Why Everybody's Betting Big on Rosalía, the Flamenco Star No One Saw Coming
When Rosalía was 16 years old, she lost her voice. She had been singing too much without proper technique, and she needed a vocal cord operation. “For a whole year, I was in rehabilitation, just listening to music,” she says. “I learned how to really listen.”
The experience was formative for an artist who has become an international superstar thanks in part to her attention to detail, from the intricate sounds of her genre-bending productions to every shot of her avant-garde videos. To this day, Rosalía always carries her “little pad” or her phone, writing down “everything I’m going to do, my ideas, the next step,” she explains. “The point is to connect with what made me go into this in the first place.”
We’re chatting in early September over coffee and scrambled eggs at a suite in the trendy hotel EAST, Miami, where Rosalía speaks -- mostly in Spanish but with a smattering of English -- in a voice that speeds up when she’s excited but rarely rises above a murmur. Today, makeup-free and with her dark curly hair flowing loose over her shoulders, she looks much younger than her actual age, 27. Only her long nails, black and laced with glitter, give away the diva within.
In the year and a half since she independently released her single “Malamente,” earning immense critical acclaim for her contemporary, urban-music twist on flamenco, the Spain-born Rosalía has turned every preconception about her country’s iconic musical tradition on its head. She’s a trained dancer who traded heels and long-tailed dresses for platform sneakers, midriff-baring tops and sweats; a traditional cantaora who collaborates with rappers and reggaetoneros; a thrilling live performer who mixes hip-hop and flamenco moves with military precision in front of psychedelic visuals. “Rosalía possesses the very rare combination of a flawless artistic vision and remarkable live performances, and she keeps pushing every musical boundary,” says Ron Perry, chairman/CEO of Columbia Records, which signed Rosalía in the United States in 2018. “She’s a once-in-a-generation talent.”
Columbia, owned by Sony, doesn't disclose the terms of its deals with artists, but sources say the record company has invested in Rosalía as much as it would in any mainstream superstar -- a sum that industry sources say typically amounts to five to ten times as much as major record labels tend to invest in the acts they sign exclusively to their Latin labels or divisions.
She’s already rubbing shoulders with the biggest names in the industry. Since her breakout record, El Mal Querer, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Latin Pop Albums chart last fall, she has performed at Coachella and Lollapalooza, hit the studio with Billie Eilish and Pharrell Williams, graced President Barack Obama’s annual summer playlist and won two Latin Grammys. In August, Rosalía became only the third female Latin artist to perform at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs), after Shakira and Jennifer Lopez.
“There’s no one I can remember who has come out this fast -- in any language,” says her agent, Samantha Kirby Yoh, WME partner and head of East Coast music. “I don’t think anyone has the attention she has gotten in terms of credibility in so many different genres and mediums.”
Even as recently as three years ago, it would have been hard to fathom Rosalía’s career trajectory. With very few exceptions, Latin artists have garnered mainstream U.S. attention only after achieving great success in the Spanish-speaking world. Typically, major U.S. labels enter joint-venture deals with their Latin counterparts to work acts who are releasing albums or singles in English. Rosalía, however, joined Columbia barely six months after signing with Sony Music Spain, and she still sings predominantly in Spanish -- not only a sign of increasingly permeable genre and language barriers, but also of her star power. “She’s bigger than a Spanish artist. That’s what everyone is drawn to about her,” says Columbia executive vp/GM Jenifer Mallory.
Rosalía has spent much of 2019 proving as much, releasing a string of singles that showcase her diverse skill set. There’s the J Balvin collaboration “Con Altura,” an homage to classic reggaeton that hit No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Latin Songs chart; the club-ready anthem “Aute Cuture,” which she decks out with a dance-pop edge; and the hypnotic Ozuna team-up “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi,” which the pair performed at the VMAs. “You can hum her songs, but they are complicated and sophisticated in terms of structure,” says Jody Gerson, chairman/CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group, which announced a worldwide publishing deal with Rosalía in June. “It’s a very unique sound that is all her own.”
