Empress Of Does What She Wants
Lorely Rodriguez talks love, mental health, and her collaborative new album 'Us'
Lorely Rodriguez writes about love in massive and minuscule ways. She measures it in the stars, she memorializes moments shared on a city stoop. Whether you’re speaking to her in person or listening to her lyrics, Rodriguez is considerate and direct. Both are attributes that she uses to write songs that feel universal and familiar one moment and extremely private the next.
With this resolve, the Los Angeles-based musician is growing more and more into her moniker Empress Of, named after the tarot card from the Major Arcana. Lyrically and instrumentally, Rodriguez possesses the powers of the Empress through her music. The Empress is a motherly figure; she represents sustenance, creation, and stability. The traditional rendering of the card depicts her staring directly at the cardholder, sitting straight up with a scepter in hand and a crown on her head, symbolizing her power over the natural and mystic world. Similarly, within her music, Rodriguez wields images of the natural world to express the turbulence of love and the necessity of finding balance in relationships. She writes about nourishing relationships as if each one were a vast forest.
Rodriguez embodies the same commanding presence on the cover of her forthcoming sophomore album. Like the cover of her debut, Me, Rodriguez stares directly at her spectator, but on Us, she appears more confident, her head cocked to the side. Although the album is named after a plural pronoun, she felt that solo image was perfect. “I was going to make a cover with a bunch of people but I like the defiant image of it. It’s just where I am right now. I just wanted to be really confident because that’s how I feel right now,” she tells me with a smile. When she grins a couple bedazzled jewels on her teeth sparkle — one of them is shaped like a crown.
Despite the solo shot on the cover, Rodriguez was not alone when making her sophomore album, nor did she want to be. “I want to be surrounded by people I love,” she says urgently. “I want to make songs that make other people feel they’re not alone.” She recruited a cast a friends (Dev Hynes, DJDS, Georgia, Pional, and Chrome Sparks) to write and produce alongside her. In addition to listening to Fatima Yamaha and Black Madonna, her hunger for collaboration was fueled by her love of This Mortal Coil, while the ethereal tones of Us were inspired by acts like Cocteau Twins, Angelo Badalamenti, and Julee Cruise.
“I think I succeeded in retaining the essence of an Empress Of album. I feel like it’s my album. I feel like all these collaborations are part of the story, they’re part of my history of my growth as an artist because I have work with these people on their own music. It doesn’t feel too distant to me,” she says. These relationships helped her synthesize a clearer vision, each unique person adding to the greater whole.
2018 has been a year where anger and misunderstanding fuel isolation, leaving the seeds of love and empathy malnourished. But with patience and awareness, a sense of community can thrive and relationships can heal. That was Rodriguez’s intention with Us — she hoped to stimulate dialogue about relationships, to talk about devotion that perpetuates spiritual growth and the kind that hinders it. Read our Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: In a recent interview you mentioned that it was harder to write songs and narrow down which you would include on the album in comparison to Me.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I wrote a lot of songs. I spent two and a half years writing music constantly so there’s such a body of work. It’s just difficult narrowing down what you want to say with something and there are keys songs that helped me decide what other songs are going to be on the record. “When I’m With Him” and deciding to put “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed” on the record, it made me find my way through the rest of the songs. Like, “Oh, well if we have this uptempo dance song, we need to balance it out with a slow song, ‘Again,’ as the ending. The intro should be slick.” It’s like a puzzle. You have key pieces.
STEREOGUM: You titled your first album Me and this new one is called Us. One is singular and one’s plural. What was the intention there?
RODRIGUEZ: I could have named it a lot of different stuff but I just thought naming Us really reflected where I was in my life. I don’t want to be alone. I want to be surrounded by people I love. I want to make songs that make other people feel they’re not alone. I get lots of messages saying like, “Thank you for writing this song.” I get tons of messages about the song “Woman Is A Word.” I don’t know, I love songs that have a purpose and fill a gap for someone. There are definitely songs like that in my life where I’m like, “Yes! Thank God someone wrote this song because I needed it.” Us was very natural. I didn’t think too long about it.
STEREOGUM: Was there a particular Us? The album seems to talk about a lot of different relationships — is there a specific person in mind or a greater whole that you were trying to speak to?
RODRIGUEZ: I wanted to cover a wider landscape of relationships. There are friendships. Good friendships and bad friendships and growing out of friendships. There’s songs about mental health and depression. There’s songs about love and jealousy. There’s songs about being totally, madly in love with people. There’s songs about growing out of love with people. There’s a bunch of different Us’s.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned “I Don’t Smoke Weed” and I’ve been curious about that one. Paired with a song like “Timberlands” you paint some really specific scenes.
RODRIGUEZ: They’re very narrative songs. I love the way I describe New York in “Everything To Me,” the opening track because I’m just describing actual scenes from my life. It’s a humid place in the summer and as you’ve seen it will just start raining out of nowhere. Your apartments are so small and it’s so hot. In the summer, I don’t mind getting rained on right now because I’m next to my friends and we’re just dealing with this madness together. “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed” is not a song about smoking weed. It’s about doing things that make you uncomfortable with someone who makes you feel free. So, it’s a love song. But I moved to Southern California and weed is legal. It’s very much a part of culture. I am my surroundings so I wrote a song about weed.
STEREOGUM: Would you describe it as a bi-coastal album having songs grounded in New York and LA?
RODRIGUEZ: No, I mean, I wrote [“Everything to Me”] right when I left New York. I think I was feeling nostalgic.
