During a whirlwind promo visit to Australia, Empress Of (aka LA-based artist Lorely Rodriguez) squeezed in a quick coffee with noted fan, Sydney singer-songwriter Montaigne (Jessica Cerro). The pair hit it off immediately, chatting about house plants, the struggle of adolescence; how their cultural backgrounds have shaped them; toxic relationships; and, um, the importance of flossing (not the dance).
MONTAIGNE: Are you just on promo here? Like what’s your vibe?
EMPRESS OF: Yeah, it’s so weird. Every time I come here I’ve had like truckloads of gear.
MONTAIGNE: Did you want to play a show?
EMPRESS OF: I mean I always want to play. Not always. I don’t wanna play South By Southwest.
EMPRESS OF: It’s a joke. [Laughs] But a festival like that can be so hectic and stressful. I mean, I would play it. I want to play it. Whatever. I’m not turning it down. [Laughs]
MONTAIGNE: I thought there was maybe some detail I’m missing? I’ve never played it. It’s definitely a thing that Australians look at like, “One day I’ll play South By Southwest. I’ll make it overseas.”
EMPRESS OF: It’s important for a young artist. I got a lot of help through playing those shows. It’s so stressful because you’re playing like five shows in one day.
MONTAIGNE: Oh, that does sound stressful. The same venue, or different venues?
EMPRESS OF: Different venues … But I have loved touring Australia. I have played a really small festival called Sugar Mountain. It was so nice. The crowd was amazing. I also played Sydney Opera House for, like, a Samsung event.
MONTAIGNE: I think I wanted to come to that, but I had something on and I was very sad.
EMPRESS OF: Very bad excuse.
EMPRESS OF: “I had to do something, I think.” [Laughs]
MONTAIGNE: I think I was actually overseas, in LA or something like that.
EMPRESS OF: Do you like LA?
MONTAIGNE: The first two times I went I was supposed to stay for a month each and I fucking hated it. But I was always struggling with chronic fatigue at the time. I went again in May  and now I wanna move there.
EMPRESS OF: It’s similar to Sydney, especially weather-wise.
MONTAIGNE: I read that you grew up there?
EMPRESS OF: Born and raised. I lived in New York for a bit, but coming back and really missing all the things that define who you are. LA is a place where my culture of being Latin American is very rich. The music that comes out of all the cars and the food, and my mom living 15 minutes away – it feels like home.
MONTAIGNE: Were you raised in that Latin community as a kid?
EMPRESS OF: Yep. Spanish was my first language. It can be a quite an insular community … When you’re an immigrant in somewhere like Los Angeles, you seek comfort in your community. We hung around lots of Honduran people – because I’m Honduran-American – and ate lots of Honduran food. You’d dance to salsa, merengue, cumbia. I grew up with that, because that’s what my mom grew up with.
MONTAIGNE: Was there a lot of live music?
EMPRESS OF: No, just like the music you play at someone’s baptism, or someone’s quinceañera. Those events are very much about your community.
MONTAIGNE: I read a Stereogum interview you did where you said you really value togetherness now and you want to be with people. That resonates with me. I’ve come to that as well, but with music it can be quite isolating. I don’t know if you’re here by yourself?
EMPRESS OF: Oh my god this is so lonely. Especially being on a 15-hour flight by myself.
MONTAIGNE: Do you find it difficult being wholly by yourself, just in that moment?
EMPRESS OF: Being by yourself. I start writing all my songs by myself. I ask for help when I feel like I’m not getting where I need to get with the songs. That’s when I reached out to like Blood Orange, or DJDS, Chrome Sparks, all these other collaborators. On this record [Us] I started to reach out when I had the songs, but I didn’t have the feeling in the production or in the arrangements.
It can be so isolating, but it can be really important. You need to be inward and reflect, or at least I do, to get a better understanding of myself. Travelling alone is crazy. I played alone for a while and that was crazy. Even last night in my hotel room I was messaging friends around the world that would’ve been awake. All my friends in LA were asleep, so I was like, “[I’ll call my friends in the] UK!”
"People make bad names and they regret it. I don’t regret it at all. There’s no dated animal reference, or shapes or prisms." - Empress Of
MONTAIGNE: Do you like hotel rooms?
EMPRESS OF: Um, yeah! [Laughs] Hell yeah. They’re nice. It’s a funny way of existing because it’s not reality at all. No one makes your bed for you everyday. There’s no, like, cheese and coffee around all the time.
MONTAIGNE: Or a minibar in your room.
EMPRESS OF: No, it’s not reality.
MONTAIGNE: It depends on the hotel. I just got a portable iPhone speaker so I just have a jam in my room and it’s the best. Before that I was like, “Wow, the silence is so stark and I’m alone in the city.” Some of them [hotels] are very beautiful, but they can also be a really sterile place. Are you attached to your home? Because I fucking love my house. It has my piano, it has my art in it. My room is beautiful. I have sunflowers in my garden. I love being there. Do you have a similar affinity with your home?
