“I Want to Be on Top”: Empress Of, in Conversation With Melissa Barrera

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In an industry like music, balanced between self-expression and commercial recognition, there’s often a point where the best artists shed their pursuit of approval and go back to their roots. For Lorely Rodriguez, the polymath artist known as Empress Of, that moment is now. “I had to make it about me again,” she said when she reunited with her friend, the slasher star Melissa Barrera, shortly after dropping her latest album. For Your Consideration is another dance-pop classic from the Honduran-American star, but this one was made for the fans, not the fanfare—Rodriguez, buoyed by the strength of her mother, as she explained to Barrera, has already nominated herself. And over those pumping beats, Empress Of has never shied away from making a statement in her songwriting, whether she’s pushing back at machismo culture or spitting a raunchy anthem of sexual liberation. “It’s like you’re at the club and you’re like, Wait, what is she saying?” said Barrera when she linked with Empress to talk about the vapidity of Hollywood, horror movie obsessions, and making their moms proud.


MELISSA BARRERA: Hi. So good to see you.

EMPRESS OF: Oh my god, thank you for agreeing to do this.

BARRERA: Of course. I feel like I’ve been living in your world for the last week. I’ve just been listening to all your music and seeing all your videos and I love it.

EMPRESS OF: It means so much. I just thought it would be so fun to speak to an actress that I admire instead of another musician, and one who I think is creating their own lane. I could go on…

BARRERA: Listen, I feel the same way about you, and it’s so exciting to speak to you about your music because it feels so ahead of its time. And it feels like you’re so purposeful with the messaging behind everything. “You’ve Got To Feel” has become my anthem of the moment. I know that you wrote it during Black Lives Matter, but it feels so relevant. I kind of want to grab clips of everything that’s going on in the world and make a video to this song because the awakening that we’re all going through right now is crazy. Everybody should listen to it. I’ll be posting that song too because it feels so timely.

EMPRESS OF: I wrote that four years ago with Amber [Mark], and that came out of reminding myself that I can’t be desensitized by everything we see. To this day, if I catch myself in a doom scroll, I’m like, “I need to get out of my phone and have conversations with people.” That was my way of doing that at that moment. I’m really happy you brought that song up.

BARRERA: I think it’s incredible. You conjure up a feeling for a song that feels exactly like what you’re talking about. That song to me feels like a march. It feels like people out on the streets, it has that rhythm. 

EMPRESS OF: Well, I was out in the streets, so life really does reflect itself in music. You’re a musician as well, you’re a beautiful singer and songwriter, and there is so much that music expresses that you can’t do with words. That’s why I make music because I’m not the best at expressing myself in other ways.

BARRERA: I want to talk about one specific song because it feels like the Gen Z version of “Jolene” to me.

EMPRESS OF: Oh, “Lorelei.”

BARRERA: And because “Lorelei” is so close to your name, Lorely, I was wondering what made you pick that name? You’re the girl that’s crying, but you’re also the girl, Lorelei. 

EMPRESS OF: Someone on Twitter wrote, “Hey, Empress, did you write a song about the gringa version of yourself?” And I was like, “No.” Basically everyone has called me Lorelei forever, and you know I’m a storyteller, so I was like, “Let me use this song as an opportunity to tell the story about someone who cheated on their girlfriend with me.” I didn’t know about it. I woke up, found a woman’s shoe under the bed, and that memory always stuck with me. I felt really horrible for the other person and I was like, “I want to write a song in her perspective.” So that’s kind of the Jolene part of it, but I’m Jolene. And I also made a point of jabbing at the fact that people call me Lorelei all the time.

BARRERA: I had no idea. I was like, “Wait, her name’s not Lorelei, her name is Lorely.” I feel like a lot of women can identify with either feeling not enough in a relationship or finding out that you’re the other woman. 

EMPRESS OF: Unfortunately, it’s a Penguin Classic.

BARRERA: Yeah. And you’re also so visual.

EMPRESS OF: For the cover of For Your Consideration, I knew I wanted to be painted gold, but in a way that is fabulous. Bethany Vargas was the photographer. Oh my god, you have to work with her. I was like, “I want to send the message that I consider myself first. Even if I don’t get the awards, I’ve already nominated myself.”

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BARRERA: Exactly. I read that in an interview that you gave recently and I thought that was so amazing, because as artists, we get into this business because we love it, and then somewhere along the way it can be so easy to get lost in outside recognition. I know that I struggle with that a lot being in the movie and TV business. I’m envious that you can think that way because I think it’s easier said than done. 

