By Janelle Abad
Avant-electronic R&B royalty graced the stages of the inaugural Sound on Sound fest 2016, and she goes by the alias of Empress Of. The Los Angeles based one-woman band arrived to Sherwood Forest the Friday of the festival ready to take on the stage with tracks from her 2015 album, Me. The songstress grinds elements of real, gritty feminism and the lifecycle of love and life between her beats and sludgy synths. Both Tafari Robertson, KTSW Multimedia Director, and I trudged through the mud and followed the woman behind the magic, Lorley Rodriguez into a castle to uncover more about new music, collaborations, female influences, and her Spanish-Honduran roots.
Janelle Abad: You’ve been around the block in Texas for a while. What is it like being back and being here in a Renaissance-type fest for you?
Lorley Rodriguez: It’s a first for me as far as anything Renaissance goes, but I love being here and being in Austin. I realized that Austin is crazy. Even if you’re not here for SXSW, there are still like 400 shows going on and people out on the streets. It’s cool to be in a city where music is such a presence.
JA: It never stops here! So you’re from New York, is that correct?
LR: I’m originally from LA. I spent four years in New York, but now I’m back in LA. It’s a recent thing. I can’t wait for the next album, so people can be like “LA artist, Empress Of” because I’ve said it enough.
JA: You’ve been in the studio working on that album. Can you tell us about that process and how it’s different from your previous?
LR: I would say the biggest difference is just that I’m in LA, and not New York. I’m very inspired by where I am in life and where I am geographically. It’s an album made in L.A.
Tafari Robertson: Actually, the other day, I was watching the video for “Icon” and it’s in this really autumn-y, forest setting. Is color something that plays into that?
LR: Yeah, definitely color! That video was shot in upstate New York. It was when all the hills were orange, like on fire. But color plays a huge thing on my music. The first release I released was Color Minutes on cassette tape. And this whole last album cycle was inspired by purple, which is a very royal color, and is my favorite color. We’ll see what’s up with the next album.
TR: To follow-up with that, is visual art something that inspires that? What informs that?
LR: I love film more than anything. For me, when I’m making music, I have a little notebook – a composition notebook – the right side is all production notes and the left side is all visual stuff. I’m just writing like, “a gang of girls walk into a club”, you know? Whether I’ll do anything with it or not I’m just always thinking of visual narratives when I’m making music.
JA: So when you’re going out and shoot music videos, do you have a lot of say in the production of it and the direction of it as well?
LR: Yeah, definitely. Sometimes I won’t put music videos out and it will be very upsetting to people. You have to know when to say no and make sure you’re 100 percent behind putting Empress Of on something.
JA: I love that. A lot of your music too is about standing your ground, especially as a woman. In a bunch of your other interviews too I’ve seen that your mom plays a huge influence in your life. How has she influenced your music and what goes into your music?
LR: She directly influences my music and indirectly influences my music. She’s very pushy. Especially that I live in L.A. now, she’s even more pushy. She’s like “what are you wearing to this show” and she’ll ask me about my album and how many people are coming to my shows. She wishes she could manage me, but it would never happen [laughs]. But she indirectly influences me because she is one of the hardest working people I’ve seen, ever. She raised four kids alone, and I’m just a shitty producer that makes music – I mean I’m not shitty [laughs] – but I sing. I just think that if my mom can do that – go to a totally different country and raise four kids alone, then I can I can play 30 shows in six weeks and do whatever. I can make this stuff happen and figure it out.
JA: Who are some of your other female influences for you?
LR: I love Elizabeth Fraser from Cocteau Twins. But Nina Simone is really really great. I watched that documentary on Netflix – which I think everyone should watch – it’s so good. She talks about being an artist in a way where it’s very important and it’s a service to culture. You can’t not be honest and true and make valuable things. It’s a disservice. Just the way she talks about making art – I’m just like, oh my god! She had a very successful career, then she started making very political music. She was like “I know I’m not going to be a popular artist anymore, but I have no other choice to do this because it is a service that I need to do.” I just always think of that and how she was so true to her art that it drove her crazy.
TR: Even going back to the last question – your mom came to another country and was raising four kids and you’re Honduran – what does your Latin American heritage play in with your music. Do you consider your music Latin American or Honduran music, even though maybe to the general listener it doesn’t sound like that?
LR: I think it most obviously comes out when I tour in Spanish-speaking countries. When I tour in Mexico, or when I was in South America last month, I get to play music that is typically western, like from New York, or L.A. or London – like electronic music. I am brown, I am Latin American; I go to these places and these people see someone else like them and they go, “oh yeah! This is my kind of music too.” That to me is the way I mostly see it, but traditionally, musically, it’s not like that because those are very specific rhythms, like Cumbia or Merenge, that I haven’t put into my music… yet.
JA: Switching gears here – one of my favorite songs of 2016 is “Best To You” by Blood Orange, and, of course, you were on that song. What was it like working with him and producing that?
LR: It was very natural and a lot of the collaborations I’ve done have been like that. You know, just one summer you go over to your friends house and you mess around with some stuff, like keyboards, drums, and drum machines in a bedroom. And then, you end up on a Blood Orange album. To me, I always just think of the song as just like me and Dev shootin’ the shit in his room.
JA: So you guys were friends before that?
LR: Yeah, when I was living in New York, it’s a very communal city. A circle of artists would go to shows every night. I always mention Glasslands and 285 Kent, but I literally was there every night and so that’s why I ran into people like Chairlift and Blood Orange. That’s how I got to know him and those people.
TR: When such an anticipated album comes out like that from another artist that has a different audience altogether, but then I know a lot of people pointed specifically to you as their favorite moment on the album. Was that something that really feels like “Oh you’ve made it to a different level”? Or does that feel just a part of that friendship and just working with friends?
LR: It’s definitely just like working with friends. I did three shows with him at L.A., two at the Ace Theater, which are way bigger shows than what I play in L.A. I also did FYF Festival and it was still just like me and him and his whole band (who are amazing) dancing and joking around. It’s just like “okay let’s go out and do the song!” But the amazing thing is is that all of his really great fans get to hear my voice. That’s been awesome – just seeing the Blood Orange fans sneak over to the Empress Of world.
JA: Wrapping this interview up, what can we expect from you in 2017? Do you have a new album coming?
LR: It’s in the works, but I’m really excited about it and I really want it to get perfect for me, and then it will come out. I’m so excited. I feel really really amped! I don’t feel defeated at all.
Featured image by Janelle Abad.