This story is part of Billboard‘s Mujeres Latinas en la Música package.
Emilia has conquered millions of fans with an urban pop sound that’s both mischievous and sensual; a sweet, recognizable voice; and honest but playful lyrics. Since her debut as a solo artist in 2019, after a stint as a member of Uruguayan band Rombai, she has placed 18 songs on Argentina’s Billboard Hot 100 chart — most recently “En la Intimidad” with Big One and Callejero Fino, which in early April had spent seven weeks at No. 1.
She has also placed two songs on Billboard’s Latin Pop Airplay chart: “Blessing” with Alex Rose at No. 13 and “No Soy Yo” with Darell at No. 38. And this year she performed at the Viña del Mar Festival, where she received golden and silver Gaviota awards.
All that glamour began with a folk guitar.
María Emilia Mernes Rueda (her full name) was about 6 when her grandfather — the only musical reference in her family — gave her the instrument so she could start taking music lessons. “Actually, he’s a plumber, but his hobby, his lifelong passion, has always been playing the guitar,” says the Argentine singer-songwriter, her eyes sparkling with pride.
As for Emilia’s parents, her father was a baker and her mother a cook. Originally from Nogoyá, a farming town with a population of 45,000 in the Argentine province of Entre Ríos, she grew up admiring “megapowerful women,” from Rihanna and Beyoncé to Paulina Rubio and Thalia.
“I would watch them on TV and I couldn’t believe it. I’d say: ‘I hope one day I can see myself like them!’ Because whenever I listened to them, they instilled a message of power and confidence in me,” she recalls from her home in Buenos Aires, where she now lives.
That desire led her to form her own bands in her early teens. From cumbia covers she transitioned to rock and began playing shows in her city and its surroundings.
Over the years, music continued to be an integral part of her life, but due to her circumstances she thought it couldn’t be more than a hobby. “I was like, ‘No. It is impossible to live from this. If I don’t have the financial resources I can’t travel to Buenos Aires, where everything happens.’ ” Instead, she moved to Rosario to study literature.
Her life took a radical turn only months later, when she started uploading videos of herself playing the guitar and singing covers to Instagram. They caught the attention of Rombai. At the time, the Uruguayan cumbia-pop band had gained popularity in South America and was looking for a new female vocalist. In a matter of days, Emilia was singing with them in front of 12,000 fans.
Two years later, she decided it was time to take the next step and left the group to pursue her solo career. Whereas with Rombai she only got to sing songs written by her bandmates, she now started to write her own for the first time. “I had a lot of uncertainty, to be 100% honest. I didn’t know what kind of music I wanted to make, I didn’t know which side to face, I didn’t know who to work with,” she recalls.
She headed to Miami to work on developing her own voice as a singer-songwriter.
Some of the first people she shared with in the studio were Camilo and Farina, with whom she wrote the song “Recalienta.” “I said: ‘I think this is going to be the one with which I start my career.’ And it was beautiful,” she adds, also naming Sebastián Yatra and TINI as artists who didn’t hesitate to lend her a hand.
Today, Emilia is still signed to a management deal with Walter Kolm (who was previously Rombai’s manager) and has a recording deal with Sony Music Latin. And she has forged a trusted “songwriting crew” that includes Elena Rose, FMK and Duki, with whom she worked for her 2022 debut album, the very personal tú crees en mí?
For this year, she’s working on a “more conceptual” second album that will include her most recent single, “Jagger.mp3,” a funky, upbeat dance track in Spanish sprinkled with some English.
In Argentina, her parents and grandfather “cannot believe” the success she has had. “My grandfather is very shocked. He recently went to one of my shows — he had never had the opportunity to see me — and I dedicated it to him that night. It was very emotional.”
As for the guitar he gave her when she was a little girl, Emilia keeps it somewhere in her hometown: “I don’t know if I gave it to him or if it is at my house with my parents,” she says. “But I have it in Nogoyá.”
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