From Limewire to Björk, the journey to Empress Of’s debut record.
When Lorely Rodriguez first moved to New York City back in 2011, she felt trapped by a cloud of haze. The producer known as Empress Of, now 25 years old, was fully surrounded by the city’s youthful lifestyle: that of working your ass off during the day at service jobs, partying and going to shows every night, crashing with friends, showering at their apartments the next morning, (literally) living at music venues, and generally learning by diving in headfirst. But when it came to producing her music, this overstimulating world was not conducive to creation. “All of the music I was obsessed with at that time was hazy, hazy New York and hazy emotions, everything was hiding behind a texture,” she says. “It was really nice but I realized how hard it is to connect with haze. I couldn’t connect with an audience when I was drowned in textures.”
Upon meeting Rodriguez, it is quickly apparent that her personality is the opposite of haze. For our first conversation, it’s late spring, and we’re sitting on a bench in Williamsburg’s McCarren Park, enjoying vegan ice cream and blueberries. Over the past year, the born-and-bred Los Angeles native has toured with the likes of Kimbra and Florence and the Machine, but today we are here to focus on her—and to talk about Empress Of’s debut full-length, the aptly titled Me (released September 15 by XL and Terrible Records). In the sense that Me is so deeply personal (as indicated by its name), Rodriguez is preparing for her formal presentation to the world.
When Rodriguez was growing up, her father, also a musician, attempted to teach her Beatles songs on the family piano. The uninterested teen resisted, preferring a more autonomous musical education online. When the family got internet, the first website Rodriguez visited was www.christinaaguilera.com. Later, upon discovering Limewire and Napster, thirteen-year-old Rodriguez set out to find the weirdest stuff she could find. She was quickly drawn to Björk, whose swan dress was being broadcast on MTV and VH1, channels Rodriguez and her brothers watched after school. In particular, Rodriguez became obsessed with the Icelandic singer’s big band experiments, like 1995’s “It’s Oh So Quiet.” She researched the original composers and fell down a jazz rabbit hole. After being a competitive jazz singer in high school, Rodriguez enrolled at Boston’s Berklee College of Music to study jazz. But having received her first laptop when she was seventeen, Rodriguez became more interested in making beats. She switched into the college’s sound engineering program. After graduating in 2011, Rodriguez moved to Brooklyn to perform with her pals in Boston psych-shredder outfit Celestial Shore.
Once in New York, Rodriguez began to perform under her new solo monniker, Empress Of. The name originated after a tarot reading by a friend, in which he immediately pulled the Empress card, one that is associated with nature, fertility, femininity, and abundance. Rodriguez later wrote a song inspired by the experience, “Hat Trick.” She decided against calling herself simply “Empress,” saying, “That sounded so cocky. I’m confident most of the time, but not cocky.”
In late 2012, Empress Of released her first recordings, Colorminutes, a song-a-day demo project wherein she releases short, 1-minute snippets of songs straight to YouTube, each assigned a specific color. The process was meant to refine her creative discipline and technical skills. When discussing Colorminutes and her overall practice, Rodriguez feels strongly that true passions lead to intellectualizing: “When you obsess over something there has to be a point where it becomes academic. Like, if you’re obsessed with DJing, then you’re going to be obsessed with all the techniques and the history and records or record collecting,” she explains. “When I first got into production, it got really nerdy for a second. Like how to make certain sounds and how to mix a little bit and then it crosses over into the creative side.” Colorminutes was an opportunity to flex, as she says, the intersections of her nerdy tendencies and her creative side. The project’s minimal information was meant to let the songs speak for themselves. Rodriguez notes that although she would like to return to these songs at some point, particularly her personal favorite, the turquoise-green #2, she cannot because her production and songwriting styles have evolved so intensely. “I would never write that experience like that now,” she says, of the time in her life channeled into that song. “It would be much more of a story. I think developing as a songwriter, you learn how to tell stories so people walk away with your experiences.”
Concurrent to Colorminutes, Rodriguez was working on expanding two of the songs, “Champagne” and “Don’t Tell Me.” Upon completion, she sent them to her friend and eventual manager, Brian Justie, who offered to release the 7-inch on his label No Recordings. Like Colorminutes, “Don’t Tell Me” (adapted from Colorminute #15) and “Champagne” (which draws from Colorminute #7) show Rodriguez’s rapidly developing tonal aesthetic. However, thematically, both songs draws from similar themes as Me: waning relationships, a need for intimacy, and a complex range of emotional interest.
“I think developing as a songwriter, you learn how to tell stories so people walk away with your experiences.”
