If you were to ask your everyday music fan who Lorely Rodriguez was, the response might be little more than a blank stare. But should you ask them about Empress Of, their reaction might be a whole lot different.
For much of the last decade, Rodriguez has seen her Empress Of project go from an enigmatic series of YouTube videos in 2012 to releasing her third studio album last month. While her first full-length, Me, was unleashed back in 2015, this self-produced affair was followed up in 2018 by the more communal Us.
Working with the likes of Dev Hynes, Cole M.G.N., and more, the record followed on from appearances with names such as DJDS and Khalid, slowly turning the Empress Of moniker into something of a household name.
In addition to working with Australia’s own Banoffee in recent months, it’s clear to anyone that Empress Of is slowly becoming one of the most in-demand and critically-acclaimed artists on the scene today.
Though the current COVID-19 pandemic recently shut down Rodriguez’s plan for a promotional trip to Australia ahead of the release of her album I’m Your Empress Of, Rolling Stone had a chat with the exceptional artist in the days leading up to her latest record.
How are you feeling about the release of I’m Your Empress Of?
I am so excited! Obviously it’s been an insane few weeks. It’s just been crazy. Like, my touring plans, and just the reality that I’m not going to tour this album any time soon, which is crazy because it’s such a huge part of the campaign. But, in a way, I just feel so blessed that I did make this album and I get to release it. Everyone has music to listen to. It’s just weird. Life is weird.
It definitely sucks that I can’t do stuff like press in person and do photoshoots and do more artwork for the record campaign, but I’m just going to have to trust that it’s just going to make an amazing album because I know it’s an amazing album. I’m just excited for people to hear it.
What was the creative process for this album like? It’s been noted it was written while between tour dates with Lizzo and Maggie Rogers.
It was written before I went on tour with Lizzo. I was touring my last album, Us, which I put out at the end of 2018, and so I toured for a year straight. Touring the whole world – going to Australia, going to Mexico, going to all those countries in Europe, [laughs]. It was so intense.
I came home and I had two months off, and I had so much to say that I couldn’t think about while I was touring because life on tour is like you fly somewhere, or you drive somewhere, and then you play, and you do it all again. It’s like adrenaline rush, adrenaline rush every day. There’s no time to think about shit that’s going on in your life. Like, thinking about “Oh yeah, I’m extremely heartbroken.” There was no time to think about things like that on tour.
When I got home, it just poured out of me like a very, very beautiful, creative channel. People have asked me, “Oh, why did you decided to produce most of this yourself”, and honestly it wasn’t a decision. It was just waking up out of bed and wanting to write songs. I just wrote so many of these songs so fast.
Was the whole record written as a response to this heartbreak, or were some tracks written beforehand?
Well, it’s just things I was experiencing in life. Feeling empty and feeling like someone who you were with took all the good things about you and left you empty. That’s what “Void” is about. Feeling so desperate, and wanting to hook-up with someone, and you catch yourself saying the same things that you said to your partner that you said to the person you’re hooking up with. It’s just things that I was feeling at that moment. Desperation, loneliness; a lot of things. Also, it’s a dance record, too. There’s crying on the dance floor, and it feels good, and it feels cathartic, and a relief.
How effective was the record in serving as a form of catharsis? You’ve noted that a line like “choose me over her” feels embarrassing at first, but sung over a beat like on “Give Me Another Chance”, it becomes quite powerful.
Yeah, I mean, I really think this record is one of my best albums because it does a lot of things that I feel are signature to my music, and it just grows on them and builds on them. The production feels like my production, but, I feel lyrically that I’ve grown on this record. I think being honest and believable in a song is what translates to a listener. Those lines hurt, and they feel good and make me feel good. I think that’s a sweet spot.
I had an experience like that. I was going on a hike by myself and I was listening to music – to the new Porches record – and it was one of his songs and I was just like, “Oh my God, I want to give this guy a hug.” But then I was like, “Oh my God, he’s a genius because I’m giving in to the lyrics.” I feel like I had a moment where I achieved what I hope my songs do when listening to someone else’s music.
There’s also a strong theme of empowerment in the record as well. Was that related to this feeling of honesty?
Definitely. I recorded my mom narrating a lot. I just feel like this record arrived somewhere in my growth as a woman, and I just really wanted to capture that somehow. I felt like recording my mom as an older generation. She’s always told me what she thinks the right thing to do is, and I never listen.
It feels personal and I love the things that she says because they are things I know and believe, but I don’t know if I would say them myself. She says, “Love is the language of the heart” in one of the songs. And I just went, “Ah! How do you get away with saying some of this stuff?” She didn’t write any of it down. I just turned the mic on. She was like, “What do you want me to talk about?” and I said, “Talk about being a woman, talk about being an immigrant, talk about being a mother or a lover.”
She just talked a lot, and I love the part she says about, “Woman is a word but you make yourself the woman you want to be.” I put that at the end of a song where I’m basically left with nothing and I’m just empty, and I wanted to have her there to be like, “Pick yourself up”. I definitely wanted her to be the voice of reason.
