Empress Of Takes the Cards She Was Dealt
We talked to Lorely Rodriguez about tarot, pigeonholing, and absconding from Brooklyn to Mexico to allow herself the space to write her svelte, future-pop debut.
“I'm the Empress Of London, holler.” Lorely Rodriguez, a.k.a. Brooklyn-based experimental pop practitioner Empress Of, is talking me through her chosen moniker. Depending on her mood, her location, or whichever situation confronts her, she can be the empress of whatever. “I'm always nervous before I play shows and it asserts my confidence,” she says, hence today being the empress of London. We're sat upstairs at Dalston's Power Lunches, a well-loved but dilapidated venue squeezed between a pharmacy and a Chinese take out. “I feel really at home in dingy basements,” she trills at one point, casting her eyes down at the battered leather sofa we're squeezed onto. Later that night Rodriguez will showcase songs from her deeply personal forthcoming debut album, Me, the title of which works if you first read out her artist name. It is, quite literally, an album about being Lorely Rodriguez, but also a way of confronting and owning the various trials and tribulations she's faced. Empressing them, if you will.
The name's power hints at a Sasha Fierce-style alter ego (“I'm sure being Beyoncé is also enough,” she laughs), although for Rodriguez its aims are slightly more mundane. “It's good for my everyday life too because if I'm going on a date, I'm [puts on a superhero voice] 'Empress Of This Date right now.' Otherwise I'm so nervous.”
The name was actually inspired by a tarot reading she did with a friend. “The first card he pulled out was an Empress card and I was like, 'It's me, I am Empress.' Then I was like wait a second, I can't go round saying 'Yo, I am Empress. Hey Seattle, this is Empress.' I can't do that. So then I go, 'Hey Seattle, this is Empress Of' and everyone comes up to me afterwards and is like, 'What's your band name?' They think I say Impressive. But the Empress card is connected to fertility and mothering and strength. It's kind of nice to have those feelings.”
It's telling that Rodriguez balked at the idea of calling herself Empress, choosing instead to twist it into more of a question or an unfinished statement. Since she first appeared in 2012 with her Colorminutes series—literally a series of one-minute songs released on YouTube and represented by a block of color—she's left her music open to interpretation. “I wanted people not to focus on how I looked or where I was from,” she says of the early songs, which appeared with no accompanying biographical information whatsoever. “It can be like, 'Oh she's a seapunk this' or 'He's an EDM trap lord.' I wanted people to just hear the music and think, 'Oh this is weird.'”
In fact being as weird or as contrary as possible informed lot of early-era Empress Of: Shows would feature a merch stand full of collectable cassettes, a move Rodriguez connects to her first experience of music—her dad playing her his Beatles and Pet Shop Boys albums on the long-outdated format. That's not to say it's part of some sort of Jack White-style rejection of technology—“I love technology! Quote: ‘Empress Of loves technology,’” she laughs. Rather, this fed into Empress Of's habit of doing what feels right at the time and then moving on. (The cassettes are all gone now.)
So on her 2013 EP Systems—released by New York indie label Terrible Records—she decided to go bilingual, with two songs sung in Spanish. It was a move that pleased her Honduran mum, who raised Rodriguez just outside Los Angeles. However on Me, all the songs are in English. “I write in English differently then I do in Spanish and [on this album] I just needed to say some shit directly,” she explains. It's a fact she's yet to broach with Mrs. Rodriguez. “She keeps asking me if there are any on the album. She's still not heard it.”
Why not? “If I send my mom the album she'll leak it,” she roars, almost rolling off the side of the sofa. “She'll be like 'I'm going to leak the Empress Of album right now.' She's so scandalous. She had a gold chain with the first letter of her name in diamonds. She's from LA. She's a badass. But she would leak my album. She tried to make copies of my EP to sell in front of the supermarket. She said she did it for me—to give me the money she made. I didn't tell the label.”
It's not hard to see where Rodriguez's single-mindedness comes from, although it's also not stopped critics from lumping her in with another female musician experimenting with pop's periphery, Grimes. So while Systems leans a little towards the swirling, dreamier end of Grimes's discography, Me acts as a huge leap away from that, skewing more towards the immediacy of pop.
“In this interview I was writing out yesterday they asked me about Grimes, obviously, and I was like, 'Ugh whatever,' but I wrote some shit, but I wanted to say something about how the vocals were treated, mix-wise, but I thought it was too specific,” she says of Me's directness. “If you think about it you can't hear the lyrics in a lot of her songs, but for me, when I mixed this record I needed to hear every word. The lyrics are my story and I needed my story to be heard.”
Empress of understands the need to pigeonhole, but she's also aware that it's a very gendered reaction. “I think people need to relate to something to understand it. It's human instinct. Blue equals sky. Red equals fire. But I always ask my manager, 'Why can't they compare me to a male electronic artist?'”
