Back in 2015, Empress Of’s released her debut full length ‘Me’ - a striking collection of electro-pop that, as the title suggests, often looked inwards. Written, recorded and produced by Lorely Rodriguez between Brooklyn and a friend’s house in a small town in central Mexico, it was a portrait of a young person trying to navigate the world in the face of heartbreak, insecurity and growing pains.
A few months after the album’s release, Lorely left New York and returned to her native Los Angeles, where she was surrounded by her family and many of the comforts of her Latin American heritage. It was there where she laid down the roots for what would eventually become her second record, ‘Us’, a record that’s infused with a sense of togetherness, bringing in a host of collaborators in the form of Dev Hynes, DJDS and Spanish electronic producer Pional. Sounding brighter and more refined, where ‘Me’ was a product of Lorely’s self-contained work ethic, on ‘Us’ we hear the product of community.
We spoke to Empress Of on the phone from LA to talk about embracing a more pop sound, making music in two languages and how she wanted to open up her creative process to more people this time around.
Let’s start off talking about the title. It’s cool that with your name ‘Empress Of’ you can use it to make different sentences. So the last album was ‘Empress Of… Me’, whereas this one is ‘Empress Of… Us’. How would you say the title sums up the album? Why the change from ‘Me’ to ‘Us’?
That’s kind of why I decided to name myself something grammatically incorrect or open-ended. I wanted to have flexibility and ownership. But with this record it became really apparent to me that I should just call it ‘Us’ because that’s where I was in my life. I had moved to LA, I was surrounded by all these artists, I was surrounded by my family and I wasn’t in the same place I was when I wrote my first album. I didn’t want to be so isolated and I wanted to involve people in my process. It just felt like the right thing.
It seems a lot more pop than the last record. Have people seem surprised by that?
You know, I’m actually surprised that people are calling this record more pop, which to me is like ‘ok, I won!’ ‘cause if what I’m making is pop music then that’s dope, cause pop music that’s on the radio to me doesn’t sound like my record. So I like the idea of contributing to re-defining the sound of pop or evolving the sound of pop. I’m surprised by it but I’m also embracing it.
What’s happened in the past three years since ‘Me’ that you feel contributed to making the new record sound like it does?
I mean, so much living. I moved from New York to LA which was a creative contributing factor. I’ve always been inspired by my settings, not in like a ‘I’m walking down the streets of LA and writing songs about it’ way but in a way where like the sunshine is affecting me, having my family around is affecting me, seeing all these things that I grew up around is inspiring me, the fashion, just seeing places that I would walk down as a kid inspired me. Also, with the world being in such a like chaotic place right now and just feeling like I really wanted to be around people… I think that’s a sentiment a lot of people share. Everything is so insane right now. I don’t want to be alone. I want to be surrounded by community, by my friends, by my partner, because if you spend time alone, it just feels like you’re going to be in an endless loop of fatigue from everything that’s happening in the world right now. And also we need to build each other up! So [it came from] where the world is right now, politically, and in not wanting be alone was a huge factor as well, wanting to be surrounded by a community and people I love.
On the new album you sing some lines of it in Spanish, whereas on the previous one it was all English. Why did you decide to use both languages this time around?
I started to write in Spanish towards the end of the record because I just wanted more tools, I wanted paints, like I wanted more things to use to create music. I speak two languages and that’s like two different ways to totally express yourself. It’s like expressing yourself through like a totally different lens.
“If you spend time alone, it just feels like you’re going to be in an endless loop of fatigue from everything that’s happening in the world right now. And we need to build each other up!”
So when you’re writing, how do you decide which language you’re going to describe a thought in? Is there a process behind that?
It’s mostly the way it sounds and with the songs on this record that I did do bilingually it was like ‘yeah, this is not sounding the way I want it to sound in English’. Also, being in Southern California, in Los Angeles, Spanglish is like a very common thing, you know? With my friends, I’ll go in and out of talking in English and Spanish, I’ll say ‘oh hi!’ and then something in Spanish that’s kind of funny or ridiculous or something that my mom would say or like… It’s like a cultural thing. I’ll speak Spanish and English in one sentence.
It’s interesting because it seems like there’s more non-English music becoming successful for English-speaking audiences. Is that something you’ve noticed as well?
Oh my gosh, it’s such a welcoming thing! I mean I’ve been singing music in Spanish since I was a kid and I’ve been doing music in Spanish since I started doing Empress Of. To have the world embrace it now and to have so many artists that my friends listen to that are in different languages… Even myself, like I love Yaeji, I love Peggy Gou, I love Christine & The Queens, I love Rosalía. I listen to so much music in different languages. I think social media has contributed to it because by following people from different parts of the world, it’s like connecting us altogether. You can follow someone and know so much about their lives and not speak their language. Like BTS is an incredible example of people who are globally inspiring people and connecting with people…
You also opened up the album to more collaborators this time around, Dev Hynes being one on the track ‘Everything To Me’. You previously worked together on Blood Orange’s ‘Freetown Sound’ album track ‘Best To You’. What’s it like working together?
Dev and I are friends. We met in New York and all the songs we’ve worked on have happened in pretty organic ways. I’ve done collaborations which are more traditional, like ‘get into the studio, our managers booked a session for us on Tuesday at noon’. Those are amazing as well, but all the songs I’ve worked on with Dev have worked more like we’re walking down the street, oh yeah, come over to my hotel and let’s record some vocal takes really quick or let’s be in your apartment in New York sitting on your bed passing a microphone back and forth like finishing each other’s lines, writing a song. Maybe it’s something to say about the type of artist Blood Orange is or our friendship, but it’s definitely not your typical way of working on music which I think is good. You can hear it in the song, it’s like I’m inviting you into our world.
What do you hope people feel when they hear the new album?
I just want them to feel like I was able to say something that they wanted to say also, but now it’s in a song. There’s music that I love that I feel serves a purpose and when I hear a song, I’m like thank God this person wrote these songs because I needed it! Be it something from Cocteau Twins to Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani or Janelle Monae… It could be full spectrum, I needed these pop songs. [I want to be] filling a purpose in someone’s life, or saying something I didn’t even know I needed to say.
‘Us’ is out now via Terrible Records.
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