Rosalía on Ambition, Writing her New Album, and Embracing Extremes

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Haz clic aquí para leer en español el perfil de Rosalía del número de enero de 2021 en Vogue.

Cover Look
Rosalía in a Burberry dress.
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, January 2021

VISUAL EXCESS IS NOTHING new to the Spanish pop star Rosalía, whose videos and performances are so saturated with flaring colors and baroque imagery that they could have floated off the pages of art-history books. Yet in mid-October, as I follow her into a massive, three-floor costume emporium called Abracadabra in New York City’s Flatiron District, she’s momentarily overwhelmed, like a character in a kitschy, haunted Wonderland. Nearby, a gaggle of animatronic clowns smile maniacally while holding chain saws; lush feather boas cascade down shelves like ivy; and the aisles twinkle with constellations of accessories covered in rhinestones and glitter. Rosalía wanders deeper into the shop, collecting its camp and horror like a human satellite.

She’s wearing white Prada sneakers and Burberry trousers and, beneath a pink-lined Burberry trench coat, a present for her 28th birthday from her older sister, Pili: an oversized T-shirt printed with a bubble-gum-colored Lexus. A white KN95 mask lets her glide discreetly past customers too distracted by papier-mâché ghosts and cackling goblins to notice she’s the Grammy winner who, in the last few weeks alone, launched a lipstick collaboration with MAC, performed at Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty show, and appeared in Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s internet-shattering “WAP” video. The one giveaway is her voice. A motion-activated monster roars in her direction, and she warbles, “Oooh!” sounding exactly as though she’s ad-libbing on a record.

Going to Abracadabra was her idea, a recommendation from a stylist friend. We’d met in the lobby of the Mercer Hotel, where Rosalía has been staying this fall weekend. She’d greeted me coming out of the elevator with her assistant, Nicole, and we laughed while fumbling through a COVID-appropriate greeting (we ended up shaking hands). On the drive to Abracadabra, Rosalía chattily told me how she woke up with a craving for Italian food, about her 6 a.m. jog along Prince Street, and how she’d considered a Sailor Moon or Pretty Woman Halloween costume—but had her heart set on Leeloo, Milla Jovovich’s flame-haired character from Luc Besson’s 1997 cult classic, The Fifth Element. Such a transformation shouldn’t be hard for a global shape-shifter known for slinking across the barriers of genre and form. I ask her, as we walk past rows of medieval gowns and sparkly flapper dresses, how she decides on her looks, which seem to morph with each video she releases—from the fur-clad glamazon in “Aute Cuture” to the entranced dancer with a Frida Kahlo unibrow in “A Palé.” Rosalía speaks softly in Spanish, punctuating most of her sentences with an affable laugh, but here her voice takes on a sudden seriousness: “I think about what I’m communicating, what’s underneath,” she says. “What’s the treatment? What ideas are there? Am I going to be dancing or performing?” She deeply trusts her impulses. “It’s kind of instinctive,” she says. “It’s about how things make you feel when you see them. What colors grab your attention, how a texture makes you feel when you touch it. I love things that are really structured or really loose—I’m not really about finding a middle ground. I like extremes.”

This should come as no surprise to anyone who heard Rosalía’s breakthrough 2018 album, El Mal Querer. The project, which started as her college thesis at Barcelona’s Catalonia College of Music, exploded onto the music scene with a startling artistic proposition of old-world flamenco techniques combined with smoky Timbaland-era pop sounds and the bold aesthetics of the sneakerhead generation. The album hit number one on Billboard’s Latin Pop Albums chart and won her five Latin Grammys. Critics praised it as one of the best albums of that year, and other artists quickly gravitated toward her. Caetano Veloso and David Byrne have been spotted at her shows, and James Blake, Travis Scott, and J Balvin became collaborators. Pharrell, who’s been working with Rosalía as she prepares her follow-up, was among her earliest supporters. “I just remember thinking to myself, Aw, man, she’s the future,” he tells me about seeing one of her first videos. “That track was literally just a guitar, but the visual that she put to it was so arresting, and she was so sure of it. I hadn’t seen that kind of confidence in years.” 

Rosalía’s eagerness to experiment is a defining characteristic of El Mal Querer, which she coproduced with the Spanish producer El Guincho. As rooted as the songs are in flamenco, they also play with shadowy R & B hooks, swatches of Auto-Tune, even a Justin Timberlake melody. Her newer singles have pushed even deeper into other genres. Collaborating with J Balvin for 2019’s Latin Grammy–winning track “Con Altura” and Travis Scott for the recent “TKN” allowed her to dabble in reggaeton and hip-hop, moves that elicited both fascination and criticism, specifically about identity, privilege, and the lines between appreciation and appropriation. These reflect broader tensions in an increasingly globalized pop market, and as she prepares a new album, they loom especially large. How far can an artist travel in her art?

