The Royal Me
Battling nerves, flu, and the inner critic with Empress Of
“Where’s my mom?” Lorely Rodriguez wondered aloud in the green room of Los Angeles’s Echo nightclub as she took a curling iron to her auburn-streaked locks. She was halfway through her first headlining tour of North America. By the time her 15-passenger Ford van had made it to Southern California, Rodriguez’s home territory, she was feeling a little ill (“tour flu” was the suggested diagnosis) and had caught only a blink of sleep the night before. She was both nervous and fatigued, but she rehearsed a few air punches and hair whips in the mirror and then turned to Abra, a 20-something singer from Atlanta who also calls herself the Darkwave Duchess and is opening for the tour. “Babe, you’re going to kill it,” Rodriguez said. “You’re like 99 percent effective. You’re like birth control.”
September brought a flurry of attention to Rodriguez, a 26-year-old songwriter and singer who performs under the name Empress Of. Out came her debut album, Me, self-produced and self-described as a statement of “self-love and self-motivation.” Others described it and its maker in more effusive terms. “Coolly assured,” said The New York Times. “An avant-R&B auteur with pop star potential,” said Pitchfork.
Onstage at the Echo, expectations (both internal and external) were high. A pulsating strobe of synth emerged from the speakers as Rodriguez walked forward to a pink spotlight front and center. The audience howled when she materialized, wearing a diaphanous dress over a black tank top and black shorts. Her mom, whose name is Reyna (though “you can call me Queen,” she said), had arrived moments earlier and climbed atop a vinyl booth at the back of the club, tapping her feet and swaying her hips. She held up an iPad and video-recorded the set.
Rodriguez’s songs are vulnerable, sexual, and personal — from requiems for relationships to jeremiads against misogyny. Which is not to say somber. Me is eminently danceable, charged with a deep sense of rhythm. By the end of her performance, when the crowd shouted for an encore, Rodriguez’s voice turned gentle and apologetic. “I’m sorry, guys, I only have one album!”
The makings of Me arguably took shape in the 1980s, when Rodriguez’s parents emigrated from Honduras to the United States, settling in Altadena, a town north of Pasadena. They had three sons and then Lorely, their only girl. At the house, her parents kept an eclectic mix of records on rotation, spanning salsa, merengue, and jazz. They implored Lorely to learn piano. She struggled to sight-read the sheet music but soon found her calling in singing. When no one was around, she would light candles in the darkened living room and sing Celine Dion songs into her hairbrush: “A pretend diva, before American Idol was a thing.”
Rodriguez’s parents divorced when she was 6. Her freshman year of high school, she got expelled in the first semester. “I was getting into fights, ditching, and drinking,” she said. “Generally giving my mom hell.” On the second go, at a different school, she got booted for truancy. A friend from the neighborhood who knew of Rodriguez’s vocal prowess suggested she apply to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, the selective and tuition-free alma mater of a number of pop singers, playwrights, and actors. The prospect excited her. “I didn’t want to get pregnant at 15, like other girls I knew,” Rodriguez said. “I told my mom, ‘I don’t want to be an asshole for the rest of my life.’”
On the strength of a performance of Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” Rodriguez was accepted. “It veered my path,” she said. “Music became less of a hobby and more of a discipline.” By her senior year, she had won several national jazz competitions and a scholarship to the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston.
At 18, Rodriguez could conjure any Duke Ellington, Chet Baker, or John Coltrane melody by memory. But when she set out to create new standards on her MacBook, she found that jazz rendered on synths sounded supremely uncool. Her introduction to computer music, however, coincided with another form of experimentation. “I didn’t listen to the Beach Boys at all as a kid,” she said, “and all my friends kept trying to get me to. Finally, one day in Boston, I took acid and went to the beach and put on Pet Sounds and cried.” Her mind altered, Rodriguez formed a psychedelic pop band with her friends called Celestial Shore, and she challenged herself to write a new minute-long song every day using just her voice and her laptop, each song inspired by a different color. In 2012, she copied the 15 bewitching tracks onto 200 cassettes and also posted them to YouTube, calling the project Colorminutes.
Rodriguez left college early and moved to Brooklyn, where she began performing as Empress Of, signed with an indie label, and released an EP. To write her first full-length album, though, she knew she had to get out of the city. “I’m very much a person who writes about what’s going on in my life, and I was dealing with working all the time, paying rent for a shitty apartment. I thought, I don’t want to tour that material for two years.” A friend offered her his parents’ empty vacation house in the southern Mexico town of Valle de Bravo. Before anxiety gave her the opportunity to decline the offer, Rodriguez’s manager bought her a plane ticket to Mexico City. “You need to go,” he said.
In December of 2013, Rodriguez arrived in Valle de Bravo with a week’s worth of food and a minimalist arsenal of musical gear. For a month she worked ten hours a day, following elaborate to-do lists in her composition notebook. Her solitude was broken just once when two friends from Guadalajara came to visit. They got so stoned that Rodriguez says she felt like they had rocketed to another planet. This, combined with the fact that she had forgotten to buy potable water, made for a parched, confusing night — and for raw lyrical matter. On New Year’s Eve, she channeled the experience into the final words of one of the last songs she needed to finish. Then she strolled down to the shore of Lake Avándaro to shoot off fireworks.
On the road, Rodriguez has fought nerves and her own inner critic. At a recent show, Björk was in the audience. (Rodriguez thought she saw the Icelandic icon’s silhouette in the front row, and “I kept almost throwing up.”) When Rodriguez spotted Björk at the bar afterward, she inched toward her, but at the last second made a beeline for the exit. She’s also faced some of the entrenched sexism of the music business: “my live band just told me a few ppl come up at shows asking if I actually produced everything myself or did they help,” she tweeted in late September, above a picture of a sidewalk chalked with the phrase
IF I WAS A MAN.
From Toronto to Portland, she’s stood behind the merch table every night as droves of Me fans — and the few superfans in possession of an original Colorminutes cassette — have lined up for autographs. She’s gained a creative director and a publisher. Me hit the Billboard charts for dance and electronic albums. She’s not immune to the buzz.
But being in Southern California made her wistful. Twenty-four hours after her L.A. show, she walked out of the San Diego bar she was scheduled to play later that night and paced around the sidewalk. “I’m just really, really sad,” she sighed. “It’s the post-L.A. comedown.” She’d resolved to get the hell out of Brooklyn and move back to Los Angeles by the end of the year. Her mom was thrilled. But with half the North American tour still before her, and a slate of European dates after that, the end of the year felt so far away. “I need to buy something,” she pronounced. She caught a ride to Guitar Center, where she stared intently at a $399 MIDI controller and checked her bank balance on her phone (“Maybe I’ll just get it and return it later,” she whispered). Then she reached for a $99 version instead. She hugged the box, holding it to her heart. “I’m already feeling better,” she said.