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Rosalía
RosalíaCourtesy of Sony Music Spain

Rosalía is the Catalan star reshaping the sound of global pop

We speak to the rising flamenco artist as she releases her new album El Mal Querer

It’s a Wednesday night at London’s Village Underground, and Rosalía is waving a long, freshly diamanted finger at the crowd. Flanked by a flock of backing dancers, the 25-year-old flamenco singer, clapping her hands like castanets, has all the passion and posture of a traditional Andalusian artist, wearing an all-red and tasselled outfit that follows the movements of her arms.  

The Barcelona-based musician is already a household name in her native Catalonia, a flamenco revolutionary who is revamping the age-old tradition for the younger generation. Her latest album, El Mal Querer, released today on Universal, shows Rosalía as a full-blown showman: the high-budget music video for single “Malamente”, which has amassed over 23 million views on YouTube (nearly half the population of Spain), has the polished glamour and slick choreography of a Beyoncé video. Yet Rosalía does not fit into the typical mould of pop stardom, and releasing a flamenco-inspired record on a major international label is no easy feat. But if the length of the queue outside her first UK show is anything to go by, she’s doing something right.

Just recently, Pharrell invited her to record with him in Los Angeles, while Oscar-winning director Pedro Almodóvar has cast her in his next film Dolor y Gloria, alongside Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas. She’s recently started making music with Venezuelan singer-producer Arca. Rosalía only began releasing music last year, but the world is listening.

How a flamenco singer managed to amass such a loyal following in such a (seemingly) short period of time is another story. Rosalía puts it down to years of studying the genre – she was only 13 when she started listening to legendary flamenco revivalist Camarón and, to put it in her own words, she has “never stopped learning”. El Mal Querer was in fact the title of her university thesis, which she wrote on the history of flamenco. “I wanted to find a possible bridge between electronic sounds and heritage music,” she says.

Her music fits into what appears to be a global shift towards Latin pop, spearheaded by the likes of J Balvin and C Tangana. Much of her sound draws on the style of her flamenco forbearers: the deep, mournful cry of cante jondo – a term that literally translates as ‘deep song’ – made famous by the likes of Camarón, Lole, and Manuel, is a prime facet of Rosalia’s voice, which seems to project from the very pits of her belly.

Strictly speaking, El Mal Querer is not flamenco – any suggestion of which would deplore any Andalusian purist – but her fusion of genres gives the old tradition a dose of modernism. Classic flamenco rhythms converge with elements of hip hop and R&B that’s rooted in Rosalía’s regional identity but accessible to the masses. Combine that with stellar musical samples, ranging from motorbike engines to Justin Timberlake, otherworldly album artwork by Spanish-Croatian artist Filip Custic, and a mammoth 653k Instagram following, it’s no wonder why she’s so popular with young people, both within Spain and globally. Any language barrier between her and the audience is irrelevant.

How did you first get into making music?

Rosalía: Since I was a young girl, I have always felt a strong connection to music, in a natural way, without hesitation. I remember myself as a little girl dancing and singing around the house most of the time. When I was around ten, I decided I would devote myself and my life to music.

Barcelona is an open and multicultural city. It’s brimming with a very special creative energy. If you pay attention, you may be easily inspired by the places and people living there. I met my flamenco singing teacher in this city. He suggested I started a degree in music, and I had the opportunity to study and share eight years of my life with him in this city. El Raval, Poble Nou, or Gràcia have been essential spots where I have developed my music career.

Can you tell us how flamenco is perceived in Barcelona?

Rosalía: Flamenco is a strongly traditional, deep-rooted music genre. Some people say that flamenco is the ‘Andalusian belcanto’. It’s both complex and emotional, and it has been declared World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. It is taught in schools nowadays, where it enjoys the same status as jazz or classical music, it goes beyond any trends. I can see that young people have now rediscovered flamenco, but in a fresh and unprejudiced way. Camarón or Lole and Manuel continue playing on young people’s mobile phones on the streets.

How has it influenced your sound?

Rosalía: My music wouldn’t make sense without flamenco. That’s my base – flamenco is the classical foundation I chose to build my music on. I fell in love with this music genre when I was 13 and since then, I’ve never stopped exploring it. Flamenco inspiration is, above all, the frame I compose my music within.

Speaking to friends, it feels like Spain is bursting at the seams with creative talent. What else is happening creatively in Spain?

Rosalía: We are experiencing a time of creative expansion, as shown by artists like Ignasi Monreal, Carlota Guerrero, Coco Capitán, Filip Cústic, Silvia Perez Cruz, Yung Beef, Laura Simó or Palomo Spain, among others. French Montana posts a video where a rumba catalana is playing in the background, Ozuna mentions flamenco genre on one of his most recent songs, Azealia Banks asks about flamenco flounced and dotted dresses on her Instagram account.

Why are young artists responding in this way?

Rosalía: I think my generation is especially connected to its roots and, simultaneously, to everything going on outside of Spain. Internet is the key in all this.

“My generation is especially connected to its roots and, simultaneously, to everything going on outside of Spain” – Rosalía

Obviously artists like Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee have shone an international light on Spanish pop music in recent years. How do you see the state of Spanish pop on a global scale?

Rosalía: I think that pop music in Spain has changed during the last few years, compared to what it used to be. In Spain, the concept is being redefined nowadays by a new generation of artists with a new and different music. The musical status quo in Spain has been shaken. There are new artists and fresh music which has found a place in the global scene because of its high quality, authenticity and because it is in Spanish! Today, music in Spanish has a universal power and people all over the world love it, more than ever! I feel I’m so lucky to live this present and unique moment in Spanish music!

But I feel like your music is very different to those examples. Like in El Mal Querer, for example, the lyrics feel darker. What concepts are you exploring?

Rosalía: El Mal Querer focuses on passion, a dark love story is unveiled throughout the album, where each song is a chapter. El Mal Querer project is, in fact, my senior thesis, which took me two years to write. The album features songs I wrote taking flamenco as an inspirational starting point. Production-wise, I researched about a possible bridge between electronic sound and roots music like this one and then I designed a show to accompany the project’s songs.

The videos you have released so far for El Mal Querer have a narrative structure. Can you expand on those ideas?

Rosalía: Singles “Malamente” and “Pienso en tu mirá” are chapters one and three of the story developed on El Mal Querer. Both videos are visual poems which – through the decontextualisation of the traditional elements in my culture – narrate two parts of the story on the album. “Malamente” is an omen, a sign indicating (from the very beginning) that something’s going to go wrong. “Pienso en tu mirá” is about a poisonous feeling of jealousy.

For me, your music is about independence, especially from men. Is that how you see it?

Rosalía: The way I make music reflects the way I think. I’ll never get tired of fighting until I see equal numbers of men and women in a recording session, you know? In the studio, on the stage to companies. I’ll fight until all those women are given the same value as naturally as it is given to men.