Lorely Rodriguez emerged as Empress Of around 2012, with a moniker inspired by an auspicious tarot card reading and a sound that soared with an emotional sophistication belying her age. Her infectiously energetic approach to progressive pop was wonderfully laid out on her self-produced first album, Me, in 2015. The follow up, Us, depicts a deeper dive into her trademark brand of pop – lyrically introspective but musically explosive and inclusive, touchy subjects masked by electronic exuberance, it’s a celebration of the personal – the agony, the ecstasy and the in-between.
Written and recorded over the space of two-and-a-half years, having recently moved back to California after years battling it out in New York (“I really missed my family, I’m really close to my mom and I just wanted that part of my life back”), Rodriguez used the writing stage of the process to explore parts of the Golden State she hadn’t had the opportunity to, growing up as the daughter of a single working mother of four. Booking holiday rentals and embracing California’s deserts, forests, oceans and valleys, Rodriguez allowed the beauty and seclusion to fire the creative process, but rather than explicitly influencing the work the external environments created a space for Rodriguez to examine her internal landscape. “Setting has always been an important element in the creative process for me. My first record was written in Mexico City, alone, and that had a huge impact on the record, but I think it’s less about the actual [geographical] setting than where I am in my life, and how it makes me feel, and how I reflect on everything,” she offers.
Despite the fact she eventually felt compelled to get out, the years Rodriguez spent in New York were crucial to the formation of her career, and it was there her vision for Empress Of crystallised. “I decided after college to move to New York, and I don’t know why I wanted to, but all the bands I loved were there and my friends were there, but living in New York and being a musician is really hard,” Rodriguez remembers. “I had three day jobs, and I wasn’t sleeping and I was making music at night and going to shows almost every night, but I realised that I felt really fulfilled by how much I felt that all of it was worth it. I think it’s really hard to do something where you really feel like it’s worth it, where you feel like it’s worth all the labour and the bullshit, and I think from that moment when I was really struggling, but I had this immense honour in what I was doing, I think that was when I realised, that’s what I should be doing with my life.”
While her artistic vision started to focus, a career was by no means a given, something she remains grateful for today. “I didn’t know if I would be able to not be a nanny, not be a music teacher, not be a private instructor, I didn’t know if I would have to stop doing that, it seemed unattainable, and I think when I actually started to make a living off music and be able to do it full time, it definitely was a surprise to me. It wasn’t like, ‘yeah!’ – it was more like, ‘OK I’m super grateful, it’s such a privilege, and not everyone gets to this point’. So I don’t really take things for granted, I try not to.”
Taking the leap to follow her dreams wasn’t an easy one, despite being backed by some of the most reputable labels in the game. “I signed my first record deal and then I was like ‘OK cool I’m gonna make a little bit of money, I’m gonna quit my job’, which is really scary because being a musician you have to think ahead a lot and be like ‘OK I need to make this much money, I need to do these gigs, say yes to these remixes, or I need to play this event’. You always have to be planning because you never know when it’s going to be gone, or you never know how much overhead you’re going to need on a tour. It’s such a weird life but I think it’s quite common with freelancers, there’s a lot of crossover with other careers that have the same unknowingness. I definitely talk to my friends who have salaries and I’m like, ‘get out of here!’”
Half a dozen years into her oeuvre as Empress Of, Rodriguez is finally starting to feel comfortable with the groundwork laid and the body of work she’s established, enabling her the degree of artistic autonomy she dreamt of. “My dreams with Empress Of are just to create a really solid foundation for me to build the things I want to build. I feel like I’m in a place where I finally feel really confident, and I think that’s because I’ve got over some things that have been really scary to me and I’m convinced they were the right things to do, and I just want to keep doing what I want to do. The shows I want to build, images I want to represent for myself and the people who feel empowered by the music … I feel like I’m really empowering myself through the music, as a woman and as a Latinx artist, in a way that I haven’t before, and I want to build an even stronger foundation for those aspirations to exist.”
As it turns out, Rodriguez’s current status as a successful, world-conquering artist is one she’s been manifesting for some time. “I have a diary from when I was 13, and I wrote what I was going to be doing when I was older, and it’s pretty much it. Being an artist and travelling, and wearing lots of black – I don’t know why I wrote that in my diary. But being an artist and performing and travelling, it’s pretty crazy that I’m doing exactly that, kind of like I was trying to see the future or something. I think if you put that energy out there, though, it’s more likely to happen.”
“I feel like I’m really empowering myself
through the music, as a woman and as a Latinx artist, in a way that I haven’t before.”
For Rodriguez, the most magical part of her work as Empress Of remains the most direct, humanistic connections she’s able to make through the music. “I think there’s magic in making someone feel something through your music,” she reflects. “Playing them a song and them connecting to it, and being inspired by it or being moved emotionally, I definitely think there are magical moments that I’ve made, and I see it when I know someone has listened to the music and they feel inspired to make something. I get messages all the time, like ‘your song Woman Is A Word has given me so much confidence’ or ‘has shown me so much more potential of what I can be’. And to me, I think that’s magic – it’s real-life magic, everyday magic.”
When the time came for Rodriguez to work on what would become Us, the translation of experience into material became more about opening up the channels and seeing what flows, rather than having specific preconceived ideas about what a song should be, and creating a space where the magic can happen when she least expects it. “I never strive for something – with these two records that I’ve made it’s just a process and an evolution, and after I’ve done it I realise what I’ve done. Talking about it constantly in the press process I’m looking back and then have some perspective on it,” she explains. “When I was writing the record early on I was like ‘Yes! I want to write about this one incident!’ And the songs always felt so forced. My best and favourite songs are the ones that, after I’ve written all those forced songs and I think that I suck at music, I turn the mic on and I start writing with no expectations, and that’s when what I’m actually trying to say comes out. Whenever I have a plan and strive to do something creatively, I always fall short of it. It’s much better for me to just make something unconsciously, without trying. If I sit one day and say ‘OK, I’m writing a love song today’, it’s gonna suck. It’s going to sound like ‘is she really in love, though?’”