Rosalía: ‘If success ends up breaking me, well, that’s life’
Three years after the success of ‘El Mal Querer,’ the Spanish singer’s new album ‘Motomami’ mixes reggaeton, ballads and just a touch of flamenco. She talks to EL PAÍS about loneliness, critics and finding her new sound
Something is glinting in the middle of Rosalía’s smile. It looks like a red heart, but when you get closer you can see the delicate wings: it’s a butterfly. Rosalía, born 29 years ago in Sant Cugat del Vallès, a town north of Barcelona, smiles spontaneously on this Monday morning in February. She has been home for nearly two weeks, and preparations for the release of her new and long-awaited album Motomami are in full swing ahead of the March 18 release date.
She is on time. The black van with tinted windows parks in the studios of an industrial building in Barcelona, and she gets out with her partner, Rauw Alejandro. No one was expecting the Puerto Rican singer to be there, but no one had noticed that it was Valentine’s Day either. He gets out first, extending an arm and taking her by the hand, helping her out of the vehicle. She is wearing a baggy pink sweatshirt, light coloured jeans and low white snow boots with fur trim. He sports a black tracksuit and green sneakers, and takes care of the suitcases.
Rauw Alejandro will wait out the five-hour session calmly, scrolling on his phone. He is polite and friendly, but does not want to talk about anything Rosalía related. Her little sister Pilar, known as Pili, is always by her side, one of her closest collaborators and an individual she defines as a “visual artist.” “When we were little, we used to draw together and then make dresses. We would cut fabric together. We still do it,” says Rosalía. Pili, who doesn’t want to talk much either, keeps an eye on everything and knows how to get the best out of her little sister, who moves easily through the photo shoot.
Rosalía has always set her own pace. She has done it since she arrived at the Taller de Músics music school in Barcelona’s Raval neighborhood aged 16, where founder Lluís Cabrera discovered “a great talent”. An “insatiable” student who played electric guitar and piano, knew jazz and spoke good English, she got into flamenco after listening to Spanish legend Camarón in a friend’s car at the park. “It was super old fashioned and at the same time it was the most modern thing we had heard in 40 years,” Cabrera recalls. Rosalía went on to the Escuela Superior de Música de Cataluña institution and was the top student in flamenco singing. Her final project became El Mal Querer.
I was very excited that this project was focused. I wanted the album to be like when a photographer captures a moment
Three years after that a smash hit that revolutionized Spanish music and catapulted the singer to international fame, all eyes are on her once again. “You’re never late if you go at your own pace,” she remarks. This is how it works: she is a global star, who calculates every movement with huge advertising and promotional campaigns. In a few days she will appear on Saturday Night Live. But she is also an artist capable of transforming herself at an astonishing speed to the needs of every genre she plays. On her new record, Motomami, she goes on an interesting journey with her own voice in different registers. “There are people who think that music can be made by algorithms. One doesn’t make a lyric, distort a voice or choose an asymmetrical structure thinking about numbers. It’s done for the feeling. You look for emotion,” she says.
Lights, cameras, wardrobe, background music, catering... There’s not a moment of peace in this warehouse. Rosalía greets us with two kisses and the first thing she does is talk about the new album, the result of three years of work. “It doesn’t feel like it’s been a long time, just the amount of time needed,” she says, while clearly aware of the pressure on her shoulders. Since El Mal Querer, she has joined Sony’s Columbia Records label, whose stable of artists also includes Adele, AC/DC, Bruce Springsteen and Beyoncé.
For a Spanish singer, it’s unusual to say the least. Rosa Lagarrigue, director of Spain’s RLM agency, explains: “I think it is very brave of Rosalía and Columbia. I think it was a mixture of chance and luck, but you have to know how to grab luck and how to have the courage to take advantage of it. She has benefited a lot from this agreement and has proven to be more than worthy of the investments made in her. Her career has just taken off and it will be interesting to see where it takes her.”
Rosalía says she is taking it one step at a time. But between one album and another, she has kept up a steady stream of hits, collaborating with artists such as J Balvin, Travis Scott and Ozuna, and has guested with the likes of Billie Eilish, Bad Bunny, The Weeknd and Tokischa. But for a world attached to single hits, Motomami is not a compilation, but an ambitious work of 16 songs about Rosalía’s journey over the past three years. “I was very excited that this project was focused. I wanted the album to be like when a photographer captures a moment. Something honest. I was looking for a way to capture my moment,” she says.
Rosalía’s moment just keeps growing. “I try to keep myself constantly learning and developing. It’s me and the music,” she says. “Without the main idea, without the need, without the desire, the blood, the sweat, the tears, the time, the energy, the dedication, it is impossible that I would have made this album. It makes me laugh that anyone could think otherwise.”
