Lorely Rodriguez (a.k.a. Empress Of) is a no-bullshit pop music storyteller for our modern age, and talks to PopMatters about the numerous cultural influences of her debut full-length Me.
For 25-year old Lorely Rodriguez (known as Empress Of to her fans), the release of her first full-length album Me marks the latest stage of an already impressive musical career.
The American experimental and electronic pop musician, who grew up in Los Angeles in a family of Honduran immigrants, has been singing and making music since the age of 11. Her early love was jazz music, but after competing professionally she came to reject the rigid formulas of professional jazz training. Instead, she bought a laptop and discovered a burning desire to make electronic music.
Rodriguez took the scene by surprise with the release of her "Colorminutes" series in 2013; a collection of 30 one-minute song snippets released on YouTube to a backdrop of solid colour screens. The quirky and mysterious approach was exactly the thing to attract an Internet audience hungry for something new and interesting.
"I was just, like, I'm gonna write a demo every day," she tells us. "I did that for 30 days and so by the end of the month I had 30 demos. I didn't want to worry about putting them out in this formulaic way and so I just did it all myself and put it all on the internet. It's a different way." A 7" and the 2013 Systems EP soon followed.
But her debut full-length Me emerged from a creative backdrop of a very different sort. For several weeks over the winter she embarked on a working retreat in a small Mexican village. Holed up in a friend's lakehouse, without Internet, and frequently without phone or electricity, it was there that she developed what would become Me's backbone. The isolation provided the introspective backdrop she sought for this very personal project, and the insights and observations she made during this time offered the inspiration for many of the songs.
"[After] the previous releases I knew that I wanted to make my own music all by myself," she notes, "but I hadn't had the experience under my belt. When I made this record I just had so much time, so I would learn to produce different drum tunes, learn how to make different sounds. I like to master different tricks, and I feel like I grew a lot as a producer by making this record. There were no touring distractions, and no friend distractions."
Coming from the artist whose colourful, experimental stylings seized the interest of a large online fanbase from the very beginning, it would be easy to consider Rodriguez as another of what might be referred to as the neo-Dadaist school of pop artists, characterized by an approach to pop music that's heavy on experimental and artistic concept work. But Rodriguez resists characterizing her pop music in that way. Although her music conveys an experimental and musical complexity, her aim, she says, is not to create layers of complex meaning but rather to strip her pop songs down to a more honest core.
"The whole point of this record is that there's no bullshitting," she exclaims, "there's no process. The concept is the music and the concept is me. There's no broken mirrors. It's just the story and the song. But I definitely think that [Dadaist, art-concept approach] applies to other people's projects for sure." She cites The Weeknd as an example, and enthuses briefly on his work.
But when it comes to her own work, Rodriguez considers herself more of a storyteller than a conceptual, experimental artist, saying "I think a song can be a story; the record is just my story and the things that I went through every day, things that happened everyday. I just know that's where the stuff that for me, really means something. If I have an experience or a story or a feeling that I want to get out, I write a song about it."
"Almost all of the songs on the record were influenced by this trip in Mexico," she continues. "One day I'll be walking along the street, I'll come home and I'll be angry, and I'll transform that anger into a song. That's just one of the stories that happened." She's referring to the song "Kitty Kat", about the street harassment and catcalling she experienced frequently in Mexico.
"At this point with this record I wasn't necessarily so socially self-aware, it's just the stories that I think a lot of people can relate to. Which is great. I'm happy to share that and give advice to something that definitely needs to be talked about. And being able to talk about that every night on stage. 'Standard' is another story about class differences and how I would be walking on the road in Mexico and I would see a Lamborghini drive by and I would see a poor family on the side of the road burning firewood. That's where that song comes from, I tried to put myself into their shoes."
Singing Against Capitalism
The challenges of struggling to make it as an artist in an industry that's grounded in capitalist excess has also left its mark on her. The album's accompanying press kit rails on about "how much I hate capitalism, and Starbucks, and condos." Although a far cry from some of the poverty she witnessed in Mexico, the struggle to make music while paying rent in New York City left her with a profound sense of how much artistic potential is wasted because artists have neither the time, resources nor freedom to produce the music they're capable of.
