Xenia Rubinos doesn't seem like someone who would hold back much, at least when it comes to her music. The Brooklyn singer-songwriter moves between genres and screws around with structure with such abandon it's hard to imagine she'd ever feel self-conscious about anything she puts on record. But Rubinos confesses that, while she composes with little regard for pop formality, she hasn't always spoken with the same freedom lyrically.
"I've been in a fight with words the last couple years," she says. "I've not been too keen on telling stories in the literal sense, or speaking in the literal sense in my music, because I felt like I didn't want to add to the noise of uninformed people talking about stuff they don't have any place talking about. I feel like there's a lot of that going on, and I didn't want to be part of it."
On her first album, 2013's Magic Trix, Rubinos treated lyrics as just another textural element—extra shading in her scrambled palette of R&B, jazz, hip-hop and rock. When she began work on the follow-up, she challenged herself to write more directly, to say what was on her mind and "not be afraid of being wrong." Informed both by the death of her father and the Black Lives Matter movement, Black Terry Cat finds Rubinos exploring her Afro-Latina identity in ways both political and personal. Such self-examination, she admits, was new to her. But given the state of the world, and of her own life, it was also unavoidable.
"It was a natural progression of trying to figure things out for myself personally," Rubinos says, "where I come from and what my cultural identity is, which is in flux the more I learn about things."
Musically, Black Terry Cat is as evasive as its predecessor, but given the themes of the album, the stylistic zigzags resonate less as playful quirks than as acts of defiance. The graceful "Lonely Lover" evokes Billie Holliday, while the twinkle-and-thump of "I Won't Say" shows off Rubinos' recently rekindled love of rap and Erykah Badu. So far, the song that's attracted the most attention is "Mexican Chef," a punky shout-out to the invisible workforce propping up American society. "Brown walks your baby/Brown walks your dog," Rubinos half-raps over a funky fuzz-guitar hook. "Brown raised America in place of its mom." It's precisely the kind of social commentary she was once afraid to put out into the world. But don't go using the p-word with her just yet.
"I say one or two things on this record and everyone says I'm being political, but I think that's just an easy thing to talk about," Rubinos says. "I'm not involved in local politics. I'm not running for mayor or anything—though you never know."
SEE IT: Xenia Rubinos plays Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St., with Blossom and Tay Sean, on Wednesday, Sept. 14. 8:30 pm. $10 advance, $12 day of show. 21+.