EMPRESS OF: I’ve been doing this for 11 years now, and I had to have that conversation with myself because people tell me all the time, “You’re so underrated. Stop sleeping on Empress Of. Empress Of should be at these festivals.” And instead of letting that cripple me, I had to make it about me again. 

BARRERA: Yeah, and it should be. It happens the same way with me. I audition for a role, I shoot it, and I’m like, “This is the best time of my life. I’m making my best friends. This movie’s going to be amazing.” Then we do the press, everyone’s like, “This is so good.” Then the movie comes out, flops, and immediately, all the great things become secondary. It’s a constant work in progress placing our worth in the eyes of other people. It’s a recipe for disappointment, really. So I think that the whole messaging behind your album of making fun of how vapid and vain and temporary Hollywood is, it’s brilliant.

EMPRESS OF: I just wanted to have fun. And you just put a movie out.

BARRERA: I did, yes. It’s in theaters right now, Abigail.

EMPRESS OF: One reason why I wanted to talk to you is because horror is my favorite genre of film. And I’m a huge, huge fan of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Me and Jarina, my best friend, our ideal Saturday night is watching a horror film. 

BARRERA: Oh, great. I had a blast making this movie. Something that I cherish deeply is that I always come out of these movies with newfound family, and I think that’s what I treasure the most, because this business is about friendships. I’m sure it’s the same in the music business.

EMPRESS OF: Yeah, absolutely. It’s like, “who’s your tour family?” I’m sure it’s what your cast is like when you’re on press tours.

BARRERA: I do my research about everyone that I’m going to work with. I kind of want to know them before I even get to meet them in person. And directors do the same thing. It’s a lifestyle that can be very lonely because you’re away from home, and if you don’t have another little nucleus that feels like home, it can be miserable.

EMPRESS OF: Definitely. Congratulations. I can’t wait to see it. I bought tickets. Also, ballerinas. Possessed ballerinas, that’s literally my language. Suspiria vibes.

BARRERA: I can see all the influences of the directors that you like in your music videos, and I would love to see a music video that has horror influences.

EMPRESS OF: It’s hard to make music videos today, with budgets and stuff, but when you make a good one, it feels amazing.

BARRERA: I want to talk about your mom because you have a title track on your album, Empress Of, where she talks in it.

EMPRESS OF: Yeah, I just had her come over and recorded her for like an hour, just talking. Both of my parents are from Honduras, and I am so inspired by her as a woman and an immigrant and a single mother. She’s all over that album. It was special. I had her come out and give her little monologue live at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which like, as an L.A. resident, that was epic in itself. 

BARRERA: That’s so sweet.

EMPRESS OF: And this little five-foot Honduran woman comes on stage in Crocs or something. The crowd was screaming more for her than me.

BARRERA: I love that.

EMPRESS OF: I actually had to escort her off the stage because she wouldn’t get off.

BARRERA: She was like, “I could get used to all this cheering.”

EMPRESS OF: I’m sure you’re inspired by your mom, too.

BARRERA: Yeah, that’s why I felt so moved by that, because my mom is everything to me. Every time that I have a premiere or something, she’s always there. I’m one of four, but she managed to always be present for each one of us. My parents were together until I was in my early twenties, but my mom was basically a single mom. She was doing all the parenting and providing. So I just had that example of this woman that could do it all.

EMPRESS OF: I really feel that is why I’m still doing this. My mom was a nanny and house cleaner and I’m like, “If she could do it, I can do it.” I sang in front of Alanis Morissette recently during Grammy week, and I have never been so nervous in my life. I don’t know if you’ve ever had moments like that where you’re like, “This famous idol—”

BARRERA: Yeah, but I’m a very nervous person. I’m like a little chihuahua. I’m constantly shaking.

EMPRESS OF: I am too. I had to sing “Lorelei” in front of Alanis Morissette, acoustic, and my guitarist was like, “Your mom did not come from Honduras to this country for you to be a little bitch in front of Alanis Morissette.” And I was like, “Yeah, you’re right.”

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BARRERA: And you did it. It’s beautiful because I’m Mexican, you’re Honduran, but I think in general, Latinos have this very matriarchal strength, especially women. I have male friends that are also like, “My mom is my strength,” but my mom and grandma and sisters are always supporting me, and I think that’s very Latino. It feels like a superpower. Has your mom always been supportive of you doing music?

