‘Music Is About Experimentation.’ How Rosalía’s Flamenco-Inspired Music Became a Latin Pop Phenomenon

Hanging out in a park in suburban Barcelona in 2006, 13 year-old Rosalía Vila Tobella heard flamenco—a dramatic, folkloric music popularized by Romani communities in southern Spain—for the first time, blaring from the speakers of her older friends’ car stereos. “It was so visceral. I had never heard anything like it,” Rosalía, now 25, remembers. “Nothing was the same for me after that.”

After more than a decade studying flamenco, Rosalía’s innovations in the genre on her second album, 2018’s El Mal Querer, catapulted her to the forefront of the Latin pop boom. The album’s concept—which draws from a 13th century novel about a woman who is locked up by her jealous lover — originally began as Rosalía’s university thesis.

That might sound niche, but the record’s blending of hand-clapping flamenco rhythms with pop and R&B structures have earned her rave reviews and, in April, her first solo North American tour. Industry heavyweights including Pharrell, James Blake and J. Balvin have since come calling, featuring Rosalía on tracks and inviting her to perform with them.

The complex production on El Mal Querer was a radical departure from Rosalía’s minimalist, acoustic 2017 debut album Los Angeles. “For me, music is about experimentation,” she says, citing influences like Frank Ocean and the Talking Heads’ David Byrne – both of whom came to her tour – as well as Kate Bush, Brazilian guitarist Caetano Veloso and Romani flamenco legend Camarón de la Isla. “I want every record I make to be different to the one before – even if I fail one day.”

Rosalia performs at Webster Hall in New York, April 29, 2019.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez—EPA/Sipa USARosalia performs at Webster Hall in New York, April 29, 2019.

The combining of different musical styles that has become Rosalía’s signature is a natural part of her creative process, she says. “I have so many references in my head — flamenco, classical, Latin, too many,” she says. “I come in and put it all on the table, with no prejudice, and just start working, working, working.” The results of that process are often surprising — as when the distorted bars of Justin Timberlake’s early 2000’s hit “Cry Me a River” echo through Rosalía’s somber flamenco vocals on her song “Bagdad” — and have led reviewers to label her “a complicated genius” and a “rule-defying renegade.”

For some, though, Rosalía’s use of flamenco has proved controversial. Members of the Romani community have accused her of profiting from a musical style which, though its origins are somewhat mysterious, is usually associated with a group that still suffers marginalization and poverty in Spain. Rosalía acknowledges that the debate is “complicated” but says she has “always [spoken about and given] credit to my references and the artists that have inspired me.” She spent her teenage years learning about the genre before completing a degree in it in 2017 at Barcelona’s Catalonia School of Music under José Miguel Vizcaya (or El Chiqui), a fixture of the Catalan flamenco scene. “I feel that I always put love and respect at the fore and that my way of working shows that.”

As a performer, Rosalía showcases a fierce, hard-edged femininity, both in her raw, defiant vocals and with the menacingly sharp manicures she sports in videos and performances. “I see really long nails as a form of extreme, radical femininity,” she says. “They make me feel strong.” She draws visual inspiration from the female characters that populate the films of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, which she grew up watching before the filmmaker became one of her most prominent fans. Last year he invited her to make her film debut, and she appeared briefly in Almodóvar’s 2019 drama Pain and Glory.

The music industry has long struggled to acknowledge women’s creative agency, often casting them as singers but not artists. Rosalía, who composes, writes and produces her own songs, says she wants to challenge that. Her team is almost all women, with her mother and sister serving as manager and creative director. “My generation is changing things,” she says. “More women are working behind the music. We’re fighting for the visibility we deserve.”

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