Shimmery Musician Empress Of Wants To Rule The World

While my colleagues were on set for a shoot with the Los Angeles-based musician Empress Of (born Lorely Rodriguez), they raved about her. She’s so sweet, they said repeatedly. She was dancing around the studio, whipping her fantastic curly hair around. And it’s true; when I got the chance to speak with Rodriguez, I found her super endearing. She is sweet! But she’s also something else, something that might be more important: she’s commanding, just as her stage name would imply.

“If I can be an artist in New York, then I can be an artist anywhere. It’s like a Frank Sinatra song.”

Born and raised outside of Los Angeles, Rodriguez studied jazz and classical music for years, a solid education that lead to her current career as a skilled electronic producer. Although she recently returned to LA, she spent years fighting it out in Brooklyn, trying to make it. “For me it was like, do I really wanna do this? And I found out that I really wanna do this, by living in New York,” said Rodriguez. “Because if I can be an artist in New York, then I can be an artist anywhere. It’s like a Frank Sinatra song or something.”

She also has a pretty rigid daily routine that might come from rigorous schooling. “I’m the kind of person who eats the same thing every day. I’ll eat the same cereal every day for five years.” she said. “When I’m on tour it’s the best, because every day is the same. The cities change. But it’s like, drive, or wake up in a different city and play a show, load in, talk to people—it’s just the same process over and over again. It’s the best. I love tour[ing].”

For someone who loves a tight schedule, it’s ironic that Rodriguez’s stage name came about totally by chance. She picked the name Empress Of during her first ever tarot card reading, which was, by the way, a totally random occurrence—she’s not into mysticism. The name originally served as a sort of powerful alter ego; as Rodriguez previously stated, it was a kind of “Sasha Fierce”-type deal. At this point, however, the empress has effectively blended with her everyday life. “I don’t see too much of a difference right now, because my life is just so much Empress Of, like every minute of it,” she said. “I would say, when I’m not Empress Of, I’m usually sleeping. Sleeping and watching Netflix and eating a lot.” She likes House of Cards.

But just as Empress Of has melded into Rodriguez and her personal identity, the reverse has occurred as well. Her work has become much more raw and personal, exposing the woman behind the sovereign mask. The first solo music released under the Empress Of moniker arrived in the form of her “Colorminutes” series, songs dropped on YouTube under blocks of color, shown without any human presence whatsoever. “I wanted people to just hear the music, and not see who I was or where I came from,” she said. “I wanted it to just be like, ‘What is this bizarre thing?’” But her most recent full-length effort, an LP called Me, is blatantly intimate.

“When I first started making music, I was Empress Of—this, like, mystical thing, this dreamy thing—I wanted people to just kind of be caught off guard,” Rodriguez mused. “It wasn’t me. Which is why I went the total opposite spectrum, and wrote an album called Me, and made the imagery as simple and as personal and as direct as it can be.”

“I have full creative control, so why wouldn’t I take advantage of that?”

The album’s imagery is clean and strong: Rodriguez, shot in black and white, stares directly at the camera, her fist covering her mouth. She looks powerful. Her advice to other young artists is not to compromise, and she leads by example. “When I was making my album, I [was thinking] ‘Well, I should make this a bit more commercial, or more accessible,’” she said. “And then, during the production process and the writing process, I was like, ‘Actually no, I’m gonna write the exact album I wanna make, because that’s the opportunity I have. I have full creative control, so why wouldn’t I take advantage of that?’”

Much of Me was written on a month-long trip to Mexico, and the album deals with Rodriguez’s personal life at the time. “[It’s about] relationships, being a struggling artist in New York, being insecure, wanting to be confident,” she said. “I think it’s a lot of things other people experience.” In writing classes they teach you that specificity is universal, and Rodriguez’s lyrics are gloriously specific. On “Make Up,” she delivers especially evocative lyrics about sex: “Nothing comes between us/ But a piece of latex/ When you tear my clothes off/ Like I was a paycheck.”

Even more impressive is the way Me skillfully mixes the personal and the political. Rodriguez takes on causes important to most politically active 20-somethings: privilege and feminism. A single that dropped earlier this month, “Woman Is A Word,” tackles sneaky sexism, pushing back against the box that women, especially women who make shimmery pop music, are often placed in. While “Kitty Kat,” a more blatant feminist anthem, calls out catcallers. “Don’t take me by the hand and walk me through with pity,” the song demands. “If I was a man, would you still do the same?” The track “Water Water” deals with what most of us in America (well, those of us not in Flint or Detroit) consider a basic right. “Water water is a privilege/Just like kids who go to college.”

My personal favorite song on the album, “Standard,” is a gut punch, taking on financial hardship. “It’s about envy, about not being as privileged as someone,” said Rodriguez. “But really, though, the song is like, you have all of this wealth and all this material possession. But when you look in the mirror, do you see anything of value or worth in yourself?”

The video continues the theme, placing the teeny Rodriguez in contrast with a large bodybuilder. He brushes her hair, picks her up, wears her like a backpack. It looks a lot like Rick Owens’ SS16 show, which coincidentally took place just a few weeks after the Empress Of video was released (friends sent her lots of screenshots of the show). “’Standard’ is a song about not being privileged, or not having as many material things as other people. And I wanted to show that in a really symbolic way. It’s like rich or poor, big or strong, fat or skinny—[I wanted to show] two opposite people,” she said. “Let’s show a bodybuilder, this guy who’s a symbol for strength and power, and then let’s show him holding a girl upside-down, who’s like—you know, I never work out. I just wanted to show contrast. And I think it looked cool.”

She may not be a gym rat, but Rodriguez isn’t weak. She holds onto her vision, and does so tenaciously. “Why would you be an artist if you can’t do exactly what you wanna do? Why would you choose the craziest profession ever?” she said. Her determination is paying off; Empress Of is featuring on dozens of “best of” and “up-and-comers” lists, and her inclusion in the Google Play Music x Milk JamRoom program led to yet another in a series of stunning shows.

“I love how creative it is,” Rodriguez said of the program. “I’ve done a lot of things similar to this, and I always love when it goes the extra mile to include a lot of creative direction. I find, as someone who consumes music, whenever I can get more and more on the artist, it makes me just dig deeper into their catalogue and them as a person. So I like the idea of making it more of an all-encompassing project. It’s like a collaboration.”

But no matter who the collaborators may be, it’s all about Empress Of. “Everyone’s trying to help you, but at the end of the day, it’s just your voice,” she said. “You’re the reason that you’re here. So just do exactly what you wanna do!”

Solid plan­—and fitting for someone who calls herself an empress. “What do you want to be the empress of?” I asked. She laughed. “I want to be empress of everything.

Photographer: Mitchell McLennan

Creative Direction: Paul Bui

Art Direction: Kathryn Chadason

Hair: Shu Yamaga

Makeup: Mariko Arai using Milk Makeup

Stay tuned to Milk for more from the Google Play Music x Milk JamRoom emerging artists program.

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