Lorely Rodriguez organically speaks in metaphors without even trying. While recapping everything that has occurred in her life since putting out Me in 2015, she proclaims that she would “rather build a boat to actually take me somewhere” as opposed to treading above water to survive as an artist in terms of output. For a solid two years, the producer and singer toured non-stop across the U.S. and eventually moved from Brooklyn to her hometown of Los Angeles so she could be closer to her family. Returning to this familiar environment proved to be a huge inspiration for Rodriguez as she reconnected with her cultural roots as a Latina and first generation American. All the while, she was steadily working on the material that would become Us. Even though she could have pushed the project out earlier, Rodriguez decided against rushing her process and waited until she was fully satisfied.
“I did not want to take this long making an album,” she says. “I could have put an album out much sooner, but it wouldn’t have been the album that I wanted to make.”
Rodriguez grew up in a suburb in Los Angeles within a huge Spanish community. Even as a child, she noticed a strong distinction between her life and those of her peers in school; her Honduran mother raised her in a Spanish-speaking household where they played salsa music and consumed an assortment of hot and flavorful soups and stews. That said, she also remembers being obsessed with shows like Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a staple in pop culture at the time. This constant exposure to the varying layers of America’s melting pot made a deep impact, and since then Rodriguez has always been fixated on the concept of “two things coming together that are very different.” It’s something that has ultimately become a major theme in all aspects of her art as well.
“I’ve learned how to accept it and be inspired by it as an adult,” she explains. “That’s why I write music in two languages, in bilingual songs. That’s why so much of my imagery is inspired by growing up in East LA like Dickies and Cortez’s, but with some high fashion top… Like, how do we bring all the worlds together?”
Like most teenagers, Rodriguez began writing songs as a way to express herself. Making music was a creative outlet and even though she describes her earlier efforts as “bad,” it was a starting point. It led her to attend Berklee College of Music where she graduated with a degree in production and engineering and from there the solo projects for Empress Of quickly took shape starting with 2013’s Systems EP. Five years later, she’s still on the same grind for the most part, but her outlook has evolved based on personal experiences.
In-between sips of coffee and several rounds of self-inflicted laughter, Rodriguez flashes one of her crown encrusted teeth. On top of serving as a visual symbol for her moniker, it matches the silver jacket she’s wearing that’s worth at least $3000. Naturally, Rodriguez paired it with black Nike shorts and metallic sneakers. The whole look isn’t far off from the cover of Us, a bold image of Rodriguez sitting with her legs spread open while wearing a vintage sleeping gown from the 1920s with basketball shorts from the streetwear brand Kids of Immigrants—she previously starred in a campaign for their spring collection—and Adidas sneakers behind a pastel yellow background.
Representation is extremely important to Rodriguez which is why she doesn’t downplay her identity on any level. To be involved in art is a luxury and privilege that she doesn’t take for granted. She adds, “My whole thing is about mixing all the worlds and the social classes together.” Now that Rodriguez has established a personal platform for Honduran artists, she also uses it to elevate other likeminded creatives that have become a part of her community.
On her sophomore album, Rodriguez explores all of the different types of relationships that people experience in their lives -from romantic partnerships and platonic friendships to communal family and the personal relationship with oneself. All of this beautifully blended within every fiber of Us from the lyrics to the additional artists that Rodriguez summoned to contribute to the project. The LP begins with a Devonté “Dev” Hynes collaboration called “Everything To Me,” an interesting parallel given that the title of the opener on Me is “Everything Is You.” Whereas that song served as a commentary on the toxic nature of obsession, this new track captures the wholesomeness of a healthy friendship.
More moments of clarity like this come out in the other electro-pop songs that make up Us as confessions, declarations and affirmations spill out of her mouth. To an outsider, Rodriguez’s journey might look like a slow climb toward the top, but if that’s the price for maintaining control then it seems to be paying off because she continues to reach new heights. Learn more about Empress Of’s latest stage of creative growth in the interview below.
What was your intent behind Us?
I wanted to make something I felt really proud of and so I did. I feel really, really proud of this album. I think there’s something funny about making stuff. You know immediately when you make something that’s really good. You can defend it to the very end, even past that point of exhaustion. You can defend it or you can always revisit it, you’re reading it over and over again. For me, if I listen to something on repeat, I know that I’m happy about it. I listen to a lot of my own music, it’s really embarrassing.
I feel like it’s part of the job.
Yeah, it feels really cool to be like, “Oh, this is what Drake must do too.” ‘Cause their music just reaches a point where it’s not yours. That’s the idea I like of calling a record Us, because it’s communal experiences and at a certain point when you make art, it’s not yours. It’s everyone’s.
Hearing you explain the title that way, it makes a lot of sense. That whole idea of community within art.
Yeah. It’s such a big word too because we’re going through so much shit. Obviously, I just met you and you’re like, “Oh, this month has been crazy, like Kavanaugh and Kanye…” Everyone is experiencing it and we just need to talk about it. We need to lean on people. You can’t just like be on your island. You know? I feel like it would be a really hard thing to do.
