Singer-producer Lorely Rodriguez ran away to Mexico and came back tougher than ever.
Photo credit: Tonje Thilesen
"Empress of what?" is a question Lorely Rodriguez gets asked often. Recording and performing as Empress Of since 2012, Rodriguez knew when choosing the open-ended alias that every song and album title would read like a suffix, an appendage or some extension of a core—so when it came to naming her upcoming debut album, the decision understandably took some contemplation.
"One of the ideas for the album title was What? LOL," she says, laughing. "Because everyone's always asking me, 'Empress of what? LOL,' and I'm just like, 'shut up'."
It's one of those uncomfortably hot New York summer days where getting around the city feels like navigating a giant cast-iron griddle. We've taken cover in an air-conditioned South Williamsburg café that feels quieter than it should—quiet enough, as it happens, to discern Grizzly Bear's 2009 album Veckatimest rippling over the stereo. It's by no means an unusual soundtrack for a Brooklyn café, but is strangely apt given Rodriguez's relationship to the band (since 2013 she's been signed to Brooklyn-based label Terrible Records, co-founded by Ethan Silverman and Chris Taylor, the latter of whom is Grizzly Bear's bassist and producer).
"I'm really happy for Terrible," says Rodriguez, whose labelmates include fellow New York residents Le1f, Blood Orange, and Chairlift as well as Australia's Kirin J Callinan and UK musician Kindness. "It's really nice to be part of a label where you have total creative freedom and where you can be super close to the person who runs it. It's a family for sure."
It's been three years since her first release as Empress Of, the enigmatic Color Minutes series, which saw 13 one-minute tracks uploaded to YouTube, each accompanied by a single color swatch. Many of the snippets from Color Minutes would eventually become fully realized songs on her bilingual EP Systems (her first release with Terrible in 2013, on which she sings in both English and Spanish). For her long-awaited debut album—more than a year in the making—it took months of back-and-forth for Rodriguez to settle on the final title: Me.
"Sometimes people have album titles that are so grandiose, magical, mysterious, or whatever, but I wanted something simple, direct, and personal," she says.
Me is just that, simple in name, and deeply personal in content. As well as reflecting her level of involvement in the album (Rodriguez wrote, produced, and recorded it herself), the straightforward title also marks a kind of independence for the 25-year-old—having toured with Jamie Lidell in 2013, Kimbra in 2014, and Florence and the Machine earlier this year, the release of Me will see Empress Of embark on her first headlining tour. On another level, Me thematically explores that period of rediscovered independence that so many experience after a breakup.
"It's definitely a selfish record," says Rodriguez, smiling. "It's inspired by a particular relationship, yes, but it's more about how much I forgot to love myself throughout that relationship, and after it."
"You are everything, everything is you," she sings on the opening track "Everything is You". It was important for Rodriguez, she says, to begin the album this way—with the uncertainty that begins to take over when you're questioning your independence within a relationship. "Should I be afraid? Everything I do is because of you."
"I wanted the first track to be about being in love and about giving. But it's like, where's the 'me' in that? The rest of the record is about me finding myself. When you love someone so much that you don't even know who you are, that can be a problem—and I had that problem."
"When you love someone so much that you don't even know who you are, that can be a problem—and I had that problem."
But to read Me as a "breakup album" discounts its overwhelming positivity and poise. Where other albums of that mold can be characterised by devastation and introspection, Me is comparatively invigorating. "I'm lucky enough that in all the experiences I've had, the other side has been positive," says Rodriguez of her past relationships. "And if I'm singing about something that's hard for me to sing about, I try to make the beats uplifting."
Undeniably pop-driven, Me is an interrogation of what defines—and in turn, limits—its creator, and on those grounds the album is as much influenced by personal relationships as it is by place. While beginning to write the album, Rodriguez became desperate to escape the tumultuousness of New York and started to seek out new places to write ("I've been living below the standard with a hunger that feeds the fire" she sings on "Standard").
"Initially I was writing a really mean record about how much I hated living in New York," says Rodriguez, who moved to New York four years ago from Los Angeles—where she was born and raised after her parents migrated from Honduras. "There's so many distractions in New York. There's so many shows, so many friends, and so much bullshit—the smells, the rent, everything. It's a hard place."
Thanks to the generosity of a friend, she soon found herself lugging her gear to Mexico to write the album in an isolated house in Valle de Bravo, about a two-hour drive from Mexico City. It was just the retreat Rodriguez had hoped for, but as a self-confessed "city girl", she says, her month spent "alone and vulnerable" in the unfamiliar setting was a challenge.
"I was by myself for most of the time I was there; it was crazy. I didn't have the internet or anything either, I mean I had some dance music on my computer, but I couldn't go on Twitter or whatever and see which new band was putting out what. I really had no outside influences while I was there." She also lacked resources at times—as documented in her first single from the album "Water, Water"—a song she describes as being "about running out of water in Mexico. I was super drunk on New Year's Eve and was so thirsty, but all I had in the fridge was beer and Clamato juice."
"I don't need this love, not from you," Rodriguez sings in "Need Myself"—the first song she wrote in Valle de Bravo, which appears midway through the album. When the anthemic refrain kicks in ("I just need myself to love myself"), it becomes clear just how much the trip to Mexico—and the album that followed—marked a new era of independence for Rodriguez.
We end our chat talking about the recent surge of New Yorkers packing up and moving to the West Coast, and Rodriguez laughs nervously. "Actually," she reveals, "this is my last week in New York. I'm moving back to LA after this tour." She says it's something she's been planning for a while. "It's too hard to live comfortably [in New York]. It's time for me to go back home," she says, in an admission that makes it hard not to immediately reinterpret the album in light of this new information—in the context of a bold, Didion-esque farewell to the Big City.
But there's no bitterness in Rodriguez's tone, and you get the sense that her time in New York—however good or bad—incited a period of growth without which Me may never have transpired. There's a fearlessness in her manner that makes it seem like it doesn't matter where she lives—Rodriguez has the ability to be Empress Of Anywhere. "My skin is like this," she says, widening her thumb and forefinger to make a crescent. "I have a coat of armour now."
Me will be released on September 11 through Terrible / XL / Remote Control.
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