Latin's New Superstar Rosalía on Working With Pharrell and Taking Flamenco Global

"There is no one who makes decisions for me -- never,” says Rosalía. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter is based in Barcelona, but right now she’s speaking from Miami. Just a few days earlier, she performed at Art Basel, and already she’s back in the studio, writing and recording with Pharrell Williams. “If something brought me here,” she continues, “it was hard work -- and always having control of the creative process.”

In the past year, Rosalía has emerged as one of the most compelling new voices in Latin music, proving on her hypnotic late-2018 album, El Mal Querer, that a strikingly original flamenco singer could captivate the world far beyond Spain. Showcasing her blend of vocal virtuosity and traditional flamenco flourishes with R&B and trap beats, the LP reached No. 10 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart last November, earning Rosalía five Latin Grammy nominations (second only to J Balvin) and two wins for lead single “Malamente.”

She also has become a surprise star at a moment when most of Latin’s breakthrough artists gravitate toward the urban sounds of reggaetón. But to Rosalía, singing flamenco doesn't make her an outsider. “Guajira, colombiana, milonga, rumba -- all these styles are flamenco,” she says. “They’re part of the musical tradition in my country, and they are in Latin America too.”

Mary Beth Koeth
Rosalía photographed on Dec. 6, 2018 at East, Miami in Miami. 

“Latin music doesn't need [only] reggaetón to be wonderful,” says Afo Verde, chairman/CEO of Sony Latin/Iberia, where Rosalía is signed to Sony Spain (in late fall, Columbia signed her in the United States). “I’m excited by the magic an artista like Rosalía brings. This is an artist that unifies.”

Rosalía’s gift for bringing sounds together is reflected in how she speaks: a self-possessed mix of Spanish and English, sometimes swapping languages multiple times during a single thought. But her expansive vision also has reignited controversy in Spain about flamenco and its roots: Rosalía is from northern Spain’s Catalonia region, singing music claimed by the Romany people of southern Andalusia, which in turn bears the intertwined influences of Jewish and African cultures.

“I have so much respect for the tradition,” she says. “But there’s nothing so sacred that you can’t play with it with liberty. I look to my roots, but at the same time I’m trying to find something new, something distinctive.”

Though Rosalía’s recent rise may seem sudden, it’s the result of a decade-plus of discipline, taking her from singing in “Barcelona’s worst bars” to a coveted spot at the Catalonia College of Music, where she studied traditional flamenco, a notoriously complex genre. “It was a long process,” she says. “But I knew I had a connection with that music, and that music was my life.”

This year, Rosalía wants to expand her pool of collaborators “to see how they do it, what’s their creative process.” She says of working with Williams, “I’m doing this for fun. I love the way he makes beats. I love the way he writes.” And she has been inspired by artists outside of music, too: Rosalía has a small part in Pedro Almodóvar’s next film, Dolor y Gloria, and she speaks of watching his muse, Penélope Cruz, with awe. “It was so interesting to see her improvise. I love performance, not just as a musician, but in dance and theater -- experimenting with corporal expression.”

After spending most of January in the studio, Rosalía plans to drop multiple singles in 2019 and develop her live show prior to her debut appearance at Coachella. She hopes to spend more time in Los Angeles, a city with a creative energy that she says reminds her of Barcelona. “My family always asks me, ‘Rosalía, when are you going to stop?’” she says with a laugh. “And I say, ‘I’m never going to stop. I’m going to just keep recording and enjoying this moment.’”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of Billboard.