In a video recently premiered on the YouTube channel of LaVitrola.cl, Xenia Rubinos gazes evenly at the camera. She is wearing a drab, shapeless top and an oversized jacket, in contrast to the colorful jumpsuits and stylish, curly updos the New York City-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist often wears onstage. Her hair is straight, and, if you look closely, you can see that she is wearing a gold grill. In the next shot, she is seated at a picnic table, singing Rosalía’s “A ningún hombre” acapella. It’s Xenia, but she doesn’t quite seem like herself. Meet XENIA2020.
XENIA2020 appears in all four videos in a series that Rubinos has done for La Vitrola. She’s a character and a vehicle allowing for Xenia Rubinos the artist to experiment. The musician has already learned a lot from her persona, she says. For example, “That it’s a fun tool to use. That it allows me freedom. That I can use it sometimes. That I don’t want to all the time. That I don’t have to all the time. That I love myself and I forgive myself.” All that, from being someone else.
“From being someone else that I created,” she specifies. We’re in a Bushwick park on a sunny day and the basketball courts are packed. She’s enjoying a lunch of healthy snacks from a nearby bodega.
Developing an alter ego has been liberating and enlightening, but, in many ways this one had its genesis in one of the most painful periods of her life. A week after losing her father to a stroke, Rubinos went into the studio and recorded her critically acclaimed, genre-bending 2016 album Black Terry Cat and embarked on a punishing schedule of touring and press in support of it. Then, one night in Lisbon, she got the news that Donald Trump had been elected president, something she hadn’t thought was possible. She didn’t get anything out of performing that night, she remembers, another thing she wouldn’t have thought possible.
“When I got back to America I felt really bad, because that had almost never happened to me before,” she recounts. “I got back and I felt pressure on my back, physically. I felt pressure because I felt it was my responsibility to do something about this. And I felt like I was drowning.”
She was exhausted. Friends pointed out that she seemed depressed. “I was like ‘who me? I’ve never been depressed in my life. I don’t do that. I’m not the type of girl who gets depressed.’” Eventually, she did admit that she needed help, and change. “You know what I did? I took my ass to some therapy. And it was dope!”
“I needed to remove that thinking,” she continues, “that I’m not the type of girl … I’m not the type of girl, what?” Enter XENIA2020. It’s hard to say what type of girl XENIA2020 is, and that’s kind of the idea. Asked who XENIA2020 is, Rubinos replies, “I’m still finding out.”
What’s certain is that, like Xenia Rubinos, XENIA2020 is a singer. One formative moment for the character came when Rubinos went to watch a friend, Nick Hakim, perform at a speakeasy called La Milagrosa. She was invited on stage to sing impromptu but found herself afraid. That’s when she had the idea of being a singer, another singer, someone else entirely. “I was like, ‘Maybe you should dress up, like, maybe you’re a singer; maybe you’re a singer that’s just singing for her supper at this club. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’m doing. I’m just a singer.’ So, I started dressing up and I got myself a gold grill on Fulton Street.”
She started going to other music nights at bars, singing with other bands in costume and in character, without much explanation, and XENIA2020 was born. “I don’t think I had the grill the first night that I sang, but I did dress up. I put a hat on and I told the person I was with what I was doing and I said I was very frightened and didn’t know how long I would stay in character because many people that I knew were coming to the show that night. But I did it,” she recalls. She loved it, and continued to do it.
To be clear, the character doesn’t always wear the grill. “Sometimes she wears them when she doesn’t want people to bother her, which is a lot of the time, particularly when people look at her in ways that she wouldn’t like to be gazed at, when she doesn’t enjoy someone’s gaze and they invade her personal space and they touch her,” she says. Rubinos recounts many awful incidents involving male audience members groping her and otherwise touching her without her consent.
“I’m trying to only work with people who see me with eyes of love.”
Consent has a lot to do with this experiment — particularly who and what she consents to letting people see. In some ways, the character has grown out of a need to create healthy boundaries between herself as a performer and herself as a person, and to help regulate how much she gives to an audience, how much she consents to them seeing. She says she began discovering this character on her Black Terry Cat tours and even earlier, “to survive.”
XENIA2020 often dresses in a conservative, almost anonymous way. “I wanted her to look like she could be somebody’s mom,” she explains. Much of this has to do with how other people see her — “I’m exploring the gaze that people look at me with,” she confirms. She’s also making space for herself to safely flout others’ expectations. As herself, there is a risk of disappointing people, “Because,” she worries, “I may not always be what they wish I was or how they see me, what they assume me to be.”
Finally, and maybe most importantly, XENIA2020 has to do with how she sees herself. She reflects, “I’m trying to only work with people who see me with eyes of love. If I look at that video and I see that they saw me with eyes of love, even when I don’t see myself with eyes of love, when I don’t see Xenia 2020 with eyes of love or I don’t see Xenia Rubinos or Xenita or Xeny or La Nena or whoever I think I am, when I don’t see myself with eyes of love, but I saw myself in the video with eyes of love, through them, I’m like ‘Oh, shit, I love her.’ She’s perfect, and if she’s perfect so am I. Because she’s me. I’m her.”
In playing with the line between what is personal and what is performance, the musician finds herself in territory that has been charted by performance artists such as Marina Abramovic, whom Rubinos points to as an inspiration. Abramovic was one of Rubino’s first encounters with performance art. “She scared the shit out of me and I loved it,” she declares. The final video in the series is the most Abramovician. Shot over a period of four hours, Rubinos says she prepared for the shoot with a ritual and did that performance in a kind of trance state. (Don’t worry. The video itself has a three minute, 50 second run time.)
Rubinos has found freedom in her adventures as XENIA2020, in deciding to be someone else for a while, but the experience has come full circle for her. “It turns out there’s freedom in deciding to be you, too,” Rubinos concludes. Indeed, it’s just that sometimes it takes a set of gold grills to find that out.