EMPRESS OF: No. When I originally told her, when I was 23, she was crying. I had studied music and she was like, “Well, maybe you’ll be a teacher or an engineer at a studio.” And I was, “No, I want to be an artist.” That’s part of the reason why I made my first releases in Spanish because I wanted to connect with my mom and have her listen to my music. She was just scared. She was like, “How are you going to make money?” And I was like, “Good question.” But being raised by her, I have her determination and willpower, so I feel like that’s part of the reason why I’m successful. 

BARRERA: Now she’s front row.

EMPRESS OF: She’s a fan, to say the least. She has made bootleg merch.

BARRERA: I love that. 

EMPRESS OF: She’ll go to Ross and buy a shirt that has a name brand on it and then put “Empress Of.” She’s ridiculous. She’s very, very supportive.

BARRERA: Yeah. They come around. My mom also was not supportive when I said that I wanted to be an actor, because it was just so foreign. There’s a fear like, “I don’t know anyone that does that and makes a living out of it.” It just feels like it’s not a real thing. My mom is also now my biggest fan. We had a really big fight recently because with everything that is happening in the world, you and I are both vocal in our support for social justice, and my mom was like, “Stop. You’re putting everything that you’ve worked for in danger.” It was my first ever fight with my mom in my life.

EMPRESS OF: Yeah. And it comes from fear. I’ve had to have that conversation with my mom before. She says this old quote, like something that your grandma says. I’m not going to say it, but it’s like, “You’re getting yourself into shit.” I’m like, “I’m not going to stop doing what I believe in because you’re scared for me.” 

BARRERA: Yeah, and your mom raised you to be the person that you are. Your mom probably raised you like mine, to raise your voice, don’t ever let other people tell you what’s right and wrong, trust your gut. So when this all happened, I literally was like, “Mom, you raised me to be this person.” Then she started coming around.

EMPRESS OF: Maybe it has to do with that generation. As a woman, I feel like I’m doing a lot of things with my life that I didn’t see my mom do growing up and having a lot of autonomy with my voice.

BARRERA: Yeah. And half the record’s in Spanish.

EMPRESS OF: Yeah. I have made music in Spanish, like I said, since the beginning, but I’ve never made this much music in Spanish. 

BARRERA: I love that on “Femenine,” you as a Latina are talking about wanting a man who is femenine, in a culture that is very macho and that punishes and looks down on that.

EMPRESS OF: Yeah. I wrote that song because I was in Miami and I went to a strip club the night before, and I was looking at masc men throwing money at beautiful dancers, and there were probably three women in the club aside from the dancers. I was just like, “I want the roles to reverse. I want to be the cowboy, I want to be on top.” I went into the studio and was like, “I want a guy who’s going to cook for me, clean for me, strip for me, dance for me.” I was kind of manifesting this guy.

BARRERA: It’s honestly a lot of pressure for men, so I think that it’s beautiful when men allow themselves to be vulnerable.

EMPRESS OF: Also, it’s a song for everyone. I’ve had gay men write, “Yo quiero femenine tambien.”

BARRERA: Yeah, definitely. And you have an older song called “Standard,” where you’re hanging upside down from this muscular man, like a bodybuilder. Your legs are on his neck, and the entire video, you’re singing upside down from him. And what struck me was all these images of this macho man, this very muscly dude that looks like he could beat you to a pulp, and he’s brushing your hair in the most delicate way and looking at you with such love and tenderness.

EMPRESS OF: Yeah, the song is about socioeconomic standards. I was living in New York and I was really broke, and when you’re an artist, you end up at a loft of some person and you’re like, “How do they get all this stuff? Who’s paying the bills? Who’s your dad?”

BARRERA: So true.

EMPRESS OF: You see the 1% of people hoarding the wealth. You hear stories of how much they pay in taxes, and we see where our taxes go, and we’re just like, “I’m living below the standard while you’ve got your plate of diamonds.” Then I always play with feminine and masculine. I wanted to break that wall with this bodybuilder. But I wrote it at that age when you’re just searching for the answers, not trying to make a political statement or be an activist.

BARRERA: I love it. It really hit me in the stomach. That’s why I love you as an artist. There’s always something deeper, and you manage to make it danceable. It’s like you’re at the club and you’re like, “Wait, what is she saying?”

EMPRESS OF: Yeah. I always try to do that.

BARRERA: I’ve been listening to your songs in the shower and as I’m getting ready, and it literally pumps me up so much that I feel like your tour is going to be a blast. You’re going to have so much fun.

EMPRESS OF: People ask me, “How do you want fans to listen to this record?” And that right there is perfect.


Makeup: Loftjet.