empress of and the importance of saying no
The second album from Empress Of involves collaborators like Blood Orange, but that doesn't mean Lorely Rodriguez is going to be anyone but herself.
Photography Hannah Scott-Stevenson
When Lorely Rodriguez, better known as Empress Of, released her second album Us late last year it marked a notable shift for the singer, songwriter and producer. The difference between her acclaimed 2015 debut Me and her follow-up is simply and neatly explained by their titles. While Me is a self-produced introspective record created during a period of isolation in Mexico after living in New York, Us finds Lorely back in her hometown LA working with friends and collaborators.
After spending the early years of her career self-reflecting Lorely was free to move into phase two of Empress Of and enjoy the confidence that comes from knowing yourself. That confidence also meant she could bring in collaborators and trust herself enough to say no when she needed to. Working with friends like Blood Orange and DJDS, the newest era of Empress Of is bright and joyful, filled with the sounds of her upbringing and as charming as Lorely appears in person. She sat down with i-D to talk about the shift between albums, why she took control of her own visuals and her journey to confidence.
How did moving back to LA end up affecting Us?
[New York] was really good training for life. Once I got through that I was like, I'm good, I've had enough. And I just thought, "I need my family. I need to go back. I need to be surrounded by the food I grew up with, the music I grew up with, the style." Because LA has its own heartbeat and rhythm and pace, and I just needed to be surrounded by that.
This album is the first time you've involved collaborators but it didn’t start out that way, did it?
I do the majority of the work by myself, like the writing. And so I was listening to it and I was like, "This is great. It's not sounding the way I want it to sound." When I was first working on it by myself, I didn't hear the joy in my life. Because there was lots of joy in my life. Being an American right now is such a hard time. I mean existing now is a hard time, not just being American. You're constantly being bombarded with politics, and the politics of the country, and people who are opposed. Especially being Latin American. Being Latin American in California, and just like, getting all this shit thrown at you from all these people who don't like you. You know? For me, I want to be surrounded by my friends. I want to be surrounded by people I love. Because there is lots of love in my life that I should embrace because everything else is kind of shitty.
You need to have that circle to protect yourself.
Protect yourself and take care of your mind. Yeah, so that was kind of the spirit that I wanted to embrace. When I was working on the record by myself, I was like, "I'm not hearing all the joy in my life." And so I wanted to ask all my friends to contribute, like Blood Orange and DJDS, who I had worked with before.
On my debut, I was fighting a lot trying to define myself as a woman, and trying to define myself as a poor artist with classism, and trying to define myself within a relationship. With this record, I already know who I am. I know what my production sounds like. I know how I like to write songs, how I like to write lyrics. I feel confident enough to go in a room with someone else and not be watered down at all.
For this album you've also started making some of your own visuals, what's that been like? Is that something that you've always wanted to do?
No, I didn't want to always do it. For this record, I was talking to collaborators about visuals, and I was getting really scared because people were listening to the music and then looking at me, and being like, "Cool. This is what we're going to do. This is who we're going to make," and none of the Lorely and Empress Of was showing. None of my LA upbringing or my version of femininity, none of that was coming across. It's because they're not me. They're not in my head, and I can sit and have meetings and describe my world to people, but they'll never really know. That's something I learned through making my own visuals — if you want the set to look a certain way, you have to have 50 examples of what you want. You need to mood board the shit out of everything.
What about when you're the subject in shoots, do you enjoy that?
I like it because it requires a level of self awareness and confidence, that every time I do it I feel like I own my body more. I like being able to tell a stylist, "I don't want to wear that." Or a photographer, "No, I don't want to sit like that. I don't want to put my arms up like that." I don't know, just trying to be confident. Not trying — I am confident.
Were you always confident?
This is a new thing. And I think it's because I'm taking more ownership... I've always been confident with my music, but not with how I present the music visually. When I made the video for When I'm With Him, I was so nervous. I was on the verge of throwing up the whole day because I was so nervous. Because I had never worked with Mac Boucher (the DP) or Natalie (the set designer), but I was obsessed with these people. I had DM'd them on Instagram, and I was like, "I know the budget is not a gajillion dollars, but let's make something really cool." And they trusted me. I also casted strangers from Instagram who are now really good friends of mine.
It's nice to see people using a platform like that to genuinely connect with people.
One person from the Smoke Weed video, they have a music project called Christian Club. I went to their show in a warehouse by myself after the shoot. That's a huge part of how I'm feeling right now. If these people support me, I'm going to show up for them. I'm inspired by people like that and I support them, and I want to see them grow. There's a brand called Kids of Immigrants that I constantly wear. One of the owners is from Honduras and I'm from Honduras — it's really rare to meet other creatives from Honduras.
Why is that?
It's just like, if your family immigrated to America from Honduras there's so much pressure for you to be successful. And I think it's a luxury. All the people I've met from Honduras who are doing arts are popping off.
With that pressure for success, do you ever feel guilty about working as a creative?
The opposite; I feel so privileged. I feel like I get my work ethic from my mom, and I feel like she came to America to give me opportunities and I'm just really excited about working really hard as a musician and being successful. Because it is a luxury. Especially when you see the caravan. When I see stuff like that, I just feel so privileged that I can do what I want to do because my family came from Honduras.
'Us' by Empress Of is out now.