There was a quote from you in the album’s announcement which saw you describe the album’s title as being I’m Your Empress Of because of how you share your music and emotion with with the world every time. How does this influence your creative process?
I think it’s less about writing songs for listeners, and more about having the freedom to say what’s on my chest. It’s going back to that cathartic release that I feel so lucky to have music for. I feel like artists can be very sensitive sometimes, and we’re very lucky to have an outlet to put that energy into.
To me, I’m releasing this and getting it off my chest, and now it’s like someone else’s feeling. We all kind of relate to those universal feelings.
Even in the opening song, there’s a mix between the personal and the communal. While your vocals state that “I’m your Empress Of”, your mother adds her own lines, and it becomes this interesting mission statement for the album.
Definitely. I just really love the first track because I’ve always wanted to say my own name in a song. I feel like on this record I did a lot of the things I wanted to do, and I pictured them in a way that sounds good. Nothing sounds forced. It’s so weird.
With the way I’m releasing it, I basically announced that I was putting a record out [in February]. The record campaign is so short. It’s one of those beautiful, rare moments where I’m not being precious about hiding things or revealing things too much. I am just very proud of the music and I know what it is.
When I wrote the record, I was like, “This needs to come out ASAP.” Even during coronavirus, we talked about pushing the record back, and I was like, “Nah, put the record out. Let’s just do it.”
Is it ever difficult to strike a balance between making things serve as something of a dance party while allowing your emotions to shine through?
To be honest, nothing on this record was difficult to achieve. Everything just came out naturally, and I think me producing most of it had a huge hand in the way it sounds. A lot of this has things that I love to use. I love to use classic drum sounds and I love to work in and around 120 BPM Those are like classic dance elements. Singing over that, this is how the record came. It’s was just very seamless.
You noted that self-producing this album wasn’t a conscious decision, but given your previous work with collaborators for your second album, were you able to approach I’m Your Empress Of in a different way?
The only thing that’s different is how fast it came out. I didn’t really overthink things. One thing that was different is I wrote a lot of the beats on planes and on tour. That was different, and I feel the intensity and drive and always moving that you can hear that on songs like ‘Love Is A Drug’ and ‘Give Me Another Chance’. So, a lot of those beats were made on a 6am flight from so and so to so and so. That half asleep but adrenaline type, that’s definitely where I was at when making these beats. Then, I’d come home and I had the space and time to sing and think about them.
Did you take a different musical approach at all for this one? It doesn’t feel as pop-influenced as your last, though it feels much more vibrant and sonically expansive.
Writing pop songs is just a part of me that’s never going to go away. I love collaborating and being an artist that is genre less in a lot of ways. I love how diverse the people I collaborate with are. From Blood Orange to Khalid to Banoffee we’re all very different. I love pop and that’s always been a part of me.
You’ve been to Australia before, though some fans might not have heard of you until your recent collaboration with Banoffee. How did that come about?
She’s one of my best friends. She lives in L.A. and we’re really good friends. I love her music and she asked me to be on her record, and I said, “Yeah, of course!”
You’ve obviously worked with a lot of different artists in the past. Obviously the end result is always great, but does it ever feel a bit daunting working with these artists and finding a common musical ground when you might both have different approaches?
I think you never know until the song is done. You can just search for it, and search for it, and search for it and then when one of the pieces flips in, you’re just like, “Oh! we spent eight hours trying to see what this song is and now the song is incredible.” It’s never the same, and everyone has a different process. Sometimes it’s easy. Like when I worked with Jim E Stack, two songs we wrote together – “When I’m With Him” and “U Give It Up”, we’ve written in an hour. It’s very easy, very fast, and that’s our vibe. It’s not always like that.
Obviously the next step after releasing an album is to head out on the promotional trail. You were supposed to be in Australia recently, but how have the current state of things changed your future plans?
I’m going to have to rely largely on this record being incredible to listeners and to fans. I can’t promote the record. I can do press over the phone and email, but I can’t promote the record in a traditional sense. I can’t visit radio stations or travel. I can’t tour. It’s going to be an interesting record. I’m just accepting whatever comes. I’m not really letting my expectations of anything grow.
I just know that the music is undoubtedly very good, and that’s all I can do at this point. I can just hope that it goes with fans. I have amazing fans, so I hope they come through.
How do you feel the current state of things will affect the music industry across the next year?
I just think globally the music industry, restaurant industry, small businesses… it’s just a very hard time for a lot of people. I have no idea what’s going to evolve in the next week or next month, I just know that people are hurting from this right now and it’s going to be a tricky time for a lot of people.
Many musicians have been using this period of self-isolation as a means to embark on some musical creativity. Are you hoping to do the same, or do you hope to keep things focused on your latest album?
I’m definitely writing new music. That’s all I can do at this point. Me being an artist I can keep promoting this record as far as I can.
Empress Of’s I’m Your Empress Of is out now. Listen to the new album via Spotify below.