Empress Of’s “When I’m With Him” video is a love letter to East L.A.

Lorely Rodriguez talks about her directorial debut, her sophomore album , and writing songs that are real.

August 22, 2018

Lorely Rodriguez wants her art to come from the heart, and that’s not surprising to hear. Creating under the moniker Empress Of, her 2015 diaristic debut album Me went deep, giving audiences a seat in her head through raw lyricism that explored the nuances of her strengthening relationship to herself. Rodriguez’s sophomore album Us, out October 19 on Terrible Records, continues on Me’s vulnerability tip, but instead shifts into a realm of universality, giving her listeners even more of an opportunity to see themselves reflected in her songs.

Rodriguez is running on little sleep when we catch up over the phone. She’s just played a show in in San Francisco and driven home to Los Angeles overnight, but even in the midst of her mild delirium, she sounds excited as hell. The music video for “When I’m With Him,” the lead single off Us, is ready to release, and it’s Rodriguez’s first-ever self-directed video. Premiering today on The FADER, it’s a dreamy and surreal production that’s inspired by Rodriguez’s upbringing in suburban East L.A. — frothy quinceañera dresses, aimless drives in lifted Ford F-150 trucks, and breezy hangs in concrete-heavy patios, where wet laundry and emotions get heated up by the relentless southern California sun. It’s a contemplative track that finds Rodriguez navigating the growing disconnection between her and a lover, her airy soprano vocals twisting over a funk-laced beat. The song also finds her singing in Spanish, something that Rodriguez finds pushes her vulnerability. “I use Spanish [when] something is so personal that I can’t really sing about it in English,” she tells me. “It’s almost like an alter ego to sing in Spanish.”

Despite Us pulling away from her mind’s innerworkings, Rodriguez is still deeply dedicated to staying true to herself. She began writing the record back in December 2015, forcing herself to stay as emotionally frank as possible. ”I was like, ‘That’s not good enough. That’s not real enough. That’s not honest enough,’” she says of the songwriting process. Of the ten tracks that made it, Rodriguez covers tons of emotional ground. “Just The Same” is a giddy love song bursting with playful frisson while “Again,” the heartbreakingly tender album closer is plush, with ethereal production that makes me feel like I’m secretly listening to an unheard Enya track. Being real with your work is taxing, but it’s not something on which Rodriguez is willing to skimp. “It’s my name and my art,” she says, her voice firm with resolution. “I’m really driven to see it through.”

Empress Of’s “When I’m With Him” video is a love letter to East L.A. Lorely Rodriguez.   Photo by Fabian Guerrero

The music video for “When I’m With Him” is your directorial debut. How are you feeling about it?

It’s kind of crazy. It made me realize that I don’t know if I want to work with other people.

How so?

Having full creative control over something, it’s your full responsibility to get what you want. If it doesn’t come out looking good, it’s my fault, which makes it even more intense and makes you want to work hard.

There’s also the added intensity of it being your music and starring in it.

Yeah, it’s pretty Disaster Artist, but sans James Franco. The whole process has been a big labor of love.

Where did you shoot the video? Did the location hold any personal significance?

The location itself wasn’t a very emotional place to me, but I was very inspired by my upbringing in L.A. I wanted everything to look like how I grew up in East L.A. suburban streets. The lifted Ford F150 trucks are a huge part of East L.A. culture. You see so many people around with them towing their lowrider cars in the back going to car shows.

Empress Of’s “When I’m With Him” video is a love letter to East L.A. Lorely Rodriguez and Roseli Martinez   Photo by Fabian Guerrero
Empress Of’s “When I’m With Him” video is a love letter to East L.A. José Hernandez and Lorely Rodriguez   Photo by Fabian Guerrero

What are some other things that remind you of growing up in L.A.?

I would have loved to incorporate generational differences in the video because that was such a part of growing up in L.A. — family, community, and elders. How grandpas are looking over the neighborhood, and how people are babysitting your kids when you’re going away, and cooking amazing food. Seeing the range of life from youth to older generations is a part of L.A. [to me.]

How did you go about casting the video’s other characters?

I wanted people in the video that inspire me, so it was performance artists or models that I love, like Leather Papi and José Hernandez. [José’s] already a really great model, but he shows a side of modeling that brands don’t do enough He’s so beautiful.

The styling stands out like crazy. It feels like a fashion video.

I think when you’re shooting something that’s so documentary style, like “Lorely and her crew in suburban East L.A.,” you need certain elements that will elevate a moment. The clothes played a huge role in taking something that is ordinary and making it a little surreal. I wanted to have colors that really popped, and play with the setting and props that we had. Like the bleachers [moments] are reminiscent of the quinceañera. My bed filled with flowers. I wanted everything to be surreal.

What were some struggles you ran into with this experience? What did you learn?

Oh my gosh, I learned so much about the whole process of making a video. The technical side of managing a budget and getting everything that you need. The little things, like if I don’t hire the right person to art direct something or do the makeup, it’s not going to turn out how I want it to look. One of the hardest things was being in front of and behind the camera. That is something I realized immediately when we started shooting.

How so? Are you camera shy?

