The sun is shining, crisp and sparkling over the lake in east London’s Victoria Park. It’s a sight that feels improbable now that the dreamy, sweaty heat wave days of summer are over, but Lorely Rodriguez might be a little too tired to fully appreciate the view. The artist—better known as Empress Of—has just landed from her current home of LA, and she concedes that spending the duration of the flight watching a string of Fresh Prince episodes instead of sleeping might be taking its toll.
For example, she’s just spilled her fresh cup of hot black coffee over her bag and phone. “I'm so good! I'm killing it right now!” she jokes, half-laughing, half-sighing, and running into the nearby café to pick up some napkins.
We last spoke to Rodriguez back in 2015 when her acclaimed first album, Me, was about to drop. It was an impressive, emotionally raw debut, full of beguiling, experimental, self-produced pop that was intensely personal: so much so, in fact, that she started to find the songs—which largely dealt with one specific relationship—too exhausting to perform.
“My first record was so serious,” she says now, having sat back down, as I ask what it felt like being within that tight, insular energy. “The album cover was serious, the musical content was so emotional. This record is emotional as well—but I want color, I want real life, I want to balance all the moments, happy moments, sad moments. I want the full spectrum. I don’t want just a picture of one moment in my life. That’s a phase I’m going through; trying to express every angle.”
It’s true: her second album, Us—which is out on Friday, October 19—is a lighter listen than what’s come before, and it feels more polished and expansive than her debut. The whole thing is full of glorious airy pop sounds, her lithe, lilting vocals guiding us through life’s adversities like the light waves of a lake. Take single “Trust Me Baby,” which sees her imploring “We could do each other more love than harm / If you just, you just trust me, baby” over shiny, luxurious clouds of synth. Written down, it sounds like a troubled, frustrated request—but through it’s breezy delivery, Us finds Rodriguez more at ease and, well, happier.
“I think it is a little bit brighter,” she agrees. “I lean on stuff in a more mature way than I did on my first record.” She puts on a hyper, loud voice to describe her mindset back when making her debut: “‘I have all these musical ideas and I need to vomit them all out right now!’” And now she laughs. “On this record it’s more like… OK, we’re chilling, we’re grooving. I got these things I want to tell you but I’m gonna take my time.”
The more relaxed tone might in part be due to her move across the country from New York to LA. That relocation feels like the most significant thing to have happened in her life during the past three years, she says. “My family’s from there, so that’s a huge part of why I moved there—I wanted to be close to my roots, the huge Latin community, and my mom. It’s been really inspiring.”
Since Rodriguez put out Me, Latinx visibility in the music industry has increased tenfold—as, in general, has bilingual artistry in predominantly English-speaking countries (see: BTS, Rosalía, Kali Uchis, Christine and the Queens, etc). Empress Of has been singing in Spanish since her debut EP Systems, but she can definitely sense the change in the climate this time around. “On my first EP a lot of people skipped to the English tracks because they just couldn’t understand. But now it’s not such a thing—people might not understand it, but they can still feel something. I think because of social media people are a lot more universally connected to each other, and you can follow someone who speaks a different language and still learn and be inspired—or still be impressed by them.”
The way Rodriguez describes her life in LA and the recording process of this second album sounds like a sweet, stoner-y indie movie about the music industry: “I co-produced it with a lot of people, which is a first for me—it was a new experience, and a really positive one. The typical LA thing to do is just go into rooms with different people to write. Everyone has a studio, because everyone has space, so it’d just be like, ‘Oh come over to my house, we’ll have coffee, we’ll go record!’—it’s such a weird, idealistic thing, this world where people just do that everyday.”
She says that this collaborative process—which saw her working with people like Dev Hynes and DJDS—is partly how Us got its name, when I ask about the shift from a debut called Me. But it’s more than that. While Me focussed so closely on herself and that one relationship, Us delves through a variety of past experiences and people, allowing her to be vulnerable and emotional without tapping into “one really draining place.” It means the album finds her serving up lines that feel both deeply personal and yet extremely universal – it ends up being for all of us as much as for her, dealing with quarter-life anxieties and coming to terms with realism versus the romantic ideals we grew up with, set to the backdrop of “such a weird time” to be living in America.
There are soaring songs about depression (“I’ve Got Love”), glimmering tracks about security in a relationship (“Just The Same”), and an extraordinary ballad that admits the relationship isn't perfect, but she’d repeat it all the same (“Again”). Lush track “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed” tells the story of dating someone in LA who she can truly relax around – to the point where she can smoke weed with them (whereas normally, she sings, relatable to all of us who are getting older and more in our own heads: “It gives me anxiety”). On opener “When I’m With Him”, too, she admits of a relationship: “I can’t help but repress all of the signs telling me that I’m not fine”.
I ask if it’s weird for her close friends, who know about her personal life, to hear intimate details and emotions laid bare on her songs like that. She laughs, “I get all these texts like, 'Are you still with your boyfriend?', or, ‘Is everything cool with you and your man?!’, and I'm like yes! Come on, relax—songs are just songs.”
Unlike anything she’s done before, Us is the first time Rodriguez has really been able to feel herself. It’s an album that channels someone like Dev Hynes’s knack for 80s-leaning glossy pop with bitingly insightful lyrics, as much as the lush, hazy sonics of a group like Cocteau Twins—and she’s happy with the end result. “My first record was such an opus where I had to prove something, and now I don’t have to prove anything I just want to make dope shit that I would listen to,” she explains, adding: “And I listen to ‘When I’m With Him’ like everyday! Because I worked on it with someone else, even though it’s still a really personal song, I feel less guilty about listening to it. There’s a lot of songs on this record that feel like they’re almost not my songs... they’re just songs I like.”
The park is starting to fill up now—be it with workers on their lunch break, parents with strollers, or just locals making the most of the crisp blue skies—so we start navigating our way out. Lorely Rodriguez begins weighing up whether to get one of those Santander bikes, so she can cycle to her next meeting in west London, but decides against it. After saying goodbye, I walk away feeling a little lighter than I did before, charged with some of the relaxed, positive energy that Empress Of seems to emanate. And really, that’s the main takeaway from Us: on her second album, Lorely Rodriguez has created a bright and easy universe to exist in, leaving each of us coming out the other side feeling refreshed.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.