Lorely Rodriguez doesn’t live here anymore. For the next four months, she doesn’t live anywhere. The 25-year old singer, songwriter, and producer behind Empress Of has no set plans after the September release of her debut album, Me, and her first North American headlining tour that follows. After four years, playing dozens of big and small shows, the Brooklyn life she once daydreamed of is now in storage. “I always knew that I wanted to live in New York, and I did it. I got what I wanted out of this,” she says. “I got a really thick skin from dealing with people’s bullshit.”
What she didn’t get was a record. “In late 2013, I was in a rehearsal room in Williamsburg and I was writing a really shitty record about how much I hate capitalism, rats, and shitty ex-boyfriends,” she says. “I was like…FUCK.” Before that, she’d come to quick attention, both as a member of fussy local rockers Celestial Shore and as a solo synth-pop artist. She’d become a mainstay of the city’s DIY scene, taking careful notes on performance for her future career in pop. Driven to distraction, and compelled to deliver on a joint deal with Brooklyn’s Terrible Records and UK mega-indie XL Recordings, she needed to get the hell out. She asked to record in a friend’s Boston house. He offered up a vacant lakefront property in angelically beautiful Valle de Bravo, outside of Mexico City, instead.
“I was like…jaw-dropped,” she says. “So, I just went.”
In Mexico for a five-week writing sabbatical, Rodriguez knew no one, talked to no one. “I was so scared,” she remembers. “It was a really hard experience being alone for a month. I even emailed my manager asking him to get me a flight back. He didn’t respond to the email on purpose. I was super scared that someone was going to break in and rape me. Just paranoia, keep in mind. I wrote my friend in Mexico this, and he was like ‘Lorely, who the fuck is going to do that? You’re in a super nice house in a lake town, just chill out.’ “
As her nerve increased and her songs progressed, self-reliance became an underlying lyrical theme. A three song stretch in her record’s second half is particularly instructive. The first single, “Kitty Kat,” is a booming anti-catcalling anthem, a venting of bottled frustration over incidents in Mexico and Brooklyn, both. “I’m not going to give them my two cents at that moment, so this is my platform to say how much it upsets me,” she says. “It really empowers me when I listen to it and when I perform it.” “Need Myself” follows, railing against her self-imposed solitude. “I was just trying to get through the fact that I was so alone,” she says. “I don’t need anyone, I just need myself!” That one segues into “Make Up”, an uncharacteristically frank sex jam. In context, Rodriguez’s vulnerability there is disarming, and well-earned. “I don’t really think of myself as sexy very often. So when I perform make up it’s hard for me to perform it, but I’m also overcoming an insecurity that I have,” she says. “I think the record is a lot of moments for me to be the person I want to be.”
Despite its point of origin, Me ditches the bilingual duality of Rodriguez’s debut EP, Systems, this time using only English lyrics. “I didn’t write the record in Spanish because I wanted to say something specifically. I knew how to say it in English and if I said it in Spanish, it wouldn’t have had the same impact,” she explains. “Of course, making music in Spanish is very important to me, because my parents are immigrants. They’re from Honduras and I’m a first generation American. It’s very important for me to remember that and respect that. I wrote songs in Spanish, but I didn’t put them on the record.”
Even after returning from Valle de Bravo with the core of the album she wanted, Rodriguez took another eight months tinkering. She took her new songs on the road, playing them for crowds as big as the 10,000 plus people who watched her support huge UK pop stars Florence and the Machine at Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavillion. Beats were strengthened for peak impact. (Rodriguez nurses a daydream of one day playing massive DJ gigs under the name “Latina Turner”.) She studied recording and engineering in school, with thoughts of working in a studio. That technical foundation gave her the freedom to find the exact sounds she desired, without the complicating filter of outside collaborators.“That’s why I didn’t work with anyone. At the end of the day I wanted to be like, yeah, I wanted to do it like that instead of, ‘Oh, that’s there because this guy wanted to run it through this amp.’ ” She meant her record as an introduction, a plain statement of personality inspired by lofty first acts like Bjork’s Debut or FKA Twigs LP1. “I did everything on the record, produced by me, written by me, recorded by me,” she says. “Me.”
“I hope a lot of people can relate to me as a person,” says Rodriguez. By shutting out the noise, overcoming insecurity, and slaving over every last sound, she’s giving her audience every chance to connect. “I mean, it’s still about shitty ex-boyfriends.”