You were in Mexico when you wrote a lot of the songs for Me. Did returning to LA and getting back in touch with your roots change your process at all with putting this record together?
Yeah, it’s a different process. I always make songs the same way, I’m always alone and trying to detach myself from the world, having an internal dialogue. With my creative process there’s a lot of elimination. I have to make so much music because a lot of the initial songs are surface level. If I can’t convince myself that this song is good, how am I gonna convince people who I never met? So I need to be alone to be able to do that. After I wrote those initial ideas, the feelings and real stuff, I reached out to people because I was doing that in my personal life. I was reaching out to talk to people.
I found all these amazing artists in LA that I was inspired by, that represented me, like amazing Latin mix artists, like performance artists, comedians, people I never knew growing up there going to school. It was just part of my nature to reach out to people. So I started to collaborate with people which was really beneficial to me as an artist and the record. It’s hard to collaborate and retain your vision and retain your sounds. I feel like this record did that. I felt like I curated the collaborations as opposed to letting people do things for me.
What do you look for in a collaborator?
Respect is one of the biggest things. Respect for my art and my sounds and my vision. I work with lots of people who would just take what they do and put it on my songs. I’m like, “I’m not a piece of Wonder Bread.” It’s not like we’re making a sandwich here. I want to make a soup. Wow, the metaphors are…
They’re just flowing out.
Yeah, that was really dumb… Maybe I have something bigger to say about soup. Now is not the time. I don’t have the big revelation about soup.
Maybe on the next album.
On the next album, yeah.
I’ll know it came from this conversation.
I’m exploring the metaphors.
Your production is awesome, it’s crazy that you don’t get enough credit for it.
I do get credit. My credit is on my album. My credit is on how much of my songs I own. Like when I get the royalties or all that shit. It’s fine. People ask me a lot, “Oh, you’re so modest about your production, like why don’t you talk about it more?” It’s just that I don’t want to have to remind people of what I do. Empress Of should be synonymous with producer, with singer, with artist… It should just be one and the same.
I posted something recently where a publication didn’t credit me for producing my own songs. They credited my male co-producers. So I was like “Produced by me and DJDS.” I was reading the comments, ’cause the comment section is like … I don’t know, it’s like hilarious. But I don’t do it that much. On YouTube I did it once, and I will never go back.
I read the comments and this one dude was like, “Relax, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s an honest mistake.” But people really have my back. This person commented back being like, “It’s not a secret how she makes her music. She’s very open about being a producer.” I was like, “Yes!” So anyways, I do produce my own music and it’s sick. Thank you.
You’re welcome. I really feel like with this album there’s something about it that feels a lot lighter and brighter to me, even with the image itself. But also with the production. What was the aesthetic or the vibe that you were going for with Us?
I wasn’t aiming for something, I was mostly representing where I was when I was writing the record. That was a process of just making music all the time and I think being in Southern California, being in a relationship, being surrounded by my family and by supportive people, this community that I found, all these other artists of different mediums. I think that’s what you hear when you hear that brightness you’re talking about. I’m in a different place in time.
Me dealt with love, loss, and self-acceptance and I think to some degree some of those themes definitely come through on Us, but can you elaborate a bit more about some of those feelings or issues that you’re confronting on this album?
When I started to write the record, I was like “I don’t want to just write love songs. What other mediums and feelings can I explore?” So I started to write songs about my other relationships. There’s a song called “Everything to Me” which features Blood Orange, and that’s us walking around in the yard on a hot, heavy day like New York being almost unbearable which it is most of the time. Just being like “I can get through this because I’m with my friends and if I’m next to this person then anything is manageable.” I think that goes with the record being called Us, this is the time to lean on people.
I wanted to explore those relationships. There’s a song called “I’ve Got Love,” which is about a friend who had depression and mental health struggles, and came to me telling me they wanted to hurt themselves and their life. It was so much and I just did my best to talk through it in the time. There’s never an answer you can provide for someone, but you just have to be there. I left that conversation feeling like I didn’t say enough so I wrote that song. That song is a different type of relationship.
I feel like the songwriting is definitely different on this record. The first record I was thinking about magic and hate and masking things in a really acid trip way. In my real life I’ve become so blunt because I feel like I don’t want to confuse people with saying things. I want to communicate exactly what I feel when I feel it. It’s important. I think that reflects in the songwriting.
One of my favorite tracks off the record is “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed.” I listen to it every day.
Really? Yeah, it’s kind of like making these songs and then sharing them with people and them being like, “I don’t know if I like this song. I don’t know if this is an Empress Of song.” Like “When I’m With Him,” people were like, “Yeah, maybe you should see if someone else wants to sing it, like maybe someone else wants to put it on their record.”
That’s one of my favorites, that’s crazy!
Yeah, me too. And I’m like, “This is a bop.”
Straight up bop.
I can’t wait till people stop using that word, bop. But it is a nice word.
It’s having a moment.
Yeah, it’s better than “lit.”
What’s the other one… “That slaps.” I hate that one.
Oh, I like slaps. I like slaps because it reminds me of like your neck jerking when you hear something really good.
