“Entraste el ensenario como una gangster.” You entered the stage like a gangster.
That’s what Spanish producer El Guincho said to Rosalía after he saw her perform at a traditional flamenco tablao in Barcelona five years ago. “There were a lot of tourists having dinner and talking,” she recalls. But as well as playing to some of the city’s pesky turistas, she’d invited about 100 people to come see her sing, and El Guincho (real name Pablo Díaz-Reixa) was one of them. “I was dressed super-traditional, but he said that my energy was that of a gangster. I just started laughing and we became very good friends.”
The pair have moved from being very good friends to very good collaborators – a present-day Spanish performer-producer killer combo akin to Missy and Timbaland. Rosalía’s impressive skills as a flamenco singer (eight years in the making under the tutelage of flamenco maestro El Chiqui) were already marking her out as a future star on her Raül Refree-produced debut Los Angeles back in 2017, but it took another year and another sound (conjured up with El Guincho) to make her the global pop star we’re dealing with today.
The whole world is thirsting for 25-year-old Rosalía Vila Tobella right now. Beyoncé sent her a personal invitation to the London Lion King premiere, famed film director Pedro Almódovar cast her alongside Penélope Cruz in Pain and Glory and her songs have soundtracked the wildly popular teen HBO show Euphoria. Shawn Mendes says she’s the one artist he wants to work with, stans are begging her to collaborate with Camila Cabello and the internet freaked out when it discovered BlackPink’s Jennie listens to her music. Some of The xx attended her London gig, Wizkid is chatting to her on Insta and she’s been pictured with Travis Scott. She’s already made magic with J Balvin, has been working with Arca and has recorded with Billie Eilish (“We’ve been experimenting and enjoying in the studio together”).
In short, everyone wants a piece, from the alt to the overground (which is also a reflection of her own wide-ranging tastes).
But despite all these overtures from the biggest names in music, it’s that in-house magic with El Guincho that’s led to viral hits like Malamente, Con Altura, Aute Cuture and Fucking Money Man, which variously dip into flamenco, reggaeton, R&B, rumba catalana, dembow, trap and pop. “El Guincho is like my brother,” she says. “The connection we have making music, just the two of us in a room, it’s amazing and very special.”
The music they’ve made and the mad devotion it’s inspired have unofficially made this The Summer of Rosalía. If you caught her performing this year, you lucked out. The woman who sang to a few hundred in a tourist trap a few years ago is now flying around the world playing Lollapalooza, Coachella and Glastonbury, New York, Paris and Porto. Though she might have tired of those flights, got bored of those hotel rooms and become a little more accustomed to all that crowd adoration, her 2019 performances still felt pure. This was the tipping point tour; before the mainstream fully takes her as theirs, she could still feel like yours.
When performing, Rosalía feels a responsibility “para hacer que pase algo mágico” – to make something magical happen. Of all the festivals she’s played, the most magical came in her hometown, when she headlined Barcelona’s Primavera Sound in May. “It felt like volver a casa, coming back home,” she says, all smiles, bright eyes and Burberry check in a minimal central London hotel room. “I’d been touring months before I did Primavera and I could feel I’d been doing all the previous shows to reach that performance – to bring something for my people. I arrived in Barcelona and it was so exciting because I saw all my people there supporting me, and I loved that.”
While she has Spanish-speaking fans across the world, nothing can have beaten the ecstatic reactions in Barcelona’s Parc del Fòrum that night. The crowds, which had felt largely international for Miley Cyrus, Solange and Charli XCX, were suddenly overwhelmingly, screamingly, Spanish. Rosalía’s arrival seems to have fulfilled a deep need the country didn’t know it had: to have a global cultural icon, a pop force to call their own. Spanish-language superstars in recent years have come from Colombia, Puerto Rico or Cuba, but not Spain.
The non-Spanish-speaking world didn’t know they needed all of this either: we’re blessed with new words (that we don’t understand but are inspired to learn), infectious clapping, rhythmic stamping and empowering posturing. To me, as an English-speaker in the crowd, it suddenly felt vital to be completely alienated by unknown lyrics and gestures, isolated and irrelevant in a mass of Hispanophone adoration. The antidote to in-built Anglo cultural arrogance has arrived and it’s fun as fuck. Suddenly Spanish music is speaking to us in a way that English no longer can.
