Rosalía Is Redefining Flamenco


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At the end of Fashion Week in September, a small crowd including both young Latinas and older, over-cologned white men gathered at the Public Arts to see the mystical, musical beast that is Rosalía Vila Tobella. The stars had aligned such that one of the most fashionable young musicians in Spain could make her live debut in the City of Lights. This would be her first time presenting her sophomore album El Mal Querer in New York—something she had been dreaming of and preparing for since her first visit at the age of 19, when she came to the city to perform for the APAP Conference at a small venue, accompanied only by a guitarist. After a 30-minute, Champagne-filled wait, she teased her new album with a 15-minute set that served as an appetizer for us and a “relief,” she said later, for her.

The next day, she made the official announcement of her album’s release date—November 2—via a billboard in Times Square. “After this,” she told me, thinking of the weeks ahead, “I’m sure things will be a lot smoother.”

When I first entered the cold meeting room inside her label Sony’s new Midtown Manhattan office, Rosalía was in the middle of playing the piano, eyes shut, sporting an oversized men’s pastel-yellow jumpsuit, smudged mascara, lip gloss that doubled as plumper, and strategically messy bedhead. It took a minute for her to land.

“Que suerte tengo,” she said as we got situated. “How lucky am I.” Though she’s actively learning more English nowadays, we spoke mostly in Spanish (I translated her responses for this piece).

Two weeks later, a couple of days before her 25th birthday, Rosalía was nominated for five Latin Grammys, making her the lead female artist and second overall most-nominated on the roster, following J Balvin, who has eight. The most impressive factor is that she only has one song on the ticket, “Malamente.” That same week, Balvin, with whom she partnered on “Brillo” for his Vibras album, introduced her to a bit of a larger audience at the L.A. Forum—over 5,000 fans to be exact—just days after her Los Angeles debut at the Hollywood Bowl alongside Juanes. “She’s a really sweet, unique person with a lot of character,” Balvin said when I spoke to him later at his concert in New York. “A strong woman and voice, who I think is necessary for the music of the planet.”

Rosalía, hailing from Sant Esteve Sesroviras in Catalonia, Spain, has been a celebrated, rapidly rising flamenco artist in her home country for the past year—deemed “our Beyoncé” by the Madrid-based women’s magazine Telva, “the latest great patron of contemporary flamenco” by Vogue Spain, and most recently given the Woman of the Year award by the newspaper El Pais. Oscar-winning writer and director Pedro Almodóvar, who recently recruited her for his upcoming film, presented her the award in Spanish, saying, “[You] should be proud of being undefinable. She has the voice of an ancient flamenco singer (cantaora) and a wisdom that doesn’t correspond her because of her age.”

Her debut album Los Ángeles (meaning “the Angels,” not a reference to sunny L.A.), was released in 2017. That 50-minute introductory collection got her a Best New Artist nomination at the Latin Grammys that year and set the foundation for a global ascension that’s starting to come to fruition. Already Rosalía’s influence has spread outside of her homeland, going international partly due to the success of “Brillo” in Latin America, and verbal admiration from beloved North American artists like Charli XCX, Dua Lipa, Khalid, and Pharrell, who she deems her favorite artist to have worked with thus far.

Her voice and approach to flamenco, one of the country’s most beloved original art forms, is in a realm all its own—and thus comparing her seems silly. But what if she were this generation’s Camarón? The first time Rosalía ever heard flamenco was at the age of 13. It was blaring outside of a car stationed by her school, and her life is now segmented as “before and after” that moment. Camarón de la Isla—a legend known for his contemporary take on a centuries-old tradition—was playing. He passed away in 1992 before either of us were born, but seems to have passed Rosalía the baton in paradise. Similarly to the man known as the gypsy god of flamenco, Rosalía has seamlessly re-energized her generation with a modern approach to the classic. But she has no intention of creating limits for herself where there are none.

When asked if she’s willing to move away from the genre, she giggled nervously and took a breath before saying, “I feel like with Los Ángeles, I wanted to establish my musical legacy… and honor the classic sound of flamenco in the most traditional sense, respecting them to the maximum, with a pop and experimental structure, but with very basic instrumentation and a minimalist sound—just guitar and voice.” But after I found that, I thought, I want something new.”

“I wanted to establish my musical legacy… and honor the classic sound of flamenco in the most traditional sense.”

