Empress Of on Beyoncé, Baleadas, and Building Strength as a Performer

Courtesy of XL

If Beyoncé can do it, I can do it.” Such is the ambition of Empress Of (aka Lorely Rodriguez), the incandescent hondureña synth pop producer born and bred in Los Angeles. We’re sitting in the shade, soaking in the last few moments of tranquility and sobriety before the mugginess of the third day of Pitchfork Music Festival sets in. Rodriguez’s Beyoncé fandom should come as no surprise; her debut album Me shares many of the themes found in Queen B’s oeuvre – intimacy, self-love, raw desire. But at this particular moment, in between sips of water, Rodriguez is referring to Beyoncé’s affinity for Spanish-language versions of her songs.

“If I had the patience and the choice, and the time to do it, I would’ve translated my whole album into Spanish. Someone like Beyoncé did that.” She pauses momentarily, and then starts belting Yoncé’s en-español take on “If I Were a Boy.” “Si yo fuera un chico…” A warm laugh tumbles from her lips, and she grins from ear to ear. “She excels at her ‘R’s.” Empress Of’s Systems EP, which dropped on Terrible Records in 2013, featured two brilliant songs in Spanish – “Camisa Favorita” and “Tristeza.” “That EP was such a cool thing,” she remembers. “I got to play to a bigger audience in Central and South America – playing to really cool people that I want to share my music with. I have a presence in Barcelona, which is my no. 1 streaming music location. They all want to hear stuff on the Systems EP.”

In a recent interview with Impose Magazine, Rodriguez echoed this commitment to recording in Spanish. “I wanted to communicate with my mom and all the people when I go play Mexico or something, so I wanted to be able to play songs from my record in Spanish,” she says. In a music business that tends to pigeonhole Latino artists into segregated categories of consumption, Rodriguez’s desire to connect with her Spanish-speaking fans resonates. Though she has been able to swiftly sidestep the industry baggage that accompanies the “Latino” label, she seems to grasp the pressures of her bicultural identity quite fully. “It’s so hard for people – if you’re a first-generation American – to be culturally normal.”

It’s been nearly a year since the release of Me, a record that magnified the songstress’ talent for prismatic and wistful pop tenfold. As Rodriguez describes it, the 10-song collection is a tripartite tale of love, loss, and self-acceptance. Between tender and vulnerable tracks about co-dependency (“Everything Is You”) and crisp, almost elegiac anthems about embracing self-love (“Need Myself”), Rodriguez slips in pithy meditations on class privilege and street harassment. Her storytelling sparkles over stadium-sized synths and sticky, sweeping choruses.

I ask her about ­laying her struggles with intimacy bare and about how her feminism has evolved musically. “Before, it was a reaction to other people’s actions as a woman everyday,” she explains. But her perspective has shifted since then. “That’s not my view of feminism [anymore]. My view of feminism is that ‘I’m just the same as you. And I don’t expect anything more than to be treated like that…’ Those songs were what I wanted to say to those people who could make me feel like I wasn’t the same [as them] at that moment.”

“If Beyoncé can do it, I can do it.”

It’s refreshing to hear a musician speak about feminism in deeply personal, individual terms. She doesn’t purport to speak for all women, and especially not all women producers. “I get a very funny feeling going into a meeting at a huge streaming platform and playing ‘Kitty Kat’ for a group of men. I’m like, ‘Where are the women that work here?’” she chuckles. “Leading by example is just a huge thing for me…I don’t know what it’s like to be a male in the music industry. I only know what it’s like to be a woman. As a woman, all I do is work really hard and make the best music that I can make.”

When we discuss the importance of mentorship and supporting women musicians, her eyes light up. She recalls her early days in Brooklyn’s DIY scene, a community that cultivated her musical ambition. “That’s what Dev [Hynes, aka Blood Orange] and Chairlift did with me in the music community that was in New York at that time, with DIY spaces like Glasslands [Gallery] and 285 Kent.” She waxes nostalgic about how those spaces enabled her to link with other producers and pool resources, even if they didn’t form deep friendships. Now the tables have turned, and Lorely is the one taking time to nurture emerging artists. “I put my email up on Twitter. I want to hear what you guys are making. A huge part of what I do is just writing people back…just to let someone know that I listened to it. Because I was in that place one time, trying to email who-knows-who,” she offers.

Photo by Tonje Thilesen
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Things are different now. Rodriguez has toured with Florence and the Machine, released a gorgeous collaboration with Blood Orange (Freetown Sound’s cosmic slapper “Best to You”) and moved back to her hometown, where she’s trying to avoid eating too many baleadas for fear of spoiling her most valuable asset as an artist: her body. “Almost every other day, [my mom] will be like, ‘Come pick some baleadas up.’ And I’m like, ‘Mom, if I eat a baleada I’m going to fall asleep afterwards,’” she snickers.

“I’m constantly reliving those processes of building strength.”

Despite the distance, Hynes and Rodriguez continue to foster a close collaborative friendship. “It’s a little harder now because I live in LA and he lives in New York, but he was a huge part of me building confidence in what I do.” Last summer, the pair met up at Hynes’ home in the city, and the fruit of a simple jam session between friends became one of the album’s standout performances. “I didn’t even know that we were going to end up writing for his album,” she reveals.

Rodriguez is focusing on the next chapter of her career and developing her relationship with her fans. During her set at Pitchfork this past weekend, she bounced across stage, vigorously hitting her synth and drum machine while sneaking in samples of Aaliyah’s “One in a Million” and Beyoncé’s “Formation” throughout the show. Even with a sparse set up and a few sound issues, the spectral qualities of Me shone bright, and face-melting synth stabs washed over the audience. Someone even threw roses on stage after the show.

Despite the power of her live show, Rodriguez sees performing as a Herculean effort to conquer her own insecurities. “When I play on stage, I’m so nervous and I’m having really bad anxiety. No matter what I’m doing – if I’m with a band or a solo set or playing for 10 people or playing for 8,000 people – it’s always the same experience,” she admits. “I’m constantly reliving those processes of building strength. It’s like beating the boss level in the video game.” After watching her cathartic set come to a close, I feel like I can beat the boss level, too.

Empress Of’s Me is out now on Terrible/XL Recordings.