The first time I listened to Empress Of's "When I'm With Him," I took its bright, nostalgic, poppy sound and beguiling title at face value. To me, this was clearly a love song.
It was on the fourth listen that a lyric made me pause: "I feel like I'm on the outside looking in / When I'm with him." And then another: "I don't know how to love now, I pretend / When I'm with him." An out-of-love song unspooled before me. I'd mistaken entrapment for care.
The music of Los Angeles-based producer-musician Lorely Rodriguez, aka Empress Of, does this expertly, this balancing of the light and heavy. A first-generation Honduran-American, Rodriguez seamlessly weaves together lyrics in both English and Spanish, the two languages nimble in their own respective ways, one supporting the song when the other can't. In "Trust Me Baby," her notes scrape great heights and settle back down into a near sing-talk rhythm, darting in and out of Spanish: "Confía en mí / Trust me baby."
On her latest record, Us, the beats are eminently danceable. Synth-driven melodies are airy and bright and remind me of that favorite spot on the back of my neck where the sun hits just so. The production often includes dense, wonky, pulsating percussion that can be felt in your body and makes you want to move. Don't believe me? Turn on "Just the Same."
"A huge part of learning to produce for me was listening to a lot of dance music and copying the rhythms, copying the forms," Rodriguez tells me over the phone. "I'm really inspired by music you can dance to. So, I try to incorporate that experience into my music as much as I can, into my live show as much as I can because it feels natural to me."
I experienced this first-hand when I saw Empress Of open for Blood Orange at the Moore last fall. Dressed in a giant blazer and posted up behind a tower of synths, Rodriguez bounced and jammed fucking hard to her music, her lung capacity rivaling a seasoned swimmer. She even got the awkwardly half-seated, half-standing Seattle audience to shimmy around a bit. It was inspiring.
Us can be seen as a direct contrast to her 2015 debut album Me. Obviously, there's the shift in perspective—from first-person singular to first-person plural. Rodriguez said that with Me, she wrote and produced everything herself. But she took a more pluralistic approach to put together her sophomore effort, enlisting the help of artists she admired, and drawing on her growing community since her first LP.
"The songs are still very personal, they are from my point-of-view, because that's how I write music," she tells me. "I can't write about anything else, I can't make up a story. I'm writing songs about the people in my life and how they affect me. And that's all part of the evolution of that record, [Us]."
I think about that stranded preposition. Of. It makes me feel like she's the empress of a domain that's yet to be determined. Or one that's constantly evolving.