Music

Rosalía, the Voice of the Past and the Future

by Bradley Stern

The Latinx musical revolution is upon us. Actually, it's been going on for a while.

Take a glance at the charts: Spanish-speaking artists are heavily inspiring today's top pop stars and enjoying heavy radio play stateside — regardless of a potential language barrier. Just look at Cardi B's massive Spanglish smash "I Like It" with J Balvin and Bad Bunny, DJ Snake's "Taki Taki" with Selena Gomez, Ozuna and Cardi B, and Drake and Bad Bunny teaming up for "MIA." Remember Beyoncé dropping her remix of J Balvin's "Mi Gente"? And of course, there was Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's utterly inescapable "Despacito" with Justin Bieber.

Reggaeton and Latin trap, especially, lead the way. But there's a new sound trickling in as well. Something old, actually. Specifically, the sound of Southern Spain's flamenco.

And that's where Rosalía comes in.

Born and raised in a small village in Catalonia, the 25-year-old multi-hyphenate creative is continuing to lead the charge on the Latinx front while paving her own path with her unique brand of traditional-meets-next-level sound, blending the emotionally-charged flamenco of her upbringing in Spain with more modern electronic production and the nostalgic R&B-pop melodies of the Top 40 radio she grew up on, from Destiny's Child to Justin Timberlake.

After releasing her debut Los Ángeles in 2017, which she effectively describes as a love letter to the tradition, Rosalía returned a year later with the entrancing "Malamente," captured in a stunning bullfighting-themed visual that blends elements of folk iconography with the modern world. It quickly went viral — 26 million views and counting — inviting the world to the first chapter of El Mal Querer, Rosalía's sophomore record, out today, which splits its individual songs into chapters to tell a full story.

Her music is arresting, provocative and undeniably fresh. Her album art and videos are rich with meaning and powerful choreography. Above all, there's that voice: the passion, and the alternating aggression and vulnerability with which she sings — especially live — is palpable.

She is, quite simply, the real deal.

PAPER met with the charismatic artist ahead of the release of her album, just after filming with Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz for an upcoming film, to discuss her unique brand of music-making, her origin story, her creative process, and her vision for the future.

I was at your showcase last night. I was so impressed. I just want to warn you now: my Spanish pronunciation is terrible.

No problem. Maybe we can try to do a mix, like English-Spanish?

That would be great.

It's good for me to practice in English. This is the first time I'm doing interviews in English.

Really?

Yeah, but I'm kind of excited! If I can't understand something, I'll ask you.

We will get through this.

If I speak in Spanish, you understand?

Yes... mas o menos. ("More or less.")

Perfecto. ("Perfect").

Okay, "Malamente." There's so much symbolism in the video. Can we talk about the inspiration behind that?

For me, "Malamente" is like when you have a feeling something bad is going to happen, but even still... tu vas pa' ello. ("You go for it.") "Malamente" is the first chapter of this new record, El mal querer. I'm kind of experimenting with electronic sound to find something new. At the same time, the tradition is there. My flamenco foundation is there. I was talking to this director I admire and love, Nico Mendez. I wanted to work with him hace muchos años ("for many years") and he didn't pay attention. He was very busy, until finally I showed him these two songs: "Malamente" and "Pienso en Tu Mirá." He was so excited when he heard them.

I grew up in a small village in Baix Llobregat (a county on the coast of Catalonia, Spain.) It's called Sant Esteve Sesrovires. It's pretty small. Around the village are industrial fabricas (factories), like poligono industrial (industrial parks) — a lot of trucks, always. I got very used to that. Also, the culture from the South of Spain is very present. There's a lot of immigration from the South, so flamenco is very present. My grandma also used to make me go to church on Sundays sometimes. Those are the kind of things I experienced. Son cosas como de lo imaginario, cultural, mio. Que hay a mi alrededor. ("They're things from my imagination, my culture... the things around me.") I was telling that to the director. The tracks were coming from a very masculine place. Powerful. Como algo fuerte. ("Something strong.") That was enough for him to do the mind-blowing visual poem he did, with the bullfighting inspiration as a metaphor for the story of El mal querer.

