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Empress Of Is Her Own Queen

The LA alt-pop artist on tarot cards, redefining her femininity, and the genius of Imogen Heap.

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It’s a crisp Melbourne morning and I’m speaking to Empress Of, known to friends as Lorely Rodriguez, on the phone. She’s in Los Angeles, soaking up the last of a sun-filled day, and even through the static, there’s an easy friendliness about her that belies her gritty determination. Since the release of her critically acclaimed debut album Me in 2015, the Honduran-American artist has worked tirelessly to establish herself as a multi-talented force within the pop music landscape.

As Empress Of, she’s known for her commanding vocals and lyrical prowess, her brand of bilingual alt-pop R&B taking its cues from genre-bending artists like Imogen Heap and Bjork. Like these women, she’s not easy to categorise and I get the feeling she prefers it that way.

After the release of her follow-up album Us late last year, Lorely’s star has been in steady ascension. She’s collaborated with the likes of Khalid, Dev Hynes, MØ, and DJDS, and is headed back to our shores soon to headline Tasmania’s preeminent arts, music, and culture festival, Dark Mofo.

Unlike Me, which was recorded and produced entirely alone, Us is a meditation on the beauty of collaboration, focusing on themes like connection, love, and unity. Following the album’s release, Lorely made the move from New York back to her hometown of LA. And while Us is littered with references to the Big Apple—sitting on stoops, watching yellow cabs, sunbathing on rooftops and the like—in moving back home to LA, she’s found a more expansive sense of community.

She’s reconnecting with her roots, collaborating with new friends, and living near her Mum, whose name is Queen. This is fitting, given Lorely’s fascination with powerful women. She’s always searching for stories of women who have forged their own path and defined their own version of femininity, something she endeavours to do through her music and sartorial choices. And if Us is anything to go by, Lorely’s right where she wants to be—defining herself on no one’s terms but her own.

Hey Lorely, how’s your day going?
Good! I’m just in LA, it’s very sunny.

Nice. So, you’re coming back to Australia to do some side shows after Dark Mofo?
Yes, I’ve heard Dark Mofo is incredible! Every Australian that I’ve spoken to has been like “Omg you’re playing Dark Mofo!” I didn’t know when I booked it. I was like “Okay, cool”, I didn’t know it was such a cool thing, so I’m really excited and I’ve heard that part of Australia is beautiful.

It really is. Dark Mofo is one of the best experiences ever, I went last year and I’m still talking about it. It’s a festival that focuses a lot on symbolism and rituals, and playing into that I know that you got your stage name from a tarot card reading. Have you had a tarot reading lately?
I have, it wasn’t a tarot card but like an animal card. It’s still in the same vein, like a pack that’s just animals that represent different things. Yeah and I shuffled the deck and I pulled out this card called the groundhog which symbolises letting go. And I dunno I thought it was a good card to get. I’m not super, super into tarot or things like that, but for some reason that one really resonated with me. I dunno, that’s the cathartic thing about making music, for me at least. I throw a lot of myself into my music, so I just release it, release all that tension.

Absolutely, that makes sense. So let’s chat about Us, your latest album. Do you feel like something that influenced this album thematically was the recording process? I know that you recorded your previous album Me entirely alone in Mexico.
Yup, I recorded it [Me] all by myself. This record [Us] was definitely collaborative. It’s still very much my point of view but it’s just you know, less centred on one thing and one relationship. I dunno, it’s just like my life in the moment, you know. Like living in LA I live very close to my mother and in my life right now I have all these friends that live in Los Angeles that inspire me. I didn’t shy away from working with them, so I definitely worked with them a lot on the record.

Now that you’ve had these two different experiences, would you say you prefer collaborative or solo work?
I would say that I prefer diversity and I prefer being able to switch it up, you know? When I finished my debut album I was like “Man, I couldn’t work by myself again, it would be hard and lonely and exhausting”, and so I started co-writing with a bunch of people and jumping on their songs and that revived me. And now that I can go into a room and write a song and produce it all by myself, I’m also really happy with that. But I would say I value all the ways I create something.

