On the road to Phoenix, Empress Of wanted to hear one lyric: “If I die tonight, I’ma make it look pretty.”
“I was like, this is the most Libra sh— ever,” the pop star, born Lorely Rodriguez, said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “That’s what I feel like Libras are like. If I’m gonna die, I have to look fabulous. If I’m gonna be, like, crazy on stage, I have to be fabulous.”
It was an hour or so after she had put Coco & Clair Clair’s “Pretty” on aux, and while on Zoom, Rodriguez wandered through an empty Arizona Federal Theatre to her dressing room, catering in hand. In two hours, she’d down two shots of tequila, then take the stage to open for Carly Rae Jepsen.
“I put out I’m Your Empress Of in 2020 at the start of the pandemic, and I didn’t play for two years. And now I’m on tour with Carly, and I’m playing some of the songs from that record,” Rodriguez said. “And it’s already created such an identity of its own that’s detached from what I think the record is to me.”
To Rodriguez, albums aren’t quite complete without touring. When she performs in front of crowds, her songs metamorphosize: Listeners form their own personal connections with her work and, gradually, the album blossoms beyond Rodriguez’s individualistic vision, and into a garden of shared love.
Rodriguez plants roots in her femininity. As lush as the scenery on the tarot card that her stage name was inspired by, Empress Of dissects traditional sound and transforms it into colorful, avant-garde pop. Although she uses music to ground herself, Rodriguez feels that the contemporary climate for pop music is shifting.
“When I started making music, everyone was afraid of being associated with pop music because they were like, ‘That’s not cool,’ ” Rodriguez said. “If we’re in a place where it’s hard to define what pop music is, then that’s a good place to be.”
Exquisitely warping the boundaries of pop, the singer’s latest EP Save Me overloads on adrenaline; it surrenders to dynamism with full-blown intensity and love. Rodriguez calls the EP a “middle point,” a bridge between I’m Your Empress Of and her upcoming project.
“The music I’m writing next is definitely a departure,” Rodriguez said. “Because I’ve been playing shows, I really feel like I’m giving myself air to breathe from that (past) music.”
As Rodriguez retreats from her I’m Your Empress Of era, she finds herself dancing not just on stage, but also in the studio.
“I’ll be working with friends or producers, and they’re just like, ‘What is she doing?’ ” she said. “Because I’m just like, dancing in the studio, just going nuts.”
There’s a necessary physicality rooted in Rodriguez’s music, felt through dense electronic ripples and thick, fluttery bass. (“Someone on Twitter wrote, ‘Every song has a dance break,’ and I’m like, damn, they’re right,” Rodriguez added.) Yet, on Save Me, while lust thrashes about in full elegant force, Rodriguez also channels a deep spirituality. Her live performances set this vital balance between pathos and divinity — it’s difficult to find the right word to define Rodriguez’s energy.
“Fuzzy energy. I don’t know, I feel I’m fuzzy. Like my hair is fuzzy. The music is fuzzy,” Rodriguez said. “Or frenetic? What does frenetic mean? I’m gonna look it up.” She looked down, opening up a web browser tab. “Oh, frenetic: ‘Fast and energetic in a rather wild and uncontrolled way.’ That’s it. I’m frenetic.”
Though it’s easy to get lost in her music’s frenetic vivacity, Rodriguez anchors her listeners with maternal gravity. On the I’m Your Empress Of opener, her mother, Reina, speaks about her experiences as a first-generation immigrant from Honduras: “It was not easy speaking English,” Reina says on the track. “It was not easy having to learn it. But I did, I got it.”
During her live performances, Rodriguez plays a recording of her mother’s voice as an interlude. “When you hear her voice, you can understand me in a deeper way,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez cites her parents as foundational inspirations for her music. Growing up with Honduran parents, she listened to salsa, merengue, cumbia — now, while Rodriguez is comfortable identifying with the pop label, her music playfully contorts genres.
“You’re trying to bridge these two worlds, of where (your parents) came from and what you’re doing,” Rodriguez said. “So I’m always inspired by that, because I’m a Honduran American. But I’m trying to define that in my own way all the time.”
As Rodriguez attempts to define her identity through her work, she finds that her music’s relationship with others also influences her sense of self.
“They can look at me, and be like, ‘Oh, well, she’s not like fitting a label, but I can see myself in her.’ And that means that I can be whoever I want to be,” Rodriguez said. She paused. “I don’t know. I just think about that a lot.”