Last Friday (Oct. 26), Apple’s Tim Cook uploaded a photo of himself with Rosalía on social media, and over the weekend, Rosalía herself said she “died” when she saw that Lana del Rey was following her on Twitter.
Rosalía has so quickly earned her pop-star status that it might surprise some that El Mal Querer sounds so flamenco. The album, which, Barbat stresses, Rosalía produced independently without label interference, is free of the kind of celebrity artist pairings and facile made-to-be hits that routinely appear on the records of up-and-coming major label artists.
The artist says that El Mal Querer was her graduate thesis for her university studies at Barcelona’s Catalunya College of Music, where she studied flamenco as well as music production. While she calls the album “100 percent inspired by flamenco,” some flamenco purists have blasted her, with one critic commenting “she lacks almost everything” that a singer must have to practice the Spanish art form. Her videos, too have courted controversy.
“She uses our symbols like false eyelashes,” a gypsy activist told a Spanish journalist, adding that she is “using gypsies as something cool to incorporate into her costume, but we aren’t important to her socially.”
Rosalía herself states that she is “making songs that depart from elements of flamenco.” She cringes when the word “trap” is used to describe her music, as it often has been, but is not in a hurry to define her sound. “There are clearly flamenco elements, but at the same time I don’t know what it is,” she tells Billboard. “And I don’t expect a clear answer to that.”
On a hot August day, Rosalía appeared in the bar of a Barcelona hotel in jeans, a striped t-shirt and platform sneakers, her dark brown hair in a braid. The only sign of the streetwise glamour of her videos and recent stage shows were her silver, jewel-encrusted nails. Rosalía talked to Billboard about her new album, growing up and discovering flamenco in a town outside of Barcelona, and how she became this fall’s artist to watch.
You grew up in the same place where you now live with your mother and sister, in Sant Esteve Sesrovires. Do you have flamenco musicians in your family, or were they flamenco fans?
My family didn’t listen to flamenco. In my house, it was The Beatles, Queen, Bob Dylan, a lot of English-language music. I really didn´t have any flamenco input. The closest was with my grandmother. Some weekends when I was with her, she’d be humming Sara Montiel songs, some copla. That was the closest, but it wasn’t flamenco. I was 13 when I heard flamenco for the first time. I remember coming out of my school. We used to go to a park. I used to hang around with people who were older than I was; they had these tricked-out speakers and they would open all the doors of their cars. At that time, you would hear a lot, a lot of flamenco.
There are a lot of people from Andalusia in my neighborhood. I grew up with children of Andalusian immigrants. The area I grew up in, El Baix Llobregat, well it’s kind of like Los Angeles and Mexicans. The culture is there, you can breathe it in all around you. For me flamenco is the most honest and visceral music that exists. That’s why it captured me. Because I realized that you have to since when you sing it, if not it doesn’t sound. You have to implicate yourself in it, if not it doesn’t work. In flamenco, old age is something that’s respected, and I think that’s a really good thing. The best singers are older people. It makes me feel like I have to be constantly learning and that I am going to age learning and making music. And I love that.
One day, I heard Camarón [de la Isla], and for me, that was the moment of before and after. It was a discovery that made a big impact on me.
It surprised me, it was like something totally new and unexpected. It was very visceral and animalistic. It surprised me, but at the same time it felt very familiar. It was like "wow!" There was something that connected with me, I don’t know what it is. And from that moment on, I allowed myself to get close to that music.
I started studying music at 13. I had been telling my parents since I was 10 that I wanted to, but I didn't start until I was 13. I started with modern music, I studied guitar, piano, I got a taste of everything. And I met my maestro when I was about 16. his name is El Chiqui de la Línea [José Miguel Vizcaya]. He’s from Cadiz. I’ve been performing since I was 14. I started with shows in my town. Then I started in Barcelona, I sang in a thousand bars, in restaurants. I went to bars and asked them "please will you let me sing." I think it’s something that helped me to persevere and also be humble.
You’ve had formal studies in flamenco, which traditionally is not the norm.
I studied at the Taller de Músics here in Barcelona. And got my degree at the ESMUC [Catalunya College of Music]. The idea of studying flamenco is pretty recent, the only places where you can do that are in Barcelona and Cordoba. And in Barcelona, they only accept one person a year, only one person can study for that degree...
And that was you.
That was me. It is difficult to get in, but it made me force myself to work harder.
Your last album, Los Angeles, subscribed to a more traditional sound. How did you get from there to El Mal Querer?
Los Angeles was an album with which I wanted revindicate and rescue popular lyrics and melodies, be faithful to the material,but experimenting with the form on guitar. [For this new album] I felt that I wanted to experiment with electronic music, to develop an idea that I´d had since I was 17. The idea of flamenco and sampling. Because electronic music forms part of my background. I wanted to develop a project that had the voice at the forefront, a lot of harmonies, very rhythmic, nothing like Los Angeles.
I listen to everything. I listen to Camarón and Vybz Kartel. So, I wanted to do something connected to the moment I am living now with my references from now.
Your sound has frequently been described as a sort of flamenco trap...
Really? No, not trap, not at all. More than trap it has copla. The use of drums, of percussion, of such percussive elements, the use of sampling could remind people of trap. It can make you think of urban music or electronic music. But I think above all it is very flamenco and very connected to the copla.
You’ve been applauded for bringing flamenco to millennial audiences. You’ve also been thrashed by flamenco purists for not doing “real” flamenco... do you call your music flamenco?
I feel that I try to be consistent with how I understand flamenco here and now, at this moment. And I try to in some way to explain how I understand it, consistent with the moment that I’m living in. I also understand that not everyone is going to connect with my music. Not everyone has to feel it. Clearly, there is an audience that doesn’t enjoy what I am doing because it isn't traditional. But I do it with respect and love for the tradition. It’s music that I’ve studied and that I made my own decision to immerse myself in. My music would make no sense without flamenco.
The decision to work with El Guincho obviously determined the sound of the album. How did you hook up with El Guincho to co-produce the album with you?
I sought him out because he is a very good musician, and he has a special sound. It’s very rhythmic, it’s very Latin. He is a Latin musician. I needed someone by my side who could understand rhythmic patterns as complex as those of flamenco, and it was clear that he does. I needed someone to develop all that complex music and help me make this record. I worked with El Guincho on all tracks. He is a good friend someone who I admire and we’ve worked hand in hand, 50% one and 50% the other. We’ve been in front of the computer for a year, and in the studio developing, composing, producing together. For me it was also clear that I wanted to make a conceptual album. That is would have chapters. The album, the videos, the show, they are all part of my thesis project.
The videos for your two singles, “Malamente” and “Pienso en tu Mirá” have brought a lot of attention to your music. They have also courted some controversy, with some people saying they reinforce gypsy stereotypes. What do the visuals represent for you?
Nico Mendez, the director of both videos, visually translating this musical idea, which is about tradition but also about experimentation, with the current sound of electronic music. So on one hand it has this classic side, and on the other this current and transgressive vision.
I told him I wanted to do a video that had to do with Spanish iconography, with all of the images that make up our culture. I remember seeing trucks since I was very little, because my town is in an industrial zone. The style of the truck drivers has always peaked my curiosity, it’s something that is part of my past. Also, it’s influenced by my memories of going to church with my grandmother...it’s all part of my experience.
That folklore is part of who I am, and that’s the key: I don’t want to lose my roots. I think that’s what gives you your identity.Rather than trying to adhere to some kind of global pop standard, it’s much more interesting to look to my roots and to the popular music of where I’m from. Not now or ever will I put flamenco aside.