Hear us out: Lorely Rodriguez, otherwise known as Empress Of, is about to become a household name in pop music. A cross between Kimbra, Blood Orange and FKA Twigs, the LA-based musician’s solo project offers dazzling, futuristic pop with razor-sharp songwriting.
The 28-year-old singer-songwriter started her musical adventure with a string of 60-second demos, collected in her YouTube series Colorminutes. But it was her breakout debut Me, released in 2015 on Terrible Records, that put her on the map. Hailed by Pitchfork as “pop star potential” and a “victory for the future of pop” by The Guardian, Rodriguez is gradually ascending to the echelons of pop aristocracy.
With the arrival of her second full-length, Us, get the low-down on this exciting, versatile artist.
The origin of her moniker’s pretty mystical
Snoop Dogg’s name was inspired by Charlie Brown. Childish Gambino got his rap alter ego through a Wu-Tang name generator (yes, these exist). And Rodriguez? Her moniker was prophesied by a tarot card reading session. Well, kinda.
“The first card [my friend] pulled out was an Empress card. And I was like, ‘It’s me, I am Empress,’” she told Noisey. It’s a card that represents fertility and strength, Rodriguez explained. But while it seemed cool to connect her image with those traits, dubbing herself “Empress” sounded a little too conceited. “I can’t go ’round saying ‘Yo, I am Empress. Hey Seattle, this is Empress.’” So in the end, she settled for Empress Of.
Of what? Well, that’s up to her to decide. And it could be anything, really, from her mood to her current location to a challenge she’s about to overcome. The ambiguity and open-endedness of her pseudonym, Rodriguez explains, allows her fans to interpret her it however they like.
On “Hat Trick,” the opener on her debut EP Systems, the singer subtly nods her moniker’s origin story: “Lay my cards on the table / Tell me my future / Tell me I’ll make it boy.”
Björk inspired her to make music
Her father, also a musician, taught her how to play the piano, but it was the internet that truly ignited Rodriguez’s interest in music. At 13, while trawling through files on Limewire and Napster for “the weirdest stuff,” she stumbled upon Björk and soon became obsessed, creating songs that borrow from the Icelandic songstress’ treasure trove of sounds.
The Homogenic singer’s cover of Betty Hutton’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” in particular, made Rodriguez decide to pursue a jazz education at the Berklee College of Music, although she later switched programs to study production and audio engineering. After graduating, the aspiring singer moved to Brooklyn and joined her friend’s math rock band Celestial Shore, with which she made her live debut.
She’s no cookie-cutter pop star
It’s hard to put a finger on Empress Of’s music: Is it pop? Electronic? Future pop? Avant-R&B? Listen to Rodriguez’s discography and you’ll realize her works easily spill over from one genre to another. Sometimes, there are hints of R&B (“Trust Me Baby”). And other times, strains of chillwave trickle through (“Hat Trick”).
Rodriguez prefers being labeled as an experimentalist. In an interview with Dazed and Confused, she admitted that she wants her music to sound confusing. “I feel sometimes like there are a lot of good clashing elements in my music,” she explained. “Simple at times, but then intricate vocal melodies creep up from behind with ultra-present guitar parts of synths.”
But that’s Rodriguez’s charm: She’s a versatile artist and, unlike others, doesn’t want to forge a trademark sound. That’s probably why her music has the ability to charm all sorts of people. Fan of Khalid and Billie Eilish? Listen to her radio-friendly numbers like “When I’m with Him” or “Love for Me.” But if you lean towards abstract electronica with offbeat rhythms, then her 2012 EP Champagne is right up your alley.
She’s your new bilingual bae
Alongside up-and-comers Kali Uchis and Cuco, Empress Of joins the new wave of young artists who aren’t afraid to sing both in English and their native language.
Singing and writing in Spanish isn’t foreign to Rodriguez. The LA native—born to Honduran immigrant parents—has been proudly wearing her Latin heritage on her sleeve since the start of her career.
For instance, on Systems, Rodriguez acknowledges her roots on “Tristeza” and “Camisa Favorita,” two songs she wrote and sang entirely in Spanish. The singer, as noted by Impose Magazine, believes that language can connect people. “I wanted to communicate with my mom and all the people when I go play Mexico or something,” she said. “It fulfills a part of my artistry to pay respect to the language that my mom speaks.”
For her, writing in her mother tongue is a form of “relief.” As she described to Pitchfork, it helps her convey emotions that she cannot properly express in English. “I started to write in Spanish later in the recording process because I felt a little exhausted writing all my feelings in English,” Rodriguez said.
She wants to break down gender barriers
As a Latina artist thrust into the spotlight, Rodriguez understands the pressure to be more vocal about her political and social worldviews.
“Activism is such a cultural thing right now, but it’s also being exploited for marketing purposes,” she told Pitchfork’s Quinn Moreland. “I may not always be an activist. Obviously some things really hurt me, and it hurts to see people like me suffering. So I do speak up about things and try to use whatever value I have to give back.”
While she isn’t as outspoken on social media as some of her pop peers like Kehlani and Hayley Kiyoko, Rodriguez does what she can. And her efforts are most evident in her music, which all stems from the singer’s own experience. “I have always used my music as a way to stand up for myself, whether it be from a crippling relationship, someone cat-calling me on the street, or someone telling me that I’m inadequate because of my gender,” she said.
“Kitty Kat,” for example, recounts her encounter with street harassment. “Don’t kitty, kitty cat me like I’m just your pussy / Any other night, you’d treat me just the same / I’m fending for myself when you still call me pretty,” Rodriguez rages on the song’s chorus.
“Woman is a Word,” on the other hand, deals with the struggle of womanhood and gender disparity. Dubbed a feminist anthem, the powerful synth-driven track is Rodriguez’s response to critics who only see her as a “female producer.”
“One day, I just want it to be average, or normal. Because dudes don’t have to talk about why they’re making music,” she told Coup De Main Magazine. “I’ve seen a lot of change in the amount of electronic female producers out there. Eventually someday it’s just something that I don’t have to talk about.”