Rosalía is paving the way for a new generation of flamenco artists
On the phone from her Palm Springs hotel room, Rosalía is audibly hyped up. Less than 24 hours earlier, she slayed her second Coachella performance. “It was crowded,” she says giddily, “like double from the weekend before. People were singing the songs. It was amazing to experience.”
The festival is just one in a long line of recent watershed moments for the 26-year-old singer-songwriter, whose futuristic take on flamenco has created some of the most adventurous arrangements and dazzling vocal performances currently being made in pop music. “Malamente” — the lead single off her sophomore album, 2018’s El Mal Querer — has been streamed more than 80 million times since its release. Its accompanying music videos — a dazzling feast of bright colors, dramatic costumes, and symbolic winks to her home country — have clocked more than 150 million views. Last month alone, Rosalía released a single with James Blake, and another with J Balvin. Looking down a summer’s worth of festival appearances and headlining concerts, she says her musical goals continue to get bigger. “I want to keep growing as a musician. I want to keep making records. I want to keep improving as a songwriter. That’s what it’s all about — to learn, you know?”
Rosalía’s quest for knowledge began so long ago she can’t even remember exactly when it started. As a young girl growing up in Barcelona, she sang constantly, she says. “I’d sing the things that I heard on TV or the radio, just repeated. I didn’t know why, I just did it.” At 10, she confided in her mother that she wanted to study music. Five years later, she began taking courses, soon concentrating her studies in flamenco. “I think flamenco is the music that is more visceral, that has more truth, that has more passion,” she says. “When you start studying this music, you see that there are so many different little styles. You never finish learning it.”
Under the guidance of flamenco master José Miguel Vizcaya, also known as El Chiqui, Rosalía spent 10 years honing her craft. At 17, she started composing her own songs. ”It’s been a long journey,” she says of her studies under Chiqui. ”He’s been very patient, because when I met him I didn’t know anything; I just knew I loved this music, and had to work very hard to understand, to learn how to sing it, and to learn the styles and the tradition.” Rosalía’s love of the genre would ultimately inform her first album, 2017’s Los Angeles, a dark, vocal-driven collection about death that features, among other things, a cover of Bonnie Prince Billy’s liturgical folk song, “I See a Darkness.”
Its follow-up, El Mal Querer, is both a culmination and a rebirth for Rosalía. The album, which also served as her university thesis statement, is a deeply layered mix of history and modernity. Co-produced with Pablo Díaz-Reixa, a.k.a El Guicho, Querer is filled with the sounds of traditional flamenco — closely-mic’d claps provide the percussion on tracks like “Di Mi Nombre” and “Que No Saga La Luna.” Elsewhere, distant laughs and ambient city noise call out to the parks that Rosalía used to visit as a kid. Sonically, though, the record takes cues from everywhere. On “De Aqui No Sales,” her dexterous vocals are liberally Auto-Tuned and layered atop each other through a series of trippy electronic vocal loops. “Bagdad” opens with a disarming sample of Justin Timberlake’s hit “Cry Me a River.”
Loosely based on the 13th century manuscript La Flamenca, about a young bride who is held captive by her jealous husband, El Mal Querer is also an unarguably feminist work. Rosalía says the story of Flamenca hit on many of the themes that she wanted to explore with this project, though she admits that the narrative of El Mal Querer ultimately goes somewhere different. “As a songwriter, I think there’s a side that’s reality and a side of fantasy,” she says of the album’s concept. “I was excited to investigate feminist subjects, which is something that resonates in me, but not just in me. When I make music I try to do something that people can relate to. In the end I always think that making music is about sharing. That is the main goal.”
Since El Mal Querer’s November release, many are crediting it with bringing Spanish flamenco to a whole new generation. But for those back home, Rosalía’s reinterpretation of this age-old music has been met with a fair share of backlash from traditionalists.
“I know flamenco means something very specific for some people, so I don’t feel comfortable saying that my music is flamenco. But my music comes from flamenco,” she says. “I’m always excited to share my passion about flamenco, so other people can discover this music — which is amazing — and discover the culture. I’m so proud, and that’s why I share it in this way, and that’s why I put so much heart in it.”
In between this summer’s string of headlining and festival dates, the singer is furiously working on new music and collaborating with some of the industry’s most adventurous creators, including Pharrell, Arca, and Billie Eilish, who Rosalía says she met on Instagram and forged a fast friendship with. “She’s very unique, and I’ve never seen someone like that. Her energy and her creative mind are so genuine and strong.” The pair have a song due out later this year.
Like Eilish, Rosalía’s vision seems to get bolder and more nuanced as time goes on, meaning it’s truly anyone’s guess where she goes, or what she does next. “The more I grow, the more I realize that I’m an artist, and music is just the route I chose to communicate myself,” she says. “Music is the center of everything, but I have a vision for every detail, because I want the people to receive a whole experience. There’s a vibe, there’s a message, and it is all coherent, and it’s because I am involved in everything. I don’t know another way to do it. I wish I was less like this, because I would sleep more and I would be more relaxed, but there’s no other way for me.”
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