You have to be impressed with Empress Of. What began as the staunch solo project of Lorely Rodriguez has evolved into a spellbinding act, influenced but never defined by high-powered collaborations with the likes of Chrome Sparks or DJDS.
Rodriguez is one of the hardiest artists I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to. During our conversation, it becomes clear that the fine-tuned cohesiveness of her sound is due to a stalwart sense of self-administration. Anything with Empress Of’s name on it is something she has fought for, and won’t give up anytime soon.
While she was in Australia for a brief few days, we caught up for a chat.
“It was like I had developed a sound that was so strong for myself that I could go into rooms with other producers and just be confident that that isn’t going to be diluted.”
HAPPY: You’ve just started directing your own music videos, on I Don’t Even Smoke Weed and When I’m With Him. Were these clips your directorial debut?
LORELY: Yeah, on this record I wanted to take more control of the visuals, so I didn’t know how to direct… When I’m With Him is actually the first video I directed. But I knew why I was doing every single thing that I did. It was really scary on shoot day.
HAPPY: You’d do it again?
LORELY: Oh, yeah. I would direct videos for other people too, it was just really fun.
HAPPY: Was it a case of knowing how a video shoot works and wanting to tackle that world, or just, as you say, wanting more control?
LORELY: Wanting more control, definitely. I’m a musician first and foremost, and controlling my visuals is a way of… visuals tell such a story in the songs, it’s just having more control of that.
HAPPY: Was it the same for your press shots and album cover then?
LORELY: Yeah, it was the clothes I was wearing, the concepts for the album cover, and the fonts… everything. I was very, very picky over everything.
LORELY: Honestly, no matter what you do in collaborating, especially if it’s your project, I just wanted to make sure that the songs sounded like Empress Of songs. So that was something I learned, that I can still own my songs.
HAPPY: Cool – I guess what I was asking is that after you release an album that’s self-produced and you see it do well, is there a resistance to going into something with so many other people?
LORELY: I had the opposite feeling, like I had proved to myself on my first album that yes, I can do all the songwriting, all the production, all the recording. It was like I had developed a sound that was so strong for myself that I could go into rooms with other producers and just be confident that that isn’t going to be diluted.
HAPPY: And they’d go in with a very strong idea of who Empress Of was.
LORELY: Yes, all the collaborators I work with, they know my music. That’s the beauty of collaboration, it’s a mixing pot, it’s ‘let’s melt this together’. Chrome Sparks and DJDS, they’re friends of mine and they respect songwriting, they respect sounds.
HAPPY: Do you think that’s the way you’ll continue to do things?
LORELY: I don’t know, I can never make concept albums at the beginning of writing them, I just go with the flow, and where I am in my life. Like when I made this record, it was being in rooms alone but I wanted to hang out with my friends and make music, and make visuals, so I don’t know… that’s what happened. That’s why it’s Us, because I was sick of being alone.
HAPPY: So go with the flow, and if you learn a few new things…?
LORELY: Yeah. This new record, what could it be like? I don’t know.
HAPPY: On the other side you also appeared on albums from Dirty Projectors, Khalid, and more this year. What’s the most fun part about being on that side?
LORELY: What I love about doing my project is that I can make a record that sounds exactly how I want it to sound, it doesn’t have to be too pop or too whatever, I can do that in my own record. And then I can make pop songs with Khalid, and I just can do whatever I want on the collaboration side, I don’t have to be afraid of that. My project, I just own it, I own the sounds so much, but when I work with other artists I love that I can work on any genre. Like Dirty Projectors or Khalid, they’re so different. Or Blood Orange! There are so many different types of artists, so I love doing that.
HAPPY: I actually found you on an old Darkstar song.
LORELY: Oh yeah! Reformer.
HAPPY: I hadn’t heard the name Darkstar in about 10 years.
LORELY: I love that song.
HAPPY: Would you advise newer artists to try out both sides of the coin? Completely owning something but also finding a close group of people to work with?
LORELY: It depends on what kind of music you want to make. Like Blood Orange, his albums are so collaborative but he’s able to retain his own sound because he’s such a master curator. Then some people need to work alone. It really depends on what type of artist you want to be, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. What I will say is being good at anything requires so much time. You can’t just…
HAPPY: There’s no magic way.
LORELY: There’s no magic way to be good at it. You have to spend so much time making music, I write so many songs.
HAPPY: I wanted to talk about LA as well. There are so many people who come to LA to ‘make it’, but you grew up there…
LORELY: So I moved to New York when I was younger, that was my ‘make it in New York’. When I moved back to LA, I was really thirsty for all the things that defined who I was. Like my culture, being the kid of an immigrant, being Latin American, I don’t know, growing up with all the food and the music and the clothing… I was thirsty for that because I had spent so many years roaming around. So I don’t know. What was the question? [laughs]
HAPPY: Say two people are in LA, one came to LA from outside, one grew up there, but they’re both in entertainment trying to make it. Is there a difference in attitude between the two?
LORELY: Oh yeah, the thing is there’s so many different parts of LA. There’s west of the Valley, there’s West Hollywood, and East LA where I’m from. You can be a Valley girl, you can be “I grew up in East LA listening to salsa and eating tacos”. You know, there’s just so many different types of LA. But being Latin American and growing up there, my mum being 15 minutes away from me, that’s a part of who I am.
HAPPY: You say you moved to New York then back, are you in LA now?
LORELY: I’m in LA now.
HAPPY: So you moved from one metropolis to another, then back. What do you say to the classic tale of a musician locking themselves in a cabin in the woods to record an album? Does that appeal to you at all?
LORELY: It does. Going somewhere pretty and writing music is like a dream. So I understand why people do it, I do it. If you don’t live there, if you don’t live in solitude in a beautiful remote place… a city is a hard place to be inspired by, it’s pretty distracting. There’s just so much of other people’s bullshit being pushed on you, so I can understand people getting into cabins and writing records.
HAPPY: Well, there’s plenty of isolation down here if you need some.
HAPPY: Now you don’t have any live shows planned until next year…
LORELY: So what I did was – I’m not taking a break. I’ve been to Paris, London, Mexico, Australia, New York, Chicago… and that’s in the last six weeks. So I’m not taking a break per se, but I’ve been doing it a little differently. I’ve been doing press for the record. I didn’t choose to tour as soon as the record came out because I wanted people to live with the music. Because I did that with my first album and it was a little like… it was interesting to play a record the day it came out and nobody knew the songs. I wanted to give a little space so that people could live with the record.
HAPPY: I guess that’s what I was asking. It seems that there’s this idea of the perfect album release strategy now, that idea that you have to be touring when your album drops. But what you say makes perfect sense.
LORELY: Yeah, I mean I’m working the record, I’m promoting it, but for me connecting with fans is so important. I want them to know the songs when they buy tickets and see the show.
Us is out now.