Pedro G. Romero, an influential researcher of flamenco, popular culture and the artistic avant-garde, and the person who recommended the 14th century book that inspired El Mal Querer, remembers how she turned a slightly forgotten genre on its head. “She always said that if Beyoncé or Rihanna could do what they did with soul and blues to turn them into pop, why couldn’t she do the same with flamenco?” She is conscious that not everyone has the space to explore and be hugely popular at the same time. “For me the question is, ‘Wow, did you notice what’s not being talked about?’ There are a lot of women who don’t get the spotlight. There’s Björk, a fabulous artist, who had to fight [to be heard]. There are a lot of women creators who don’t get the credit they deserve. It’s a shame,” she notes.
Judeline, a 19-year-old Spanish electrosoul artist, is part of a new generation for whom Rosalía is “a very big inspiration”. “She has paved the way for a lot of people, showing that you can be young and make it big with a different sound and a different way of being. The spotlight is on Spain right now from other parts of the world thanks to her. She knew how to act to reach the US without being mainstream”. Romero agrees: “Many young people have realized that they can take off their provincial overalls and that they don’t have to appear on Radio Olé.”
The butterfly is the symbol of Motomami. “A butterfly, I transform myself,” she sings in Saoko, the song that opens the album and that in one month accumulated about 16 million plays on Spotify and as many on YouTube. As David Rodríguez, who worked on the album, says: “she made the decision to transform herself as an artist. A lot of people were maybe counting on El Mal Querer 2. She had a vision to do something different and new.”
This transformation has been anticipated since that first reggaeton track with J Balvin, Con Altura. She defends herself when accused of moving away from her flamenco roots. Bulerías is the only flamenco song on Motomami, and she draws a link between earlier reggaeton influences.
“Reggaeton is part of my adolescence. In the end, my career is going to be a love letter to the styles of music I love. In the future I will add whatever I come across. Flamenco is something important and my music is very grateful to it, but also to other styles. In music there is no right and wrong, good or bad. What matters is that the music reflects me.” Reggaeton, she adds, doesn’t ask for forgiveness or permission. “That’s why I thought it was a perfect fit for Motomami. In the end, it’s very direct and raw music, and people are not used to celebrating women who speak like that.”
The spotlights illuminate Rosalía’s face, which she covers with her hands, partially revealing the twinkling butterfly in her teeth. Her characteristic extra-long false nails are more moderate today, and her jet black hair flutters with her movements. Her body language is extraordinarily powerful and, beyond the aura of fame she exhibits a lot of tenderness. Rosalía naturally introduces words from other languages or dialects, which seemed to cause some anger online when she released 15 seconds of the song Hentai. “I’m exposed to friends from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the US... I celebrate it. The day it doesn’t happen to me I’m going to worry.”
Music critic Diego A. Manrique thinks that what made her special might have been swallowed up by these transatlantic influences. “She was like no one else. In Motomami she is part of a Caribbean trend and her trademark is diluted,” he opines.
For the butterfly to be born, a caterpillar must have existed before. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic caught Rosalía in Miami, in lockdown in the house of her manager, Rebeca León. During the first few weeks of restrictions she worked in a home recording studio. She had never been away from her family for so long.
The album is like a rollercoaster. It goes up and down. That’s how I feel sometimes
“The pandemic was very hard. I was almost away from my family for two years,” she says. “I was away from the neighborhood where I grew up. Away from my old friends. Far away from everything. I did it to fully commit to my record. It was hard.” She holds one’s gaze, and at times it seems as if she is studying you. The look pierces through, until she drops her eyes to describe even harder moments. “I set deadlines and I never reached them. Then my return home was delayed. There were moments when I was really alone.”
She realized how much she missed her family. “I was working 15 or 16 hours a day, but it was really hard. I had a really hard time.” From days in Los Angeles, she confesses, sprung G3, an emotional ballad where she sings, “I’m somewhere I wouldn’t take you.” The song ends with an audio message from her grandmother, also named Rosalía, where she says in Catalan that “family comes first”. Her mother inspired the new album’s title. “My mother has always ridden a motorcycle and I have a very clear image of that. That’s why I’ve been riding a motorcycle for years. I am a motomami because my mother was a motomami, and so was her mother.”
She says the album’s name plays on “duality.” Moto in Japanese means “strong” and relates to “aggression”. Mami refers to “fragility”. “The album is like a rollercoaster. It goes up and down. That’s how I feel sometimes.” She ends the album with Sakura, Japanese cherry blossom, with links to spring and femininity. The lyrics are a reflection on the possibility of breaking. “There’s only a risk if there’s something to lose,” she sings. She recalls the first piece of advice her mother gave her. “She told me, whatever I do in life, go for it full on. I don’t remember her words exactly, but I remember how they sounded. She told me that I had to put my all into it.” Before the photo session begins, she admits she is ready for things to get too tough to handle. “This environment is very hostile. It’s difficult to stay in the center of it. For these three years I have searched for my center. If success ends up breaking me over the years, well, that’s life and that’s the journey. Life and death are very close to each other.”