One person in the Primavera crowd fainted and was carried off like a religious effigy (was it down to La Rosi, the booze or the drugs?). “Quééé? No way! Quééé?” she repeats, shock-concerned. She says she would have stopped the show if she’d seen it, but she doesn’t like to look at the audience – it’s far too distracting.
“I try to receive the energy and not focus on somebody. I just try to focus on the lyrics, the music, keyboards, percussion, clappers, flamenco singers. There’s a lot going on! It’s not easy. I’m dancing and singing at the same time, no playback at all – no playback AT ALL!” she emphasises. You might be a freak sole recipient of her attention occasionally, though. “Sometimes I get excited and I enjoy singing for a specific person in the crowd, but maybe it’s just 10 seconds.”
As that Primavera Saturday night turned into a sunny Sunday morning, and people floated home from the after-parties, the newspapers lining the city’s kiosks already had their headlines. La Vanguardia shouted, “ROSALIA BRILLA EN EL PRIMAVERA SOUND” (“Rosalia shines at Primavera Sound”) and El Periódico howled, “ROSALIA TIENE PODER” (“Rosalia has power”). We’d not been to bed yet and she was already front-page news (and had jetted off to Paris to play the We Love Green festival).
At London’s Somerset House gig in July the crowd counted their blessings: they’d bought tickets earlier in the year, before Rosalía truly exploded. It felt like her last private concert before she blows up even bigger. Her fellow Catalans in the crowd were gagging for her to perform her new Catalan-lyric track Fucking Money Man, so when the show closed with it, there were Catalans crying, touched to hear their language sung live and loud by their newest idol.
The fact that she decided to sing in Catalan (rather than the national Castilian) in the first place has stirred things up in Spain. The long-standing fight over Catalonia’s independence from Spain is a heated one and by singing in her native, regional language, she’s been drawn into debates over whether or not she supports secession. But she’s insistent the song isn’t political. “For me, it’s just natural. I’ve been speaking Catalan since I was born. I used to feel more comfortable singing in Spanish, because I studied flamenco, which is in Spanish. I just grew up as a teenager with flamenco, but Catalan for me is natural. I’ve been waiting until I’ve had the need to compose in Catalan.”
Rosalía has already been burnt by accusations that she culturally-appropriated flamenco from the gypsy communities of Andalusia. A reporter from The New York Times also asked if she was nervous about making a reggaeton song, since it originates from Puerto Rico (to which she replied, “I guess I always do something that nobody expects, honestly. Because for me, that’s what makes sense. And that’s the point of being a musician”). She’s been dragged into debates that she didn’t seem prepared to have so early in her rise. “I think that some artists are involved in politics and there’s a political intention behind their music,” she says, in reference to her use of Catalan. “I respect that a lot, but in my case, for now, I don’t like it when my music is politicised, and I am not looking for a political statement. Fucking Money Man is just made with a sense of humour about money, with a bit of irony.”
As well as Spanish and Catalan, she’s sung in English for a cover of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s I See a Darkness and on Barefoot in the Park with James Blake. Are we to expect a Shakira crossover moment, when she fully switches from Spanish to English for greater global domination? “Languages are another musical element that one can play with. For now the majority of my work has been inspired by traditional flamenco, so that leads me to write my lyrics in Spanish. But I always try to learn new languages for speaking and singing.” Hopefully she will take J Balvin’s lead and stick exclusively to Spanish (plus Catalan). In a world where Spanish-language music has gone mass and both American and British stars are tapping the market with crossover collaborations with reggaeton stars, there’s surely no need.
Despite not speaking Spanish, I spent most of the summer with the word “bájale” on repeat in my head (thanks to Aute Cuture). “I was with Pablo [El Guincho] and a friend of mine, and we were just laughing, creating that, like: ‘What if I put myself in the place of a friend who’s telling me “Calm down!” Well, there’s a funny way of saying it in Spanish, which is bájale. It’s just funny.” With millions of people across the planet having learned English from pop music, now could be the time for the rest of us become accidental Spanish-speakers.
