At her recent Madrid concert, the Spanish chart-topping artist María Rozalén led a three-hour music therapy session for 8,000 people, including herself.
The May 17 show was her first at the WiZink Center, an iconic city venue still popularly known by its original name, El Palacio de Deportes; and it was sold out. The 31-year-old singer-songwriter opened with “La Puerta Violeta,” a song about domestic violence that has become an anthem for abused women. Then Rozalén cried, laughing at herself as she wiped away the tears from her eyes and surveyed the massive hometown crowd. She was hardly the only one in the arena to get weepy over the course of the night.
Rozalén’s songs, together with the warmth of her everyday people charisma, can fill an entire stadium with emotion. Audience members went misty when Rozalén told the story of her great uncle, killed during the Spanish Civil War (the subject of the song “Justo”), and wiped eyes that welled at the sight of 25 kids from the audience joining her onstage to sing “Las Hadas Existen” (“Fairies are Real”).
“There is so much to sing about,” Rozalén says conspiratorially when we meet earlier at the Sony offices in Madrid to talk about her music and its social messages, assuming, correctly, that’s she’s found yet another ally in me.
The latest album by the singer-songwriter (who uses only her last name professionally) Cuando el Rio Suena (“When the River Roars?”) rose to No. 1 on Spain’s album charts after its release in the fall of 2017, and after 34 weeks it sits a No. 9. With her lyrical, socially conscious kind of pop, she’s a direct descendent of sparky Spanish bards like Joaquin Sabina, with the gutsy old soul of boisterous interpreters of the Spanish copla and other traditional singing styles and the poetic empathy of Latin American folk artists like Violeta Parra, whose song “Volver a los Diecisiete” Rozalén performed at the concert.
“Above all I write what I live and what I feel,” Rozalén, who calls herself “a singer and a storyteller,” says of her music. She often describes her songs as feminist, meaning they tell stories from a woman’s point of view. Typically, for a song of solidarity with cancer survivors, she asked women in treatment to tell her what they wanted the lyrics to say: “When I write songs about things I haven’t experienced, I try to put myself in other people’s shoes.”
Her style and sincerity have brought her a growing following in Latin America, particularly Argentina, where soul-baring singing that references social issues is a time-honored art form. Argentine artists Abel Pinto and Kevin Johansen appear on Rozalén’s album, and they joined her for duets onstage in Madrid. She has not yet toured in the United States.
Some of the most compelling parts of the show came when she took a seat, telling the stories behind her songs as if all 8,000 of us were gathered around her kitchen table.
Rozalén, who is originally from the Spanish city Albacete, studied psychology at university in Madrid, focusing on gender and music therapy. She also wrote songs and began playing in small clubs in Madrid.
A turning point came when she became friends with another young woman, Beatriz Romero, a sign language interpreter. They started performing Rozalén’s songs together, she with her voice, Romero with her hands and facial expressions. The two made a video of Rozalén’s song “80 Veces.”
“People started calling and my life changed,” says Rozalén. She signed with Sony Music Spain.
Romero is still a constant presence at Rozalén’s concerts, standing side-by-side with Rozalén, like her silent backup singer. At the concert in Madrid, on a stage decorated to look like a field of flowers, they also danced together in choreographed routines. Of course, the crowd danced too.