“I Like Being Scared When I Make Music”: A Very Candid Chat With Empress Of
"What the hell is this place?"
“What the hell is this place?” Lorely Rodriguez asks.
We’re street-side at a Surry Hills café, decoding the menu. Food’s on the cards, but things are looking a little complicated: everything’s got that extra ‘Gram-worthy element. We stick to coffee. “That’s me!”, she says, pointing towards a single-origin Honduran.
Caffeine is needed: Rodriguez is only in Australia for a few days, which is no time to adjust to the 17-hour time difference between Sydney and Los Angeles, where she lives. She’s here on a press tour, hyping up Us, her sophomore album as Empress Of.
Empress Of first came to attention in 2012 with Colourminutes, a series of at-first anonymous 1-minute tracks on YouTube. Mysterious and crystalline R&B, they were followed by Me, an album written in isolation in Mexico following a break-up — it’s suitably raw and experimental pop, its icy synths like cold stabs of heartbreak.
Us, as the name suggests, is different. While pop-convention might make you think it’s dedicated to one person, the ‘us’ refers to Rodriguez’s support network — her family, chosen and biological.
It’s that warmth that defines and colours Us. Rodriguez collaborated much more while writing, working with the likes of DJDS, Pional and Dev Hynes aka Blood Orange, who appears on album opener and ode-to-friendship ‘Everything To Me’.
Rodriguez also moved back to LA from New York while writing, where she found comfort and strength in the Latinx community she returned to. It’s evident across Us, as she alternates singing between Spanish and English, and her music video for ‘When I’m With Him’, which she directed, is a self-described love letter to East LA.
As we chat, it’s clear that Us was forged through these connections, allowing Rodriguez to be fearlessly vulnerable as both a songwriter and person. She also tells me she’s hopeful she’ll return to Australia sometime in 2019, especially since she’s enjoying playing the new tracks. They were written to share.
UPDATE: Empress Of is playing Hobart’s Dark Mofo June 2019, with sideshows in Sydney and Melbourne. Tickets are on sale for the latter two from Thursday 18 April.
While Me was made in isolation in Mexico, Us was much more collaborative. What was the thought process behind switching it up?
After I worked on my debut record, other artists became more aware of me, asking me to collaborate with them. I started working with other artists on their music — like Blood Orange and Dark Star, and Pional. That inspired me to write with other people on my own music.
It felt really natural, I suppose?
Yeah — I had done the whole thing where I was isolated and working on music. I wanted to invite other people into my process.
Collaboration has become such a part of my development: I’ve done so many, from super-pop like Khalid, MØ and Tommy Genesis, to Blood Orange and Dirty Projectors. But I love that because I am the type of artist I am, I can just jump around everywhere. It’s really fun.
I found this with a lot artists I’ve talked to, when you’re starting out there’s this myth of ‘The Artist’: solitary, alone in the woods, making work. And then when you feel more assured of yourself, you open up.
Yeah. I still like to write music in isolation, it’s just, at this moment, I don’t have to worry about my sound getting diluted because I feel really confident in the sound that I’ve made for myself.
I just wanted to sing ‘Big Feelings’, something that I could share with people I don’t know, in an audience.
I think that’s why a lot of artists want to be so protective over their music, because they need to develop a sound. I did that with my debut. I was like, “Boom. This is what my production sounds like. This is what my song writing sounds like. What my lyrics sound like.”
Broadly, what is Us to you? What does it represent?
I wanted to share the emotional burden of expressing myself. I wanted to sing songs that other people could feel like it’s their story as well.
I was talking about it with someone yesterday, how the lyrics [on Us] aren’t so specific in a way where it’s isolating the audience. Sometimes on my first record, I’m describing a moment so much that it’s almost too abstract. It can be really beautiful, but [on Us], I just wanted to sing ‘Big Feelings’, something that I could share with people I don’t know, in an audience.
There are lyrics on the record that I was nervous to sing because they were thick feelings. But part of change is that it’s scary — I like being scared when I make music. Like, [‘Timberland’ lyric] “I’m always the first to laugh when it hurts” — it’s so revealing. And, I would never sing that on [Me]: I’d be like, “I’m too cool, this is my debut”.
And on this record, I don’t care about being perceived as cool. I want to sing real stuff.
