XINXIN: I KNOW WHAT I WANT
photography by stefano galli
Xinxin provides a distinct voice among a world facing musical saturation, one that affords a viewpoint that is dedicated to the DIY-er and the social outsider. They offer a unique blend of the cultural and musical, and on their new Blue Flowers EP, they strive to create a perfect encapsulation of their experiences—with a romantic sensibility as well. I sat down with guitarist/vocalist Janize and drummer Stephen—bassist Carlos was recording with another band—to explore what Xinxin is and what Xinxin means. They perform on Fri., Apr. 7, at Acerogami. This interview by Nathan Martel.
What does the name Xinxin mean? Where does it come from?
Janize Ablaza (vocals/guitar): It comes from my household name. It’s what my parents always called me growing up. I decided to call it the band name because I wanted the project to be about … my child self. The focus comes from thinking, ‘How would I approach this if I were six or seven? If like … I could be more free about it? And not think so much?’ In terms of even just the chord progressions I choose—it’s fantastical, from my point of view. I grew up in the Philippines until the age of ten. And I remember going on quests by myself, like all the time. My family grew up in Baco, which is a lot like the San Francisco—wait, no, more like the Portland of the Philippines. There’s more green and nature to roam around in. I did a lot of that when I was, like, eight. When I go back to this EP—especially the song ‘Play’—it takes me back and reminds me of being a kid and having that alone time. It’s almost a feeling of freedom and not being confined, or not even thinking of the stresses of tomorrow or the future. That’s what I want to be the focus of the band. I don’t want us to care about what’s going to happen tomorrow. I mean, obviously … we still need to plan. We still need to be adults
Stephen Reed (drums): It’s kind of being free of a burden in a way.
JA: I just wanted to stay true to who I am completely. The heart of who I am that is kid.
So Xinxin is about your childhood, and that childhood includes your status as immigrant—does that inform the way you approach songwriting?
JA: Completely. I don’t really think about that. It just happens naturally. I don’t write like other songwriters that I know. I don’t sing like a lot of the singers that I know. I’m just different based on how my life has been shaped.
When I hear a Xinxin song, it seems to reflect an outsider perspective.
JA: That’s completely how I’ve felt in general. Even nowadays, it’s hard for me to go out to parties and talk to people—having conversations and all that. Because everybody stays in their little circle, like, ‘So what did you do last weekend?’ I think it has to do with the fact that I spent a lot of alone time by myself when I was a kid. I wasn’t close with my parents, I wasn’t close to my siblings … I never had close friends. I mean, yeah—maybe some ‘best friends’ but there was always a lot of distance. There was a lot of me just being there and saying what I had to say, but no real connection. The only time it began to happen was when I started hanging out with this guy. [motions toward Stephen] To really connect with someone in that way was extremely hard for me because I’ve always been a complete outsider.
Now you’re a lead singer in a band—is there a disconnect with that outsider feeling? How do you convey your sense of yourself through the art you’re creating?
JA: If it’s put that way, when I create, there isn’t a disconnect—there’s just a different kind of connection. How should I put this? I see things from far away, although I can get diluted by focusing on details, but when I take a step back, and I get that bigger picture I’m able to figure out more. For example, when I see how parents treat kids, I’m most likely to be like, ‘OK, I know what’s happening there.’ I know how each person in the situation feels. But how can I help them understand how to talk to each other? And that’s always on my mind. Because I work with kids—because I’ve grown up with kids around me all the time, and it’s helped shape me. I grew up with a family, and me and my brother, being pretty close … our lives were kinda parallel. Not close, as in best friends, but we were close kids. He’s two years old than me. I’ve two older sisters, who are six or seven years older than us, so it was always me and my brother. We had a pretty rough childhood. My parents were young. And on top of that, I was the last girl of the pack … I was treated like a princess. And my brother was the only boy—he was treated differently, more roughly. Growing up seeing him take the brunt of things and get beat down emotionally because of things he couldn’t do … that was the beginning of me realizing, like, ‘Oh fuck—something is wrong here. It’s not happening to me, but it is happening to him—somebody I care about.’ And that helped me develop some awareness where now I see these things happening. That’s always my point of view. And I still see it now, with my siblings and their kids. That always kind of where I stem from. So just based on my friendships with people, my boyfriend, my siblings now … I try to see relationships as they happen. I mean, I’m wrong sometimes, but, yeah—I’m learning and figuring things out.
Xinxin, then, essentially is about vulnerability.