I also like the song “Timberlands.” It reminds me of my own inner dialogue, especially the line about someone complimenting you when it doesn’t make sense. I was really like, “Damn, I felt that.”
Oh, yeah. It’s like someone invading your space, and everything that you want to say to them in the moment, but so much of what you say to them involves how you feel about yourself. You’re just like, “Why are you invading my space?” I’m doing my thing, I don’t love myself, but I’m my favorite centerpiece. Sometimes it’s wanting to go off on people, mostly some dude coming up to you at a bar or something, and you’re just like, “I’m here, I’m living my life.”
“Why are you bothering me?”
Yeah like what entitlement do you have to come over here and think you get my time?
You said that you’re trying not to write as many love songs, but what are some of the most valuable things that you’ve learned from some of your past relationships?
Oh, my gosh, I’ve learned a big lesson recently which I feel like you can hear on this record. But it’s about respect and someone valuing you as much as they value themselves. There’s a couple of elements where it crosses over. “Just The Same” is a love song where I’m asking someone to love me just the same as I love you. And then “Trust Me Baby” is asking for that mutual respect. It’s weird, I don’t know how to word it, but respect is a huge thing… The origin comes from respecting yourself. A lot of people are in love and they don’t have self-respect, and they can let their partner walk over them. I’ve learned that recently throughout the years. You’ve got to put yourself first and then you’ll be able to love people better. If you love yourself, you can radiate that love to other people. Not like being an egomaniac, just self-esteem and self-respect.
Fun times! Love, relationships…
Yeah, love sucks… It’s amazing and can move armies and shit. What was that Helen of Troy type shit? It’s powerful, but also it’s just like ugh! It’s tiring.
Yeah, it’s exhausting.
Love is exhausting.
It’s draining. You do learn a lot about yourself from loving other people though.
Branching off of that, I interviewed Tommy Genesis so I also got an advance of her record and I love your collab.
“Naughty” is the jam.
What version did you hear?
Hmm, good question… I just know I’m on this one folder, I didn’t know there were multiple versions. At first when I heard it I didn’t even know you were on it, and then I recently dipped into the folder and it was like “with Empress Of.”
I’m going back and forth with her on text about trying to change stuff. I love her. She’s sick.
You’re both cool.
Yeah, she’s really cool. You know what I hate? Is that people are like, “You look like Tommy Genesis” and I’m like “Bitch, what are you?”
People are really bad with complimenting and comparing people of color, I find in general. Like no matter what. So that’s hilarious because…
It’s because we both have curly hair, but my hair is so much frizzier than hers.
Y’all look completely different.
That doesn’t make sense.
It’s a high compliment, but it’s just like…
Do better. Do better with your compliments.
I know. Just say that you think my hair is pretty, don’t say like, “Oh, you look like Tommy Genesis.” She retweeted something like my album announcement and then someone was like, “Oh, I thought this was Tommy for a second.” I’m like, “Bitch… Oh!”
This album is gonna come out, and then what? More touring?
Yeah, I’m gonna tour the record. I have some really exciting things from the record like covers, visuals, tour…
Merch. I love making merch.
Your merch has always been so on point. I loved the Me era of merch like the hats.
Oh, yeah. I like this merch a lot more. I’m working with the designer and she’s incredible. Her name is Elaina. She’s really cool. I like working with women. I never worked with so many women in my life than right now. Designers, stylists, photographers… It’s really tight.
I feel like when you finally do have those moments where you’re working with all women and you’re like, “Oh, wait this isn’t normal.” It’s weird that that’s not normal until you either make those spaces for yourself or just happen to work with a certain company or something and that’s their thing. But I hope it becomes more normalized in some way.
Yeah, I’m seeking out those scenarios more. I get really excited working. And it’s not like, “Oh, let’s hire women.” It’s more like, “Oh, this person’s a boss.”
Hire the ones it makes sense to work with. I very much believe in that as well.
But a lot of times, people who have similar experiences as you will help you. They’ll understand what you’re trying to make more. Working with photographers, set designers, art directors, they’ll understand the color or the references. Like I don’t want to put that TV from the ’80s in that shot, take it out. No, I don’t want to use too much silks, just enough silks.
I’m assuming you’re going to have more videos as well?
Yeah, I’m working on them. I’m trying to get money… It costs money to make shit. People don’t do shit for free and that’s good. I don’t want people to do shit for free. I just have to find the money. Gotta go fishing.
What are you working toward as an artist? Do you have a goal that you’ve sort of set for yourself as you’re going through this journey?
My goal right now as an artist is to represent myself to the fullest. Represent myself as a woman, as a Latin American artist, as a producer, as a musician, as a director. Like all these things I’m taking up, like I want to represent myself. And then I think whatever I make … Like I never think about, not that I never think about it, but my goal isn’t like to be famous.
I will find my community, my audience if I make the things that I’m proud of. Growth as an artist is so important and I do feel like because I know how to represent myself now, there’s no confusion. People understand what I’m trying to say or what I’m trying to look like. They understand it ’cause I know how to do it.
For more in-depth interviews, revisit our profile on Ryan Hemsworth right here.