A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey en Español. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The first time I heard Rosalía’s music, it changed my life. The pentatonic melodies were surreal, and she used autotune in a way that I’d never heard before; it made me feel like I was inside a digital fish tank. Her pure voice and Spaniard accent soothed me. But I had no idea what I was listening to: there was no genre checkbox I could check to classify the beats on her track “Malamente,” and no way to label it as “rock,” “pop,” or “reggaetón.” When I finished listening to El Mal Querer, her second album, I discussed it with my friends. Everyone was pretty decisive about what they were listening to except me. I could identify what stood out—some R&B, some pop and flamenco—but I ultimately decided that it didn’t matter. What mattered most was that El Mal Querer is, to me at least, a record where the genre doesn’t matter. It’s just that good.
Our society is one that loves to categorize people and often pigeonhole them entirely. In the era of singles, streaming, and the public’s perception of what does or doesn’t constitute a hit, Rosalía made a concept record, one that addresses how the artist behind it feels about the modern music market. I met up with her at a fancy hotel in Mexico City to talk with her about the record and whatever else came to mind in those few minutes.
Noisey: I grew up listening to Alejandro Sanz constantly. I remember how he was the biggest musical artist to use flamenco in pop, at least for my generation. The press has essentially passed that torch to you, and insofar as international success goes you’re one of the most important modern artists to come out of Spain. Do you feel that responsibility or pressure at all?
Rosalía: My music pulls from flamenco plenty; it wouldn’t make sense without that genre. I also have a lot of love for flamenco and I’m very happy if I can be an ambassador for it. I fell in love with that music by hearing it on the street, listening to it by coincidence, and if my music can act as a gateway for more people to learn about flamenco (because I would never say what I do is flamenco, although my art certainly drinks from that cup) and serve as the door to getting into artists like Capullo de Jerez, Estrella Morente, Camarón, and La niña de los peines, I would certainly celebrate that.
Hetero women and LGBTQ individuals alike have taken to your record as a vehicle for empowerment. It’s based on a novel from the 13th century, so there’s lots of symbolism. Did you intend to be that referential?
I’ll always identify with the image of a strong woman. I believe that in what I do and in my sense of self, there’s a vindication of women. There’s power. There have been so many women who’ve inspired me in that sense and who I’ve referenced here. As a teenager, I remember Missy Elliot: seeing how she carried herself, made her music, and presented herself as an artist. That strength inspired me. If my work can do the same for others, I feel very grateful and proud of that.
Your first record Los Ángeles (2017) is more minimal and low key—just guitar and vocals, more folk-like. I interpreted it as a sort of "I’m here, this is where I come from" statement. But we’re in 2018 now, and a few weeks ago you were at the MTV Europe Music Awards and did a monstrous set with "Malamente." You danced like a true pop star; it was a staggering change. Would you say folk music can transform into pop and reach more people?
No. [Laughs.] I think there’s so many different ways to make music, to bring music to the stage. There’s even numerous ways to understand musical roots in the 21st century and what those entail. On a visual level, there are so many ways you can interpret music, which changes the context of the music as well. It creates the illusion that [what you’re doing] is new, that it’s something else. That’s why playing around with context is so important for me during the creative process. I believe there are so many ways to fathom music as artists and as people of the world. In my case, I love to experiment with my stage performance. This year I started to explore my body with dance. I used to dance when I was younger, even before I began to sing, but at age 13 I started focusing on my development as a musician. But reconnecting with that part of myself has been unsettling. I view my music as a hybrid of various styles that have influenced me like flamenco has, and I like to show that off onstage.
What you said about the value of visual art is important. And I think part of the success you’re having is because of that—you can see it in your music videos and when you’re on stage. People notice. Look at your social media for example: your followers are looking for the symbolism in everything you do, from your records to videos.
Yes. And I like to think deeply about my projects. Everything gravitates around the music, but I also like to address everything around it, all the satellites and other parts. And the visuals are another piece, you know? I grew up with YouTube, so I grew up watching music, not just listening to it (which is most natural, of course). Maybe a day will come where I reject all of that and I’ll only make music without anything else around it. But for now, I’m comfortable with this, and it forces me to learn more as an artist and about other disciplines in general. I’d love to direct my own music videos in a few years. I’m restless about everything. Following through every single detail in my vision enables growth and helps me think about my music from another angle. And that’s always enriching to me.
Of course. I imagine that, at any given moment, you might think of an image and based on that, a song is born.
Exactly. That’s ultimately the scope of it. That big picture visualization where you can compose and in turn, there’s a positive effect on the music.
I followed you on Instagram and it seems like everyday you get good news. Everyday there’s a new record set or some record breaking. It’s a bit crazy.
How does all of this not go to your head?