Soon after the release of the Champagne / Don’t Tell Me 7”, Rodriguez attracted the attention of Terrible Records, who offered to release her next EP, 2013’s Systems. Systems marked a noticeable transition in Rodriguez’s music. For one, she was growing more confident in vulnerability and honesty, hiding less behind textures and reverb. The main motivation behind this musical development was Rodriguez’s desire to connect with her audience. “It was good for my bedroom when I was starting to make music,” she says, speaking of the dreamy, buried vocals of her earliest music. “But I wanted to connect with people and I wanted to be able to tell someone exactly what I meant.” An alternative method of looking at Rodriguez’s path from opacity to exposed is through her album art. While Colorminutes and the Champagne / Don’t Tell Me 7” offered no indication of Rodriguez’s identity, Systems and Me both presented the producer quite candidly, as if she is finally announcing her arrival.
Perhaps most importantly, Systems found Rodriguez acknowledging her identity as a first generation Honduran-American. Growing up, this part of her identity felt fractured. She remembers the stressful divide between her two worlds as a split personality: “I would bring a different change of clothing in my backpack and try to be like my friends when I was in school,” Rodriguez recounts. “But when I would come home it would be like, oh, my mom is from Honduras.”
Systems united this desire to belong while still acknowledging her roots by featuring Spanish versions of each song. “It’s really important to me to connect with my roots, even in the really simple way of language. I’m not going into the technical rhythms of the kind of music that I grew up listening to. But I feel like language is a strong way to communicate with people. I wanted to communicate with my mom and all the people when I go play Mexico or something, so I wanted to be able to play songs from my record in Spanish,” she adds. “It fulfills a part of my artistry to pay respect to the language that my mom speaks.”
When the discussion of a full length arrived, Rodriguez wanted the ability to control her vision with the support of a strong team—which she ultimately found when Terrible told her they’d be partnering with XL. After signing the contract for the album that would eventually become Me, Rodriguez was faced with the frightening reality of writing and releasing ten songs. Initially, the recording process began in a rented studio space in Williamsburg that was equipped with a large disco ball and blue lights. While the atmosphere sounds conducive to making an synthpop record, New York as a whole left Rodriguez uninspired. “All the songs I started to write were really shitty, like I was upset, living in a shitty apartment in New York and I hated everything and I hated the relationship I was in,” she recalls. Her manager encouraged her to get out of the city, so Rodriguez hit up her friends to see if they had any location suggestions. A friend offered up their house near Valle de Bravo, Mexico. In winter 2013, Rodriguez left behind four jobs nannying and teaching music and jetted off to Mexico with everything she would need to make an album.
Fast forward almost two years. Rodriguez is taking a break from recording a track with Alex “Agor” Cowan of Blue Hawaii in a hidden studio in Bushwick. On the quest for a snack, I mention that I have been listening to Me on my iPhone. It was the first time Rodriguez had seen her record the way that many listeners will experience it. She became so thrilled to see the ten songs she has worked on for almost two years in a quasi-physical mode. Ever since the album was completed, Rodriguez has been hustling to make sure Me receives the attention it rightfully deserves. Following a week-long Spring residency at Elvis Guesthouse (which included DJ sets from Dev Hynes, Le1f, Lee Bannon, and Ezra Koenig, along with surprise attendee Björk), Rodriguez traveled to London in July for a residency series with Throwing Shade, Kero Kero Bonito, and Young Turks. In November, after her own headlining U.S. tour, Empress Of will be opening for Purity Ring for their European tour. Rodriguez’s determined quest to introduce Me to as many listeners as possible is indicative of her desire to claim her own agency—after all, it is her story.
It’s really important to me to connect with my roots … It fulfills a part of my artistry to pay respect to the language that my mom speaks.
“I love this record. I love playing this record. I own up to this record 100%. I put everything I could possibly put into it,” she explains. Me’s success, like its content, ultimately depends on the energy Rodriguez pours into it, and for the past two years, she has been relentlessly devoted.
At this mid-summer meet up, Rodriguez tells me more about writing her record. To start, when she arrived in Mexico, Rodriguez broke down. The opportunity to spend a full month alone in a foreign place with the sole purpose of writing her debut album was a surreal opportunity. However, it was difficult to write with the pressure of fulfilling a contract rather than just for herself. “I felt so obligated to come up with content every day. I felt like I was writing against the clock. You can’t force yourself to be creative. I worked on it every day. Some days it was garbage, some days it was amazing, but I mostly drove myself crazy.” While making the album’s biggest hurdle may have been isolation and personal high expectations, these same conditions were the most motivating. “Driving myself crazy is what made those songs happen,” she says. “I spent so much time by myself because I was far from anything. A lot of the songs are about me digging in my head.”
“The biggest message in this record is that it’s hard to be comfortable with yourself,” she continues. “It’s hard to love yourself. When you’re alone for so long you have to love yourself, otherwise you go crazy. I didn’t love myself. When you’re in New York there are so many distractions, there are so many people you can go to and forget that you have these insecurities.”
