“Mexican Chef” shares the dirty work that minorities do to drive America, served with a spicy snap as the signature dish on Berklee alum Xenia Rubinos’ slyly subversive second album, Black Terry Cat. And she doesn’t mince words with that track’s lines “Brown cleans your house. Brown takes the trash. Brown even wipes your granddaddy’s ass.”
“I’m not being preachy and I didn’t set out to make an album that’s political,” the Connecticut native says from her Brooklyn home. “I was just saying some stuff that was on my mind—and on all of our minds.”
As race relations became a flashpoint in the national conversation, Rubinos says she noticed a pattern while walking past New York restaurants. Latinos prepped in back, listening to their music, while mostly white waiters oversaw a different scene. And it wasn’t just Mexican restaurants. “It just made me laugh, like ‘That’s the French one and that’s an Italian restaurant,’ ” she says. “The same theme was repeated: It was this front face, and then this back engine that made it work.”
Rubinos says she appreciates how Louis C.K. gets people to mull difficult topics through comedy. And “Mexican Chef” truly works because of her playful, sinuous delivery, her pastiche of jazz, soul, R&B and hip-hop cut by the wicked backbeats of drummer/producer Marco Buccelli, who she met a decade ago at Berklee.
She drops more food for thought on the other tracks of Black Terry Cat. In “See Them,” she sings, “Where you gonna put the brown girl now? She’s tearin’ it up,” while “I Won’t Say” quotes jazz singer Abbey Lincoln’s 1966 essay “Who Will Revere the Black Woman?” with lines like “Whose nose is too big? Whose mouth is too loud? Whose butt is too broad?”
“I thought, ‘This is so relevant today,’ ” Rubinos says, “and how beautiful to say those things as only she could, about feelings of inadequacies, like the elephant in the room, and feelings we’ve all had, universally, regardless of our ethnicity or where we live.”
Growing up in Hartford, Rubinos gravitated to jazz. She heard Lincoln’s music as a child (“She was the soundtrack of my weekends, just hanging out with my mom, cleaning the house”) and John Coltrane and Miles Davis through a summer arts program as a teenager.
Berklee opened other doors. “I went there to be a jazz singer—I was gung-ho about that—but I couldn’t find my own voice,” says Rubinos, who admired Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. “I quit singing for a while and just started listening to as much music as I could and learned a little about writing and arranging for horns.”
She found a sympathetic, syncopated foil in drummer Buccelli. “He just loves developing a song, and I think that’s what’s kept us working so long,” Rubinos says. “I trust him because I know he’s trying to hear what I’m hearing.”
Buccelli co-produced her bilingual 2013 debut, Magic Trix, developing their cut-and-paste and loop-based approach in the studio (they’ll add a guitarist and bassist at Great Scott on Aug. 31). But for June release Black Terry Cat, they expanded the palette and dropped the Spanish, drawing from such influences as Sly & the Family Stone, Rufus with Chaka Khan, hip-hop pioneer J Dilla and Gabriel Roth’s minimally mic’d Daptone productions. Rubinos says she wanted a more “vocal-centric” album. And in addition to keyboards, which anchored Magic Trix, she wrote and recorded on bass.
“The approach was similar in terms of picking up an unfamiliar instrument to write the music on,” she says. “I was also challenging myself to look at lyrics a bit more and what I was meaning to say… to be more intentional in my lyric writing.”
Despite that, she sometimes still surprised herself. “If I was trying to write a song like ‘Mexican Chef,’ I probably wouldn’t have been able to,” Rubinos says. “[As] a first-generation daughter of Puerto Rican and Cuban parents who’s making this music that’s not folkloric and not preservationist of any of those cultures… It’s another side of what an American experience can sound like and look like, and I guess that’s why it can be exciting and important to talk about.”
Xenia Rubinos plays Great Scott on Aug. 31.