Empress Of performed an exuberant set at the Turf Club Saturday night with special guest Salt Cathedral. “Thank you for sharing your energy with me, and letting me do the same,” she beamed out into the crowd as the stage flashed green and gold. Throughout the night she would make varied use of this stage, skipping out from behind her gear to shake her curls on the perimeter, then falling to her knees to serenade the crowd with one arm outstretched and eyes closed, lost in the combined magic of her uptempo production and emotionally raw lyrics.
Lorely Rodriguez debuted her Empress Of alias anonymously in 2012 with a series of intricate dance-pop tracks posted to YouTube in the form of numbered clips, which she called “color minutes.” Rodriguez told Allston Pudding, “I sort of just wanted a way for people to listen to my music without judging the music. Once you put a face to a sound, you’re identifying it with something – it’s boxed in. I wanted to put it out there in a way that disregarded all of that.” In 2015, she released her first full-length (and entirely self-produced) album Me, which she wrote over the course of a five-week stay in a remote town in Mexico. It is an in-depth survey of her relationships and her life back in Brooklyn, explored in ten tracks of highly danceable experimental pop.
On Saturday night, Rodriguez began her set with a block of newer material, including the bilingual “In Dreams” off the double single which preceded her latest album, Us. She was joined on stage by Erin Fein, whose project Psychic Twin features a similar layering of dreamy synths interspersed with airy vocals. The pair stood in matching shimmery green outfits behind angled keyboards and controllers affixed with cymbals. “Shout out to my mom for making our costumes,” Rodriguez said near the end of the set.
2018’s Us was critically interpreted as more “on trend” commercially than her previous work, although there is still great power in its comparatively straightforward production. The album touches on her Honduran heritage with verses alternating between Spanish and English. Saturday’s set oscillated between Me and Us, and though the contrast was subtle, the more experimental riffs on tracks like “Water Water” energized the simpler melodies like those of “Trust Me Baby,” and vice versa. The two musicians rarely paused between tracks, and the fluidity of the performance kept the crowd transfixed throughout the night. At one point, Rodriguez seamlessly blended “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed” with a mini-cover of Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” leading into Us‘s crown jewel, “When I’m With Him.”
Before this, she performed her stand-alone single from 2016, “Woman Is a Word,” which has always been my favorite Empress Of song. The sparse lyrics orbit around a phrase repeated like a mantra over synths and unrelenting cowbell. “I’m only a woman if woman is a word,” she declares. “I’m only a figure if you can see my frame.” It is a deeply personal and intensely political rebellion against being boxed in by language. While the song’s lyrics covey a complex experience, the uptempo repetition of the instrumental seems to suggest it is possible to free oneself from the false perceptions of others via a physical shaking. On stage, Rodriguez appeared to be doing just this as she bobbed up and down, annihilating any doubt of her singular power.
The artist explained in an interview, “‘Woman Is a Word’ is a song about someone putting me into a box for a set of circumstances I was born into. I love playing that song on stage, it makes me feel so empowered.”
But this is not to say Rodriguez’s lyrics are free of uncertainties. Two songs off Us, “Love For Me” and “All For Nothing,” question the validity of her relationship with another. “You say that you love me/ I wanna know if you got love for me,” she sings in a euphoric falsetto on “Love For Me.” “I’d like to know/ All I wanna know/ Is it all for nothing?” she asks on “All For Nothing.” Questions that could derail a relationship are at the heart of these songs, but her delivery is less an interrogation and more a joy-filled declaration of her intent to gain information. She’s not at the mercy of the unknown, and she even deems these feelings of doubt worthy of a dance track.
“I feel really silly walking off stage, I feel like I should just keep playing songs,” Rodriguez admitted after bounding back on stage to a cheering crowd. The encore itself was her collaborative track with Dev Hynes, “Best To You,” off Blood Orange’s 2016 release Freetown Sound. Dev Hynes told Vibe, “[Rodriguez] really kind of saved that song because that was actually an instrumental I’ve made that I was going to scrap. She was at her apartment and was into it.”
This last track was a soft departure from most of her set, an ode to the last gasps of a failing one-sided relationship. Rodriguez adds gentle vocals, made gentler by light questions from Hynes on the recorded track. “Do you really want to?” he asks. “I can be the only one/ I can be the best to you, be the best to you,” she answers repeatedly, never reaching a full conclusion. The tender uncertainty hung in the air after the stage had cleared.
Lydia Moran is a music and arts writer in Minneapolis.
Photos by Emmet Kowler for MPR: