“There She Is…”: Xenia Rubinos on Una Rosa, Trusting Herself, and the Melody That Haunted Her

Albina Cabrera
Photo by Michelle Arcila

Listen to an audio version of this story from KEXP's Sound & Vision below. Sound & Vision airs Saturday mornings at 7:30-9 AM PT.

In an unexpected twist that suits her perfectly, composer and singer Xenia Rubinos is shaken by the childhood memories, obsessions for Cubans rumbas, and her grandmother’s lamp. Unbeknownst to her, these all become the triggers that inspire her latest album, Una Rosa. She finds herself on her third album rescued by the past with a vision for the future. With synthesizers, she pays homage to danzón, rumba, and its related Caribbean flavors. 

We’ve witnessed Xenia’s career develop over years, both in her latest session with Cheryl Waters Live on KEXP in 2016 and with El Sonido’s DJ Chilly in 2014. All her work has centered on her vocal presence, vast knowledge of jazz, pop, and electronic music but with profound joy in breaking the limits of possibility between genres. Her passion for destroying labels is noticeable. In addition, Xenia has explained to us on more than one occasion that she doesn't want to be labeled as a Latinx artist – that she wants to be an artist, period, and that her music speaks for itself.

“I was completely unprepared,” Rubinos confesses from the other side of the screen. An opposite process but not less intense than what she previously had with her predecessor, Black Terry Cat, where she had planned 100% the control of every detail. Una Rosa was a surprise that turned into one of the best musical journeys of 2021, although everything came from a musical block.

“I need your help. I really wanna work with you on this, and I have no idea how to make this record”, Rubinos said to her partner and producer Marco Buccelli after several attempts to start writing this album. The two started work on the record deeply at the beginning of 2020. While the world was blowing up because of a worldwide pandemic and a wave of protests for social justice without precedent roamed all over the US, Rubinos was recovering from a difficult moment.

“I had gone through a really hard time personally and was not even sure if I could make music anymore”, she said.

Because of that creative block, Xenia opened a musical world that would make sense – not only on the new hymns that we can find in Una Rosa like “Did My Best”, “Don’t Put Me In Red” and “Sacude”, but also in how she faced up the production and recording of this record.

“It was almost like a baby learning how to walk,” Rubinos says. “I just was so detached. And then what ended up happening is that we made a lot of the record on the spot right in the studio, which was the first time for me. Really writing into the record, recording first vocal takes, just writing on the spot. So in that sense, it was more of an immediate process, and also, it was a much more electronic process. It was less about me being able to play everything and more about experimenting with different effects and different musical ideas.” 

Una Rosa has a shocking opening accompanied by Rubinos’ precise vocal inflections within the first 56 seconds of the intro “Ice Princess.  Then come the flutes on the title track, the moment where you get the complete tone of the record.

“That song (“Una Rosa”) is kind of a tattoo. I don't have any tattoos, but that song is my tattoo. It's something that stays with me forever,” Rubinos says. “And it has a lot of nostalgia, but also some kind of feature feeling to it. And I wanted to make a version that felt that way.”

“I think that only after we recorded the title track ‘Una Rosa’ –the beginning of the album– and that we were finishing it off to send to mix, I was washing dishes, and it was playing in the house, and I said, Oh my God, I did it. I found that sound that I was looking for,” she says.

Not only the musical blockage gave its shape to the new stuff, a lamp at her grandmother’s became an unavoidable musical and visual factor for Rubinos:

“‘Una Rosa,’ that track, it's a composition by this Puerto Rican classical composer, José Enrique Pedriguera, and it's a classical danzón. Basically, this melody is kind of the melody of my life. It followed me and all of these different moments. 

“The first time I heard it, I was maybe six or seven years old at my bisabuela’s house (my great grandmother’s). She had this flower lamp in her room. It was like this little fiber optic lamp plastic box that changed colors when you turned it on, and it had a little switch in the back that you would wind up, and it would play this melody and the melody was ‘Una Rosa.’ And I just remember nighttime, like in her room, just listening to this melody and watching the flowers and the colors change. It's a very strong memory of her and of that music. 

“Then many years later, in high school, I got this bootleg CD of piano music. I was really into piano. And like all of a sudden, I heard that same melody. I was like, ‘Oh my God, that's the melody from the flower box.’ I was obsessed. And then many years later, in 2019 in Brooklyn, that was like the height of my breakdown, basically. I wasn't sleeping. I would wake up at like four in the morning and just stare out the window. And one morning I heard this melody in my head and I thought I was writing something. I thought it was an idea, you know, and I was like, “Oh, that's pretty”. And then I tried to sing it. I was kind of singing the melody, and then I realized, I hadn't thought about that melody in such a long time. I couldn't even remember the name of it. And I was like, I need to find this. 

“So I spent the next year, googleing ‘una flor, una rosa’. And there's so many songs called ‘Una rosa’ or ‘Una flor’. Then I was like, ‘Well, whatever, I remember enough of it, but I think I should just record this.’ And we started working on the record. I thought, ‘I'm just going to try to make my own version of it, and I'll never forget it again, because now I'll have it recorded.’ And so finally,we were ready to record, I had a really amazing flautist Domenica Fossati come in and she was gonna play it on flute. And that week I found it! I found the original recording of it. But I decided to keep my arrangement the way that I had just remembered it.”

The musical treasure Xenia rescued from her childhood and her surrender to a more collaborative process at the time of recording was marked inside a hostile and oppressive context –streets full of innocent blood, the asking for more justice, and one of the most ferocious presidential campaigns of recent times. Yet, during that time frame and out on the streets of New York, is where Una Rosa continued taking form, and songs like “Who Shot Ya?” were given to birth.

“The song (“Who Shot Ya?”) was one of the most immediate writing processes of the whole record. I had been going to protests all summer and seeing my friends going out like every day. I had never lived a period like that where you would call a friend be like “oh, ¿qué haces?”, like, what are you doing on Friday? I'm going to this protest, do you wanna come? It's like… what is going on?”Rubinos says. “That was the summer of helicopters, fireworks, searchlights, protests, and I think that I channeled some of those feelings into ‘Who Shot Ya?.’ 

With “Don't Put Me In Red”, one of the most powerful tracks on the album, Rubinos asures that she had to “be careful of a feeling like, I'm not speaking for all of my community and friends from the Latin diaspora. I can only say what I'm feeling, and sometimes that's hard”.

Another great moment Una Rosa’s musical journey is the track “Did My Best.” Rubinos recalls: 

“There was a big moment when I recorded ‘Did My Best,’ this track on the record, I was recording the vocals for that and that I remember very clearly was a moment where I felt it in my body. When we were listening back to the takes that I recorded, my hairs on my arms and my legs stood up and it just hit me like a ton of bricks. I wasn't expecting that at all. I was kind of ‘there is nothing happening here,’ like just minding my business, doing my thing, like writing the song, whatever. And then all of a sudden – boom!  This feeling just came over me, and I was like, Whoa, OK. I hadn't felt that connection. 

“It's hard to explain, like maybe it's ‘el duende/the goblin,’ it's like a moment of flow. It's like this mysterious thing that just comes out of nowhere sometimes. And I needed that, and when I felt that, that was enough to keep me going. Just feeling that for like an hour was like, Oh, okay, I remembered something that was very sacred and very spiritual and healing. Like, Oh, this is why I'm singing, this is why I do this.”

One of the things I respect the most about Una Rosa is that it’s a piece that’s intended to be listened to from beginning to end. At the same time that every single works as its own world. Its 14 tracks combine the natural vocal and jazz talents of Rubinos together with profound electronic explorations, synthesizers, effects, and improvisations that showcase the new musical world that Rubinos inhabits. A habitat that makes her feel freer and connected to the spiritual side of music.

The fear to open herself up completely and – as a collateral effect, offend someone – is something that worried Rubinos. But with time she’s learned to trust her instinct and confess.

“I'm telling my story, at least one other person is gonna feel the same,” she says. “At least one other person will understand where I'm coming from and will have some emotional connection to that story. That's my hope when I was thinking about how these songs could be received”.

Transcription in English by Ignacio Gomez