In a Las Vegas film studio the day after the Latin Grammys (Nov. 14) boxes of gold grills glimmer in the light, waiting to be plucked. The studio is quiet, bright, and filled with hundreds of sunflowers soaking in water, ready for the cameras that will roll on Rosalía Vila Tobella later in the day. Vila Tobella, best known simply as Rosalía, is one of the biggest forces not only in Latin, but of all music today. She looks pensive in her trailer, like she’s locked in a meditative headspace as she has her makeup done. “Would you like to look at the grills?” a voice asks from the next room; it belongs to Pili Vila Tobella, Rosalía’s sister. “Sorry about my voice,” she says in Spanish, “we were out celebrating last night and now it’s gone.” The night before Rosalía delivered a transcendent performance at the 20th annual Latin Grammy Awards and took home three awards for album of the year, best contemporary pop vocal album and best urban song. She and her team were out until 4am celebrating a night she’ll probably never forget, but they weren’t a minute late for our shoot.
Born in Sant Cugat del Vallès, and raised in a small town outside of Barcelona, Rosalía grew up in a place marked by a particularly stark contrast of nature and industry that has deeply impacted her work. Through the years, her surroundings slowly transformed as she blossomed into a young artist. Of that time she says, “That contrast in my environment has inspired me so much to this day, I’m very conscious and aware of it in my work.” When asked what her favorite memory is, she takes a second, laughing. “That’s such a hard question,” she says. rubbing her hands together, she’s instantly transported to all those years ago. “There is an image that I can remember. In my home there was a garden and many trees, and I remember growing up without fear. Everything was very steep amongst the trees and I remember running up and down always trying to go faster. I would go so fast that there would be a trail of my steps that I would leave behind. And that’s a memory I recall, and it makes me happy because I think as one gets older, one forgets to run, to dance and to have fun.”
Thousands of miles away, Rosalía tiptoes to the center of a field of sunflowers, each one fixed to the floor of the Las Vegas film studio with a thick nail and wire. It’s a nod to the floral motif that shows up consistently in her lyrics, her tour visuals, and videos like “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi” and “Con Altura.” “Flowers are divine, they have divine qualities that I adore. And they also connect me with femininity,” she says. “My mother always had flowers at home, they were always there. In the garden, on the table, fresh flowers. I think I relate flowers to the women in my life.” Her admiration for flowers is an homage to the women she loves. Rosalía has made the conscious decision to build a matriarchal network of powerful women that work alongside her. Her sister, manager, day-to-day manager, and assistant are some of those people that follow her every move. They are a slice of that feminine structure that keeps her grounded. When asked about these important figures in Rosalía’s career, her manager Rebeca Leon says, “The team by design is predominantly women. She really wanted them in her corner and around her. And it’s some of the most badass women.”
As the shoot begins Rosalía turns and says, “Can you turn on some Camarón?” She’s referring to Camarón de la Isla, one of the most renowned figures of Spanish flamenco music. In her song “Con Altura” she sings, “Llevó a Camarón en la guantera. Lo hago pa’ mi gente y lo hago a mi manera” which translates to, “I have Camarón in the glove compartment. I do it for my people and I do it my way.” It’s a hit that became the highest viewed video in 2019 by a female artist, with a staggering 1.2 billion views on YouTube. A haze of smoke fills the room as she moves gracefully to Camarón’s music in the center of the field. Rosalía’s flamenco moves are off the cuff, yet still meticulously executed. She raises her arms and body as high as they can go, resembling a flower rising and turning towards the sun. “Flamenco is the reflection of the street,” she says passionately. “It’s that thing that’s so beautiful, that comes directly from the people. It has so much truth, tragedy, falling in love, falling out of love, flamenco has it all. You can learn so much, that’s why it’s so incredible and so beautiful.” Latin music is a part of Rosalía, and it anchors every genre she explores.
When she was working on her second album El Mal Querer she spent weeks in a tiny room off the Canary Islands with one of the most important people in her career thus far, Pablo Díaz Reixa, better known as El Guincho. They spent weeks in that small room crafting a sound from Rosalía’s clear and specific vision. Making an album that had a strong visual aesthetic was important, and creating something that connected back to her roots and helped an audience understand a radical new wave of Spanish sound was key. At this stage in her life, there were no guarantees that success would come for Rosalía. Debt, doubt and suffering were close realities for the young musician and her family. “My mom and sister would ask me, ‘Is this all going to work out?’” she recalls with a tinge of sadness in her eyes. “There were huge risks, I was not signed as an artist and there was no assurance and no budget.” She released the album not knowing who would connect with it, but she knew that those who would, would love it.
