Last autumn, the lights were pulsing on the stage of a small theatre in midtown Manhattan. A reggaeton medley swarmed like an elevated heart rate, shifting, swelling and cascading across the room and out onto the streets of the city. The last 20 songs have led up to this moment – the top of the third act in her live shows – when Rosalía invites up a small group of audience members to dance with her on stage.
As I joined the stage rush, and the previous hour of carefully executed choreography and acrobatic vocals gave way to a frenzy of pure energy, I realised just how easy it was to be drawn into Rosalía’s orbit. At 30 years old, she’s prepossessed, exuding a kind of calm you’d find in the eye of a hurricane. And from my vantage point behind her that night, I felt, just for a few minutes, the gravity of her stardom.
To be honest, I hadn’t been a longtime fan when I joined her up on stage that night. I’d first seen her perform a few years earlier and came away impressed by her sound. She was at the Austin City Limits music festival, and even amidst an eclectic lineup that ranged from Cardi B and Mumford & Sons to Kacey Musgraves and Thom Yorke, Rosalía stood out. Her performance literally stopped people in their tracks, pausing if only for a few minutes in the bustle of the festival to take in the larger-than-life emotion of her singing.
From then on, I kept tabs on her, listening to her music intermittently, but it wasn’t until last year, when I was commissioned to profile her for a magazine, that I had the chance to get to know her. Having spent some time digging into her catalogue and poring over her interviews, I got increasingly nervous ahead of our first meeting. Given the length at which she spoke about her influences, how much she put into studying her craft, I was certain she would be intimidating, or overly serious. Instead, she immediately disarmed me. Bright-eyed and friendly, anyone who meets Rosalía will tell you that she exudes a joy for life.
Our first meetings together reframed everything I thought I knew about her. Looking out into the pop landscape, it’s difficult to pinpoint other artists who would threaten to take over the path she’s carved out for herself so naturally. She has defied categorisation, refusing to negotiate herself with anyone, and she’s been rewarded for it. Her success isn’t due to her careful calculations or the machinations of record label executives, it’s because of her simple, innate love of creating – something so plain to see in the way she lights up any time she talks about the production of a song, or a particular lyric.
She was constantly laughing, keenly aware of the insane circumstances of her surroundings – beachfront hotel stays and brief excursions exploring cities with her friends in rare downtime amid the frenetic pace of the tour – and absorbed them with gratitude. So many artists talk earnestly about making music for their fans, but for Rosalía it’s slightly different. She makes music because she craves connection, and she can only hope that her fans will follow where that urge leads her. It goes back to a childhood memory she once described to me – the experience that kicked all of this off.
From the beginning, Rosalía has been chasing that sense of community. She first felt it in a church – one in the industrial town of Sant Esteve Sesrovires on the outskirts of Barcelona, where she grew up. She heard a chorus of voices coming from inside, and can still recall the powerful effect it had on her. It was holy, a form of communion in the most simple, beautiful sense of the word – the sound of many voices becoming one. It didn’t just draw her in, it made her want to do that for others.
It’s no accident that Motomami, the expansive 2022 album that Rosalía spent three years crafting and the last year of her life touring all over the world, is represented by a butterfly motif. To her, music is metamorphosis. While some artists focus on homing in on a specific sound or style, the singer is more focused on tailoring her music to the moment, creating a sonic scrapbook that captures exactly where she is right now. Each song or album might sound different – and each of them do – but in this way, they also honour her growth. She flits around like a butterfly, in constant motion, always changing, difficult to pin down.
“If I don’t commit to a single style, I can keep learning and growing by doing all of them. I love the idea of not being in a specific place because then I can occupy all of them” – Rosalía
“If I don’t commit to a single style, I can keep learning and growing by doing all of them,” she told me when we first spoke last summer. “I love the idea of not being in a specific place because then I can occupy all of them. If I was locked in one specific place, one line of thinking, I couldn’t learn about all of the other places I go, I couldn’t learn new ways to get there.”
On Motomami, that meant a departure from the Spanish soundscapes that dominated her previous two albums, and an embrace of Latin American musical traditions. She experimented with bachata, reggaeton, dembow, bolero and rap, fusing the genres while still highlighting the types of folkloric vocal melismas and runs she first became known for.
Her approach has its roots in the music she was first trained in. At 16, she began studying flamenco at Barcelona’s Taller de Músics, throwing herself into her studies with a passion that was all-consuming. Between her schoolwork and practice, she also managed to find time to perform and attend parties with her friends in the city, where she amassed an array of musical influences that wouldn’t appear in her songs until years later.
Her teacher and mentor, José Miguel Vizcaya, described her as a student of fierce discipline, one whose dreams he immediately realised lay far beyond the walls of his classroom. Raül Refree, a Spanish producer and musician with whom she worked with on her 2017 debut album, Los Ángeles, says their collaboration came together organically. Introduced by a mutual friend, the two began playing together around the city, and eventually it was a performance at a small club in Barcelona’s Vila de Gràcia that changed everything. On paper, a live show that wasn’t advertised and was attended by a few dozen people might not sound like much, but in person, Refree tells me their energy that night was transformative – they knew they needed to create something together.
