Lorely Rodriguez is done with sharing specifics. Three years ago, she poured detailed personal experiences into her first full-length set as Empress Of, and came away feeling exposed to the extent that performing the album live became exhausting. For the follow-up to the lyrically-introvert, sonically- extrovert Me, she’s now re- establishing intimacy by operating on a more universal level. Or as she puts it during the song ‘All Or Nothing’, “I like to keep my stories untold”.
“This record is more about the stories we all share with each other,” she elaborates down the line from L.A., in typically sunny tones. “And part of that is taking the weight off me and having it be a mutual exchange of ideas… That’s why it’s called Us.” It’s testament to Rodriguez’s tenacity, and to her skill as a songwriter, musician and producer, that this excellent second record is every bit as personality-packed as its predecessor.
Written and recorded over the course of two and a half years in southern California locations including the Topanga Canyon and Ojai Valley, Us was a true labour of love. “I had to write so many bad songs first,” she laughs. “It was about having a strong musical identity, but also not wanting to make the exact same music over again. And that was a learning process, like, how do I reflect my growth as an artist?”
The answer? Firstly, by drawing on a diverse palette of musical inspirations, including This Mortal Coil, Fatima Yamaha and Ariana Grande. Secondly, by calling in favours from previous collaborators Pional, Blood Orange and L.A. production duo, DJDS. And thirdly, by finding the confidence to be forthright, both melodically and lyrically.
“I thought I was pretty emotionally vulnerable on the first album, but this record is more direct,” she reflects. “I’ve been learning how to say what I really mean – weed out the bullshit.”
That deceptively uncomplicated, filter-free approach is brilliantly illustrated on twinkling single-in-waiting ‘Timberlands’, which serves up a heady hit of immaculately-layered pop, plus the impressively unapologetic lyric, “I’m my own worst enemy / I’m my favourite centrepiece / Whatever, at least I’m trying to be myself more.” Rodriguez’s productions radiate real warmth this time around too, with songs like ‘When I’m With Him’ and ‘Trust Me Baby’ exuding their own hazy glow.
As per every Empress Of record since 2013’s Systems EP, Spanish is used on Us as a vehicle to veil her most personal lyrics. And yet, in the context of Donald Trump’s discriminatory immigration policies, Rodriguez openly embracing her Honduran heritage now feels like a pointed act of defiance. Is it? “I feel very strongly about being Latinx, and growing up in southern California and seeing the cultures clash,” she replies thoughtfully. “I feel like my music reflects that… I just wanted to represent myself as a kid of an immigrant, raised in Los Angeles.”
“I’ve been learning how to say what I really mean – weed out the bullshit…”
“I’ve always embraced [my heritage],” she continues. “What I’ve noticed is the rest of the world embracing it. And to me that’s something that’s really special. It’s a snowball thing. The more you see people like you doing things – and the more you have artists like Cuco and Kali Uchis – the more it will show the rest of the world that this is normal. We’re just like you.”
Despite her recent support for L.A. clothing line ‘Kids Of Immigrants’ and her appearance at a local benefit for undocumented immigrants, Rodriguez modestly rejects the title of activist. “I think when there’s any type of adversity in your life, activism is just a part of your life. I’m just trying to exist as a kid of an immigrant, just trying to be seen equally by my peers. But, yeah, seeing everything unfold in America, you want to raise awareness and you want to be that voice. I just want to help…”
Ultimately, the end goal is to positively affect the audience’s mood: “What I really like about listening to other people’s music,” she explains, “Is when I listen to a song and I’m like, ‘Wow, this makes me feel so good!’ It’s like how do I make other people feel this good?” The precise formula remains a mystery but Rodriguez’s talent for it is undeniable.