EMPRESS OF: Now I do. But it’s still quite bare. I’m bad at decorating, really bad … It’s not that I don’t care. I’m just an easygoing person, but I recently discovered plants change a room. They’re also really hard to keep alive … Having plants have changed my life. But also when they die, a piece of me dies. I’m like, “Oh shit. I failed. I failed these plants.” I couldn’t keep a fucking cactus plant alive? That’s the easiest thing to do. You don’t even have to water it.
MONTAIGNE: Do you have a lot of plants?
EMPRESS OF: I’m not good at decoration, but I have a lot of plants.
MONTAIGNE: I feel like plants are a form of decoration. I feel like they’re the most wholesome form of decoration … Do you make your music at home, or do you have a separate space?
EMPRESS OF: I have a separate room in my house where I make music, thankfully. This is the first time I’ve ever done this. It was the next step – getting a space that had an extra bedroom where I could set up a studio. Studios are so expensive. I’m just like, “Why don’t I just rent a place that has an extra room where I could make a studio?”
MONTAIGNE: I read that Empress Of is a reference to tarot. Do you have a strong connection to tarot, or were you just like, “This is cool symbology”?
EMPRESS OF: My friend – I wrote a song about this whole experience – gave me a tarot card reading and the first card he pulled out was the Empress. I wrote this song, it’s called called ‘Patrick’, it’s so old. “You say I’m a fool/You say I’m an Empress/What does that mean?” It’s just the idea of how majestic and maternal and feminine the Empress card is. That’s why I gravitated towards it. It’s also weird to say Empress Of. No one understands what I’m saying when I first say it.
MONTAIGNE: Leaving a conjunction at the end throws people off. It’s unusual. But it’s cool. I’ve always fucking liked it. It’s a sick name.
EMPRESS OF: Me too. People make bad names and they regret it. I don’t regret it at all. There’s no dated animal reference, or shapes or prisms.
MONTAIGNE: It’s regal, which in itself is timeless…
EMPRESS OF: Well, my mom’s name is Queen, and I have a strong attachment to royal feminine roles. I have a crown tattoo and a gold crown on my tooth. I have an attachment to strong women in power.
MONTAIGNE: Did you have the struggle of adolescence, or did you always feel this way?
EMPRESS OF: I was so weird and awkward and scared of my boobs. “Oh god I have boobs!” [Laughs]
MONTAIGNE: I always wanted to be flat-chested, which is a weird thing, but I’ve come to love my boobs.
EMPRESS OF: That’s the thing though. You have to develop confidence and you have to develop your own understanding of yourself. So much of this record was understanding my own femininity. I feel sexy when I’m wearing sneakers and basketball shorts, and that’s my version of femininity.
MONTAIGNE: Did you grow up with sports?
EMPRESS OF: I grew up with three brothers. I didn’t grow up being typical femme.
MONTAIGNE: I grew up with a mum who was like, “When you’re going on a date or meeting a boy, wear a nice dress.”
EMPRESS OF: My mom would be the happiest person in the world if I put on heels and a dress for Christmas, which is not going to happen.
MONTAIGNE: Is that a latin mum thing? Because my mum is half Spanish, half Filo [Filipino]. She wanted me to do ballet, wear dresses. She was so excited when I would do those things. But then she raised an athletic young woman.
EMPRESS OF: My mum is like that, but she is trying to understand me as well. I did a shoot with a magazine a few weeks ago where I was wearing all these Fendi dresses. I posted a BTS [behind the scenes] on Insta. My mum called me and was like, “Why are you wearing those dresses? … They’re really floral. That’s not what you wear. You wear sports stuff.” And I’m like, “Bless you. Bless you for trying.”
MONTAIGNE: It means they really care about us.
EMPRESS OF: Yeah. It is really interesting though, growing up having a cultural pressure to be a certain type of woman and then not doing that.
MONTAIGNE: If you were to define what that pressure is, what kind of woman would you say the culture is trying to dictate?
EMPRESS OF: My mom would’ve loved for me to have a different career, or be a more stereotypical feminine woman. But she’s my biggest supporter … What is your mom like?
MONTAIGNE: My mum is a huge, fanatical supporter. My mum actually doesn’t listen to music much in her free time … When she was growing up she was into punk music, like The Clash and Siouxsie and The Banshees and stuff. She was into new wave – The Smiths, New Order – that was her scene. She’s extremely proud of what I do and thinks I’m a genius. I don’t know that she’d listen to my music much in her free time. You said you were raised with heaps of music, like all the Latin stuff. Living in America and LA, were you raised with pop music and other genres?
EMPRESS OF: It’s interesting growing up with two different cultures. Growing up in an isolated Latin community in LA…
MONTAIGNE: What area of LA?