On your episode of Song Exploder, you talked how Us is a lot warmer than your previous music. What came first — the sound, or the open lyrics?
The sounds came first. When I was in the room with Jimmy Stack and he played me the little beat that he started [on ‘When I’m With Him’], I felt like that was missing from who I am right now.
I don’t know if I could have written that type of song if I hadn’t had those close encounters… [or] be able to write those memories if I hadn’t had that warm texture, where I can sing lyrics like that.
Because the song itself is so on the nose — I listened to it this morning. I’m pretty obsessed with my music. [Laughs]
I mean you should be. If you’re making it, you should be able to listen to it, right?
I know! And I didn’t do that on my first record. Every time I heard it it was like ‘wahhhh, so heavy’. So I never listened listened to it. And this record is so fun to listen to. I listen to it when i’m driving. It gets to the point it’s just a song on a playlist by another artist.
You took control of the visuals more for this album as well. What did you want to do?
Well, I feel like I was so caught up in presenting something for my first album that I forgot to present parts of me that were real and colourful, very warm, very authentic.
With this record, I wanted to not regret anything. Like, just make a cover and put it out and not be like, “Is it good?”
Part of doing that is taking ownership just being like, “Okay. I want this, I want to wear these colours. I want to have this background, I want to work with this make-up artist and this photographer.” And that can be kind of scary when you haven’t done it before.
But also like I said, change is scary but it is growth and I wanted to show who I am… [like] singing in Spanish and being a Latin artist in LA, that has always been a part of me. I think people I worked with on the first record didn’t know how to show that — and so I was like, “Cool, I’ll direct it myself, because this is my experience and I probably know how to show it.”
You worked on Us for a long time and scrapped a lot of material. When was the moment when you were like, ‘Oh I’m writing the right things’?
Really towards the end. I had written ‘Trust Me Baby’ and ‘When I’m With Him’ and [realised] these are songs that are shaping the record.
I was so caught up in my first album that I forgot to present parts of me that were real and colourful, very warm, very authentic.
You just know when something’s missing. You’re like, “I’m not telling this part of myself but I’ve written 25 songs trying to explain it. And I haven’t nailed it yet.” I write a lot of songs to get to the emotion I’m trying to. I wrote so many bad songs to get to one song.
I don’t know why, but I always think about this interview Kesha did when her debut album came out, on how she wrote 200 songs for a 14-track release.
That happens. A lot of artists do that. I went and saw a show at the Guggenheim… Hil…
Hilma af Klint? I went to it recently on holiday, it was wonderful.
It was insane. She made so many sketches and so many pieces for that series.
And, I always wonder whether artists are comfortable [with posthumous retrospectives], having people look at their notebooks with their sketches in them. Because it is so revealing — [it’s like] you’re going through their closet or their studio, rummaging.
I wonder if they were to present their retrospective, would they have revealed sketches and notebooks of pencil drawings of what turns out to be a huge canvas?
When I saw [af Klint’s exhibit], I really related to it because I’m like, oh if someone looked through my hard drive — way less romantic — they would see 100s of versions of one song, where this verse is too long, or I’m adding textures, or I’m changing lyrics.
Well, you’ve had a similar experience with Song Exploder, right? You send stems of a track off, and they play it to the world.
And I asked [Song Exploder host Hrishikesh Hirway] not to play the ones he included in the show. I was like, “Hey I’m going to send these to you because I think they’re really revealing, but can you not play this part?”, and that’s the part that he chose.
And I knew he was going to do it. But I was really happy because it does reveal a lot about my song writing process, and it’s vulnerable.
There’s a lot of versions of love across the album — familial, romantic, plutonic. Friendship is really clear, given the opening track with Dev Hynes. It feels like it’s a really transformative force on Us.
I think it’s amazing to write a love song that isn’t about having sex. So many love songs, so many number one pop songs throughout the course of history have been about getting laid. [Laughs] And I like the idea of just writing about a different type of love.
I was in a lonely place and I wanted to be surrounded by friends and family — being American, and getting bombarded with our politics constantly, is so overwhelming, I wanted to make something that made me feel warm.
Empress Of’s sophomore album Us is out now. She plays Dark Mofo’s second Night Mass, held 21-22 June, with sideshows at Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory on Wednesday 19 June and at Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club on Thursday 20 June. Tickets are available here.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.