rosalia flamenco pop music culture volume 4 issue 001

The sum­mer of Rosalía

Volume 4 Issue 001: From Coachella to Glastonbury, how the Spanish singer went global.

Arti­cle tak­en from from The Face Vol­ume 4 Issue 001. Order your copy here.

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!”

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