Interviewed rising alternative pop singer/producer Empress Of for a feature in Subbacultcha’s new quarterly magazine.
As Empress Of, Lorely Rodriguez can be the boss of anything. Whether it’s the production of her album, her sense of self in an unjust world or just her morning coffee, she is in complete control. As Lorely, she’s a little late for our interview – ‘I… didn’t know what time it was…’ – but I can’t hold it against her. She’s touring Europe for the first time, with no tour manager and a band that, apparently, ‘won’t listen to stuff on their headphones.’ Lorely is frantic, enthusiastic, and all wrapped up in the present moment. It’s bewildering. But as we jump from global inequality to the importance of painting glitter all over your nails, a candid self emerges and each utterance could just as well be a mini-philosophy as a harmless comment.
Empress Of is her invincible stage persona, a note to self and ‘pep me up’ devised to overcome any jitters. It is as carefully and purposefully crafted as each and every one of her previous achievements. Following her breakthrough project Colorminutes in 2012 and bilingual EP Systems the year after, she wrote her debut album Me in isolation in Mexico, which she then, save for two live drum samples, recorded and produced all by herself. But Lorely does not want to pull a veil over your eyes. She is the first to talk about how trying this process is and the tremendous amount of work that goes into being an artist or, for that matter, finding a ratchet nail salon.
You’re on a pretty major European tour right now. What are the biggest practical obstacles, day-to-day?
Sometimes it’s hard to find the things that you want to do every day in the city. If you wanna go and get a really good cup of coffee, sometimes it’s hard to find when you’re in, you know, Warsaw. Or say you wanna find deodorant or a razor…
What, you don’t have people that get all that for you?
Oh, can you imagine? I could be, like, ‘I REALLY NEED A CAPPUCCINO! IF I DON’T GET A FUCKING CAPPUCCINO RIGHT NOW I’M GONNA THROW MYSELF AT YOU!’ Nah, that’s mean.
Also, this whole tour, I’ve been like, “I’m gonna find the ratchet nail salon in the city”. A place where you can just say, “Yo, I want, like, any kind of nails” and they’ll just get it done. It’s just something that I like to do. Usually I’m like, “Put AS MUCH glitter on my fingers as possible, just fucking get all of the glitter that you have and put it on my fingers, then put gel over it so it stays there forever”. In New York they’re on every corner, but it’s hard when you’re touring Europe, because they don’t have ratchet nail salons.
Seems like an interesting physical manifestation of crossing cultural boundaries.
You don’t get your nails done so you probably wouldn’t relate. If I was talking to Shamir or something…
How do you know I don’t get my nails done?
I don’t know, you just don’t sound like you do — actually maybe you do!
Nope, you called it the first time. What about when you were recording Me in Mexico? What did you find the toughest challenge?
The first challenge I encountered when I was there was just not being in New York – the constant chaos, people, noise, shit to do every second. As soon as I got to Mexico it was like the wheels stopped. It was constant anxiety from having nothing to do – except make a record. I was pacing a lot… The first five days were awful. Then it was just learning how to be by yourself and be comfortable with that.
Did it work? Did you find that your thoughts were clearer?
I found that when I turned the mic on, a lot of what I said was much more direct. Have you ever been hypnotised before? I was once and I got so in a daze that my subconscious was talking. Someone would ask me a question and this person in me would just spit something out. It was, like, ‘Woah, I didn’t even say that!’ So writing without distractions was like that, it just came out. To me it was a little shocking but also really comforting.
You have a background both as a singer and in production and sound engineering. Does songwriting ever feel more like a craft than an art?
Everything I do is a craft. That’s the upbringing that I have. I always study everything. Before, with my EPs, my music was more about the vibe, fun, texture, mysticism and all this bullshit. But when I started to take songwriting seriously for this record I was really taking songs apart, studying them. I was listening to tons of Sia and Sade, Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell. Learning their songs and reading their lyrics and playing with that.
So if you’re working from detail outwards, how do you know when you’ve found ‘THE SONG’ – the complete work?
