This Catalan artist transcends flamenco with urban sounds. Having become the musical phenomenon of the time in a few universal hits, she won all the awards. We caught up with her before her tour for Motomami, his new album.
When she enters the suite of a Parisian hotel on this spring morning, Rosalía immediately diffuses a powerful perfume made of charisma, vivacity and joyful energy. All space is invaded by it. Her long figure moves through the room with a grace of dancer. Her wide smile reveals a sparkling dental jewel in the shape of a butterfly ready to fly away. Rosalía Vila Tobella, 28, is one of the world’s pop icons of the moment. She is crowned with nine Grammy Awards, and his hits have gone around the world. But it is completely atypical. He is the only star of today to have been able to impose in contemporary music a tradition deeply rooted in European history. His ability to bring together pure Andalusian music and urban genres in a single piece has not escaped Beyoncewho recently declared: “She is my heiress!”
Rosalía grew up in Sant Esteve Sesrovires, a village in working-class Catalonia near Barcelona, where her maternal family owns a nameplate factory, in which her father also works. At 16, she joined the prestigious Ecole Supérieure de music of Catalonia, from which she graduated five years later. One of his teachers, Luís Cabrera, remembers: “In his way of singing, there was something of Spain’s great vocal past and, at the same time, it was the most modern sound we had heard in our country for forty years.
In video, fashion music, cosmetics, Rihanna, pop star and fashion cash machine
An insatiable student, Rosalía already played guitar and piano, knew jazz, and spoke perfect English. During her thesis, she composed sick, the hit that catapulted her to fame, included in the album El Mal Querer, released in 2018, which won five Latin Grammys. Rosalía says she inherited her blend of gentleness and strength from a feminine family dynasty: her mother and sister follow her every step, and support her in her career by starting a business successfull. It is to this family spirit that she has dedicated her new album, Motomami. At the top of the charts (No. 1 on Spotify), the singer confides in us before her world tour.
Miss Figaro. – In your opinion, has pop star status changed radically over the past decade?
Rosalia.– Absolutely. We always imagine a pop singer as a somewhat superficial girl, not knowing how to do much, except hold a microphone, dance and serve as a clothes rack. This model was forged especially in the 1980s and 1990s, when the trajectory of young female pop stars was controlled by labels and a predominantly male world. Opposite, we had rock, with powerful women, like PJ Harvey, who appeared on stage with guitars and threatening sounds. Today, these two figures have overlapped: queens of pop like Billie Eilish or Dua Lipa have both the seductive side of pop and the punch of rock. They write their texts and compose, create their clothing styles, participate in the staging of their concerts and the production of their clips.
Your generation is at the origin of a profound cultural revolution. But don’t you think that other singers have defended these rights before you?
Sure ! Extraordinary singers and musicians like Joni Mitchell or Amy Winehouse showed us the way. They have even directed great musicians. Madonna, too, had a profound impact on her era. But we are talking about comets: they were terribly alone in their journey. As long as we keep the artists isolated, we can control them… But that’s over. Today, women have taken power in music, and move forward by holding hands. Thanks also to social networks, we can communicate, not only between singers of the younger generation, but also with those who have taught us everything. Billie Eilish and I, for example, collaborate regularly, but I also happened to exchange with Björk, an immense pioneer in terms of artistic freedom, and my absolute heroine.
Today, women have taken power in music, and move forward by holding hands
On Motomami, your new album, you multiply your talents as a singer, musician and composer. What was your state of mind when you made it?
I started writing during my 2019 tour, then locked myself in a studio in Los Angeles, near the apartment I had rented in West Hollywood. I worked there fifteen hours a day for two years. We were in full Covid pandemic, and I was away from my family, which I had never experienced before. At times, I thought I cracked up and wanted to go back to Spain. But I knew that if I got on a plane, I couldn’t go back.
The result is a mixture of pure flamenco, hyperpop crossed with vocals a cappella, boleros supported by electro, R’n’B and rap layers. Your sound design is unheard of…
Thanks. While making this record, I noticed how racism is also revealed through music. Let me explain. The brain immediately recognizes a musical style, such as flamenco, rap or reggae. Instinctively, he associates it with a country, a skin color. If we mix these genres, the boundaries blur. This can frighten people, because they no longer recognize themselves in a community, a culture. For me, this is where it gets interesting. If through my music I manage, even for a moment, to make the listener want to go and listen to a piece of flamenco, to let go of their shoulders while moving to an African rhythm, to venture into rap and to go watch a series as The Get Down, which describes its origins in New York (on Netflix, Editor’s note), well I will have fulfilled my dream. On the cover of my album, I drew a butterfly, a symbol of travel. I crave open-mindedness.