Having just exited a relationship before traveling to Mexico, Rodriguez was left with no one to hide behind. This solitude led Rodriguez deep into her psyche, where she was able to reflect on her life and relationships. She uses “Need Myself” as an example. “I was just sitting on the bed and the first thing that came out of my head was ‘I just need myself, need myself, to love myself, to love myself.’” The words became a meditative mantra both about surviving her isolation and about self-love; soon, the rest of the song poured out. “A beat is like blank paper and once you throw the words on there, you can never go back. I can never erase the words and write a new song over the same beat. It still has the spirit of it; there’s still the idea that was there before,” Rodriguez explains. “For me, the best part of writing music is the first thing that comes out of my mouth when I write the beat.”
Me is a journey towards self-love and acceptance, or as Rodriguez interprets it, “The record starts with me being very happy and kind of wanting to be someone so I can be closer to them, ‘All I want to be is you,’ and towards the middle of the record I realize I want to be by myself and by the end of it I’m just by myself in a room with the lights on.” The introductory song in reference, “Everything Is You,” illustrates Rodriguez’s intense desire for intimacy with lines likes “Everything I do is because of you.”
Both “Water Water” and “Standard” explore Rodriguez’s own observations of privilege and class difference, “Water water is privilege / Just like kids who go to college,” she sings on the former; “I’ve been living below the standard / while you struggle being home and bored” on the later. In Mexico, she could see the divide between “the dirt poor and those riding in bullet-proof Ferraris” was so apparent, which just exasperated her frustration with friends who idle by, while she toils with a “hunger that feeds the fire.”
As she says, about midway through the record, Rodriguez’s narrative begins to seriously shift from lacking and longing towards independence. “Kitty Kat,” an outcry against cat-calling, is the first major step in this direction. “I can’t just be myself,” she says. “I can’t walk down the street and just be. It’s that moment where you’re like ‘Really, I can’t just walk down the street, I have to be this object for you to criticize, make note of, objectify?’” The lyrics “Don’t take me by the hand and walk me through with pity / If I was a man would you still do the same,” refer to her early days, setting up at shows and having people assume that she needed assistance. It’s the sort of experience that is all too common for female musicians: in an interview with Pitchfork’s Jessica Hopper last year, even Rodriguez’s hero, Björk, discussed her own experiences with sexist assumptions about her role as a producer. “Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times,” Björk said in that interview.
I love this record. I love playing this record. I own up to this record 100%. I put everything I could possibly put into it.
“In 2013 I was on tour a lot and when I would set up all my stuff for a show, the sound guys would never talk to me,” she recalls. “They would always talk to my bandmates and ask them all the questions or they would try to do my cables for me.” Even in an early interview with Dazed, Rodriguez was asked, “What is the working process like between you and your producer?” She notes that this rarely happens now (Rodriguez has always produced her own music). She attributes this change to an increasing prevalence of female electronic performers and producers. “Maybe it’s because there have been so many female electronic musicians touring, maybe in 2012 or 2013 I couldn’t list as easily how many female artists there were and now I can just go on and on and on about female DJs or producers. There’s more of them and it’s great!”
It’s almost laughable to imagine anyone other than Rodriguez producing her work, as her lyrics and beats are so interwoven, so intimate and complex. She sounds purely of herself, perhaps most full on Me’s final track, “Icon,” the only song not written in Mexico. Rodriguez’s desperation in the delivery of the final verse (“Keep the lights on for my sake”) is a full 180 degree character shift from the opening verse, “Should I be afraid / You don’t seem to be / All I want to be is you.” “Icon” gently drifts away as Rodriguez sings, “And there’s no one who knows I’m their icon.”
In terms of her own icons, Rodriguez mentions Julee Cruise, Trish Keenan, Elizabeth Fraser, and Angelo Badalamenti as influences when she first started making music. “When I was making this record I was listening to a lot of Sia and Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston because I needed the powerhouse divas. When I first heard them it was like listening to Björk for the first time. It’s so unique in its own way. It’s a reminder that you can be totally unique with your voice because your voice is so special nobody has your voice.” That being said, she is sure to mention that the fragile confidence of musicians like Cruise and Keenen is equally as powerful as Houston’s belting.
The union of these two attributes—simultaneous projections of unrestrained emotion and self-aware vulnerability—are fully manifested in Rodriguez’s live performances. At Me’s release show at Music Hall of Williamsburg, she plowed through the album’s tracklist with unstoppable energy and an impressive range, taking breaks only when the lights were completely black and all that was visible was a water bottle. Like Terrible Record’s 2015 incarnation of Stevie Nicks, dressed in a sheer lace dress, Rodriguez was fully invested in each of her songs, indulging in her most exposed moments with spotlights and her most dynamic with bouncy dancing. When asked by her manager how she would describe her live show in one sentence, Rodriguez thought about how “the record makes me feel— it’s not dance music but, it makes you move in an emotional way.”
“I listen to a lot of dance music, but I’m a songwriter,” she adds later. “I wanted to connect my stories to the beats.” While each song completely bewitched her audience, the concert’s finale, “Kitty Kat,” for which Rodriguez was joined by Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes on guitar, was perhaps the most impassioned moment of the night. As soon as the song’s final note was finished, she folded, utterly exhausted and grateful.