“She’s very intuitive,” he says, reflecting on his time working with the singer. “During that period, I was really surprised by the decisions she was making: how she wanted to approach certain melodies, or how she wanted to sing certain songs. She was very mature, very focused. That record was not easy for us. The melodies were very difficult to sing, and we were approaching flamenco from a different angle, but she was very open and always pushing to find space.”
Though the record was lauded by critics and later became a sleeper hit, it did receive criticism from some flamenco traditionalists who believed it strayed too far from the genre’s roots. “Making this record was a big risk for her,” says Refree. He wasn’t trained in flamenco guitar, and had only begun experimenting with the genre when he started performing with Rosalía, but at that point, she was ingrained in that universe. Throughout the recording process, she wondered how the purists of the flamenco community might receive it. “It means a lot that as an artist, from the very beginning, she was deciding to take big, big risks.”
“The freer you are, the easier it is to say what you want, to put it all out on the table. That’s part of the act of creating” – Rosalía
She doubled down on that attitude with her sophomore release, the critically acclaimed El mal querer, which ushered in her international breakthrough and saw her push her experimentation with flamenco even further. That approach was, in its own way, also a form of paying homage to the genre. Flamenco is built on the passion of live performance. And while certain elements of the songs weren’t strictly flamenco, she was following in the footsteps of great artists like the iconic Manolo Caracol, who broke barriers by aiming to create something that might have technically coloured outside the lines, but ultimately gave listeners a sense of what the music made him feel.
Motomami is a contradiction by design. It’s constant in its inconsistency, balancing strength, versatility and vulnerability. It’s an album that spans genres and breaks rules, while still occupying space on mainstream pop charts. It was an opportunity for Rosalía to let her guard down and not take herself so seriously, but also an opportunity to examine heavy topics, like her sensuality, her spirituality, her relationship to fame.
When you talk to her, what’s immediately clear is that none of this is a game to Rosalía. She’s keenly aware of, and excited by the videos her fans make dancing to her songs; she giggles at the memes they make of the now-iconic pose of her smacking her chewing gum. But when it comes to her craft, everything is a careful tightrope walk between carefully poring over the exhaustive library of sounds and visuals in her head, and the raw freedom she strives for with each creative endeavour. “The freer you are, the easier it is to say what you want, to put it all out on the table,” she says. “That’s part of the act of creating.”
She often cites David Bowie – her mother’s celebrity crush, and a constant source of inspiration from a young age – as a major influence. It’s not his accolades or legacy that she reveres, it’s his free spirit, the clear urge or even need he had to constantly transform and evolve. You can hear the two sides of her battling out in her music. There are the carefully studied references to classic musicians, poets and artists, and then there’s the wild clash of sounds and rhythms that make it all come to life. She exudes the energy of an artist for whom everything has been expertly tailored and crafted to stay on trend or even ahead of the curve, but the truth of Rosalía is that she’s constantly seeking out new inspirations herself, and more than that, she’s always listening to other people about what inspires them. It’s an approach to life and art that creates music like “Saoko” or “Hentai”.
“She’s always taking chances,” Rick Rubin, legendary producer and longtime admirer of Rosalía’s music, tells me. “We have seen Rosalía continue to follow her own instincts and her audience continues to grow through the style changes. Her formula for success has been honest and true to herself. She is an artist, not a product. Thankfully so.”
“The first word that comes to mind to describe her is singular,” says Noah Goldstein, a producer who worked closely with Rosalía on Motomami. “I truly don’t think there’s anyone else out there doing what she’s done. I think she’s challenged everyone else in the entire music industry with the music she makes. She pushes herself so hard, and you can hear that in the music. She set a new bar for pop music and what it can be. She transcends barriers; she transcends language with her music. To become this household, huge pop superstar name by making uncompromised music, even to the point that she hasn’t changed the language she speaks to appease anybody? I think that’s fucking incredible.”
“We have seen Rosalía continue to follow her own instincts and her audience continues to grow through the style changes. Her formula for success has been honest and true to herself. She is an artist, not a product” – Rick Rubin
The Motomami live show was the natural extension of Rosalía’s quest for freedom. She began working on her concept for the tour while she was creating the album. If the music was about her transformation, her struggle with fame and letting her guard down, the show would have to communicate that, too. The end result was a two-hour marathon during which she hardly ever leaves the stage. Over the course of the show, the boundaries between artist and fan became blurrier – she entered flanked by dancers, surrounded by cameras, slowly inching closer and closer, removing her make-up, interacting with the crowd, inviting them on stage – until, by the end of the night, those boundaries had come crashing down.
“We wanted the show to let people into her world,” says Mecnun Giasar, who choreographed the performances alongside Rosalía. At this point in her career, with a Grammy win and a dozen other awards under her belt, she could have pulled back. All eyes were on her, and like countless other newly minted stars, she could have put some distance between herself and her audience to cultivate an air of celebrity. Instead, she wanted to pull people closer, to invite them in. “I want to be understood,” she says. “I want people to really understand that I’m being transparent. When I try to get closer, it’s part of that desire.”