On your disc, there is an audio message in Catalan that comes from your grandmother…
Yes. She says there: “The family is the basis of everything, it is the most important thing after God.” I wanted to burn this message she sent me on WhatsApp during my stay in the United States. My maternal grandmother, very spiritual, gave me a lot of affection and influenced me deeply. It is from her that I inherited my first name, my strength and my voice. She is a very happy woman, she always sings. She introduced me to Pavarotti, classical music, the films of Lola Flores and Pedro Almodovar (Rosalía starred in Pain and Glory, alongside Penélope Cruz, Ed). She is extraordinarily modern, she is a motomami, like my mother, my sister and me.
My maternal grandmother, very spiritual, gave me a lot of affection and influenced me deeply.
What is the definition of a motomami ?
It is the contraction of two Japanese words: motorbike which means “stronger”. And mami, which evokes the figure of the mother, her creative force but also her vulnerability. I celebrate both the power of women and their right to fragility. This word also reflects the duality of sounds found on the album. Motomami looks like a roller coaster: there are ups and downs, songs with raging percussion, and soft ballads, like Sakura. The text talks about the fear of breaking and the ability to bounce back. The first piece of advice my mom gave me was, “Whatever you do in life, go for it.”
Motomami is also the name of a company you built with your mother and sister to manage your career. Could you describe these two women?
They are my inspirations. My mother is a motomami from head to toe: when I was little, she took me to school on her Harley-Davidson. She was beautiful with her black leather vests, her warrior boots and her long blond hair. She is a business executive and rock’n’roll. She was the one who took me to music school when I was 10. My older sister, Pilar, is photographer and stylist. When we were little, we designed and sewed dresses. We still do it for my stage costumes. Pili is one of my closest advisors.
You designed the cover of your album with your sister: you appear there like a modern Venus of Botticelli, naked, with a motorcycle helmet. The message of your generation seems to be: “Look, but don’t touch and avoid any comment”…
There is nothing contradictory in this. I belong to a generation of go-getter and liberated women, who explore the entire feminine palette. We dare to show our body, our sensuality and our sexuality if we like, without needing a pygmalion. I wanted this nudity, because there is a purity in the naked body. It is an image of the modern woman: aggressive for some, but naked when she decides. This does not mean: “The door is open, everything is authorized”…
I belong to a generation of go-getter and liberated women, who explore the whole feminine palette.
What is the story of your voice?
The first to notice it was my father. I was 7 years old when he asked me to sing in front of guests during a meal. When he opened his eyes, everyone was crying. At home, my parents listened to Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Spanish rock… One day, some friends introduced me to a song by Camarón de la Isla, the “Gypsy Mick Jagger”. My head exploded. I threw myself into flamenco singing, as an autodidact. I was singing at home, in the street… In 2007, at 15, I entered a talent competition in Barcelona: I went on stage with stiletto boots, my guitar and a medallion of the Virgin Mary in the neck. I sang a flamenco ballad, then No One, by Alicia Keys. At the end, a member of the jury stood up and said to me, “Rosalía, you were out of tune.” Bitter failure.
How did you bounce back?
I joined the conservatory. I put everything aside – dancing, going out – and devoted myself body and soul to learning piano and singing. There was only one problem: my voice. All these years spent simulating the power of a cantaora (flamenco singer, editor’s note) without proper training had damaged my vocal cords. I did what the doctors recommended: an operation and a year of voice rehabilitation.
What does it mean to be a cantaora ?
Years of vocal technique, learning rhythms. And a lot of humility: I don’t force things. I let God guide me on the path, give me inspiration. In flamenco, women sing in a primal, almost animalistic way. What matters is that they have a truth inside themselves, and that they are able to communicate it.
I don’t force things. I let God guide me
Mixing flamenco with contemporary music has sometimes earned you the wrath of some traditionalists…
It’s true. I don’t mean to sound pretentious, but if Beyoncé or Rihanna have managed to tap into soul and blues to turn them into pop, why can’t I do the same with flamenco? We can show a new vision of Spanish identity, traditional but also urban. The poet TS Elliott said that tradition is null and void when it is no longer challenged and modified. So I welcome all the albums that are full of inventions, syncretisms and heresies!