Her ultimate priority and promise is to continue growing as an artist. From that perspective, the idea of sticking to something she’s already found would be more daunting than taking new ground. “I can’t stay stagnant,” she said. Her current portfolio honors and harkens back to legends of the craft like La Niña de los Peines, Juana la del Pipa, and her mentor and teacher El Chiqui, yet draws inspiration from modern electronic and pop sounds to put her in a realm of her own as an artist. Songs like “Catalina,” (from her first album), the meaning of which is up to interpretation but at its core is about the lack of (and need for) human warmth, serves as a visceral example of the emotionally charged canto she now belts out with ease.

Enveloped in a tube of light during her show at the Arts, she emoted every line of that staple with a sincere look in her eye and tears that were trained to linger and be seen but never fall. She brought everyone to a standstill that night. In both traditional songs like that one and others like “Bagdad” (Episode 7: Liturgy), a record about feeling like you’re stuck in Hell, she stays true to the tragic undertone that flamenco is known for, even while approaching it with a refreshed sound. “If you don’t invest yourself emotionally,” she said, “it’s ineffective. It doesn’t work.”

Prior to delving into studying the ebbs and flows of flamenco and soul at L’Escola Superior de Música de Catalunya (ESMUC), Rosalía recalls singing and dancing from as early as age six, moving to the tune of artists her parents would listen to at the time—none of whom were cantaores—this included Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and The Beatles. At age eight, she remembers, her dad asked her to sing at a family gathering. She closed her eyes, as she still does today, and sang a random song she had heard on TV. “When I opened my eyes, everyone was crying.”

“Singing is the most pure form I know of communicating,” she said. “I never had a plan B. I always had the intuition and the faith that this would be my life and that it couldn’t be any other way, no matter the level,” professionally speaking. “I have big dreams, but if God would’ve told me that I had to sing in a local bar in Barcelona, and that that would be my life, that would be my life. I would’ve done it with the same passion.”

By age 13, she was studying music, listening to flamenco CDs at home, and traveling to Barcelona to listen to it live. Her family, a consistent support system, knew that success in this industry would mean sacrifice. “Study with passion,” she recalls her mom telling her, “and if you give your life to it, later life will give it back. But you need to dedicate yourself 100 percent.” In retrospect, despite being somewhat nostalgic for the moments missed—moments perhaps not dedicated to family, friends and a “normal” youth—she now feels it was all worth it. And in true cherry-on-top fashion, she gets to bring her baby sister along for the ride. Daikyri, who’s a visual artist and assists her in honing her creative brand and style, was with her at the concert in L.A., and the first to celebrate with her when news of the Latin Grammy noms broke.

While it seems like she’s a sudden sensation, getting to where she is now has been a progressive, slow ride. At 17, already five years into honing her craft, she had vocal cord surgery and had to go through the grueling process of rehabilitation. “I didn’t have this registry when I started, not even close. But I feel like everyone has a destiny, and I feel like mine is with music. I’ve always known.”

“Music is a teacher and that gives you a lot of humility. Even if you make mistakes—there’s no error.”

When it comes to not letting the accolades and signs of potential international stardom inflate her head, or—on the contrary—hinder her with intimidating expectations that come with early success, Rosalía is eagerly learning. “Music is a teacher and that gives you a lot of humility,” she says. “Even if you make mistakes—there’s no error.” It’s a comforting motto, particularly when attempting to refresh or mold folclore—a bold move that the abuelas and unyielding critics, or those who feel like sole owners of the genre, are bound to get ruffled by.

Flamenco originated centuries ago as a form of entertainment in gitano communities in Spain—specifically, Andalusia. Since then, many break the genre into types, including one that puts a greater emphasis on the spiritual aspects, and another known as opera flamenco (operísima), which is a more performative, commercial style. Naturally, people from the area in which the foundation was set for flamenco to be what it is today feel protective of its evolution.

Mala Rodríguez, who is from Jerez de la Frontera and sings hip-hop and raps, told ABC Cultura she understands those who are pissed and claim cultural appropriation because she believes, “[Rosalía] is making use of certain things that belong to the identity of the Andalusian people and the Roma community.” When asked if, comparatively, she would consider a white woman from Sevilla who rapped and wore dreadlocks to be doing the same thing, Rodriguez flipped the switch and said, “She should be the one answering these questions… This is just my way of seeing things, identity can’t be fabricated or decaffeinated.”

