LA born Lorley Rodriguez, aka Empress Of, is a pop princess with a twist. Often compared to the likes of Bjork and Grimes, Empress Of’s high-pitched voice is as delicate and childlike as it is unwaveringly assured. Her first releases, the ‘Color minutes’ – of which there are 15 – established her as an intriguing and accomplished producer, and her subsequent album, Me, all but confirmed her talent for creating dazzling, dynamic and addictive electronic pop.
RCRD speak to her on a Wednesday afternoon at Hackney’s glitzy venue Moth Club before her gig that night.
How did you start?
I started making music because my dad was a pianist and so I grew up with lots of music around the house. I liked watching MTV and VH1 and watching divas on stage like Celine Dion and Maria Carey.
Is there any music that stuck with you from childhood that you think might have influenced your music now? Stuff your parents listened to?
A lot of stuff. A lot of salsa like Selia Cruz and Maria Carey and Whitney Houston and stuff like that. That’s a lot of stuff that I still listen to today.
And growing up in LA, did that influence your music taste?
A lot of the stuff that my parents listen to like salsa music – just music that you listen to as a Latino child growing up in LA. It’s very much a cultural pride kinda thing. I’m very very proud of it. That’s part of who I am. It’s a part of my music. I think rhythm is important and drums and dancing, cause my mum’s like that – my mum loves dancing!
In the past you have made a point of expressing your Spanish-Honduran background in your music. Your Systems EP is bilingual and you did a Spanish version of Water Water. I read somewhere that you did this so that your mother could listen to your music…Is it simply just to please your mother or is there also a more personal reason or need to express your roots through your music?
I make really weird music – I mean it’s not really weird, but it’s kind of not conventional pop and my mum thinks I’m really ’out there’ so I wanted to translate something into Spanish so that she could sing along to it. But it’s also great because I can go to Spain and I can go to Mexico and I can play music – my music – to those people.
How do you feel that you developed as an artist in those years between Colorminutes and releasing Me?
I’m very much more invested in who I am in the project, which is something I didn’t really think about when I started making music. It’s more about ‘Who is Lorley in Empress Of?’ as opposed to just ‘let’s just make stuff and have it be cool and put it out in cool ways’. It’s more about ‘ok, what do I want to say, how do I wanna say it, how does this record related to the next record? Who am I gonna be? How am I gonna grow?’ It’s about making sure I’m represented.
So you wrote, performed, produced, recorded, and engineered every song on your debut album, Me, and it took about a year. How was that experience, what challenges did you encounter? Did you have to fight for full creative freedom?
Luckily, no, because I don’t work with major labels so everyone was just like ‘do your own thing’ and no one was pushing ideas down my throat.
How important is it to you to push boundaries?
I think my personality as an artist is just to do what I want to do and what I want to do is not typically what other people want to do.
We’re living in a time where there are a multitude of conversations about the male dominance in the music industry. Is this something that affects you? And do you think there is a certain amount of pressure on female artists today to engage with these issues?
I think because I’m a woman in the music industry, I only know what it’s like to be a woman in the music industry. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man in the music industry and that’s just something that I don’t think about. I don’t know what I’m missing. For me, being a woman in the music industry doesn’t have any limitations and it doesn’t have any boundaries because I won’t enforce them for myself. If someone is trying to put me in a box, I’ll just break the box. And that’s how my career has been so far. Even if I have to deal with injustices I don’t deal with it.
Is your name a form of empowerment for you? Where did it come from?
It came from a tarot card reading. My friend gave me a tarot card reading and the first card he pulled out was an Empress card and I was like ‘I love this!’. I love the meaning behind the card – which is mothering and fertility and abundance. I loved that and I was like ‘I wanna be the Empress!’ But then I thought ‘I can’t go around calling myself the Empress.’ Now people call me Empress because they don’t get that my name is Empress Of. They’re like ‘Empress!’ and I’m just like ‘Uggghhh’.
Lyrically, your music is very insightful into your personal emotions. You sing about relationships, insecurity and identity. Is it hard to be so introspective and self analytical when writing music?
I think that it’s just part of being the type of artist that I am. Here I am. If I was a different artist that put on a mask or an image then it would be a different story. It would be me embodying this character.
I read somewhere that your Empress was compared to Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce?
Empress Of is a very empowering name. Sometimes when I’m playing the same songs over and over I have to remind myself that I’m up here because I am Empress Of.
Is honesty something that you value in music?
I think for this record it was.
Do you see yourself building upon that for your next album?
That’s just kind of how I work right now. I make music about things that I know really well and I just happen to know the things that I experience really well.
If you had three words to describe your music what would they be?
People always ask me ‘if you could describe yourself in three words’ and I always just go ‘mememe’. It’s kind of like the question ‘what genre is your music’ and I always say pop because pop is such a vague genre and it means a whole lot of different things but I think the thing that links them together is just things that people connect with it enough to wanna sing it and play it over and over again (hopefully) and so I like the word ‘me’ because it’s very vague and it’s very subjective.
So we actually interviewed Throwing Shade who’s supporting you tonight. How did you guys meet?
It’s kind of like I got your back kind of thing. We’re just two girls making music and I just hit her up before when I did power lunches and I was like ‘hey will you do this thing blablabla’ and she did it.
Are there any other current artists that you love at the moment?
I listen to so much stuff. I either listen to really old music or my peers. I’ll either listen to Larrie Lemon or Leon Vynehall. it’s mostly dance music but then I’ll listen to Sia or Ariana Grande. I love Ariana Grande! That new song ‘Dangerous Woman’ is so good. In my car, in LA, I listened to her old record so much. I love shameless pop.
So you’re not shy of mainstream music at all?
No I think it takes a lot of talent and a lot of craft to make songs that good that connect with the world. I think that is a whole art in itself. That is under-appreciated. People are like ‘oh your a pop artist’ (pulls a face). I think it’s a stigma of being over-manufactured. But you need that team behind you. Even me as an artist – the further along in my career I’ve gotten, the more people I’ve gotten help from. I work with a lot of great people now, but I was just working with my best friend when I started making music – it was just the two of us. And now I have a big, fancy management thing. You just need it.
So we asked Throwing Shade this question, which we’d love to hear you answer too – What’s your advice to people who want to broaden their musical horizons?
I think that I should just ask myself that because I am a creature of habit. And I will listen to the same song for a whole year.
Are you one of those people that plays a song over and over again?
Yes! I think the thing about that is it’s so comforting. It’s comforting to go back to that song just like it’s comforting to go back to that picture in the middle of your photo album that you love. For me, I find it really hard to listen to new things and to be accepting of them. My boyfriend will be like ‘check this out’ and I’ll be like ‘yeah this is cool’ but then I’ll find myself looking it up later and then listening to it over and over again. It’s harder and harder to open your ears to things. But broadening my musical horizons? The way I discover new music is through playing shows and playing shows with other bands. And watching shows. I find out about a lot of music through live shows.
You always remember the live shows?
Right. How the room smells. The sweat off someones face.
So what are your plans for the future, are you playing any more live shows for people to discover you at?
I’m working on another album. I have some collaborations that I did. I’m playing a couple of festivals but nothing super crazy. I’m just gonna go back to LA and write a bunch and then fly out every now and again.