Empress Of and Oh Pep!
What is pop? What makes a pop song? By some definitions, it’s music that lasts for about three minutes, filled with melodic hooks and catchy lyrics. The more you try to pin it down, though, the more you realise that term – “pop” – is almost meaningless, except to say that it’s music that a lot of people like. “Gangnam Style” and “Hey Jude” were both enormous pop hits, but popularity is about the only thing the two have in common. Well, that and an ability to get stuck in your head.
Both albums I’m reviewing here – Us, by Empress Of, and I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You... by Oh Pep! – contain strong pop elements, something their creators freely acknowledge. Both acts began their careers on the fringe of the mainstream but, by accident or design, they are being drawn into it, their work highlighting the breadth of what pop music can be. Empress Of’s slinky electronica and Oh Pep!’s modern rock may appear different on the surface but their emotive lyrics and luscious melodies have that uncanny ability to get stuck in your head, as well as your heart. Both albums are simply great pop.
Empress Of, the musical nom de guerre of singer-songwriter Lorely Rodriguez, began in 2012, with a series of one-minute electronic pop pieces Rodriguez made in her Brooklyn apartment and posted on YouTube. Faced with writers’ block, Rodriguez’s debut Empress Of album was not released until 2015, the product of several months of self-imposed isolation in central Mexico. As before, she wrote, performed and produced everything. Appropriately titled Me, the debut album was far more streamlined musically than her earlier YouTube offerings, with a strong hint of modern R&B beneath.
The second Empress Of album, released yesterday, is almost the antithesis of Me. Mostly recording in Los Angeles, Rodriguez collaborated with a wide variety of writer-producers from as far afield as New York, London and Madrid. But this was no A&R department-driven exercise in assembly-line pop, it was a deliberate artistic choice, as Rodriguez explained to me recently. “I had written and produced a lot of the music, but it was at a point where I felt I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,” she said. “I could keep working on this over and over again or I could reach out to my community of artists and see what they have to offer … utilising everyone’s talents around me that are close friends of mine.” There could be no better name for this collective-based sequel than Us.
Rodriguez moved back to her hometown of LA three years ago but the first song on Us is an affectionate reminiscence of her life in Brooklyn, where Empress Of began:
Sitting on your stoop all afternoon
In the pouring rain but we don’t move
Clothes is sticking to my skin
I’ll be sick all the weekend
It’s too hot to sit inside a room
I’d rather be sitting next to you
Drinking beer out of a bag
Watching cars and yellow cabs
“Everything to Me” also features Dev Hynes, aka Blood Orange, a close friend of Rodriguez. “Whenever I think of New York, I think of Blood Orange,” she said. “It’s funny, because he’s not even from there – he’s from the UK.” “Everything to Me” floats along on a dreamy haze of R&B over a trap-inspired beat, evoking the steamy metropolis at the height of summer.
“Just the Same” is a sprightly love song with a sexual undertone as Rodriguez playfully sings, “I want you on top of me like a paperweight.” Extra production was provided by Cole M. G. N., who also contributed to another track, “Love for Me”, and production duo DJDS, who Rodriguez befriended after working with them last year. “We made that song with Khalid,” she said, “which is new for me because I don’t really ever do pop stuff like that.” That track, “Why Don’t You Come On” by DJDS (featuring Khalid and Empress Of), became a pop smash, amassing 31.6 million streams on Spotify alone. Through experiences such as this, Rodriguez discovered she loved collaborating and that led to her working with eight different writer-producers on Us. In the end, however, it was Rodriguez who decided what should make it into the final mixes.
DJDS also co-produced the album’s next track “Trust Me Baby”. This is the first of two songs on Us that contain Spanish lyrics – the other being “When I’m with Him”. Rodriguez’s parents emigrated from Honduras and she often uses Spanish to express her innermost thoughts. “I wanted to tap into what I was avoiding,” she said. “It’s hard to wanna go there, you know? So, I chose to sing in Spanish because it was like a different character … my alter ego singing.” In “Trust Me Baby” she sings: “Respect me / I am your equal / I am not an animal / That you rescued.” In “When I’m with Him” it’s a relationship that is unravelling: “You wanted more than what could be / I distance myself and you can’t see it.” Us is a buoyant and optimistic album but clear-eyed songs such as “Trust Me Baby” and “When I’m with Him” stop the mood becoming saccharine.
In fact, the album carries an explicit sticker, which Rodriguez says at first shocked her. “I guess I do say the F-word and I say ‘shit’ and I talk about marijuana,” she told me, laughing. “It is funny because I don’t really consider my music explicit.” New York producer Chrome Sparks is credited on the track “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed”, as is Madrid-based producer Pional, who also worked on “Timberlands” and “I’ve Got Love”. Although “I’ve Got Love” is ostensibly a love song, the line, “Don’t let your heart consume all the hate they love to feed” reminded me of Trump’s America, confirmed by Rodriguez when she told me, “Being the kid of an immigrant, I can relate so much to what I’m seeing today.”