Lead by the, ahem, splashy, oscillating electro-pop of “Water Water,” Me is a bold statement of intent. Not just in terms of its title—“When I had to come up with the name I was thinking of Björk's Debut and how brilliant that was as a title; I just love titles that mark the beginning of something”—but also in its sound. Ignoring alt-pop's eternal propensity to hide in the shadows, Me pushes the vocals and lyrics to the forefront, augmenting them with melodies that dig in from the outset. So there's the big, bouncing pop of “How Do You Do It,” the pummeling synth freakouts on “Kitty Kat,” and “Threat” with its delirious techno explosions that zig-zag across future-pop grooves. Written, recorded, and produced solely by Rodriguez over a 10 month period—most of which was spent alone in a big house in Mexico—it feels like a proper labor of love.
“I'm a control freak,” admits Rodriguez. “It was my first record and I needed to own up to every sound on that record. I didn't want to compromise any sounds. So I painstakingly did it myself.” She also knew the record needed space to exist outside of the confines of her home in Brooklyn, so she took up a friend's offer of heading to Mexico. “I started to write it in Brooklyn, but it was shit. There's so much going on and I was just writing about how I hated living in Brooklyn: I hate the rats, I hate the rent, I hate all these shitty guys, I hate capitalism.”
Rodriguez is at pains to point out—recording in beautiful Mexico was no vacation. “The first day I got there I felt a lot of pressure to be productive, so I set everything up and worked for 10 hours. I was there all by myself in this lake house,” she says, staring at me with an intensity that suggests she's still not over it. “You really need to be confident and I confronted so many insecurities I had. Some people are afraid to be alone. Some people love it, but I'm the person who's calling someone every day to hang out. I want the people I love to be in my life and so to be alone—I figured a lot of shit out. A lot of the songs are about me confronting things. “Need Myself” is the first song I wrote when I was at that house and it was just me putting the mic on and literally talking about what was happening, like ‘I just need myself to love myself.’ Like love yourself girl!”
Allowed the emotional space to reflect, the songs kept coming, often created by Rodriguez making beats and then dancing around the house free-forming lyrics. Occasionally the situation would inspire songs—“‘Threat’” is about being scared in a house all by yourself, for example”—but songs like “Standard” (“I've been living below the standard”) and “Kitty Kat” were more about the life she'd temporarily left in New York. As with all great pop, they're songs she hopes can connect. “If someone listened to ‘Kitty Kat’ and felt empowered by it, that's kind of why I wrote it,” she explains. “I am getting cat-called in the street, just being a woman walking and I should just be able to walk down the street, you know. It's about me coming home and just being fed up. If someone else can listen to that and feel empowered then fuck yeah, that's sick."
With the rumble of soundcheck still reverberating downstairs, it's clear Rodriguez is keen to get back to matters in hand. Before she dashes off, however, I ask her what would have happened if that tarot reading had turned out to be less positive; if, somehow, it had been able to tell her when she was going to die and what she'd do with the time she'd have left. Granted, it's not cheeriest line of questioning, but Rodriguez doesn't flinch.
“I would go wild. I would go nuts. I would never hold anything back, which is kind of crazy because I should just live that life anyway,” she says. “I try to embody that spirit in my life, so if I'm ever nervous or apprehensive I just think, 'Well this is the only life I have. Why am I being a little bitch boy?'” All hail, Empress Of Everything.
Empress Of Tour Dates
9-6 Philadelphia, PA Bamboo Bar
9-13 Brooklyn, NY Music Hall of Williamsburg
9-16 Allston, MA Great Scott
9-17 Montreal, QC Piccolo Rialto
9-18 Toronto, ON The Drake
9-20 Chicago, IL Empty Bottle
9-22 Minneapolis, MN 7th St Entry
9-25 Vancouver, BC Biltmore Cabaret
9-27 Portland, OR Holocene
9-29 San Francisco, CA Rickshaw Stop
10-1 San Diego, CA Soda Bar
10-2 Phoenix, AZ Valley Bar
10-3 El Paso, TX Lowbrow Palace
10-5 Austin, TX The Mohawk
10-6 Houston, TX Rudyards British Pub
10-9 Miami, FL lll Points Festival
10-10 St. Petersburg, FL The Bends
10-11 Atlanta, GA Eyedrum
10-12 Carboro, NC Cat's Cradle Backroom
10-14 Washington, DC DC9
Empress Of With Purity Ring
28th October Cambridge Cambridge Junction
29th October London Roundhouse
1st November Antwerp Trix Club
2nd November Luxembourg Den Atelier
4th November Cologne Kulturkirche Köln
5th November Prague Roxy
6th November Warsaw Proxima
8th November Stockholm Debaser Medis
9th November Oslo Rockefeller
10th November Copenhagen Amager Bio
11th November Berlin Berghain
Michael Cragg is a writer who recently relocated from London to LA. Welcome him on Twitter.