No, it’s the energy that is involved. Being the director and the artist is a hard thing. I love it because I know that whatever I’m doing is from my heart and that will make it come out the way I want it to — hopefully. One take you’re dancing and flipping your hair like crazy, and then you’re running behind the monitor and being like, “Oh! My chin looks weird at that angle! I need to move my head up and be mindful of that.” You’re directing yourself. Or being around the cast, being like “Alright, guys, we really need to look like we’re just chillin’. What’s your horoscope?” Just figuring out out to pull energy out of people while you’re being the artist and directing.

Empress Of’s “When I’m With Him” video is a love letter to East L.A. Lorely Rodriguez   Photo by Fabian Guerrero

I’m a big fan of when you sing in Spanish, and it’s one of the highlights of “When I’m With Him.” What are the differences, for you, in writing and expressing ideas between English and Spanish?

It takes twice as many syllables to say what you want to in Spanish, versus in English. You’re already singing in a different way than if you were writing in English. I use Spanish in a way where if something is so personal that I can’t really sing about it in English, it’s almost like an alter ego to sing in Spanish. It’s something that I haven’t said out loud to a partner, or friend. I’m confessing something in Spanish. It really feels like I’m writing as a different person.

Are you the main character in all of your songs?

I have to be able to write music from my perspective, so it’s hard to pretend or put myself in a fake scenario. Some of the songs are not directly about me, they’re about friendship, or an overall communal feeling. “I’ve Got Love” is a song where I’m singing to someone who has severe depression. I’m singing about strength and always being with them, and being able to provide love when they don’t have it for themself. I guess you could call me the protagonist.

What were you listening to when you recorded Us?

I love this composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. He’s an amazing composer, he makes ambient music and film scores. But I was also listening to Ariana Grande nonstop. I love Ariana Grande so much. I tend to do that, listen to extreme differences. I’ll listen to some really pop music and then switch. I did that with [Me], too. I was listening to a lot of Sia — “Chandelier” had come out — and then immediately listening to [Igor] Stravinsky.

When writing Me, you sought solitude in Mexico. Did you do something similar for Us?

Yeah, it was less drastic than that, but it’s really helpful for me to get out of comfort zone and go somewhere where I can stop everything. Then, songs spill out. I was being reasonable and went to different places in southern California. Places that, growing up in L.A., had no idea were so close. I went to Topanga Canyon [to write] by myself, then I went to Ojai, which is really beautiful. Then I wrote a lot of it in a windowless studio in L.A.

How did these experiences compare to Mexico?

I think not having a record out at all, feeling like everything I write is new and exciting. With this record, I just had to write so many songs, so it took so long to write. I was like, “That’s not good enough. That’s not real enough. That’s not honest enough.” Lots of that, whereas being in Mexico alone for a month, I was discovering myself as a musician. It was more that every idea I had, I was discovering something new about myself. When you have a second album, at least for me, I had to crank out so many songs to realize what I was actually trying to say.

How many of those songs are on the cutting room floor?

I had like 100 ideas. I had fourteen songs before I cut it down to the 10 on the record. Writing is a muscle, and you always have to have it sharp. Doing the process I was writing everyday. Sometimes you write a song, and you’re like “This is trash.” But you keep that muscle sharp so that even though I spent the day writing a trash song, the next day I realize a song I wrote two days before was the one.

What do you ultimately want people to get from Us?

I want the listener to connect with whatever they can connect with. I didn’t want to make such a self-reflective album. I wanted to make an album that reflects all of us. That’s where I’m at right now. I connect with it because I struggled realizing which songs were the most honest to me. I wrote a lot of songs that didn’t go there, and I realized that I wasn’t going there. I’m happy if someone listens to it and is like, “Okay, if she’s being real with us, maybe I can find a way to be real, too. Get in touch with the feelings I’m hiding or repressing.” With music and the choosing the real songs, all I dream of and hope for, is that someone will connect to the a song on the record. Because I put myself out there.

I know you’re close with your mom. Has your mom listened to the record yet?

She hasn’t listened to the record yet, but she saw the video and she had criticism.

Oh, really?

She’s really opinionated. She was like, “Why aren’t there more close-up shots of you.” I’m like, “Mom, the record is called Us!” It’s obviously my music and that’s so much my narrative, but I want to share this with other people. I named it Us because that’s where I was in my life and the songs, there’s so much about all the people in my life. It felt like the obvious thing to do.

Empress Of’s “When I’m With Him” video is a love letter to East L.A. Lorely Rodriguez   Photo by Fabian Guerrero



Produced by The FADER
Director: Empress Of
Producer: Frances Capell
Production Manager: Madison LaClair
Associate Producer: Claire Lilly
Production Assistant: Lindsey Hartman
Executive Producers: Rob Stone, Jon Cohen, Andy Cohn, Anthony Holland, Scott Perry
Director of Photography: Mac Boucher
Assistant Camera: Jay Janocko
Gaffer: Matt Hill
Key Grip: Jason Rowlen
Production Designer: Natalie Fält
Art Director: Taylor Robinson
Set Dresser: Stephanie Szerlip
Costume Designer: TURNER
Choreographer: Charissa Kroeger
Hair Stylist: Chanel Croker
Makeup Artist: Francesca Martin
Editor: Mac Boucher
Color: Mac Boucher
Titles: Elena Flores
Cast: August Eve, Ruth Ferguson, José Hernandez, Roseli Martinez, Gabriela Ruiz

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Empress Of’s “When I’m With Him” video is a love letter to East L.A.