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Rosalía is unafraid to pull from every corner of the world

"I'm always very sure about what I want to create," the Spanish artist Rosalía tells NPR.
Daniel Sannwald
"I'm always very sure about what I want to create," the Spanish artist Rosalía tells NPR.

There's something undeniably magnetic about Rosalía. The Spanish artist's music, persona and visuals are gripping in a way that's distinct from your typical pop star. Her album Motomami, released in March, has its fair share of upbeat tracks, but they're not the kind of pop anthems that feel made for 24-hour radio play. The album's 16 tracks are energizing in their seamless dynamism — shape-shifting and genre-bending within songs. And this style is reflective of Rosalía herself, who is unafraid to play and pull from every part of her world.

Rosalía recently announced her first-ever world tour, and while she says she's excited to perform classics like "Malamente" and "Con Altura," fans should expect new territory from her. "People who've seen the El Mal Querer shows, now they're going to feel, 'Oh, this is something different,' " she says. The artist recently spoke with NPR Music's Anamaria Sayre about recording the globe-trotting Motomami, choosing to forgo viral features and turning a poignant voice memo from her grandmother into a song.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the audio version, click the link above.

Anamaria Sayre, NPR Music: I want to talk about this beautiful album that you put out not too long ago, Motomami. You made most of this album during COVID-19, right?

Rosalía: A lot of the project was done in 2020, but also while I was touring in 2019 [and] in 2021 too. It's been a whole process of three years. I've been in the U.S. and far from my family and far from my country. It was tough, but it made me really grow as a writer, as a producer. I'm very grateful that I could do this project.

Obviously [making the albums] Los Ángeles, El Mal Querer, you were close to family. You were close to home when you made those. That distance, [can] we hear that in the record?

One hundred percent. If I didn't travel and if I didn't spend so much time in Miami, in Los Angeles, New York and then Puerto Rico, Républica Dominicana — all of that really affected the way this album sounds, even the way I write the Spanglish. Before, all my lyrics would be full of Spanish. Because I was going to the grocery shop and I would buy stuff and talk in English, those things would make me even think in English, and then that would affect how I write. I think that it's such a blessing that I could spend time here because I could learn. [The U.S.] is such a different place and I love it. I think it changes the way I make music.

Flamenco is a sound that keeps coming back in every single work that you create, but now you're incorporating salsa, bachata and reggaeton. As you evolve, as you go from incorporating these sounds, how do you see yourself continuing to grow?

I [have] always felt music not in a compartmented way. I think [that's] always been there [and] that now it's more radical. It's just that now, because I've been traveling and my life changed, I have more stimulus from more places and people. That makes it even more obvious to me that it's about this human manifestation. This expression — which is music and style for me — I choose these styles, the bachata, the reggaeton, all of that, because I love them and I want to honor them. And I feel like those were the right styles for what I wanted to express in this album.

I'm a big fan of [the Spanish artist] Martirio.

She's like the OG "motomami," you know what I mean? How she sings, [how] she puts her sunglasses on. The energy's crazy.

I feel like hearing sounds like hers, there is almost this precedent for Spanish artists experimenting in [that] way, combining flamenco with other sounds. Do you feel like there's something distinctly Spanish about your openness to experiment with all of these different sounds?

If you think about it, flamenco — for example, guajira, rumba, Colombiana, milonga, all of that is part of the flamenco corpus. Which shows how flamenco [has] always naturally been like a riddle since its origin. For me [and] contemporary artists, the traveling and all of that affects and makes artists [make] music that is inspired [by] different places. But also the digital era — the digital era and the internet made such a difference. In flamenco you can always see those influences, and I think it's always been a dialogue between artists, between places, between cultures. I love that cultural diversity. I think that even nowadays, it's more radical. It's something to celebrate.

Speaking of diversity of sound, you've been featured on a ton of different artists' records, but on this album you only have two features. I love that you very much own this album — it's your record, you own the sound. Where did that choice come from?

It's pretty intentional. This is the first time that I did an album that has autobiographical content. It was really important that the personal tone, the confessional tone, would be present from the beginning to the end. If I [made] an album with this intention, but then make so many collabs just because of streams and numbers, it would lose that original intention. So I was like, no. [The rapper] Tokischa is such an amazing "motomami," you know? She's such a beautiful, creative mind, and why not celebrate her in the album the same way. Abel [Tesfaye, The Weeknd], he's always been an amazing musician that I love and I wanted him to be present. I had "La Fama" and then I was like, "Okay, let me call Abel, let me see if he feels like jumping on this song." And he jumped in.