Some of the decisions erstwhile alt-folk duo Oh Pep! make on their second album, I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You…, echo those of Rodriguez. After recording their debut album, Stadium Cake, in remote Halifax, Nova Scotia, they returned home to Melbourne to make its follow-up. There were other parallels, too. Olivia Hally, principal songwriter of Oh Pep! – and the “O” in the band’s name – worked with a number of different co-writers this time, whereas previously all of their songs had been credited to her and her musical partner, Pepita Emmerichs (“Pep”). Of the 10 songs on the album, three were written with co-writers, three with Emmerichs and four on her own.
Technically, Oh Pep! may have begun as an acoustic folk duo, but their songwriting was always influenced by classic pop and – beginning with a series of EPs in 2012 – that flavour becomes stronger every step of the way. When I asked Hally to describe the new album, she was unambiguous: “Unapologetic pop. That’s what we were going for.” To that end, Oh Pep! recruited producer Joel Quartermain, of Eskimo Joe fame, who supported their desire to broaden the band’s sonic palette beyond acoustic instruments, a process Hally and Emmerichs had already begun on Stadium Cake.
I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… begins with a multi-tracked flurry of violins, played by Emmerichs, while Hally plays acoustic guitar flourishes underneath. As “25” continues, the music suddenly drops to a simple bass and drum groove and Hally describes a memorable sexual encounter:
On the eve of my 25th birthday
You come knocking at my door at night
I tried a hole in my head
A hole in my pocket
Nothing makes me feel as high
As the silhouette of your body in the dim of the
You move left (nothing had me prepared for this)
I move right (nothing had me prepared for this)
The lush strings return as a counterpoint to the soaring chorus. Hally and Emmerichs wrote “25” in a state of nervous tension on the first day of recording for Stadium Cake, deep in debt and a long way from home.
“Asking For” was principally written by Emmerichs, though Hally is given a small credit for some lyrical input. “What is it – ‘Change a word, get a third’?” she joked. When I speculated to Hally about the meaning of the song, she responded, “I think that was actually her [Emmerichs] writing to me, like, about a partner. Actually, I know that was the case.” The song is a message to Hally to stop looking a gift horse in the mouth when it comes to romance:
Babe, you’ve got one
Yeah, you’re looking too hard
He’ll do anything for you
Makes you smile then laugh
Conversely, Hally admitted that three of the songs she wrote on the album – namely “What’s the Deal with David?”, “Truths” and “There Would Be a Riot” – were written about Emmerichs. It’s a fact that when songwriters aren’t writing about their own lives, they frequently cannibalise the emotional lives of their friends for story material, and after 10 years of friendship, working and touring together, there isn’t much Hally and Emmerichs don’t know about each other’s emotional travails. I asked Hally if Emmerichs cringed slightly when she heard these songs for the first time. “A little bit,” she said. “And when Pep showed songs to me, too, I’m like, ‘Hmmm…’, and then we’re all laughing again.”
“Truths” is about the growing pains families experience as children mature into adults. Although it was written about Emmerichs, it’s clear Hally also drew upon her own relationship with her parents and the inevitable rebalancing that occurs – between mothers and daughters in particular – when children strike out on their own.
I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… is an unusual album. The songs become stronger the further you go down the track listing, which is a trait that is shared by Empress Of on Us. “Up Against the World” – a personal favourite – “Parallel”, “Your Nail and Your Hammer” and the sublime “There Would Be a Riot” are all on the second half of Oh Pep!’s album, while “I’ve Got Love”, the glorious “When I’m with Him” and the poignant “Again” are lower down the order on Us. The good news is that none of the other tracks on either album are duds – far from it.
On their new albums, Empress Of and Oh Pep! have refined and enhanced the pop qualities that were previously inherent in their music without compromising the uniqueness that made everyone pay attention in the first place. As Rodriguez told me, “I’m still making the music that I would [have], but because I’ve done these collaborations and learnt so much from other people, I think I’m influenced by them”. Some people may be sniffy about pop music, but Hally won’t have a bar of that kind of elitist attitude. “Pop’s not a dirty word to me,” she said. When the results are as heartfelt, joyful and intelligent as these two albums,I challenge anyone to say any different.
CULTURE OzAsia Festival
Venues throughout Adelaide, October 25-November 11
MUSICAL Caroline O’Connor: From Broadway With Love
City Recital Hall, Sydney, October 26
VISUAL ART Breathing in Trees: Nicole Moss
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, until November 25
MULTIMEDIA Biomess – The Tissue Culture & Art Project
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until December 3
CABARET The Australian Burlesque Festival
Alex Theatre, Melbourne, October 25-27
OPERA Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette
Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, October 20
Belvoir, Sydney, until November 11
FASHION Pacific Runway
Carriageworks, Sydney, October 26
INSTALLATION 1000 Doors
Arts Centre, Melbourne, until October 21
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 20, 2018 as "Pop rally". Subscribe here.