Billboard recently declared you were leading the flamenco reinvention. In terms of Latin music in America, we hear a lot of reggaetón, but flamenco is definitely not so common.

It's different, right? I feel like it's a very special music. I'm so in love with the music. I would like everyone else to fall in love with that music as well.

There is a lot of passion in the music, especially when you were singing last night. It was so intense and powerful. What are you thinking about when you're performing?

The lyrics are very important. Flamenco has so many different subjects. It's a very old style. Life, love, fighting, spirituality, death — you can find everything in flamenco. That's why I love the music so much. When I'm on stage, I feel like a channel — like I have to let the stories of the songs pass through me. The most important thing que tiene estar el primero plano ("that has to be at the forefront") is the emotion and story. Not me. That's all I'm thinking about. I care about connecting with the lyrics. The lyrics guide you. You just have to pay attention to what's happening in that moment, how the audience is and the energy that you receive.

Do you find that there's a song that everyone seems to be responding to most when you're performing live?

That's interesting. "Malamente" is the first song of the show. I think it's interesting, because nobody expects "Malamente" to be first.

"Life, love, fighting, spirituality, death — you can find everything in flamenco."

No! I didn't either!

Right? That's a surprise. I like that. For me, it's como un reto ("a challenge"). Something that motivates you to maintain the energy since that's the song most people know. Then, in the middle of the show, you find this motorcycle song ("De aquí no sales"), which is the most oppressive. I feel like people — maybe some don't understand the lyrics, or maybe they're not expecting something like that — but it's powerful, especially the attitude of the girls on stage. It's another moment I think people connect. They react. They say something. And that's so cool, because in flamenco, when you're at a concert, the audience is always talking, like "Olé! Arsa!" I like when that happens, because I'm used to that style. Those moments are some of my favorites.

So you're referencing flamenco, which is older, but then, you have some very new sounds. I believe you said you were inspired by 2000s pop, like Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé.

Yes! I grew up with that music. I grew up listening to Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé songs. They are big references for all artists of my generation. They're iconic. These melodies, like the "Cry Me A River" melody, is iconic. "Say My Name," those lyrics are iconic. It's like I'm honoring the melodies that have been in my head since I started listening to music.

You also worked with a new producer [Pablo Díaz-Reixa, known as El Guincho]. I'm curious what your creative process is like. Do lyrics come to mind first?

It depends. Sometimes it's the lyrics, sometimes it's melody, sometimes it's the production and the beat. When it's the lyrics, I do it in a more traditional way. The way that the lyrics are written in flamenco is very specific. I start there, and then I compose.

Do you ever wake up and have a melody in your head and you just record it?

I never have those moments in the morning. [Laughs] It's more like I'm about to go to sleep, and start getting relaxed, and the melody appears. I'll record it then. But usually, I never work like that. I'll keep it just in case, but I usually never use it. I usually work in the studio and get more focused. I love being in the studio.

Was it recorded all in one place?

No, it was in El Hierro, an Island in Spain, which was very, very cool. Madrid, Barcelona — a lot of different studios. El mal querer, I feel it's like important to me because it's like... mi trabajo final de carrera ("my final project"), like I'm in university. I've spent two years of my life on this.

But you did do an album before this (Los ángeles, released in 2017). That doesn't feel like your final project?

No, it was different.

What was it to you?

The first one? I feel like it was a tribute to the tradition I love so much and have been learning for all these years. The lyrics, the melodies — that's all very important to me. I wanted to start with my roots.

So you started with tradition, and now you're kind of bringing in newer sounds.

I feel like the flamenco inspiration is still there, but in a different way. The production is different. I wanted to compose. On the first one, I didn't compose. This one, I composed a lot.

People don't really give enough credit to the artist for composing.

I love that you say that, because production and composition is so important. Girls don't get enough credit. There's not that many, but something's changing. There's more and more. In this new generation, I find more female top-liners in the studio. I find more women engineers. That's very important that they get the credit and visibility.

