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Empress Of
Empress Of.Photography Dana Boulos.

Empress Of’s songwriting takes you inside her deepest thoughts

Lorely Rodriguez on Spanish language pop, working with Chloé on their new campaign, and taking control with her new album Us

Empress Of’s first album, Me, was written in isolation during an extended trip to Mexico. True to its name, the record saw Lorely Rodriguez offer a glimpse into her emotional world, full of leftfield electronic pop songs with searching and self-reflective lyrics. Don’t expect the same for its follow-up.

“Something I’ve got a couple times, which is really frustrating, is people being like, ‘I hope it sounds like Me, because I love the sound of Me!’” Rodriguez sighs, drinking a scotch before her headline show at London’s Chats Palace. “Bro, I’m not going to make the same thing twice! Why would I ever do that? Some people are not being accepting of how pop this record is.”

Us is certainly a brighter, bolder record than Me. The songs are sunnier, soaring high sonically but remaining grounded and relatable lyrically. Having relocated from Brooklyn to Los Angeles (where she originally grew up), Rodriguez set about working with collaborators like Blood Orange’s Dev HynesThe Life of Pablo producers DJDS, and Spanish electronic artist Pional, recording in short bursts all around Southern California. Like her debut, this change in focus is reflected in the album title. “I like collaborating, I was tired of being alone,” Rodriguez says. “I wanted to make it personal, but to tell stories that have a mutual feeling and a mutual comradery.”

Still, these creative partnerships shouldn’t distract you from Rodriguez’s own considerable writing, vocal, and production talents (she guesses that she produced about 70 per cent of the record herself), nor the more direct role she’s started to take with her visual direction, be it her self-directed “When I’m With Him” music video or the creative direction on her photo shoots. “I want to see myself in my music and my visuals,” she says.

A day earlier, Rodriguez was in Paris for Fashion Week with Chloé, who used her song “Everything is You” for their AW18 campaign, shot by acclaimed photographer Steven Meisel. “I actually sat really close to Michael from MM Paris (a creative direction company), who helped put the fashion film together,” she says. “He really pushed to have my song on it.” As hectic as the experience was, she came out feeling inspired. “It felt so natural, especially after seeing the collection,” she says.

Here, we speak to Rodriguez about taking control on her new album, how pop music is starting to accept the Spanish language, and why God is a woman.

For this album, you’ve played a more direct role in your visual presentation. Was that something that came naturally to you?

Empress Of: It was a total learning curve. I did it because I was not being represented the way I wanted to be represented. As a woman, as a Latinx person, living in east LA and having gone through all the things I have gone through, I felt like my past visuals weren’t representing me as a whole.

It’s so scary when you ask a company for money, and you’re convincing the record company that you can direct it. You can’t sleep the night before, you worry so much about stuff like, ‘What happens if we don’t have enough dolly tracks to get the shot?’

Did you get a sense of imposter syndrome at all? 

Empress Of: I’m a pretty good learner, so before I directed, I asked all my friends who were directors how to direct.

What’s the best piece of advice they gave you?

Empress Of: Write down every shot you want to make. You need to have an objective list. If make-up is taking too long, you need to remember to still do a shot before the light goes away, you know?

What was Fashion Week like?

Empress Of: It was my first time at Fashion Week. It was really intense, but I’m glad I did it. Natacha (Ramsay-Levi, Chloé creative director) is such an inspiring person. They used a song from my first album (in their AW18 campaign). It just made sense to be there, meeting Natacha, and being like, ‘Oh yeah, this is a place for strong women.’ Honestly, it felt so natural, especially after seeing the collection. It’s such a strong, bold collection, and I feel like I’m a strong woman.

You’ve been fitting in tour dates around all this, too. Do you find touring takes a big impact on you, creatively?

Empress Of: I can work around it. I like touring, I like seeing people everyday. I love seeing people engaging with my music.

I did two tours in one month. I put out a song, and then on that day I started a tour with Mura Masa, I did the West Coast with him. And then there was a week off, and then I did the West Coast again with Blood Orange. It was two totally different crowds. Both of the tours were amazing.

I learned that touring with your best friends is the best thing in the world. Mura Masa is amazing, and that tour was great. Blood Orange and I are homies, as soon as I walked into the venue in Vancouver, the whole band hugged me, all at once – it was a group hug. I was so nervous, because the venues were, like, 2,000 capacity. But I walked in and I was with family, so there was nothing to worry about.

“I wanted to be able to say things lyrically in a way I haven’t before. I just wanted to make songs that were more direct and less bullshit” – Empress Of

I know you recently moved back to LA from Brooklyn, but I wanted to know why did you moved out to Brooklyn in the first place?

Empress Of: Because that was were like all the music I listened to was. St. Vincent, Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Blood Orange – all those artists were in New York at the time. I wanted to see them play, and see the venues where they played their first shows. I wanted my first shows to be there.

I’ve read interviews with you before where you seemed to hate New York.

Empress Of: Oh yeah, it’s such a hard city. But if you ask anyone from New York, they’ll all say it’s a hard city. After four years, I got really exhausted. I missed my mum, and I wanted to be close to my family. It was an inspiring move. My culture spills out of every corner (in LA), my Latinx heritage. It’s a totally different city as an adult, I can just see the parts I could never see as a kid because I had to bug my mum.

Where did your ideas come from when it came to writing Us?

Empress Of: From growth as an artist, and what I wanted that growth to reflect. I wanted to be a good collaborator, I wanted to maintain my sound as an artist, I wanted to be able to say things lyrically in a way I haven’t before. I just wanted to make songs that were more direct and less bullshit.

‘When I’m With Him’, the lead single from Us, is such a good song. How did it come together?

Empress Of: ‘When I’m With Him’ is like, my favourite song. I could listen to it over and over again. I wrote it with my friend, Jim-E-Stack. I don’t (usually) write songs with other people – I produce with other people, but I don’t write songs with other people. It was cool to write with him, because it didn’t feel like forced at all. I would say something, and then he was like, ‘It would make sense if it ended like this.’ That song is deeply personal, even though I co-wrote it with someone.

The songs on Me were all sung all in English, but you’re using Spanish on Us a lot more too. Was that a deliberate decision you made?

Empress Of: I’ve been making music in Spanish since I started out. There are (a lot more) artists making it normal (nowadays), from all levels – from ‘Despacito’, to Kali Uchis, to Cuco, to me. And because of social media, the world is more accepting of different cultures. BTS is massive, Rosalía is massive, Christine & the Queens is massive. You don’t have to sing in English for someone who doesn’t speak the language to love the music.

Do you find you singing in Spanish very different to singing in English? Would you say things you might not say otherwise?

Empress Of: Yeah, that’s a method of writing for me. Sometimes I’m literally repeating things I’ve said in English to a partner, but it’s too much to repeat the hurtful things (in the same language). I want the listener to feel the way I felt in that moment.

What lyric are you most proud of on the new album?

Empress Of: I love this lyric on ‘Love for Me’. It goes: ‘Every time I think about you it’s a summer haze / Tripping over the shadows of the mess we made / Now we’re a little older you want the same me.’ It has so many meanings to it. You want the same ‘me’, which is (the name of) my old album. But it’s also a song about getting older, and being friends with people you can’t relate to.

Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?

Empress Of: Yeah, I do. I’m trying to figure out how and who I believe in. As I get older, I find myself praying, but I don’t know who I’m praying to. To me, God is a woman – but not like, in an Ariana Grande way. I like the idea of connecting to the world in a bigger way than myself. I know it’s just aspirations, dreams, and energy, but it just makes me feel safe.

Empress Of’s new album Us it out October 19