It is safe to say that no artist has attempted to conquer America in quite the same way as Rosalia. Over the past few weeks, the 26-year-old powerhouse Spanish singer suddenly seemed to be everywhere — albeit a carefully curated everywhere — via high-profile performances and appearances in the Latin, alternative, film and mainstream worlds, ranging from Coachella to Time magazine and the new Pedro Almodóvar film. She’s doing it on her own terms and according to her own plan, without a smash single or even a song sung in English (even though she’s nearly fluent), which is doubly remarkable in the traditionally foreign-language-phobic American music market.
“She’s not like anything any of us have ever seen — Pharrell calls her a unicorn,” says Rosalia’s manager, Rebeca Leon of Lionfish Entertainment, who also manages Latin superstars Juanes and J Balvin. “She’s meticulous in her tastes. We’ve been bombarded by requests — I will not name names, but you’d be, like, ‘wow’ — and she just says, ‘That song’s not for me.’ She’s not afraid to say no, and sometimes that’s the most powerful thing you can do.”
Rosalia was an unusual artist from the start. Over the course of two albums, she has placed the revered, centuries-old genre of flamenco — in which she received a degree from Barcelona’s Catalonia College of Music — into challenging contemporary contexts that fuse alternative, electronic and R&B. Her soaring voice is a wonder; her music a wild combination of genres and influences (the first album featured a cover of a song by indie troubadour Will Oldham; the second included a Justin Timberlake sample). Visually, she’s sexy but not sexualized; her videos are loaded with subtle references to religion, violence and even bullfighting. She probably could have had a smash English-language single by now, but is following her own course instead.
And she’s just getting started: She’s recorded yet-unreleased songs with Pharrell, alternative darling James Blake, oddball Bjork collaborator Arca and electronic-music savant Dan Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never.
“I’m always trying to find something I haven’t found yet,” Rosalia tells Variety. “To me, that’s the main thing for a musician — investigating and experimenting.”
Leon says: “I’ve never seen an artist care so much about the details — she’s immersed in everything, from her videos to her song mixes to what her nails look like. She writes, arranges, produces, dances — she even rehearses for rehearsals. She doesn’t really do anything else [but work]. We’re like, ‘Yo, you’ve gotta take a day off’ and she says, ‘Why?’”
So what was the strategy, and why is it working so well? The events of the past few months, which served as the Rosalia marketing plan, might have made many in the music business scoff. Her 2017 debut album “Los Angeles” presented a challenging but somewhat traditional take on flamenco. However, last summer, her performance at the electronic-leaning Sonar Festival, advertised as “a new show completely different to anything we’ve seen before from the young artist,” premiered material from her sophomore album, “El mal querer” (Bad Love), which moved her into a much more alternative context.
Released in November, the album created a buzz with the Pitchfork crowd that accelerated when James Blake released “Barefoot in the Park,” his first collaboration with Rosalia, in January. Next, the Latin crowd got a nod when reggaeton titan Balvin, coming off of his global smash “Mi Gente,” dropped his duet with her, “Con Altura,” in March, which she followed with a tour of South American festivals.
In April, she launched her first headlining North American tour, which included a mesmerizing performance at Coachella (and, two hours later, a dramatically different cameo with Balvin during his set) and a handful of intimate concerts featuring a much more elaborate production, with dancers and a dazzling light show. Also in April, she released a song on the “Game of Thrones” soundtrack, and appeared alongside Penelope Cruz in Almodóvar’s new film “Dolor y Gloria.” More recently, on May 17, she was revealed as one of Time magazine’s New Generation Leaders — the only musician to make the list.
With the exception of the Time co-sign, it was all according to plan — largely mapped out by the singer herself with Leon, her U.S. label Columbia Records and agent Samantha Kirby Yoh at William Morris Endeavor.
“We started with Sonar, which positioned her as a cutting-edge artist when she was known as a flamenco singer,” Kirby says. “Then, we continued to build the base by touring Latin America first, and then she did Coachella, but she performed in a smaller tent [at the festival] and followed with the intimate shows on the American tour, so you feel like you were there first.”
Significantly, most of Leon’s core team — which also includes her older sister Pilar — is female. “Speaking as a woman, we needed her,” says Leon. “She’s beautiful but she doesn’t objectify herself; she puts her art before everything, and she stands up for herself. I can tell you, when it comes to negotiating, she’s as good a businesswoman as she is an artist.”
Columbia GM Jenifer Mallory says, “She’s synthesizing this classic genre of flamenco with very edgy, feminist pop music — and I call her a feminist because there are references in the lyrics from ‘El mal querer,’ but also because she’s sexy without showing a lot of skin. I think that sets a beautiful example for women.”
Rosalia and her team shy away from statements about what’s next beyond “more live shows and incredible music coming soon.” But for her, not knowing is part of the art.
“I hope that every record I do will be different from the one before,” she says. “I think that’s the point — why should I repeat something I’ve already found?”