The day before we meet, Lorely Rodriguez opened for Florence & The Machine at Merriweather Post Pavilion, the sprawling outdoor amphitheater in Maryland. For the 25-year-old, who goes by Empress Of, the show was a change of scenery; this past spring, she headlined a week-long residency at Elvis Guesthouse, an East Village bar so tiny that she sometimes bumped into audience members while performing. In photographs, with her unkempt curls and giant eyes, Rodriguez looks like the serene subject of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, a far cry from the freneticism she exhibits onstage.
In person, she’s somewhere in between: goofy and confessional and just a bit performative. “I get so nervous playing for 30 people,” Rodriguez tells me between bites of a cheese plate at a dark cafe on the Williamsburg waterfront. “Merriweather is thousands, but it’s weird. It’s kind of like playing for no one.” The distinction between “kind of like playing for no one” and literally doing so is significant to Rodriguez, considering she wrote her entire debut full-length, Me, while living completely alone in a small Mexican town, singing to herself in the mirror.
While growing up just outside Los Angeles, Rodriguez kept “obsessive” journals and lists. In one composition book, a 12-year-old Rodriguez wrote, “I want to go to New York, I want to sing in cafes, and I want to wear all black.” At 17, she finally informed her mother, a Honduran immigrant and strict Catholic, of her plans. “She got so mad at me,” Rodriguez recalls. Now, her mom is fully on board, even bedazzling Empress Of merch in her free time.
Rodriguez studied production and audio engineering at Berklee College of Music in Boston, before finally moving to New York in the fall of 2011. The following year, she uploaded a series of song fragments to YouTube as Empress Of. Called Colorminutes, the 11 short tracks went down like LSD-laced cake pops, offering loopy little bites of otherworldly synths and ethereal self-harmonizing. The experiment caught the attention of New York indie label Terrible Records, which would go on to release Systems, a 2013 4-track EP on which Rodriguez sings in both Spanish and English.
To write Me, which Terrible is co-releasing with XL Recordings in September, Rodriguez lived alone for a month in Valle de Bravo, a village on Lake Avándaro so picturesque that Mexico’s government classifies it as a pueblo mágico, a literal magic place. But in the dead of winter, when Valle de Bravo’s tourism wanes, she found herself increasingly isolated. “By the third week, I was really freaking out,” she remembers. Handling all aspects of the album’s production sent her list-keeping habit into overdrive; white boards and composition books filled up with directives like “fatten drums on chorus,” “brush my teeth,” and “drink water.” Paranoid about intruders, Rodriguez relocated her studio from a lakeview window to her bed, where she slept with a knife under her pillow.
“When you’re by yourself, you’re in your mind too much,” Rodriguez tells me. “I found out a lot of things about my insecurities, what I really want as an artist and as a person, and it came out in the songs.” Nearly every track on Me is tied to a specific memory, and they’re enhanced by Rodriguez’s vocal elasticity—her ability to twist these emotional declarations into pretty, pleasing shapes. I just want to make a sound/ I don’t want to feel so alone, she sings on “Threat,” her voice serene and detached, moments before the chorus crests and the drums crash in. She finally shook her paranoia on New Year’s Eve, which she spent setting off illegal fireworks and writing songs alone, drunk on cognac. “I was pretty scared I wasn’t gonna be with anyone I loved that day,” she remembers, “but it was also like, ‘Lorely—you’re here, and you have this opportunity. You need to get out of your comfort zone and be vulnerable.’”