Artists like Rodríguez, however, overtly make other styles their own. “Music has nothing to do with your blood [background] and it’s not territorial,” Rosalía told El Mundo. “Flamenco doesn’t belong to gitanos. It doesn’t belong to anyone, in fact. And there’s nothing wrong with experimenting with it.”

El Mal Querer, Rosalía’s riskiest project yet, shows that when it comes to genres like classic flamenco and electro-pop, her current musical inclination is a swinging pendulum, never fully skewing either which way. She’s been working on the album for a little over two years, investing what she gained and learned, both monetarily and artistically, from Los Ángeles into El Mal Querer, which will serve as a more global introduction. When conceptualizing the project, which was originally just a thesis for university, she asked herself, “What makes me uncomfortable right now?” The answer was relatable—it was an interest in understanding how we communicate differently now than we did centuries ago, and that dark way of loving we show sometimes.

The album, arranged in 11 chapters/tracks, is a thread inspired by an anonymous manuscript of Flamenca from the 14th century, centered around a young woman who’s imprisoned in a tower because of her husband’s jealousy. She takes us through the woman’s story, from the cursed day when they tied the knot in “Que No Salga La Luna” (Chapter 2: Wedding), to the impassioned moments that lived in between in “Di Mi Nombre” (Chapter 8: Ecstasy), and, finally, a moment of empowerment in the last track, “A Ningún Hombre” (Chapter 11: Power)—with lyrics that roughly translate as, “I won’t let any man dictate my future, only God can judge me.” All in all, though the theme is dark, she was able to lighten the mood and not fluff the context, with experimentation in sound. Bringing it all together sonically was where the magic happened.

In a few of the chapters, Rosalía’s unrivaled vocals take center stage, while in others she leaves room for the rhythm to take over. Lyrically, the story is captivating, at times heart-wrenching, and then suddenly—empowering. On “Bagdad,” she sneakily couples painful lyrics like “Flames eventually die in heaven/There’s no one else around now/No one, there she sat, clapping…” with flawless intonations and a drop in beat that’ll have you swaying in your seat without realizing it; whereas in “Remedio” (Chapter 5, Lament), we hear lyrics like, “I laugh on the outside and cry on the inside,” with a much more stripped-down sound, forcing you to take a minute to just feel your goddamn feelings.

“It’s important to me that people know that women can lead their own projects.”

Though her flamenco influences still bleed through in new tracks with palmas (rhythmic hand clapping) and cante chico, as well as guitar and voice-centric songs like “Que No Salga La Luna,” Rosalía gives us a more aggressive, albeit intimate, sound on this new album, experimenting with technology and incorporating 808s, harmonizers, synthesizers, and an emphasis on drum machines and keyboards where they hadn’t been placed before. “I have the luck to be able to collaborate with great people like Antón [Álvarez], Pablo [Díaz-Reixa],” otherwise known as El Guincho, who co-produced El Mal Querer, “and others… But I’m responsible for my work and my sound,” she told me with a glare in her eye. “It’s important to me that people know that women can lead their own projects.”

Rosalía writes, produces, plays piano and guitar, has creative input in everything she puts her name on, and she revels in that sense of ownership. “There are times when your discs will connect with people. There are times when not so much. Times when you’ll feel really, really connected, times when not so much. But that’s a part of this kind of work and you need to accept it. At the same time, that humility makes it difficult to fail and keeps you connected to why you create in the first place.”

Returning to her first love of dance recently, Rosalía tapped Charm La’Donna—a classically-trained choreographer and visual artist known for her work with top artists like Madonna, Britney Spears, and most recently Kendrick Lamar. In March, Rosalía slid into her DMs, they chatted via FaceTime, and next thing you know, Charm was in Spain. The organic connection Charm had with Rosalía, and to her work (which was still in its early stages at that point), was what drew her to jump on board. The challenge, then, was fusing their styles and creating a unique hybrid that would feel their own—a challenge the singer’s family didn’t think would quite work—but has proven to be a vision. Unlike Rosalía’s debut EP, this album allows for a more movement-filled show, making her live performances a fierce yet emotionally immersive experience.

The latest they’ve worked on together ahead of the album launch was the show for Red Bull Music Presents Rosalía this past Wednesday in Madrid—a night that was a testament to the importance of incorporating different art forms in order to bring this particular album, an amalgam of strains, alive for a crowd. Intentional aesthetic choices and somewhat elaborate choreography are key to that. “I’m very careful about everything in my proposal, not just the musical aspect,” Rosalía said. “For me, music is the foundation, the priority. But I’m passionate about—and like to take care of—all the details.”