At Abracadabra, a salesperson has found Rosalía her Leeloo costume, a $62 version of the white-bandage bodysuit that Jean Paul Gaultier designed for Jovovich in the film. She beelines toward the wigs. A man named Tony, who has been working in the wig department since he passed a HELP WANTED sign at the window in 1988, stands at a glass counter, guarding a small army of mannequin heads wearing a full palette of colors. Within seconds, Rosalía has drawn Tony into a discussion over Leeloo’s bright-orange bob. They speak with the determination of two business negotiators: Rosalía points to Pippi Longstocking pigtails and asks him in English, “Do you think that we could adapt that or not really?” “That won’t work,” he responds solemnly. “It’ll be crimped because of the hairspray.” So he brings her another option, a neon-orange ’60s wig with flipped ends. “This has a flip, but you could go around it….” Rosalía nods as she makes a scissor motion with her fingers. She thinks out loud in Spanish, growing more excited: “I can put sea-salt spray in it because the girl in the movie was, like, a little more messy, right?” Her mind is made up, and she says declaratively, “I want this one.”

PEOPLE CLOSE TO ROSALÍA often marvel over her focus. Pili, three years older, says she noticed her sister’s intense dedication to flamenco early. “It was such a commitment, such an undertaking,” Pili says. “It wasn’t something simple like, ‘Oh, my friends do this, so I like it, too.’”

The two girls grew up in Sant Esteve Sesrovires, a small city outside Barcelona. Their parents encouraged Rosalía’s love of singing and dancing by buying her a guitar. And while the sisters were each other’s main conspirators, they were close to other kids in the neighborhood too—many of whom had migrated from Andalusia, the region where Roma communities popularized flamenco, a style that mixes Romani, African, Persian, Jewish, and Spanish influences. Rosalía fell in love with flamenco in those years, hearing it everywhere, especially blasting out of her friends’ cars.

Sure Fuego
Jacket, pants, and sandals by The Row. Ole Ole Flamenco flower, worn in hair.
Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, January 2021

She took up vocal training with a respected flamenco maestro named José Miguel Vizcaya, or El Chiqui. When Vizcaya gave up private lessons to focus on teaching at the Catalonia College of Music, a university that accepts only one student to its flamenco vocal department per year, Rosalía dedicated herself to the admissions test and passed it. “I didn’t feel like I 100 percent belonged there,” she admits. “I always wanted to experiment making videos, making shows, with dancing. None of that was present there. Everything was super technical.”

But Rosalía would perform at bars and restaurants around Barcelona, often asking Pili for fashion advice along the way. Now Pili is her creative consultant. The scale of what they’re doing has changed, but Pili says Rosalía’s conviction hasn’t. “When she does something, she really has to believe in it.”

Rosalía laments that the pandemic has kept Pili in Barcelona. “My sister is my best friend, and now it’ll be a year since I’ve seen her.” Her mother was able to visit a few weeks ago, but otherwise, Rosalía has had to watch the grim news of Spain’s coronavirus surges while quarantining in the house she rented in Miami. She’s spent some downtime bingeing Euphoria, watching Taxi Driver for the first time, and going back to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, one of her favorite films. But most days, she spends up to 12 hours in a room that she’s converted into a studio, working on her new album. The focus has been beneficial: “I needed to be at home,” she says. “I needed all these hours, just doing this.” The record, expected out in 2021, is a constant work in progress; the night before, she was up writing lyrics in her hotel room.

Rosalía’s inner circle is mostly made up of her team and collaborators. She trades music with friends such as Arca, the Venezuelan experimental artist, and El Guincho. When I ask her later if she’s dating anyone, she bursts into uproarious laughter. “But imagine! How? I compose, I produce, I write lyrics, I write the top lines, I play instruments. I swear to you, to do this, you have to apply all of your senses to it.”

We’re now in SoHo, and Rosalía winds through packed streets, intent on our conversation. One woman spots her from about 10 feet away. “I thought it was you, and then I heard the voice!” They snap a selfie together. Otherwise, she goes unnoticed behind her mask— even when we stop briefly by a street vendor who has arranged a few vinyl records against a brick wall. “Wow, I love this,” Rosalía says as she scans a couple of recordings by Ella Fitzgerald and Jimi Hendrix. “Next time, instead of a costume store, let’s go to a record store.” And then, less than 10 minutes later, we’re in front of a cavernous record shop on Bleecker Street. “Let’s go,” she says with delight, and darts inside.

The store is floor to ceiling with vinyl. Rosalía comes across a red box set on display; bright gold letters across the top read, Vergara: Archivo del Cante Flamenco. She squeals, “Shut the fuck up! This set is gorgeous.” A middle-aged store clerk recognizes her and ushers us into a back room, where he has boxes of new records he hasn’t put outside yet. The space is barely big enough for the two of us, but we sit and Rosalía grows quiet, reading a few titles out loud: Brian Eno’s Music for Films; Van Morrison’s Moondance. Before long she has some two dozen records at the register: the soundtrack to Walt Disney’s Fantasia from Leopold Stokowski with the Philadelphia Orchestra; the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill; a compilation by the blues artist Taj Mahal; a recording of musicians playing Japan’s 13-string koto instrument. Her total: $1,034. “Just one costume, but 100 records,” she says with a laugh.

