Armed with a Bachelor degree in electric guitar and experience in several university bands, vocalist Rachel Kibblewhite branched out to start her own project called Rubita. With no label taskmasters, she spent the last few years working on her debut album alongside producer Scott Newth, well, working and waiting, as Richard Thorne explains. Inspired by her years living as a student in the cold of Dunedin, ‘Distinctive Thrill’ includes a diversity of jazz-flecked indie-pop tracks that reveal a genuinely smart entertainer, backed by a great band of musicians.
It’s foolhardy, obviously, to compare the devastations and disappointments that Covid-19 has wrought upon different artists, but having your already-delayed debut album launch postponed by almost a year has to rate high among inconveniences endured.
So it is for Rubita (Rachel Kibblewhite to friends), and there’s an unsurprising blend of enthusiasm and frustration in her voice when we talk ahead of the re-revised September 2020 release of ‘Distinctive Thrill’ – her 12-track album first made privately accessible on Soundcloud over 15 months ago.
“The reason it has taken so long was, to be honest, just not really knowing what I was doing last year, with the band, and so pushing the album back. So I think what I learnt for the next album is just to really do what you think is right, and not necessarily listen to a hundred other people telling you what to do! It was good listening to other people’s advice, and the end of last year was the ideal goal, but also press releases and sending everything out takes longer than I’d realised. Then we were meant to release it near the start of this year, but then, of course, Covid happened. It’d be good now to just get it out there!”
While Rubita (Spanish for ‘little blonde’) is her own adopted performer name, Rachel invariably includes her band in using the plural ‘we’. They had album release shows lined up across both islands in the middle of the NZ-wide Lockdown. The replacement tour, confined to several North Island cities, is scheduled to start in Wellington on September 11.
Amanda Robinson provided NZM with an excellent Fresh Talent feature about Rubita in June 2016, at which point Rachel had not long graduated from the University of Otago with a pair of Bachelor degrees, one in Music (majoring in guitar performance), plus a BA in Spanish literature. Her first two Rubita songs, Black Underwear and Milky Moon, had been released earlier that year, which does beg the question of what she’s been doing in the four years since?
“I guess discovering what’s important to me, and what I really want to do after university. Making a living. I’ve been doing a lot of teaching guitar, which I’ve really enjoyed, performing, worked in a restaurant… I’ve got into art and illustration work a lot too, so it’s really nice that I can channel both of my creative enjoyments.
“I was living in Hamilton for a bit, that’s where I grew up, but I moved to Wellington at the beginning of 2019. I’m still relatively new to the city but it’s been really good, and I’m still doing the same thing – music teaching, illustration work, and I am studying more graphic design this year.”
The 26-year old admits that getting out of her hometown was the main reason for the move south, but the choice of Wellington was strategic, because musically it seemed a really appropriate place.
“Rubita is a little bit more jazzy, and there is a real good jazz vibe down here. And of course the arts as well, I just really enjoy the vibe in Wellington.”
Rubita’s debut album press describes it as a masterpiece in the making over the last three years “…compiled of wondrous indie-pop gems that sit on your tongue and dissolve into your subconsciousness.” The richly fat saxophone that opens album proceedings on ‘Distinctive Thrill’ is hardly an indie-pop standard instrument, definitely more a pointer to Rubita’s jazz leaning.
“I guess we are trying to avoid saying ‘jazz’ because not all of the songs on the album are jazzy – just a few of them have quite strong jazz influences – which is why we’ve gone for indie pop. We have always struggled with how we should describe it to people, and I guess jazz-pop maybe is a good way to describe those songs.”
Rachel attributes the jazz influence to her time studying guitar in Dunedin, during which she played in a number of bands.
“Our teacher taught us a lot of jazz songs, and that was my first intro to the major 7th and all those freaky type chords. I really enjoyed them, and that’s how a lot of those songs were created, by playing around with those chords.”
Back Underwear and Milky Moon, those first-released songs from four years ago feature, along with others written while she was studying. Others came when she was back home in Hamilton, writing until she realised there were enough for a debut album.
“It took quite a while between the end of ’16/’17 when we decided we wanted to get the recording done. We were maybe too perfectionist on some of the decisions about how we wanted it to sound. Because I was working part time in a recording studio I had the luxury of taking my time as well, there wasn’t any pressure to get it all done. Obviously that has meant it has taken quite a while to come out!
Local Hamilton producer and sound engineer Scott Newth worked the magic of recording all the tracks at The Porch Recording Studio, her mostly Auckland-based bandmates coming down to do a couple of songs at a time.
The Rubita live band is necessarily flexible, but those featuring on album include drummer Seth Clement, Alex Sipahioglu and Hon on bass, Luke Kibblewhite on saxophone and Emily Mackie on keyboard.
“I think the album is quite colourful, just because there are quite a few different genres that we combined. So the overall mood I guess is a bit of an adventure, and hopefully listeners will go through a bit of an experience while listening to it.”
She says she’s really happy with all the album songs, but asked to identify a few that are special she starts with the album’s first track, Feel Alive, because it’s a particularly fun piece, both in listening and playing.
“Tainted Towns means a lot to me just because it was written post-Dunedin days, so is one of the fresher ones on the album. Plus it’s special and different because it is so stripped back.”
Also the album’s last track, I Can Do Better.
“It’s literally about being in a relationship and thinking you can do better than this,” she laughs gently. “It’s got a smokey, bar vibe as well, which I really enjoy, it’s kind of a classic blues piece, which is always fun. I enjoy that because it shows off the amazing musicians who played on the album. Alex who plays bass and the drums – so when I listen to that I am reminded how lucky I am to play with such great musicians!”
Rachel has also handled all the artwork for the self-released album, the consistently high quality of which is all the more remarkable for having received no funding agency support. When we talk she has just been filming the last of a video (with the aid of videographer cousin Josh Kibblewhite – Luke’s brother) for the song that gave the album its title, Distinctive Thrill.
“I think it’s a cool name and it describes the album well so… That song is pretty crazy so we have been making a pretty crazy music video for it which is lots of fun and should get a couple of laughs. It includes a few people running around Wellington in those massive dinosaur suits! That’s been really fun and I think it will go well with the album release.”
She’s already eager for the live performances planned for the album release.
“I’ve never done that before so I’m really excited about that. If I could go back and change things it would be to not take my time so much, because it has felt a bit of a weight that I want to get rid of. And with that lifted off, maybe I’ll be a completely new person – we’ll see what happens!” she giggles.
“I’ve already written a whole lot of songs that feel more relevant to me now than the album songs, which feel quite old. It will be good to get the album out and then release the more fresh stuff I’ve got going. Definitely won’t be waiting another four years for the next album after this one!”