She got together with Giasar and listened through the entire album. Giasar remembers being struck by its lack of boundaries – a product of the album’s initial creation in the first months of the pandemic, when, like everyone else, Rosalía was yearning to get out into the world again. She and Giasar didn’t immediately think about what it might look like, but what each song felt like. “It was about the energy,” he says. “That particular Motomami energy that doesn’t belong only to women or to men, but it’s just within the newer generations. It’s a lifestyle. We wanted to create a cultural movement together. That’s the crux of this show: to not only have fans witness Rosalía’s own metamorphosis, but to leave inspired to do the same – to chase the freedom she feels when she performs.”
When Rosalía discusses the show, it’s with an excitement that doesn’t reveal just how many times she’s done it. She’s still as thrilled about this performance she created, and the connection it provided. “I just want to do a show that’s real every night,” she says. “To sing is ultimately an act of opening yourself up in front of others. The moment you step on the stage, you open that dialogue [with the audience].”
In July, she finished the Motomami world tour with an emotional performance in Paris, tearing up as she sang “Hentai” to the crowd at Lollapalooza. But if you think she’s slowing down, think again. Already, she’s amassed a lengthy set of notes on her phone detailing ideas about where she might head next. Her mind is an explosion of sound and colour, constantly running through an exhaustive list of inspirations.
When you spend time with her, it’s almost overwhelming how fast Rosalía’s mind races. She is always on to the next idea, chasing down a feeling or an itch that comes from her gut. It’s what makes her music so exciting and unpredictable – it’s guided by her intuition alone, not her performance on the charts or accolades. She has a preternatural sense of calmness, something that only exists because she surrendered long ago to the idea that she exists to do exactly what she’s doing: creating, evolving and sharing her music. “There are some things you can’t force,” she says. “I really believe that, when you’re making a record, you just need to pick up what’s happening around you or what comes to you in the moment.”
“I just want to do a show that’s real every night,” she says. “To sing is ultimately an act of opening yourself up in front of others. The moment you step on the stage, you open that dialogue [with the audience]” – Rosalía
It’s why so many of her collaborators are eager to work with the singer again. Her latest single, “Tuya”, released in June, marked her third video with the elusive and highly sought-after director, Stillz. A reggaeton love song underscored by Japanese instruments, the accompanying music video sees the pop star exploring the streets of Tokyo alone. “Exploring is part of who I am as a musician and in the case of ‘Tuya’, inspirations such as reggaeton, the sounds of Japan, flamenco and gabber techno coexist at the same level,” she said in a press statement. She came to Stillz with a simple idea to shoot something that felt natural. She wanted to showcase the beauty and grit of the city. “I see her as my muse,” says Stillz. “Creating timeless work is what’s most important to us. Rosalía is a rule-breaker in my eyes. She does what she wants.”
Throughout her career, what’s remained constant is Rosalía’s unwavering belief in following her gut. There’s no talk of TikTok trends or marketing strategies, there’s just what feels right. One of her biggest strengths as an artist is how unmanufactured she feels. She’s a precious resource in the age of artists at war with their labels over unreleased songs, tanking their releases to get out of a contract, or forced into cheap gimmicks to get their songs to go viral. Rosalía is precious with her fame, even, at times, completely averse to it. Maybe because it’s not her long-term goal.
Even before she was on top of the world, Rosalía always bet on herself. I’m reminded of something she told me, the day after one of her shows, about the power of surrender. “It’s in God’s hands now,” she said. “I’m doing this because I need to. Whether one person or a million people hear it.”
This story is taken from the autumn issue of Dazed, which is on sale internationally from 14 September 2023. Pre-order a copy here.
Hair JESUS GUERRERO at THE WALL GROUP using OGX, make-up ANA TAKAHASHI at ART PARTNER, nails SYLVIE MACMILLAN at MA+ using LA CRÈME MAIN BY CHANEL, set design IBBY NJOYA at NEW SCHOOL, movement direction YAGAMOTO at NEW SCHOOL, photographic assistants FELIX TW, VALDRIN REXHEPI, PIETRO LAZZARIS, styling assistants ANDRA-AMELIA BUHAI, SAM THAPA, MONICA JIANG, LEA ZÖLLER, ARIELLE NEUHAUS GOLD, make-up assistant CHLOÉ PALMER, nails assistant ABENA ROBINSON, set design assistant AXEL DRURY, tailoring GILLIAN FORD, digital operator PAUL ALLISTER, retouching PAWEL OKOL, production YASSER ABUBEKER at YMI STUDIO, production assistants SARAH IBRAHIM, ELLA BENNETT, HANNAH GILBERT, post-production DTOUCH, executive talent consultant GREG KRELENSTEIN at GK-ID PROJECTS, special thanks MARK WADHWA, ADAM WESTON and the teams at OAKLEY COURT and 180 STUDIOS