“For me, music is the foundation, the priority. But I’m passionate about—and like to take care of—all the details.”

With “De Aqui No Sales,” a song that goes from the sound of a motorcycle revving up to impassioned vibrato, and then hand clapping that makes me feel like a lovely round of showtime is about to happen on the train, the team was able to show off the skills they’ve acquired in both flamenco and hip-hop choreo.

“She’s very hands on and so involved in the project—every aspect” Charm told me over the phone, during a rehearsal break in Spain the day before the show. “But at the same time she allows people to trust in their creative and how they feel it.” When it comes to blending their styles, she’s taken pride in really working to understand the cultural background, asking questions, and working with Rosalía’s flamenco teachers to ensure anything they do that’s meant to be traditional is traditional. “Dance is such a universal language… and her music fuses both worlds, so it happens organically.”

Rosalía is the first Spanish-speaking artist Charm has ever worked with, and neither of them is prolific in the other’s native tongue, but she says the language barrier hasn’t been an issue. She laughed thinking about it, saying, “How special is that? To be able to choreograph to a language that you don’t know and be so in tune?”

So perhaps Rosalía isn’t quite like Camarón, who in an interview with Carmen Abenza said he was all about cante and not remotely interested in baile. Entonces, what if she’s the Spanish Solange? A force in motion. She has an acute awareness of the fact that music is just one part of what makes her an artist.

At Public Arts, Rosalía commanded full attention when she entered the room and made a large tape-marked slice of the floor’s standing room her playground. That night, she wore white Naked Wolfe platform sneakers and a mini red Paloma Spain ensemble, seamlessly blending street and gitana fashion fixtures. Her band of five, atop the actual stage, served as her backdrop, and a reminder of what she most values at the end of the day when all the lights are stripped away. Performing emotionally charged songs like “Catalina” from Los Angeles, her debut EP from 2017, and a pop hybrid not included in EMQ which echoes “esto ‘ta encendido,” until everyone in the room bops along, Rosalía showed the scope of her range. Her eight dancers, dressed in all white, seemed to look directly through the audience, though we were inches away, stomping toward us with ferocity until they were almost too close for comfort.

In her live shows, Rosalía reflects two characteristics that we see expressed in her stylistic choices as well: femininity and strength. Her style, a balance between the chic, sexy feel that classic flamenco attire is known for and the ultracool, laid-back aesthetic that’s comfortable, is reflective of her audience. She’ll sometimes switch between four-inch heels and Nike Air Force 1s, or pair long gem-glitzed oval nails with men’s knuckle rings. The latter often means wearing apparel and accessories typically—as we discovered while reading the label on her favorite jumpsuit that lowly-caffeinated morning—made for men.

“I have no prejudice with music, or an a visual level,” she said. “I like to experiment.” There were always fashion magazines laid out around Rosalía’s house growing up, and she felt particularly attracted to the avant-garde. In the music video for “Pienso En Tu Mirá,” she serves us several looks including a colorful tracksuit, a golden silk ensemble, and several crop tops to show off the abs she’s acquired from hours in the dance studio.

Rosalía’s ’fits are enviable and she’s all but risk-averse, yet I don’t see her moving entirely away from flamenco and into soul. So she’s not quite our Solange, nor does she need to be. Perhaps she’s that once-in-a-lifetime artist who isn’t emulating any particular virtuosa before her—but instead becoming one to be emulated for years to come.

Prior to hopping on stage at the Forum on a particularly chilly night in L.A., Rosalía radiated joy, with a ponytail somehow higher than her spirits, a motorcycle shirt and a fresh face with a glow that was either from heat or a lifetime of preparation. She told me her favorite piece of advice from Balvin, who she lovingly calls “mi Jose”: “You have to be really clear on what you want.” After the Latin Grammy nominations were announced, he hugged her and said, “Y los que te quedan…” meaning “And there’s still a lot more to come.”

After her set in New York, the microphones on either the band or the dancers or both were accidentally left on, which allowed the crowd to hear as they screamed and then jumped up and down chanting: “Rosalía! Rosalía! Rosalía!” It was one of the many pure moments to be remembered as she celebrates her small beginning. Soon, thousands around the world will be screaming the same.

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