Despite widespread acclaim and internet hype, Rosalía’s music has yet to hit a mass-market tipping point: None of the aforementioned singles have broken into the Billboard Hot 100. At Spotify’s ¡Viva Latino! LIVE concert at Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena a few days before our interview, the mostly Latinx crowd’s reaction to Rosalía was effusive but more curious than rapturous compared with the reception they gave others on the lineup, like headliners Bad Bunny and Nicky Jam. But experts say that may just be a matter of time, not an issue related to her appeal. “Interest from mainstream Latin radio is huge right now for Rosalía,” says Gabriel Buitrago, founder of Summa Marketing and Promotions, who is working her singles to Latin radio. “As a promoter, the hardest thing to do is work new artists. But I’m amazed at how quickly they have embraced her.”
As she works on her third album and prepares for more live performances -- including sold-out arena shows in Spain -- Rosalía is still processing how fast her career has moved. “I can’t walk around like I used to, and there’s always paparazzi waiting outside the studio,” she says. “It’s jarring.” Still, she never believed she would make it this far on her own terms. “Ten years ago, I thought, ‘Someday, I may have to make concessions because of the industry.’ I wish I had known it would be like this. Everyone around me has maximum respect for my vision. Everything has been organic. I’m so happy I can make the music I want at any moment.”
You have experienced a seismic shift over the past few months. What’s the biggest change?
What has truly changed is the doors that may open. The possibility of doing many things that I had in my mind but seemed very far away, like putting together a show exactly how I picture it without worrying about infrastructure or anything. When I began to record El Mal Querer, I didn’t have a label or a team. It was just my family -- my mother and my sister -- and my friends. To be able to work today with Rebeca [León, her manager] and so many other women who trust me is amazing.
It seems like every time you write a song, you’re thinking about it in 3D: the music, the video, the performance.
For most of the songs, yes, everything is connected. The music is the center, and everything stems from that. I’m a musician first, but I started from scratch: I would beg to be allowed to play, I would announce my events on Facebook, I would design my posters. When I sang in bars and weddings, where you have to fight to be heard, you gain incredible humility. I was on top of every detail so the vision would come to fruition.
Flamenco is not pop -- it’s complex music. What made you realize that visuals could help tell the story?
As a teenager, I grew up listening to [Spanish artists like] Lola Flores and Camarón and also 2Pac and Missy Elliott. So the visual landscape I got from those acts really made an impact on me and made conceiving visuals a very natural thing. Even though the cantaora traditionally sings sitting down, why do I have to do that in my video? I’m going to turn it around and conceive a video where I can simply dance in the streets. My priority always is to project the image of a strong woman. And when I work on video edits, I always prioritize attitude and strength ahead of looking pretty in a shot.
Given flamenco’s rigid structures, breaking from tradition isn’t always encouraged.
Yes, but I come from a generation that was born into globalization and the internet. That has changed everything. I never think of music as, “Is this correct or incorrect?” I always think, “Is this exciting or not?”
You have received criticism for being “not flamenco enough” or “not Latina enough” for Latin music. Does it bother you?
First of all, I was born speaking Spanish. My father is from Asturias [in northwestern Spain]. My great-grandfather is Cuban. My mother is Catalana [from Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeast Spain]. I grew up speaking Catalan and Spanish at home, and I have always listened to music in English. So it’s natural for me to sing in these languages. I make music in Spanish because flamenco is my great inspiration. But a few months ago, I recorded a rumba in Catalan [“Milionària”]. I sang in English with James Blake because he had a beautiful song, “Barefoot in the Park.” Languages are like musical colors, like instruments you can choose. Today, musical barriers, like genres, are so diluted that they don’t really exist.
That shows on your first album, Los Ángeles, which includes a cover of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s “I See a Darkness” that you sing in English.
Because I love it. That entire album is an homage to flamenco tradition seen from my personal vantage point. But this song made so much sense [with the lyrical themes of the album], so why not have a version? In the end, I think no one is going to accuse Picasso of cultural appropriation because he painted African masks.
