Xenia Rubinos has a crazy amount of talent, for both singing and songwriting, but even more than that, she’s got heart. It’s always apparent just how excited she is to be doing what she’s doing (very). She and her drummer and producer Marco Buccelli filmed this video for her new song “Whirlwind” at 6 AM in a parking lot in Long Island this past winter, and despite the below-freezing temperature, the duo, along with video director Francesco Lettieri, stuck it out for as long as it took to physically capture every layer of the song—a roiling pop track full of lopped oohs and ahhs and what sounds like poppies blooming. You can feel their energy in the video: there’s lots of poses, a couple of costume changes, and boundless energy at every juncture.
I called Xenia in Brooklyn the day after her record-release show, where her mother and abuela showed up to surprise her. We talked about bedroom concerts, high school dorkiness, witches, and her recently released debut album, Magic Trix (Ba Da Bing), a hyperactive mix of punk, R&B, and performance art that draws heavily from her childhood and mixed Cuban/Puerto Rican heritage, as well as dramatic BIGGIES like love and pining. —Julianne
JULIANNE: When did you know that you loved music?
XENIA RUBINOS: I’m an only child, so I remember being three and just talking and singing to myself in a corner. My dad bought a piano, and I would just sit there and say I was making up music for movies, and my parents would have to come into the living room and listen to me bang on the keys. I would sing concerts to my dolls. I was just starting to learn English, so I was hella confused and mixing words. A few years later came the era of the pop power-ballad: Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Gloria Estefan. I would spend the entire day singing Mariah Carey albums from start to finish.
Were you hitting all the high notes?
Well, when you’re five, you’re like a castrated choirboy or something, so you can sing anything!
You grew up in Hartford, Connecticut—were you in band and all that in high school?
In junior high I was in choir. My dad was not happy about my Mariah Carey love, because he wanted me to be a classical musician. He said, “You have to learn how to read music,” so he made sure I had lessons. I was always hanging out in the band room. I wasn’t cool, but I was pretty outgoing. I went to a private Catholic school, so it was me and all the minority kids and, like, the dorks. That was our gang.
What was Hartford like?
It’s known as the insurance capital of the nation. It’s famous for that, and for Colt, which makes firearms and weapons. It sounds like it’s the epicenter of evil, but there’s just nothing there. But I had fun getting to know my grandma and my great-grandma, and there’s a really big Latino community there, with a strong Puerto Rican contingency. Park Street, which my grandma still lives near, is where all the big Puerto Rican shops are, and las botánicas are where you go to get your potions and your good-luck charms.
Some of your songs tell stories about the Santería religion and Latina folklore. What’s your connection to that?
The Cuban side of the family—my dad’s side—has stories of people being clairvoyant, and then on my mom’s side, my grandmother had a lot of stories from when she was growing up in Puerto Rico, including one about this lady named Rosa, who’s a healer that came to the States to heal a dying man, and lived under a bridge with her six sons. It’s all family lore around people that you meet and you’re like, Are you really a witch? Is it true? It’s just accepted as reality. Here in the States, people retain their beliefs, but they adapt to the society. But in my great-grandma’s time, it’s like, “We’re not feeling well, let’s just call the witch doctor.”
Your music has a lot of soul. Do you feel like your spirituality comes out in it?
I like to think that I’m transmitting some kind of power in my performance. Sometimes I feel too epic with it, but I’m just being sincere. I’m playing keyboards and singing, so I’m doing something that requires technical focus, but I’m also trying to perform and be emotional. It gets tricky to balance. If I get too into one or the other, I mess up. I’m getting better at it, though!
When you perform, it seems like you really enjoy being alive. You have a really psyched, unjaded vibe.
Something that I really wanted on this record, and in general, is exuberance. Sometimes you can get too serious about whatever it is that you’re doing, especially in music. I try not to take myself too seriously. I like to make fun of myself, to laugh at myself, and I like to be joyful about it. That’s something that I really admire about the women of my family. My grandma is one of these people who can find the joy in really simple things. And some people could say, “Oh, she didn’t do anything in her life but have kids and become a cleaning lady. Oh, how stereotypical, she doesn’t even speak English.” But my grandmother is one the most joyful people you’ll ever meet. She always has a smile on her face, she’s always happy, she always wants to dance. I find that so inspiring. I try to put that in my music. ♦