When the flamenco-influenced singer Rosalía was growing up in Barcelona, she would imagine entire worlds full of intrigue and excitement for her dolls. “I had big dreams for my Barbies,” Rosalía, 26, told me on a cloudy morning in late August, as we had breakfast in the patio restaurant of her hotel in downtown Manhattan. She was wearing a red knit ensemble by Escada consisting of a cropped long-sleeve sweater that showed off her bare midriff, wide-leg pants accented by a gold chain belt, and sky-high platforms. As always, her nails were very long and vividly adorned, this time with black sequins that sparkled despite the gloomy weather. In contrast, Rosalía’s face, which looks instantly theatrical when she’s wearing her signature red lipstick, was freshly scrubbed and makeup-free, and her hair was still damp from a shower. As she ate her scrambled eggs and steamed spinach, she looked both sophisticated and childlike.
“I would always change my Barbies,” Rosalía, whose full name is Rosalía Vila Tobella, continued, in accented English. “I’d cut their hair, paint on tattoos, and create new clothes for them. I would invent elaborate stories: fights, dramas, successes. I would try out my ideas on them.” She smiled. “And sometimes they would sing!” By the time she was 8, Rosalía put the dolls away and started singing herself. One evening, her parents, who work in construction and are not musical, asked her to perform at dinner. “I didn’t really know any songs,” Rosalía recalled, “so it was just ‘La, la, la, la, la.’ I shut my eyes and was making up this melody. When I opened my eyes, my whole family was crying. It sounds strange, but at that moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”
Rosalía looked over at her day-to-day manager, Cayetana Smith, who was helping with any translation questions, and said something to her in Spanish about needing a coat or a scarf or both. “I can’t afford to get sick,” Rosalía explained, lightly touching her throat. Since releasing her breakthrough single and video, “Malamente,” in May 2018, she has been on an international whirlwind, playing high-profile concerts from Coachella in California to Glastonbury in England to Lollapalooza in Chicago and back. Last November, Rosalía won two Latin Grammy Awards (out of five nominations) for “Malamente.” The video, which combines flamenco, hip-hop, and R&B, and features child bullfighters, as well as Rosalía dancing in the back of a truck, has attracted more than 100 million views on YouTube. She has also collaborated with singers as diverse as Pharrell Williams, J Balvin, and James Blake, to name but three, and appears in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Pain and Glory. Time magazine took notice and chose Rosalía for its 2019 list of Next Generation Leaders; El País, one of Spain’s leading newspapers, called her “the future of global pop music.” Madonna asked her to perform at her birthday party in Morocco, saying she admired her uniqueness, but Rosalía had to decline—she was just too busy.
For her debut on American television, Rosalía chose MTV’s Video Music Awards, which were held in Newark the night before we met. “I rehearsed for six days, four hours every morning,” Rosalía said, as her assistant arrived with a red patent-leather coat and a pink cashmere scarf. The coat was designed by Riccardo Tisci for Burberry; he also created the black beaded bustier and long skirt she wore on the VMAs’ red carpet, and the crystal-studded velvet corset–slash–leotard in which she performed. The looks were consistent with her usual style, which is simultaneously revealing and demure. When she performs, Rosalía slicks back her hair and attaches a waist-length ponytail to the top of her head. The cascading hair almost looks like a Spanish mantilla, a subtle ode to her heritage. “In addition to dancing and singing, I also have to do hair-ography,” she joked. “There is no lip-synching at all, and there is all that hair moving around.”
Rosalía had correctly anticipated that her performance at the VMAs would be a before-and-after moment for her. When she turned her back to the clapping audience at the end of her number and revealed that Tisci had emblazoned her name in rhinestones down the back of her corset, there was a huge roar. “Riccardo texted me immediately after the show,” Rosalía said. “He was really involved in every detail.” Nearly a year ago, Tisci sought out Rosalía after watching her sing at a club in London. “I knew from the moment I met her that she has a very rare, unique, and radiating star power,” he told me. “She has the maturity and craft of someone well beyond her years, and the purity and sensibility of youth. Rosalía is daring in all that she does, from her dancing and movement to her music and costumes. And I love her for that.”
Even though it was her first televised appearance on an American awards show, Rosalía felt no need to sing in English. Music in Spanish, whether it’s by J Balvin (from Colombia), Bad Bunny (from Puerto Rico), or even Drake (who is Canadian!), has proven to be wildly popular without any translation. In the past, Latin artists generally needed to sing in English to cross over, but nowadays, having Spanish on your single only increases its potential airplay. “I was so happy that I could sing in Spanish,” Rosalía said. “As a musician, language is almost like another instrument. Every word has a sound. And if this is the first time I’m on television in America, I wanted the world to hear me.”
There is a deep history to what Rosalía is trying to accomplish with her music. “I am rooted in flamenco,” she explained. “At 13, I fell in love with it, but I couldn’t sing it. To sing flamenco is like being a kind of opera singer. You have to learn how. Flamenco is dark—it’s about tragedy and intensity. Those are the traits I became passionate about.” Rosalía eventually enrolled at the Catalonia College of Music, which accepts only one student per year to its flamenco program. She graduated in 2017, the year in which she released her first album, Los Ángeles.
“I had never been to Los Angeles,” Rosalía said, “but I knew I had a connection with that city. And I think about the angels when I think of death, that angels are waiting. The whole record is about death, which was my way of updating the flamenco tradition.” As morbid as that sounds, Los Ángeles is uplifting: It’s full of haunting harmonies, with an effortless blend of genres. Immediately, the world took notice: A New York Times article called her the “Rihanna of flamenco,” and Pharrell Williams contacted her about collaborating, describing Rosalía as “a unicorn,” according to her manager Rebeca León. Some flamenco purists in Spain complained about the ways in which she had changed the traditional genre, but Rosalía was not dissuaded. “I had studied, and I knew how I wanted to sound and what I wanted to say. God shows you a path, and you have to follow that path. You have to do the work and you have to show respect, but you can’t ignore your destiny.”
Rosalía’s follow-up, El Mal Querer, from 2018, includes “Malamente,” and was inspired by an anonymous novel from the 13th century about a woman who is imprisoned by her jealous lover. El Mal Querer roughly translates to “the Bad Love,” and the record references the classic pop themes of skyrocketing fame, fast cars, dangerous men, and expensive trinkets. Rosalía has been recording her next album, which will be out in 2020, in Barcelona and Los Angeles; not surprisingly, it will also include flamenco. “My goal is to bridge the beauty of the past and history with the present,” she explained. “I want to be traditional, and yet not old.”
But she had plenty of work to do before returning to the studio. She was flying to Miami for a Spotify concert, to Philadelphia to perform at Jay Z’s Made in America festival, and to Austin to play the Austin City Limits Music Festival. “I don’t sleep,” she said, protectively gathering the scarf around her neck. “For the last year and a half, I don’t sleep. I’m always thinking, working, imagining. Even with my clothes, I have to know every detail. I work with a stylist, and I love her taste. But once I see the clothes she’s brought me, I say, ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ ‘This with that,’ ‘That with this.’ I don’t know any other way to do it.” Rosalía paused. “Even back then with my Barbies, I always knew what I wanted.”