Rosalía sees influences everywhere. She draws inspiration from fashion, praising Rick Owens’s apocalypse-ready show for spring 2021 and Demna Gvasalia’s parade of black robes for Balenciaga’s fall 2020 collection. She’s into the streetwear brand Skoot these days and always has a soft spot for designers, like Palomo Spain, who mix folkloric elements into their work. Her approach to music is just as wide-ranging—a result, she notes, of growing up in the internet era. She also traces her eclecticism to college. “You’d walk down the hall, and in one classroom there was someone playing flamenco guitar; in the next one someone was studying harp; in the next, someone else was learning a piece by Isaac Albéniz or Chopin on piano. All of it became influences.”

“I don’t think that she really puts up partitions and tries to draw lines when it’s time for her work,” Pharrell tells me. “That’s not where she’s at with it…. She’s not afraid to Frankenstein a song. For her it’s like, ‘Whatever feels good.’ And that’s how music should be. That’s how some of the greatest songs are written.”

Still, some have noted how Rosalía has been given opportunities that aren’t afforded to artists in the cultures she’s drawn from—something flamenco artists with Romani roots, who are often marginalized in Spain, pointed out earlier in her career. A parallel argument rose when Rosalía began embedding herself in reggaeton, a genre of music created by Black Caribbean artists frequently left out of an industry that too often prioritizes the careers of light-skinned stars. It didn’t help that Spanish-language music is clumsily grouped together, leading many to mislabel Rosalia as a “Latina” artist and leaving questions about the space she occupies in Latin American culture, especially after her award wins at the Latin Grammys. 

Curled up in a loveseat back at the Mercer Hotel, Rosalía dissects some of the criticism she’s faced. Has the debate around appropriation made her think differently? “Of course,” she says, her eyes widening slightly. “Of course, and I realize there’s a necessary conversation that goes deeper.” On the one hand, she doesn’t think music should have borders; she notes that the best art, from Picasso to the Rolling Stones, comes from an exchange of cultures. However, she’s aware that such declarations ring utopian when applied to systems that are fundamentally unequal. “I think the broader conversation is about privilege and about who gets opportunities,” she tells me. “The ideal and the fair thing would be for the possibilities and the spotlight to be equal for everyone in the world.”

Rosalía says that especially when her work draws on other cultures, her aim is to treat them with reverence and to acknowledge them. “Before anything, for me, my intention has been to make music with the utmost respect for the cultures that inspired it.” Black music, she notes, has inspired her entire generation and shaped genres across popular music today. She lists Black reggaeton progenitors, such as Tego Calderón and Ivy Queen, as a few artists she admires most. “It’s so important to put your influences on the table and give them love.”

She sees it as her responsibility to use her platform to lift others up. It is true that Rosalía has been mostly apolitical in her work, but she says the last few years have reaffirmed values that she’s always held close, among them issues of equity, parity, and mutual respect. Lately she’s been outspoken about the way the music industry cuts women off from opportunities and doesn’t always fully credit their work: “How many people talk about how Victoria Monét writes songs the way she does; how many people talk about Missy Elliott producing her own music?” she says. “I hope with all of my heart that the new generation of women open a path up so that things are different.” Those ideas play a role in her music. “I’ll always render that figure of a strong woman before anything,” she tells me.

Ultimately, though, Rosalía understands that it’s her fans who interpret her work—and therefore her intentions. “I think in the end, you can’t control what’s going to happen, you know? I can’t control what’s going to happen to my music after I make it.”

Our conversation comes at a time in which the future seems unclear for everyone—not just the direction of the pandemic but the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. When I catch up with Rosalía by phone three weeks later, she’s in Los Angeles, trying to keep her attention trained on what’s right in front of her. “We’re all kind of adjusting now, but I think in my case, you have to focus on the people you have around you, on being careful, and on the day-to-day more so than the future.” She spent Halloween at home wearing her Leeloo costume—she ended up cutting the wig herself, and a video she posted dancing around in the getup got more than 1.8 million likes on Instagram. She worked through Election Day but was floored by the historic voter turnout the country saw: “More than 144 million people voted, and it made me think about the importance they’ve placed on this moment, on the act of voting, and the energy just felt really strong. It felt like a few days where change was coming and people were worked up and you could feel a current moving.”

Otherwise, all her time has been dedicated to completing the album, and she’s barely taken a break, except one day for a bike ride through Echo Park. She’s near the finish line, though. “This is the moment, I think, where everything is flowing, I’m finishing the songs, and it feels different than the beginning of the year,” she tells me. “Now I’m closing the cycle of these recordings, and I’m really happy with them.”

She’s hoping to get to Barcelona to celebrate Christmas with her family, if she can, and she’s looking forward to performing again, when it’s safe to do so. She thinks back to her days at local venues in Spain: “I swear to you, I used to think, Maybe my destiny is to play in this bar my whole life, and if that’s my destiny…I’ll be here every day putting love into it and I’ll do it like it’s my life’s work.” Back in those days she wondered what it would be like to sell out stadiums. But even now the future she dreams about is one in which she keeps recording as long as she can. “I want to be 70 and have the energy and the excitement and the desire to go to the studio and drink my coffee and write my songs,” she says. “I want to still have that feeling—that’s what I want, those are the ambitions I have.”

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