STEREOGUM: It’s like a continuation from where you left off on Me.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah and also Dev [Hynes] is on it. We worked on “Best To You” while I was working in between my records and that was a very important collaboration for me. It’s a song I’m really proud of. I wanted to find a way to cross the collaborations I’m doing and my own album. I wanted to bring these people into my record. It goes with the whole theme of Us and feeling it’s the time to not do things isolated or alone. Things are really shitty right now, I don’t want to spend time alone. I want to lean on people. I want to ask them for help.
STEREOGUM: Do you think that’s something we need in pop music right now? More collaboration?
RODRIGUEZ: Like “We Are The World.” [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health and anxiety in pop music with artists like Ariana Grande —
RODRIGUEZ: Sweetener is so good. I listened to a lot of Ariana Grande while making this album. I also love that she worked with Pharrell so much. And I feel like her fans were like, “What is this? This isn’t Ariana Grande!” But I love when artists take risks, especially pop artists. Even that Imogen Heap song –
STEREOGUM: Yes! I love that song. I love Imogen Heap.
RODRIGUEZ: Me too! I listened to a lot of Imogen Heap songs as a kid. I use to listen to Sia a lot as a kid when she was in that downtempo group Zero 7. They were chill. I was like, “I’m so young and I like chill music. I don’t listen to Linkin Park anymore, that’s for losers. I listen to Frou Frou.” [Laughs]
Pop is such a vague term. Popular culture is in an interesting place. Stuff that isn’t on the radio is still so massive because of social media. Billie Eilish isn’t on the radio but she’s influencing a whole generation of people. Clairo, I think she’s pop music and Kali Uchis, I think she’s pop music and then there’s also Selena Gomez and Childish Gambino. I think it’s interesting. I think there are so many ways to be a pop star. It’s moving towards a place where I would love to have the world, where you can just be a pop star because so many people love you, not because the radio plays you, not because you’re at the VMAs.
STEREOGUM: It seems more personal and intimate –
RODRIGUEZ: Because you can talk directly to fans through social media.
STEREOGUM: That could by why people are opening up more about mental health and their personal struggles.
RODRIGUEZ: So many artists died at 27. I think because there’s an outlet to connect personally with your fans and a lot of people use it, that when something tragic happens to them, it hurts. It hurts even more. It hurts even more because your fans are not just getting paparazzi coverage of you and seeing you at award shows. They are seeing you on Snapchat and Instagram and doing live streams. They are seeing what you’re eating for breakfast and you getting ready and dressed.
So, with what happened to Mac Miller, when you see something like that you feel it could be any of your friends. It makes people want to speak about it. You don’t want that to happen to your friends. I ran into a friend yesterday and asked, “Hey, how are you?” and he honestly told me that he was having substance abuse problems and I was like, “Dude, thank you for telling me. I am always here to talk. You’re not alone.” Now is the time. I mean, it’s always the time to listen, but if people are motivated to talk about those issues because they are seeing their favorite people suffer through it, then you should show up also.
STEREOGUM: Is that something you wanted to achieve with this album — having a bigger conversation of community?
RODRIGUEZ: I feel like everything is so heavy, I just wanted to steer away. It’s so nice to be able to talk about other people and not just my own draining feelings. I can talk about my friendships and a whole array of relationships. There’s a song on my record [called] “I’ve Got Love,” which is about a friend who came to me and confided in me about wanting to commit suicide — I don’t go into the details on the song. It’s what I want my friend to listen to when they’re experiencing those feelings. Just know that you have all these people around you that love you and if you need something we’ll be there for you.
STEREOGUM: There are specific moments without giving the whole context about who you’re talking about. I hear themes surrounding ideas of achieving equality, about giving and receiving. It feels really poignant right now, that notion of, “I’ll value you if you value me.”
RODRIGUEZ: I was experiencing that with a love relationship — that you can compromise a lot of yourself just trying to let other people accept you. I learned that I can’t give too much if I’m not getting the same because then I am going to be taken advantage of. There are lines like that on the record. On “Trust Me Baby” there’s a line in Spanish, “Yo soy tu igual,” which means “I am your equal.” “Respétame” — “respect me.” I am your equal. I am not an animal that you saved. I’m not going to give you more than you’re giving me.
STEREOGUM: I have read that singing in Spanish feels more personal to you. Could you speak to that?
RODRIGUEZ: After writing for two years I was exhausted of only having one language to express myself in. I said all of these things in English. I’ve said them to lovers. I’ve said them to friends. I’ve said them. It’s exhausting, and creatively so. I wanted to sing in Spanish because I [wasn’t doing] it enough. I’ve been [recording in Spanish] since I started Empress Of. My EP Systems is half in English and half in Spanish. I felt I needed to do it in order to articulate myself better with the songs. I just got bored of only having one language to write in.
STEREOGUM: What did you learn about yourself recording Us?
RODRIGUEZ: The biggest thing on this record is representing myself right now and taking ownership of that. The first record was a debut so it was a lot easier to get to that point. All those songs, I didn’t have to write 100 songs to get to those songs. This record was just about being really decisive and honest about where I am right now. Even if people around me are saying that it sounds too different from the last record or they don’t like this song or they think this lyric is silly, whatever they think, I don’t care. It’s about following your gut.
That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. No one is telling me what to do. I think I listened to a lot more people on my first album. On the first record, everyone was like, “Oh it’s your debut, here are all my opinions on what you should do as an artist.” Now I’m like, “I want to work with this person, this photographer, this artist, these producers. I want to co-produce. I want to collaborate with people. I want to put this song on this album, I don’t care if anyone likes it or not.” No one is telling me what to do.
Us is out 10/19 via Terrible Records. Pre-order it here.