You named Us after friends and community. I’m curious—what’s the best thing that new friendship has brought into your life in the last year?
I would say moving back to LA has been [about] reconnecting with a lot of my roots. Being Latina has always been a big inspiring factor for me, like I’ve always made music in Spanish. Just being close to my community that I grew up around, that’s been really inspiring to me. You know, singing in Spanish and the clothes I wear, collaborating with other artists. I collaborate a lot with this guy from Honduras who has a clothing brand called Kids of Immigrants, and I wear a lot of his clothes on stage and for press and stuff. Things like that, just coming back home.

Going back to growing up in LA, I know you listened to a lot of traditional Spanish music, but what else were you listening to?
I grew up in the era of MTV and VH1 and there are some really good radio stations in LA. You know, Kiss FM has been around Los Angeles forever. So I grew up kind of having a duality; my parents were very Honduran and also having this other dual cultural experience of being American, so NSYNC, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, and also like Linkin Park. [laughs] You know, just like everything. And Bjork, I started listening to her when I was thirteen, Regina Spector and Imogen Heap.

Imogen Heap in particular, I can totally hear elements of her in your music. Speak for Yourself was one of my favourite albums growing up.
Oh my gosh, yeah. And also, she’s like still a pioneer, the things that she’s trying to do with technology in music, I have so much respect for her as an artist.

I agree. I feel like she’s still extremely underrated when you consider what she’s achieved.
I mean, culturally people pay attention to her, but people only know her hits, you know. It’ll be one of those things where thirty years from now we’ll look back and be like, “Oh, Imogen Heap was the first person making music with her body and creating new technology.” She’ll be like a true artist.

She’ll be considered a pioneer.
Yeah, a real artist.

Are you reading anything good at the moment?
Right now I’m reading this memoir by this artist called Cosey Fanni Tutti, and she has this book called Art Sex Music. She was in this band called Throbbing Gristle, like a noise band in the 70s or 80s, but she also was very about owning her body and owning her sexuality, she was you know, just—I’m reading it because I’m trying to find other females that inspire me, and other women that have defined their own version of femininity and what being a woman is, you know?

Totally. That sort of ties into the interest you have regarding women in positions of power. I know you have a crown on your tooth and there’s references to powerful women in your work.
Yeah, I’ve got a crown on my tooth and I’ve also got a crown tattoo, and my Mum’s name is Queen. [Laughs] In Spanish she’s called Reina. So I get a lot of inspiration from her and her name, she’s not you know, a queen, but she’s my queen.

I love that. Is there a woman from history that you particularly admire?
There’s so many powerful women, it’s hard to say exactly who, you know. But I’ve always thought Joan of Arc was really cool, and I think visually everything about Joan of Arc was really amazing. I’m trying to think of others but there’s too many!

That’s true. Circling back to fashion, I really like how style wise you play with traditional femininity, mixing Dickies and Nike Cortez with a ball gown or something more overtly feminine. You mentioned earlier a fashion label that you’ve been collaborating with. Are there any other labels you’re into at the moment that we should know about over here in Australia?
Like I mentioned, that brand Kids of Immigrants, you know, I’m really inspired by them. First of all, they empower, and it’s not just about being the kid of an immigrant, it’s about spreading love and spreading positivity and a lot of their clothing is street wear that has messages like that on it. I also really like a lot of LA designers, there’s this brand called Come Tees. They’re an LA based designer and it’s very vibrant. So yeah, I like stuff like that. I like supporting my peers and supporting my community, so whenever I need something I try to look around me first.

Yeah, that’s really important. One last thing. I know that you’re a Libra—I’m a fellow Libran. Would you consider yourself a textbook Libra?
You know, I’m not, I’m not a very balanced person! I’m either crazy or I’m not crazy. Like I can go from being like really, really shy to being really extroverted to being really anxious, to being totally chill with a situation. [Laughs]  I don’t really understand my sign, but I like that it connects me to other people, you know? [Laughs]

100%. I think that’s what’s great about star signs. I don’t know all the ins-and-outs of them, but people will be like “Oh, you’re a Libra” and there’ll always be something to chat about. Have you heard of the Co-Star app?
Yeah, I think I have!

It’s really big over here at the moment. You get a message from it each day, sort of a reading. You can add your friends on it and see their birth charts and how compatible you are.
Oh awesome. I’ll have to check it out!

I recommend it. Thanks for chatting Lorely, I’ll catch you at your Melbourne side-show in June!
Yes, I’m so excited. [Laughs] Thank you!

Catch Empress Of at Dark Mofo or at one of her Australian sideshows this June.

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