"Being an artist in your early 20s and living in New York where the rent is high and the cost of living is so high, I was working four jobs just to be there. It was tough to be in it," she continues, "but it was such a creative environment. All of my peers were doing the same exact thing. But after a while you're like, I just want to make really good content, I just want to make really good art. It's hard to do that when you're compromising all of the other time that you could be doing [music]. You get to see how much waste there is in the art. Living in New York and being an artist is weird. I love it and I think it's a really great place. But definitely parts were hard."
It's a lesson she finds herself sharing with friends who make the pilgrimage to New York in pursuit of their own dreams and musical careers. "I always tell them it's really hard at first. That's why you do it. It's such an impossible dream to be an artist. It's almost like you know what you're getting into when you sign up for it, how impossible it is. I always tell people I'm crazy, and I am crazy, because it is an impossible dream. But that's why you do it."
Dreams aside, there are practical improvements the industry could make to better benefit the artists it relies on, she says. Changing technologies threaten artistic livelihoods, she notes; a process that risks exacerbating the problem of artists not having the space or resources to actually spend time on their music. In a world of precarious and uncertain work, the biggest casualty, she says, is creativity and innovation, as artists retreat to the styles and forms they think are more likely to bring them commercial success, instead of experimenting with new ideas.
"I would like to see a place where the artist can benefit more from making their music," she tells us. "And that goes with streaming, and how music is consumed today. It needs to evolve in a way where the artists benefit more from what they're making. I think people would make better things because of that, because there would be less pressures to make things that people want to hear, that they want to hear right now. People would have more freedom to take risks and make the sort of music that people don't know that they want to hear, because they haven't heard it yet. People are afraid to take risks because they want to provide something that's already been heard. If artists could benefit more from their work, I think they would take more risks."
She feels fortunate that she's had a supportive environment that supported the risks she takes in her own work. "I think that's because I was working with such a small label, that it didn't pressure my creative freedom. And also it goes with making a very personal record -- called Me!"
Making Music Fun
One of the insights Rodriguez picked up early is that as an artist who tours extensively, an important consideration is making an album that's fun to perform. It's something she bore in mind as she developed Me.
"I mean, socially for me on this record I wanted to say something and have a message. I don't just want to do a vibe record. It's hard to perform a vibe record and perform it for two years and keep it real. I wanted to perform something that came from a personal place. Even I can believe it."
Touring helped her get a sense of how the music she was developing would go over with audiences, noting that "I got to gauge people's reactions from the audience as I was making the record ... so I think a really good process is to write it, perform it, and edit it, check it out. Tours are so, everything goes by so fast! It's just a different city every day."
The heavy tour schedule paid off in other respects as well. In addition to helping her shape her music, it's offered her the opportunity to perform with musicians from whom she's learned a lot. "One of the highlights of touring for me was opening for Florence and the Machine. I learned a lot. As a frontwoman she's performing in front of a big audience and trying to calculate them. I watched her and learned so much about power, and empowerment. About really believing in the performance, and not just being there. It was just really, really, really inspiring to watch her play."
As we speak, she's in the thick of a tour through the southern U.S., the animated voices of her bandmates buzzing in the background. Despite the intense schedule, she's not in the least bit sick of it yet.
"I'm on tour for the next two months. The U.S., U.K., Europe. It's so good. Playing the record live every night, it's really fortunate that I'm not sick of this record! I finished it a long time ago. I finished it in January and it came out two weeks ago. I just really like it. If I didn't make this record I'd probably listen to it anyway."
Thoughtful, introspective, and true to her own sense of self and musical style; Rodriguez speaks with the poise and self-reflection of an artist in control of her career and future direction. She's eager to continue producing music, but also feels the lure of cinematography, and sees herself producing a movie someday. But for now, it's the music that comes first.
"I want to write another record. I think I'm ready to write another record. It's hard work, but it's really fun."