Daphne Rubin-Vega flips through a copy of The Guardian in her dressing room at the Broadhurst Theater on 45th St. in the heart of Times Square. Many miles away, the war in Iraq continues to rage, a fact The Guardian emphasizes in a not-too-discreet fashion. Like the characters she’s inhabited on the Broadway stage, “Mimi” in Rent and currently as “Fantine” in the re-staging of Les Misérables, Ms. Rubin-Vega has a heightened sensitivity to the stark but realistic conditions of the world. On her new album, Redemption Songs, Rubin-Vega provides the antidote to the 24-hour cycle of bad news that frames our worldview in 2006: a collection of songs that stirs the soul and feeds the spirit. Rubin-Vega’s explanation of the album title evokes a refreshing optimism in an increasingly fatalistic age. She defines “redemption” as “making good out of something unfortunate or challenging”. Representing different points on her musical compass, the songs on Redemption Songs link Daphne Rubin-Vega to the humanity shared by the Mimis and Fantines, not to mention the Bob Marleys, of the world.
The professional journey for Rubin-Vega is not one without challenges. Redemption Songs traces the many years it took Rubin-Vega to record an album that was unencumbered by the insidious machinations of the music industry. Her first album, Souvenirs, was recorded for Mercury Records in 1998 under the auspices of Polygram but seismic shifts in the industry derailed its release. She recalls, “Polygram got bought up by Universal and the album imploded and was not available. The record was summarily dropped. This baby that I had was not going to ever live or see the light of day”. Taking advantage of the burgeoning technology availed by Napster in 1998, Rubin-Vega encouraged her devoted fans to “steal” the album so the music could still be enjoyed and experienced.
During a turn as “Columbia” in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the frustrated vocalist confided in co-star Joan Jett. “She would just hear me bitch all the time—‘I wish I had a band, I wish I had the balls you had’. She’s like, ‘Get up off your ass and do it’. And so I did”. Citing an “If you build it, they will come” mentality, Rubin-Vega created a band with friends and friends of friends. Though the band’s nucleus changed over the years, the musicians on Redemption Songs have an audible camaraderie, effortlessly shifting between reggae, Latin, and rock.
Rubin-Vega opens her declaration of (industry) independence with “Citizens of the World”, a chunk of hard rock that symbolizes the cultural diversity that informed Rubin-Vega’s childhood. At the suggestion of guitarist David Matos, a brief interlude of Spanish guitar appears midway through the song and further underscores Rubin-Vega’s world citizenship. “I was born in Panama. I’m a mixture of many different races and citizenships, so to speak. I feel like they’re all a part of me”. With a nod towards her Latin heritage, Rubin-Vega included a song very close to her heart, “En Estos Dias”. She enthusiastically explains its significance in her life: “That was a song that my mother used to play for us at home all the time. It’s from an album called Mujeres by Silvio Rodríguez, which is a ‘70s album that was always in the top 10 rotation in my house. That song just sends me. It’s a love song written about one’s country”.
As much as “En Estos Dias” spun on the turntable in the Rubin-Vega household, so did albums by the Police and the Clash. “Heartstrings” and “Angel Now”, the former written by Rubin-Vega in a castle in France, are both homage to how those bands cannily folded ska and reggae stylings into a new wave soundscape. The plethora of styles on Redemption Songs is a natural fit for Rubin-Vega’s many muses, a luxury not often available to artists under contract to hit-hungry major labels. Even on Souvenirs, some of Rubin-Vega’s harder rocking songs, like “Mental Tenant”, did not make the cut by Mercury Records. Eight years later, Redemption Songs finds a home for “Mental Tenant”.
Producing the album herself afforded Rubin-Vega carte blanche to choose the songs and select the sonic blueprint for each. As if still sitting at the control board, Rubin-Vega explains, “That was one of the most fascinating, educational, frustrating, fantastic experiences. If I was thinking ‘I need to do this more effectively’, I had to articulate it and not just leave it on somebody else”. For “Luca Ariel”, a song dedicated to her son, Daphne had a particular vision for how it should sound. She recalls, “A huge learning moment was putting synthesized tabla drums on ‘Luca’ and thinking, ‘Okay that’s cute but I really want a real tabla drum!’” Through perseverance, she found tabla player Deep Singh, who gave “Luca Ariel” the authentic tabla sound Rubin-Vega had envisioned.
While pregnant with Luca, Daphne Rubin-Vega found her songwriting process shaped in very particular ways. “There’s a real creative gestation going on and it’s not just of a life. My mattering in the world was up and front in my head. While I was baking a baby inside there were people outside that were leaving the planet. A therapeutic way for me to recycle a lot of shitty feelings and pain is writing. If you need to say it, somebody needs to hear it. It’s in that spirit that I write”.
Even when singing another composer’s song, Rubin-Vega finds a personal connection to the lyrics, as if the song was her own. Such is the inclusion of “The Rainbow Connection” on Redemption Songs. She explains:
I always call “The Rainbow Connection” the “queer song”. To me, it speaks of finding a likeness out there when you seem isolated and unlike others—finding identification, a purpose in something, knowing that it’s out there and reaching for it. I remember being asked in the first grade if I was black or white and I really didn’t know because there was black and there was white in my family. That made me both, but “both” wasn’t a good enough answer. So I answered saying I was gold!
Rubin-Vega has clearly carved her own niche beyond the Broadway stage on Redemption Songs; “Mental Tenant” is many stages away from Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream”. How does she reconcile the demands of theater with her solo project? “I don’t know how I do it”, she chuckles. “Something’s got to take a back seat, unfortunately. If I had my druthers I would do four shows (of Les Misérables) and some of my shows. For now I’m just being Fantine and doing whatever shows I can to keep me in vocal health”. After a successful CD release show at The Cutting Room in New York City earlier in October, Rubin-Vega predicts that she’ll do some more gigs in early 2007 to further promote Redemption Songs. For the time being, to paraphrase a line from “Citizens of the World”, she’s traveling the crest of her wave. “I have tried to be brave, made an effort to be honest with myself at least. I think I’ve been very lucky. As much as tragedy and misfortunate has befallen, I think there’s been so much good fortune”.