Singer-songwriter Xenia Rubinos was walking through her Brooklyn neighborhood when the concept for “Mexican Chef,” the catchy single from her new album, Black Terry Cat, came to her.
“I saw a lot of kitchens setting up for the night,” she says in a recent phone interview. She performs at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 4, at the Beachland Tavern. “The back door was swung open. I could see the kitchen staff working and chopping up the vegetables. They were blasting salsa super loud. In the front of the restaurant, there were mostly white waiters who getting ready and blasting completely different music like Phantogram or something. I just thought it was funny.”
She started putting together a narrative. Then, she went to the studio and knocked out a demo.
“I didn’t necessarily think it would make it on the record," she says. "I think it resonates with people because it’s true. We’ve all seen it and know what it is. I’m not trying to be preachy and I didn’t set out to write a protest song or political song, but it comes out this way because I’m being sincere and they are the things I wonder about."
When recording Black Terry Cat, Rubinos and longtime drummer Marco Buccelli, who produced the album, put in some long hours. Working with engineer Jeremy Loucas, they logged an average of 16 to 17 hours a day for five months to complete the disc. Named after “a giant black scraggly cat” that surprised Rubinos one night at her Brooklyn home, the album allows Rubinos to show how capably she can embrace different genres. She effortlessly shifts from R&B to hip-hop and jazz.
“One of the main things [that influenced the album] was the music I was listening to," she says. "I was getting into hip-hop and Chaka Khan and Rufus and Sly and the Family Stone. I was listening to hip-hop records and then connecting the dots. I was into that zone musically. That comes across on the album. I also picked up the bass and started writing the bass so a lot of the record is bass-centric. Lyrically, I wanted to be more specific about what was I saying. I tended to use lyrics as texture in the past. This time, lyrically, I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted to be more intentional and ask myself what those words meant. I wrote some songs with lyrics, which has never happened. I felt like that was a weakness for me and I wanted that to grow on this record.”
For the lyric video for “Mexican Chef” she pays homage to Judy Garland’s dance routine from the 1950 film Summer Stock.
“I’m not crazy about lyric videos,” she says. “My first instinct was ‘no.’ I just had to buckle down. I was watching this performance by Judy Garland. She’s singing the song 'Get Happy,' which is really about dying. You might miss what she’s talking about because she’s so joyous. She encapsulates this romance and spookiness and drama all in one. There’s something off-putting about her. I love that. I find that inspiring. I use her sets and costume and vibe but mix it in with a performance by the Queen of Latin Soul, La Lupe. She’s an incredible singer. She has her own vibe that’s similar to Judy Garland but she was more off the rails and less calculated than Judy I took those two performances as my inspiration.”
In addition to embracing a wide range of different musical styles, the album shows just how comfortable Rubinos has become in the recording studio.
“I’m a music fan,” she says. “I love hearing new records and there’s so much music I haven’t heard. It’s an endless discovery process. I want to be better and vocalizing what my imagination is and what my questions are. There are so many things I’m curious about. I can’t wait to get back into the studio. Making this album made me love the studio. My favorite thing is writing music and I’ve hardly ever written in a recording studio. When it was time to record, I thought it was something I had to do like going to the dentist but now I can’t wait to get back to the studio."