played [our song] for him.
Mick Jones is one of the surviving members of The Clash and an awesome musician, and apparently human being. I've never met him, but not only did he stop and talk to our friend, but he actually listened to [the song].
Our friend told him about the movie and why we wanted to use it, and [Jones] was like, "Okay, yeah, I got it. You guys got it." And that's how we were able to release it.
Have you done other covers?
I have actually expressly said that I didn't want to do covers anymore after an experience that I had [doing] “Psycho Killer.” [It] was really fun and I do like that cover a lot, but that was at the beginning of me touring. I read some of the comments on YouTube and I got really upset by some things that people were saying regarding my ethnicity and what I look like. [After that] I have very sparingly done covers until now...
I'm releasing a project called “Xenia 2020” which [is a] new series of covers. [It is a] character that I'm studying [who] is building her songbook. When you study jazz, there's a thing called a “fake book”, [which] is a book of jazz standards that you learn how to play... basically all prepubescent teens have these books under a pile of socks in their bedroom...Xenia 2020 is building her “fake book.”
It’s very challenging [but] I am having fun as well.
Last question: Are you better at thumb wrestling or Rock, Paper, Scissors?
Oh man, that's a tough one. You really caught me off guard... I play rock, paper, scissors all the time [when] I visit my niece. She’s [always] like, “We’re doing this.”... at all hours of the day. And she always cheats! .. [Like] if we're out at a restaurant [she] can continuously cheat...However, if we're at home, there's no cheating at home. You're at your house right now. You're playing with your dog. There's just no stress, so stop cheating all the time.
So I think I'm pretty good at that rock, paper, scissors, but also, when I play it, I'm playing against a five-year old, so...
[But] I would like to be better at thumb wrestling. That's probably the shortest answer, if you need to pare it down.