JA: Completely. I’m definitely not a storyteller. I’ve been told many time before—like from teachers—that songs have to be this way, you have to write stories because that’s what people cling on to … but it’s always been feeling first for me. And that’s why most of what I write, the chords come first, then feelings come out of that, then the words come vomiting out. Ha! And depending on what I’ve been experiencing in that moment, that’s what I can share. I remember in something like seventh grade, maybe eighth … we has a specific English essay or whatever assigned, and I suck at English—never gotten a good grade in any of that stuff. Anyway, I guess I wrote something pretty meaningful and the teacher was all, ‘What the fuck are you writing about right now, you little eighth grader?’ If it’s something that is real and true to me, then it’s easy for me to go hard and be honest. So really the songs are me being honest—expressing what I feel is true and right. And it seems—and I feel like—a lot of people spend a lot of time feeling wrong. Some people spend a lot of time feeling righteous. Ha! But there’s a balance and communication is key … but I feel like people really suck at doing that.
SR: It’s that observer’s perspective you brought up earlier. That’s a conduit for that view. We’re just trying to convey a perspective where we are being pure. We’re not worried about all these idiosyncrasies piling up and becoming the bullshit that—
JA: Yeah! It’s just getting to the heart of the problem. Getting to the root of the feeling versus all this other bullshit surrounding it.
When you write a song, are you addressing certain issues in your life?
SR: Definitely. It’s almost like a third person perspective in that conversation.
JA: I’d say my writing can be both. Some are a more one-on-one thing.
SR: Exactly. Like an interpersonal relationship with every person that may or may not be in an audience, but it’s presented in a way that it’s vulnerable to a certain degree. Like: ‘Here’s you and me—let’s talk about this particular issue or whatever.’
Each of the songs seems to have a dynamic of catharsis that you’re addressing in a way. Is that what you’re doing with your art? Are you searching for a connection through that feeling?
JA: I’m definitely connecting. Any particular song I write could be for anybody experiencing any kind of situation. These songs are literally just how talk to people. It’s how I talk to [Stephen], it’s how I talk to my friends. If I’m not distracted by everyday life happenings, I shift into a state of, ‘Oh, you need advice? You need some direction? You feel lost? I got you!’ Ha! I know what it’s like to seek that and to offer that. These songs are just how I talk to people.
SR: Like the reward might come from when you spread that message.
JA: I say these things because I feel like everybody goes through them. ‘Blue Flowers,’ the first line is very very important to me: ‘Our demons put up our defenses’. We all have really lame things about ourselves that we don’t know about. That can come out when something negative happens, and then we just react. Everybody does it. Especially when you’re in a relationship. And most people will end things then and there. Once they see a bad side of you, they run away. ‘Blue Flowers’ is about not running away from people when they have things about them you don’t like. At the end of the day, most of these people don’t even know they are doing these things. It just comes out when they react. Even I’ve been in relationships where the other person has a list of things they don’t like about you, and once that list is full, it’s like ‘I’m done with you.’ That hurts so much. So I want to address those things because I’m a romantic in a way where I think we should work hard for people. I feel like people are worth giving a chance because we were born loving. We are born caring. It’s just that life kinda fucks us up.
These romantic ideas for what is possible in a relationship—is this what you want your songs to be about?
JA: No. I feel like the songs are very past tense for me. The songs are things I’ve felt and that I’ve experienced. At that point, I’m no longer romanticizing it. At that point, it’s like, ‘I know what I want.’ It’s only romantic when it reaches people who haven’t felt these things before. But most have, I think.
SR: There is a romanticizing through … a lot of these songs have almost this idea of documentation coming through them. That one-on-one interaction is coming from, like you were saying, your past. Which leads to there being a kind of nostalgia. And I feel a lot of the romantic notions come from that, too. Like these are moments that have been shared with other human beings.
JA: Yeah. But it’s also romantic in the way it’s presented.
Do you have to go through these experiences in order to create your art—and specifically to create the music of Xinxin?
JA: For this set of songs that you’ve heard … I couldn’t write them if I hadn’t had these experiences. But as for Xinxin existing and being able to make some dumb shit … it would probably still happen! In one form or another, I would happen to sit down and write something anyway. I’d still sit down and still write because I would have something I care enough to write about. To allow my soul to just feel out because I have to. I have to. I’d probably lose myself if I didn’t.
Do you feel that creative pursuits like these are an important part of your identity?
JA: [long sigh] My adult self annoys me a lot! My adult responsible side, I feel … is good? I know it means well. I’m talking to it as if it’s a different entity because I kinda feel like it is. It’s good, but it definitely takes me away from that Xinxin aspect that I mentioned earlier, where Xinxin is me being a kid, not being distracted by anything, and especially not settling into any one identity. That is the most important part of me. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy music—I wouldn’t be able to jam with people and figure new things out without that part of me. I feel like that is the biggest part of me that I want to be all the time.
When I listen to ‘Play’, I can’t help but think, ‘This is a pop version of a weather report song.’