When the album was released, it debuted at number 1 on the latin album charts, and shot up the charts across Latin America spawning one of the biggest singles of her career, “Malamente”. El Mal Querer is now a Grammy winning album, selling over two million copies. “The musical profession requires so much humility because you’re working off the error all the time. Sometimes you have to repeat something forever and it seems like you don’t advance, but all of a sudden it clicks. It requires a lot of humility. In my world my family wasn’t connected in the music business, so I had to start from scratch. I had to sing in bars without microphones, sing at weddings, sing in every which place. In restaurants while people ate. It was a great lesson of humility that I’ll never forget.” This year alone Rosalía has performed a number of high profile shows including Coachella, Something in the Water, and Glastonbury. On December 4, 2019, Billboard named her Webster Hall shows in New York City the second best concert of 2019 and Spanish newspaper ABC said that her Primavera Sound show in Barcelona “was a triumphal comeback home that has made history by reuniting over 63,000 people.”
One show in particular stood out this year. When Rosalía took the Honda Stage at ACL on a 99-degree day in Austin, Texas thousands gathered to watch her perform. She stepped onto the stage dressed in all black leather chaps, a complement to the beautiful motorcycle revs, hair whips and claps that decorate her music. For 40 minutes she generously gave the audience nonstop vocal range, movement and communication. During the middle of her set, she put it into perspective: “Austin you know I come, from far away right?” she gushed, “Like really really really far. I come from Barcelona and I’m so proud of the music I learned back home. I sing flamenco, it’s my biggest passion and there’s a song that I learned with my flamenco instructor at home.” Her next song, “Catalina,” is one of the most transformative songs in her set, as the only instrument on stage is her voice. Every person in the audience clung to every word. It’s a kind of attention that not many artists can command from their fans. Looking back on that performance, she reflects, “I think that ‘Catalina’ is a song that everybody can interpret differently. For me it speaks of somebody that is in forced exile and is away from somebody that they love.” She explains, “It’s a beautiful testament to somebody that’s saying ‘look, I’m going to die and I won’t have anything left to give, so take all of what I have. It isn’t worth anything… take it all.’” What she sings about in the song is what she in turn gives to the audience: her soul. About her on stage experience, she says, “In my opinion, music has a spiritual quality. Even a ritual quality when you’re on stage, in communion with the public for those of us that are on stage. Give and take the whole time, the energy that moves and moves and doesn’t stop. On that day at ACL I felt that the energy was very strong and luminous.”
A few shorts months later, Rosalía has earned the Rising Star Award presented by Honda at Billboard’s Women in Music, a Grammy for best rock, urban or alternative album and a best new artist nomination. She is now officially in another league, and an acapella performance on the Women in Music stage further cements that. Of the arrangement, James Blake tweeted, “So Rosalía went out tonight at the Billboard Women in Music awards and did the most beautiful, virtuosic performance, acapella, and I couldn’t actually believe what I was seeing. Backed only by claps and very occasional harmonies? One of the best things I’ve ever seen.” He wasn’t alone; the entire room, inclusive of Jay-Z, Hunter Schafer (whom she gave a special shout out), Nicki Minaj and many more were there to give her a standing ovation. As she accepted her Billboard Rising Star Award, she thanked all of the women on her team, all of the women who’ve inspired her and all the women that impact her every day. “For Billboard to acknowledge me as a Rising Star. It’s crazy. I admire these women so much that when I found out I couldn’t believe it. I became struck to know that I’ll be surrounded by all of these women artists that inspire me. It’s a huge honor for me that this is the first time an artist singing in Spanish be considered for this… it’s very big. But I think it’s also an achievement for music in Spanish.”
Rosalía’s power, in large part, comes from her unwillingness to conform to norms. She manages to experiment while staying committed to honoring the magnetic flamenco sound that she has made all her own. Camarón de la Isla once said, “Flamenco is always sorrow; love is also sorrow. At the end, everything is sorrow and joy.” When asked what love means for her, she says she’s still figuring it out. “I think you understand love, with experience. I think I have to live longer to be able to fully understand it in the way that God wants me to.” She remembers a quote from Saint Augustine, “Conocemos en la medida en que amamos” which roughly translates to, “We know as much as we love.” She connects with the idea that love is wisdom, wisdom is life, and life is experience. And in the end, she says, “I still have a lot to learn…