EMPRESS OF: My mom lived in Pasadena and my dad lived in the [San Fernando] Valley. I grew up with lots of traditional things and then experiencing pop culture in the 2000s [through] MTV and VH1, and being able to download a bunch of free music and having YouTube. It was very interesting having two sides of my American experience.
MONTAIGNE: When did you start producing?
EMPRESS OF: When I was 17.
MONTAIGNE: Did you start writing songs before?
EMPRESS OF: I started writing songs when I was 13. They were shit. [Laughs]
MONTAIGNE: Were you drawn to [music] magnetically as a kid? Or was that something that came later?
EMPRESS OF: My father was a musician so it was always present in my life. I felt like it was the best way of expressing myself. So that’s why I always wrote songs … I wasn’t really expressing myself talking to people.
"I finished this record and I was like, 'I’m so done talking about myself.'" - Montaigne
MONTAIGNE: Do you still find it difficult expressing yourself talking to people?
EMPRESS OF: Songs will always be the best way of getting my point across, or capturing an emotion.
MONTAIGNE: Do you feel comfortable being vulnerable in your songs?
EMPRESS OF: Yeah, I do. I’ve always been vulnerable.
MONTAIGNE: When I first listened to Me I was like, “This is relatable.” It’s relatable because it’s not treating life in a broad fashion that a lot of pop does – not all pop, but commercial pop, top 40 stuff. You’ve heard these concepts before, you’ve heard these phrases before. With your music you get into the minutiae of a feeling, the very specific details of relationships. Like that line on ‘Timberlands’, “I’m always the first to laugh when it hurts.” I fucking love that so much because it’s true for me as well. It feels like a montage of you…
EMPRESS OF: I struggle with that song because it’s so revealing. That’s a thing about my music because it’s so revealing. It’s uncomfortable. I did a Song Exploder podcast and he [host Hrishikesh Hirway] uploaded me mumbling the lyrics. I sent the stems to the demo songs and I’m like, “Don’t upload the mumbling because it’s embarrassing”, and of course he uploaded it. [Laughs] But I’m glad he did it because it reveals a lot about songwriting for me. But that song, ‘Timberlands’, was so revealing. I like that song because I’m talking about a relationship – but I’m not really talking about a relationship. I’m talking about myself.
MONTAIGNE: Do you feel like you write a lot of songs like that where you’re working within the framework of a relationship, but you are the subject?
EMPRESS OF: I do that, but on this record there’s a lot of outward songs. ‘Just The Same’ is a song about how someone makes me feel and less about how I’m feeling when I’m with someone. That’s the difference with this record. I didn’t want it to be so about myself, but I wanted it to be about my experiences.
MONTAIGNE: Is that a conscious feeling? I’ve just finished writing a second record – it’s in the process of mixing … This record is very about me – and my relationships with other people, but it’s always addressing me as a subject and the way I’m feeling about it. I finished this record and I was like, “I’m so done talking about myself.”
EMPRESS OF: But then you have to talk about yourself when you put it out.
MONTAIGNE: Absolutely. Part of it is that I wrote the record, and because I had dealt with all the things I was going through in the songs, I moved on from then. And I was ready to release, let go, and think about other people because I had just gotten out of such a dark inward place. Do you find when you write your songs, if there are any particularly dark moments, that writing the songs heps you get over those things? Or do the songs keep you there?
EMPRESS OF: It depends on how the songs are written. There are songs on my first record that are so dark and really hurt. Like ‘Need Myself’ from my album Me. That song really hurts. Then there are songs on Us, like ‘When I’m With Him’, that hurt but are a cathartic release. Like, “I’m releasing this pain”, and it’s a positive thing for me.
"Songs will always be the best way of getting my point across, or capturing an emotion." - Empress Of
MONTAIGNE: When you perform ‘Need Myself’, for example, are you reliving the emotions on stage?
EMPRESS OF: Yeah, I don’t play it anymore. ‘When I’m With Him’ is about a toxic relationship and falling out of love with someone but it feels so good to sing. It’s about the beauty of falling apart in a relationship, rather than dwelling on it falling apart…
MONTAIGNE: Do you floss regularly? That’s not a question I wanted to ask but I just thought about it now.
EMPRESS OF: [Laughter] I definitely do. It’s important. Urgh. If you don’t floss that’s so gross.
MONTAIGNE: I started flossing because my first and last boyfriend was like, “You have to floss” … That was an extraordinarily toxic relationship and we don’t talk anymore – even though I have forgive him for all of his shit – but he told me how to floss and I’ve kept flossing because of him. Is there something in a relationship where you’re like, “Well, that didn’t work out, but I’ve picked up this good, sustainable habit that’s helped me in my life”?
EMPRESS OF: Well, yeah. I’ve had relationships where I’m like, “Oh cool, I know exactly what type of person I don’t want to be with.” It’s not necessarily about flossing. [Laughs] I can’t be with anyone that doesn’t get that music is the most important thing in the world to me.