I feel like a song is a song when it’s its own thing. As if I didn’t even make it. If I can think of it as the product of someone else, it’s a song. It’s cool being, like, ‘Woah – I made this!’, but you have to remove yourself from it until it could be anyone listening, anyone relating to it. That, or if I can listen to it all the way through and not make little throw-up movements because I need to fix something.
How important is it that you remain in control of every aspect of the production?
It’s really important for me to be happy with everything, and not do something because it’s cool or someone else will like it. I’ve tried working with other people and it always ends up sounding like someone’s interfered. It’s hard to defend those things when they’re not your ideas. Everything that’s on the record I put it there, and I put it there for a reason.
What I’m kind of getting at is something that you seem to be asked a lot – and which I feel stupid asking in 2015. I mean, you don’t hear male producers getting congratulated for doing their own production…
Exactly: you didn’t ask me but you did ask me! I overheard a meeting where a rapper was shown my album and he was, like, ‘Oh shit, she produced this herself!’ It’s true, you never hear the millions of male producer-singer-songwriters asked: ‘Excuse me, did you produce this all by yourself? Sir, I know you’re singing on it, I know your name’s on it, but did you really write this yourself? It seems to me impossible that you did!’
It’s totally ridiculous. Is it something you feel the need to make a statement about or something to put aside?
I think it’s cool to lead by example. I always quote Kendrick Lamar from ‘Alright’: ‘Don’t talk about it, be about it.’ I make my own music because I want it to sound a certain way, which I’m sure is why all artists – male or female – make their own music. That’s all it should be about.
A lot of your lyrics do allude to sexism. This doesn’t seem to be something you shy away from…
Sure, but that’s being a woman on the street, in a relationship, being objectified. It can all be related but that’s also just something that happens.
In your lyrics you have a way of merging these wider issues, whether privilege or poverty, with your own experiences.
Yeah, it’s weird because I’m trying to tell a story… Maybe it’s the same as the way I talk! I don’t know if you’ve noticed during this conversation but I will tell you exactly what I’m doing right now and then it’ll just loophole around what you want me to answer. That’s what my songwriting is. In a story like ‘Water, Water’, I’m in a house in Mexico and I’m thirsty because I forgot to buy water from the village. It starts with that but then I’m painting a picture, I’m here because I’m trying to get rid of other memories that are bothering me. A lot of my songs start off with things I’m doing literally at that moment – if I was going to write a song right now it would be, like, ‘I’m on the phone with Callum. We’re always talking about me, never about him.’ Then I would be, like, ‘I don’t know who he is,’ then, ‘I don’t know who anyone is, because I don’t have any friends because I’m so alone.’ And that’s what the song would be about.
Where do your politics come in?
Something needs to have happened to really piss me off. Like for ‘Kitty Kat’, I was just walking from A to B when someone said something really gross to me. When I got home I was compelled to just put it out. Or like ‘Standard’ – that song came from walking back from a village and seeing a family that was super poor selling firewood on the side of the road for cents just so they can eat. Then I went to this really nice house where I was recording the record and had to deal with that difference. So the lyric is: ‘I’ve been living below the standard with a hunger that feeds the fire.’
How do you reconcile those two realities at the end of the day?
Well, that’s when you write the song. For me, I do it so that I can relate to it. I’m talking about something that upsets me. I can relate to it because I live in New York and it costs so fucking much to live there – I had to have four jobs to live in a shitty apartment. I can’t necessarily relate to this family on their level, but I can relate in some way. It’s like connecting dots.
On a complete side note: you said a few years ago you wanted to follow up your Colorminutes project by releasing more weird short songs and disseminating them in weird places online. Did that ever happen?
Yeah, I did that and nobody found them so I just took them down. They were weird.
I liked the idea that there was a big portion of your back catalogue in some dark corner of Reddit.
Yup, it happened and no one noticed! The Internet is too big.
Empress Of’s Me is out now on Terrible Records/XL Recordings.