I always think my job is like any other job. Every job has good and bad parts, and mine is to be a musician. I know why I started making music and I always knew there was no plan B. I’m passionate about it. I love being in the recording studio and researching sounds with the possibility of discovering something new. That motivates me. The fact that the studio and stage are my favorite places in the world keeps me grounded. It never lets me forget that I’m a musician and this is my profession: to compose, perform. It’s about executing: producing, having a clear vision of your projects, imagining music in your head and knowing how to carry it out. That’s nothing easy—that takes your entire life. I know I’ll always be learning. I know there’ll be times when I’m more successful and well-connected, and others not so much. I accept that. I like taking risks with my art. I believe music teaches and forces you to act with a sense of humility. It’s impossible to let it all go to your head if you have these values as a musician. I learned that early on when I first started studying music, and I hope to never lose sight of it.
Before El Mal Querer, did you think that (as a Spaniard) flamenco in Spain was viewed as something conservative?
I think for some other generations that may be the case, but I think my generation sees flamenco as something new and devoid of any connotation it may have held in the past. I think it’s a very special kind of music; it’s at a prestigious level like classical, Brazilian music, or jazz. It’s become part of the world’s heritage: all over the world, there are festivals dedicated to this type of music. It’s even studied in Japan, which—outside of Spain—is the country with the longest flamenco tradition in the world. It’s studied heavily in Catalonia. I believe flamenco is experiencing a major moment. [...] I feel that it’s the type of music that people appreciate because it cuts straight to the heart and hits all the feelings.
I think folk music never dies. It’s something that will always be there, intrinsically, in everyone. It reminds us of who we are and where we come from.
Well, of course. The music of our roots is so powerful right now because it’s a reminder of where you come from, because it’s that foundation. Musical roots are solid, immovable pieces that take years to build, because [they create] the music of the people and it takes years to even alter that. They’re forever a favorite.
You said it exactly: “the music of the people.”
Precisely, and it’ll be here to stay. It’s built bit by bit, and anything that’s built bit by bit over time usually lasts.
Have you received any backlash about “cultural appropriation”? I don’t agree with it, but I want to know if it bothers you. Personally, it would bother me.
I’m a sensitive person. I think any artist who says that criticism doesn’t bother them is lying. You can only choose how much that criticism bothers you and always try to concentrate on the positive and on your thought process. I also think it’s important to be in a constant state of learning and absorbing. We’re who or what we choose to be, and whatever you’re immersed in or have learned along the way—that’s how you can give your vision to the world. That’s the way I see it.
El Mal Querer is a conceptual record, even though I have history and a few issues with that word. I don’t understand what people call “conceptual” nowadays.
Why do you say that?
We’re at a point where we have limited time for everything: work, relationships, we even eat in a rush. We’re a generation of instant gratification. Even listening to a song feels like an investment of time. If we know all this, why create an entire record instead of continuously releasing singles like “Malamente” or “Pienso en tu mirá"?
Growing up in a world where there’s a heavy consumption of singles and where music is streamed, where the physical format of a record becomes increasingly irrelevant, I think there’s a big, latent need for a record with a beginning and an ending. Something that has closure, that’s well-rounded. That isn’t just a collection of songs or whatever.
A “Greatest Hits.”
Yes! You know what I mean? If you want to do it, go for it, but in my perspective, thinking too concretely about a concept bothers me. There’s always something I want to explore musically or lyrically. As a result, maybe that’s why people listen to a record from top to bottom. El Mal Querer is connected song by song and each lyric helps you understand the next one. Depending on the context, each song hands you a thread to pull and release upon listening. At the end of the day, everyone will understand the story behind the record in their own way. To me, that seems wonderful.
Now more than ever, I think people have an imperative need to dance. I see that you worked with El Güincho as a producer; you have songs with J Balvin; photos with Ozuna. Do you want to do more dance music and continue to explore that?
Let’s see, the record was produced equally between me and El Güincho. I produced “Brillo” and then [J Balvin] jumped on it. I love Ozuna’s music. And I think you’re totally right, nowadays all we want to do is dance.
To let go of all evil.
Yes! Dance totally has the power to do that. Sometimes it feels like communion or a ritual. That’s always been a part of history. Music can have so many purposes and ultimately that’s one of them. In the same way that I think music has so many different functions, I also think Latin music is very connected with flamenco. In flamenco, there’s Colombian milonga guajira, for example. I think it’s so cool that there’s a strong correlation there and I’d love to explore that more. But I also like folk, experimental music, electronic—I like it all. Latin music uses the language that I grew up with so I think it’s just more natural to me. But I don’t know, I don’t think of genres as a whole. I don’t think of my projects that way. I think more like, What do I feel like making in this moment? It all depends on how I feel and what I want to explore. I feel that Latin music is so wonderful and experiencing a moment that’s worth celebrating. I like to think that flamenco somewhat plays a part in that, too.
Regarding what you said about genres, I do think those are disappearing. That idea of having to classify everything we hear is becoming obsolete. Do you think more artists need to leave genres behind as thing of the past?
I know that’s what I need, and hopefully my need to do that will excite others too. I love that, within a record, pentatonic scales can live alongside flamenco or African rhythms, harmonies inspired by R&B or contemporary music or classical music; oldies or Gregorian chants. What’s the point of thinking in genres? Today we’re exposed to so many different types of music and different forms of expression. And if you can be transparent and allow all of them to live within your creative process, things you would’ve never imagined can arise.