And you also wrote the J Balvin track, "Brillo."

Yeah! I was in Las Vegas for the Latin Grammys. I saw Sky, this producer who works with Balvin...

Sky rompio!

Sky rompiendo! Yeah, yeah, yeah! [Laughs] I was so excited to see him. We spoke on the phone the day after... I went to the studio and he did this amazing beat one hour before. I started writing, and in four hours or something, we got that song. I wasn't sure that it was for me. Sometimes I do music for other artists, and I enjoy that. But Sky was like, "No, no, no. You have to sing it. You have to do it, Rosalia." He was really saying it, so I was like, then why don't you show it to Balvin? I love Balvin. I love his music. I love him as an artist. I was excited about the idea of doing something with him. Balvin liked the song and said he wanted it for his record. I was super excited. By the end, with his part, it's a beautiful song. I'm very proud.

It's great — and a lot of exposure for you, too.

Of course, but I was not trying. It was just something I enjoyed because I love his music. I think he's the most amazing artist at this moment. What he's doing for the Latin culture, for music in Spanish... he's risky in his decisions. The way he does music, he's so smart. It's beautiful, and it makes you move.

Does his crossover success inspire you then? Is that something you're interested in?

Absolutely. I feel like all Latin artists are inspired by the way he does music and his position in the industry. It makes you think, hey, Latin music is having this amazing moment, and artists doing music in Spanish can do it internationally. That's inspiring.

I want to talk about the album, especially the cover, which is gorgeous. Wasn't it just unveiled in Times Square?

[Squealing] Yesterday, yeah! We went yesterday to see it. [Laughs] It was crazy, I couldn't believe it.

I follow the illustrator (Filip Custic) on Instagram. The artwork is full of symbolism.

He is amazing. I was telling him it was super important for me to do a powerful cover and show this feminina muy directa ("direct femininity") — which is why the nudity is there, but it's a pure nudity. It was important for me. And this light around the head. For me, this is the end of the story. El mal querer is a record with a story.

Yeah, you have the songs listed as chapters.

Yeah, and so this is the last one. The image that you have in your head when you end the record.

But not the last record you'll ever make, right?

Mmm... nah. [Laughs]

It's interesting you bring up the light around your head on the cover, because I thought one very cool part of the show was the moment where it was like a straight beam of light on you, singing pretty much a cappella.

Absolutely, I feel it's muy emocionante ("very moving") because it's empty. Sometimes less is more. I'm very comfortable in a minimalistic mode.

I've talked to people at labels, and friends in America who don't even speak Spanish, and they've responded strongly to your music. I love a lot of international music, so a language barrier isn't weird to me, but there are a lot of people who don't handle that well, and they still like your music. Why do you think it works for them?

Si el lugar desde que tu haces las canciones tiene verdad ("If your music comes from a truthful place"), then the people will feel it. Sometimes I think people underestimate the audience. You can't, though. The people can feel when it's real and when it's not. In my opinion, it's as simple as that. It doesn't matter what language you're using. If the music doesn't have emotion, it doesn't happen.

People have obviously been writing about your music now for a while since your debut. There's a lot of social media feedback, the press, all of that. Do you feel there are misconceptions about your work?

I kind of live in a bubble. I try. I want to keep doing my music as free as I can, because I feel like my intuition is the most important thing I want to take care of. I want to preserve it, so I live like that. I still try to be connected with people and know what's going on, but at the same time, I don't really look at the press that much.

That's good. You shouldn't — not because it's bad, but because it can change your perception of what you should do.

It can change it, exactly. I want to keep focused, making music and spending my time in the studio, on stage and with the people I love.

On another note, you recently shot a scene with Pedro Almodovar, super casually, for his upcoming movie, Dolor y gloria.

[Gasps] Yes! Crazy. You can't even imagine... he's my very favorite artist in Spain. His energy is crazy. He's a very good leader and a good director — his energy is so good. He used to come to the shows I did in Spain when I was touring with my first album, Los ángeles. He'd been twice or something. I remember him crying to the song "La hija de Juan Simón." It's a very traditional song from Spain. I was so shocked to see Pedro feeling the song. He connected to my music and I connect to his movies, so it was very natural and organic to work together.