It’s a delicate topic. I always try to talk about all the cultural references that have inspired me. Artists always have been influenced by many cultures. Today, all cultures are connected, and it’s something beautiful and worthy of celebration. Flamenco and my country always have been connected with Latin America. The flamenco cantes de ida y vuelta [“round-trip songs” that developed as musical exchanges between Spain and Latin America] are a reflection of that: milongas, la guajira, la colombiana. They are considered to be of the flamenco tradition, but you can clearly feel Latin America’s presence.
You graduated from the Catalonia College of Music the same year you released Los Ángeles. Why was it important for you to have a formal education in music?
I never felt comfortable with the notion of depending on someone to make my music. I wanted absolute control to develop whatever was in my head. For some, music is sacred: They care so much about their work, the consequences don’t matter. For others, music is a vehicle -- perhaps they’re looking for a lifestyle or money. I don’t judge. But I was never in a rush. I studied for 10 years because I wanted to be an artist.
And you consider yourself a producer and an arranger as well, yes?
Without a doubt, and I get credited as such. I was very involved in Los Ángeles, and on El Mal Querer, Pablo Díaz-Reixa [Rosalía’s frequent collaborator who records under the name El Guincho] and I are credited as producers. I’m always on top of my productions because the sound design is everything to me.
Your recent singles have been very collaborative: You worked with J Balvin on “Con Altura,” and you sing with Ozuna on “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi.” What’s that process like?
In both instances, I headed the creative process. Pablo and I began working together on the beat and developing toplines, and then Frank Dukes [known for his work with Camila Cabello and The Weeknd] came on as a producer for both. After that, J Balvin and Ozuna came on to their respective songs. We did everything with Balvin remotely, but Ozuna spent a couple of hours with me in the studio in Miami. I had met Ozu in Las Vegas [during the 2018 Latin Grammys] and was a longtime fan. Pablo and I wanted to come up with a song that worked for Ozu, so I listened to the beats [he likes] and the key he usually sings in, and from there we developed my verse. Within minutes, he wrote his verse, added a few details. I couldn’t believe it.
You also teased a collaboration with Billie Eilish on social media earlier this year. What can you share about it?
When I released “Malamente,” Billie was one of the first huge artists who shared the video. She has been there from the onset. Then, when I was working with Frank Dukes in Los Angeles, Billie and I had a session together, totally independent from her other projects. We wrote with her at the piano. We created a great idea for a song and had a great time.
“Aute Cuture,” which you released in May, is another very different track for you -- it has the hand claps of flamenco but a lot of pop elements, too.
Pablo asked me to work on some beats for a big artist with him. When I started to write the chords, it was so clear: The beat had to be mine! I wrote the toplines a few weeks later while I danced. It’s the first time I have done that, where the movement inspired the toplines.
You have said that you learned to dance before you learned to sing. What role does movement usually have in your work and your live show?
From 13 to 23, I only did music and left dance to the side. I got used to singing sitting down because that’s what happens in traditional flamenco. But in this particular show, movement is important. I made the choreography with Charm La’Donna [who has worked with Madonna and Britney Spears]. I wanted to put her in the same room with Ana Nuñez, a flamenco dancer from Barcelona whom I was studying with at the time, and figure out how we could create a live show that was inspired by flamenco and also urban music.
How did you and Charm start working together?
The little money I had at the time I wanted to put into the music and the live show, so I contacted her through Instagram and said, “This is what I can pay.” She said yes. This woman I had never met came to Spain to work with me. After about five days of rehearsals, my sister and I asked her, “Honestly, how is it possible that someone of your level came to us?” And she said she felt God had told her she needed to be there. It’s as if she had the intuition of what could happen if we worked together.
Tell me about your spirituality.
I always pray, in my way, before taking the stage. I feel we all have a task in life -- a path, a destiny. Before I perform, I try to connect with my body. I give thanks for the possibility of performing and sharing with others. I always try to reconnect with that intention: to be at the service of the music.