What I love about your record [is that] you are so present. Experiencing it, I'm like "Rosalía is taking us on a journey and it's on her terms." It makes me feel like, yes, own your creativity.

Of course, there's a lot of people that I admire who contributed to the project. At the same time, I've been the first going to the studio and the last to leave. I've spent more than 16 hours a day for months producing, writing and that's been a hard process. Fun sometimes, but very hard too. And of course it's an honor to work with these people that I admire and to curate the ideas they put on the table. But at the end of the day, this project has a lot of personal content.

When you're in the recording studio with male artists, how do you assert your creative interests?

I just express. I love to go to the studio. It's something that I've always needed since I started in music when I was 16. I've always experimented, I always work long hours and I always say what I want to achieve. I usually have an idea of a song that I want to do before I do a song. Sometimes it can be playful, like, start this beat. "Saoko," for example, the first song on the album, you can hear there's an intention of [making] a song work that has some reggaeton — OG reggaeton influence — but also touches of jazz here and there. I went to the studio knowing that I wanted that, but then it took me time to get there. The people that I work with, there's a lot of men [and] also women. But my whole team is made of women and a lot of times I feel like I'm surrounded by men and I'm grateful. I'm always very sure about what I want to create.

How do you remain empowered in expressing your sexuality in your work, your music and your visuals, when you're operating in an industry that's all about marketing sex appeal? Where do you say, "This is something I'm doing because I want to do it and this is who I am." How do you express that and maintain that certainty?

I think people feel it when it's real, when it comes from the center. When it comes from the center of an artist you can express with more honesty. I really don't want to share something that is not honest. And then sexuality is part of my life — it's part of life. It's something to celebrate too. I was thinking in Motomami, how can I make an album and make songs about stuff that [is] part of my life. I celebrate transformation. I celebrate spirituality, but the same way that I celebrate sexuality. That's where you can find a song like "Hentai."

When you were being featured on different songs and you walked into the studio with these huge reggaeton heroes, what was that like [for] the young version of you who just [wanted] to make music? What was that experience like for you?

I've always seen myself as a musician. I grew up studying music in college. When I go to the studio, I don't see myself in any other way than as a musician, and I put myself [in] service of the song that we're going to do that day. So, I really don't care who is there. I'm really grateful always for the people that I can be surrounded by. The big artists that I've been able to share with, I've learned a lot from them. But I see myself as a musician and I see them when they are in the studio with me as a musician, too. And it's just about the song. It's about nothing else but the song. I think when you put yourself in service of something that is worthy — for example a creative process — that is very powerful.

I have to bring up one of my favorite moments on the album. It's the moment where you include your abuela. It was like listening to my abuela. On the song "G3 N15," your abuela says, "God and la familia. Like, that's it. That's the focus." And she says, "Family's always important. You bear a path that's a bit difficult. When I look at it, I think what a complicated world is the one Rosalía has gotten into. But well, if you're happy, I'm happy as well."

My abuela, mi yaya. She said that in a voice note actually in WhatsApp. It was in the middle of the pandemic and I was in the U.S., in Miami. And she sent me this note and I was in the studio and I was like, "No, I have to use this." Like, this is exactly what I wanted to talk about and share. I put the voice of mi abuela in a Pro Tools session and I thought, "What music should I put on besides her voice? What should I use?" And then it came to my head. When I was a kid, I used to be in my grandma's house and she had this clock that would sound with this melody. I don't know if that sounds familiar to you but it's [Rosalía sings the "Westminster Quarters" melody.] That melody is my grandma's clock.

Did she want you to be a singer? I know my abuela, she's from Mexico, and she's always wanted me to sing boleros. She's like, "Oh my god, if you would just sing boleros." If she could have you singing anything, what would it be?

I think that my grandma would have loved it if I would sing like Maria Callas. She would like me to be an opera singer. She always thought that opera is much better than anything else. You know, like the crème de la crème.

The opera is so grand, so impressive.

Exactly. But the thing about the new generation, I think it's different. I always felt, and the people around me always felt, like there's no music better than others. There's no style better than others. There's no good or bad in music.

Do you feel like there's any one sound or idea that will always stay with you as an artist, as you evolve?

I think transformation for sure — celebrating change and freedom. It's something very important to me, that word. I think it was very present during Motomami. And how can I be freer? I always think that. I think my favorite music is very human. My favorite artists are very human. They show their contradiction. They show how they change. And I love that and I feel like I am connected in the perspective.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anamaria Artemisa Sayre is co-host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.