Rosalía and producer El Guincho have an innate understanding of how to put clever sound stamps on tracks that get stuck in your brain, DJ Khaled-style. One smart tweeter pointed out: “‘La Rosalía’ is already this generation’s ‘It’s Britney Bitch’…but with more impact and cultural relevancy.” There are other infectious sounds: motorbike revs, slashing samurai swords and screeching brakes that get you hooked.
Another way she gets in your head is through her high-impact music videos, which hark back to an MTV, Hype Williams heyday, with their cartoonish narratives, ensemble choreography and OTT styling. It’s all meant that she has become YouTube’s most viewed female artist of the year. “You can bring a song to life in many different ways but videos are one of the most powerful ones and, for me, one of the most exciting,” she says.
Her look, on which she works closely with her sister Pilar, is a mix of Beyoncé, Rihanna and maybe even a little bit of Baby Spice. There are full-look tracksuits, ruffles, tassles, crop tops and chaps. Sometimes she feels accessibly high street, sometimes she’s full-look Balenciaga. The hair can be down, but is mostly in bunches, pigtails or a high ponytail that gets wildly helicoptered when she’s dancing on stage. And then there are the nails – weapon of choice when she slashes the face of one of the Green Bros (her “nasty business associates”) in the Aute Cuture video. Sometimes they’re Edward Scissorhands-long, but today they’re more modest, albeit covered in 3D hyper-colour micro-toys.
It’s all a far cry from L’Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya, the Barcelona music school where she laboured under the tutelage of El Chiqui. But it’s that traditional vocal base that got her here in the first place. Watch her live and prepare to be blown away. It’s the voice as weapon. Something that could smash glass, sack cities and turn a shitty ex to ashes. But also something that can be sweet and tender – the ultimate expression of pain. If you’ve not already seen it, watch her rendition of Me Quedo Contigo at this year’s Goyas (the Spanish Oscars) and prepare to have your spine repeat-tingled by the rawest of vocals, all backed by a haunting choir.
Much as she might seem musically miles away from her, Rosalía somehow recalls Björk, especially when the Icelandic singer sings in her own tongue (also allowing English speakers to project their deepest emotions on to songs that might not remotely lyrically match up). They both reference a profound choral tradition and have a sweeping, epic, otherworldly effect. “I’ve been obsessed with vocal harmonies and choirs for a long time, soI decided to collaborate with the Cor Jove de L’Orfeó [at the Goyas].”
Where does she go to find all that pain she’s so often pulling out? “I think there are interpretations where the artist should be in the background for the emotion, where the artist should put themselves at the service of the song so that the story and soul of that song are in the foreground. On the stage, when I feel most fulfilled is when I get close to being a channel.”
Gift that it is, Rosalía is wise to look after that voice of hers. She had an operation to remove two pseudocysts from her vocal cords when she was 16. After the surgery she had a year’s recovery without any singing. “I learned how to listen and now I try to listen more than I talk. That’s helpful when you’re on tour, so you save your voice. I’m very grateful that it happened when I was a teenager. It was a warning, I learned so much, and I really changed the way I studied, and my vocal technique and everything.”
She needs a lot of sleep the night before a show (“nine hours, or something… it’s the only way I can be sure that my voice is going to be in perfect condition to perform”) and there’s a ban on aircon, which is bad for the vocal cords (in a hot dressing room on our cover shoot day, her sister jokes that the Rosalía starter pack must include beads of sweat). But mostly it comes down to contentment: “If you’re happy, your voice is in good shape. You have to try to rest, eat healthy, try to maintain a balance in a physical, emotional and mental way. Lots of people say that the voice is un reflejo de cómo tú estás emocionalmente – a reflection of how you’re feeling emotionally.”
The joy of being a trained flamenco singer is that it will only get better with age. As reedy, weedy pop voices will inevitably fall off after excessive touring and bad practice, Rosalía’s should mature beautifully, meaning she’ll be on the scene way longer than her current hot minute.
“In pop music, what’s valued is youth, but in flamenco, it’s the opposite. Age is valued. And I love that because that makes me feel like: ‘Oh, I just started learning, like 10 years ago, and now I’ve just gotta keep going until I’m 90-years-old.’” Rosalía is here to stay: “I wanna see myself at 90 and singing – yes, much better I’m sure!”