Acting is obviously different than performing music, but...

It's kind of the same for me.

Yeah?

I mean, the technique is different. But at the end, it's the same. I used to study theater. Just for one year, but it was something that left a big impression. But... it was shocking that I did my first scene in a movie with Pedro.

"Si el lugar desde que tu haces las canciones tiene verdad ("If your music comes from a truthful place"), then the people will feel it."

That's a big start.

[Laughs] That's a big start. It's a crazy start. I couldn't believe it, but he made me feel very comfortable. He's so involved in the situation and his energy is so good. I get so inspired by the way he works. And Penelope [Cruz], too. Penelope is... wow. Her eyes. Most impressive I've ever seen. I'm telling you...

Were you intimidated?

Kind of! Because she has strong energy. I never met somebody as strong as her — the energy! The presence. You can feel her. When she walks into the room, you feel her presence. I feel like in my country, there are so many good artists. Spain is having a big moment of creative energy.

Are there artists, international or at home, you're hoping to collaborate with or write for?

There are collaborations with Spanish musicians on El mal querer, but not artists like I would like to do in the future, like Kendrick Lamar. I love him and the way he does music. I'm super open-minded. There's no music for me that's better than another. I like all styles, as a musician, and finding different ways to use my voice and my head when I'm composing. I would love to do music with any musician I admire. I would feel lucky to do music for anyone.

I think what's most exciting here right now are artists from other places. Different cultures.

I agree. And now, the genuine thing is more important than the perfect product.

Yes. What's popular has shifted from untouchable pop superstars to something much more relatable and tangible.

Yes! In the industry, maybe 15 years back, maybe you'd be a pop star and go into the room where everyone thinks for you. But now? It's not like that. Maybe some do that, but I feel like the artists right now at the top are the creative directors. They hold the reigns and control everything. They have the vision. For me, I started from nothing, from the bottom...

Like Drake?

Yeah, yeah. [Laughs] That pushed me find a way to work and make music and do my composing.

What's something you learned from the first album experience? Is there anything you're doing differently?

I feel like on the first album, I was producing, but I didn't know that I was doing it. On the second, I'm conscious of it. I'm doing it and I have the control.

Were you not confident about claiming production on the first album?

Maybe not as much as now. Maybe. I was making so many decisions, but I was not as confident as now. Now, I'm going to do everything, even if I collaborate with other people who write, because that's smart to work on a team. It makes you go mas lejos ("further"). But I'm playing the bass lines. I'm playing the keyboards. I'm doing percussion. I'm doing the clapping. I'm singing. I'm choosing the chords. I put that credit on my album — I want people to know.

Björk's also talked about that.

Yeah! Björk is an inspiration for me. She does that. It's important for people to know.

Right, because they see a name you worked with and assume that's who did it.

Ah, exactly! That's not fair for girls. It's not. I'm spending two years of my life in front of a computer... I've been spending so much time. It's my music. It's my life.

The power in your music — it's masculine as you said, aggressive, assertive. Which is interesting, compared to the femininity of the album imagery, to have the two sides of presenting yourself.

I like that. I like this masculine and feminine voice at the same time. In the show, I worked with Charm La'Donna, this amazing choreographer. She used to say, "What do you envision? How do you want to move?" I was like... I want powerful movements. Masculine movements. I like that confidence. I feel like something strong is the most important thing for me to present on stage. It's not just beauty.

It seems like you're already a seasoned performer.

That was my sixth show.

Of the new music?

Yeah! And we had so many technical problems in the other shows. I needed to do it perfect. I was like, "Oh, I hope we don't have any technical issues." It was one of the best, I think.

The audience sometimes doesn't even know, but you know one note was played wrong, and you're bothered by it.

Yeah! [Laughs] You have to keep going. On stage, it's always about that: it's always about keep going. The more you can keep going, the better you'll do.

Photos courtesy of Sony Music

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