Empress Of and Salt Cathedral Feel Hotter Than Ever

The friends catch up about their new records.

Nicolás Losada and Juliana Ronderos are the duo behind Salt Cathedral, a band from Bogotá and now based in Brooklyn; Lorely Rodriguez is a songwriter and producer who performs as Empress Of. Salt Cathedral and Empress Of both just released new records — Before It’s Gone and For Your Consideration, respectively — so to celebrate, the three friends got together at Lorely’s place in LA to catch up about it all.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Lorely Rodriguez: We’re in my house.

Nicolás Losada: We’re here, we’re very happy, and we’re drinking mezcal.

Lorely: I’m obviously very happy to have you here, because you’re my best friends and you live across the country and I don’t get to see you that much. 

Juliana Ronderos: I’m very honored to be able to come here and stay in your house. 

Lorely: And why are you here? 

Juliana: Because Nico and I played a show last night with Ana Tijoux at the Regent Theater. 

Lorely: How did it go? 

Juliana: The show was amazing. I really liked it. The sound was good, the crowd was good. 

Lorely: I know it was amazing because I was at the show. [Laughs.] So, our records are coming out the same day. What’s the name of your record? 

Juliana: It’s called Before It’s Gone

Nico: And yours?

Lorely: My record is called For Your Consideration

Juliana: Wow. That’s some Grammy you’re going for… 

Lorely: I mean, I don’t know what — well, I know what I’m going for. 

Nico: What are you going for? 

Lorely: I’m going for… It.

Juliana: Like “It” girl? 

Lorely: No, just it. You know, a lot of people have been asking me, “Empress Of what?” And I’m like… [Pauses.] I love the open mindedness of my band name and the ambiguity of it, because it’s like, I’m whatever I am today and I’m going for whatever I want to go for. It might be stardom today. I might want boredom tomorrow. I might want to just sit and be left alone. 

Juliana: What’s the main theme on the record? What’s the throughline? 

Lorely: OK, we’re diving straight into it. The main throughline is… it’s a very fun record, and I feel like it’s adventurous for me. I’m not letting a previous persona control me. I’m not like some indie darling making fucking heartbreak music. I just feel very confident and flirty.

Nico: Where did you find that change before the record before and this? Where did you get the initial idea?

Lorely: I mean, you guys will relate to this — we’ve been doing this for years, and after a while, you just really don’t care about whether anyone’s going to get it.

Juliana: I was telling Nico today that last night’s show for me was maybe the best show I’ve ever played, for me personally, because I truly have grown into [feeling like] there’s nothing to lose. I’m not trying to get anyone’s validation. And it just feels good because it’s genuine to what I’m feeling.

Lorely: Yeah. I think that’s such a sweet spot.

Nico: That’s in common between the two records, that sense of freedom. Because when we did Before It’s Gone, we did it with this sense of freedom of saying, “We don’t care about what nobody thinks,” or any type of validation or anything like that. Also, our record, it’s actually the opposite — it’s very heady and very like, “We care about the world and we care about doing songs that represent what’s happening, and it’s bigger than us.”

Lorely: Yeah, one of your songs resonated with the crowd last night, “Terminal Woes.” You were like, “This song’s about the environment and how we’re messing it up, and everyone was like, “Yeah!”

Juliana: [Laughs.] It was a good crowd for that.

Lorely: Yeah. But I like that you say [our records are] approaching two things with the same mentality — you’re like, “I don’t give a fuck whether you get this or not, but this is what matters to me.” And then I’m sort of like, “I don’t give a fuck if you get it or not, but I matter.” I think it’s cool to grow into a new confidence as artists, because we’ve been doing this for 10 years.

Juliana: It’s kind of crazy. You think you’d stay static, or that there are no other ways to feel, because the way you always currently feel feels like this default in music. But then when you grow — and I hear people saying that about getting to their 30s, where they’re like, “I love having this confidence.” It’s this feeling that you know what you’re doing and why, and it just feels good.

Lorely: Yeah. I feel hotter than ever.

Juliana: I mean, me too. [Laughs.]

Lorely: I think it’s the wisdom of not chasing desire. Maybe you can talk a little bit about wisdom and your record. What are some big lessons you learned while making Before It’s Gone

Juliana: I think it was a lot about trusting your own instinct and your own guts. I mean, it goes back into not [needing] external validation. You also have to listen to yourself, and you have to listen to what you’re feeling. I think there’s a lot of your subconscious that comes out when you’re writing songs. I think a lot of songs came out with lyrics, and those lyrics were very reflective and they all existed in the same universe. The concept is our bodily existence through time and how that relates to a modern existence; how we’re kind of ruining the planet and global warming, but also hyper-connectivity and cell phone addiction and social media. There’s a song that’s like, “I’m not going to conform to that machine because I am who I am.” So for me, it was about trust. I don’t know about you, Nico.

Nico: Well, additional to that, it’s not very sexy to talk about climate change in a song. It’s not very sexy to talk about trying to save the world. So releasing a record like that has been opening our eyes and also giving us coherence in our lives. It feels like, “Well, it doesn’t matter if it does well or not, at least if we are true and honest to ourselves, that’s what matters.”

Juliana: And it’s a way to process. I’m sure it’s the same with you — I processed my existentialism through this record. What did you process?

Lorely: Well, I’ll tell you what I processed in a second, but I do want to talk about making environmental issues sexy. Because there are songs that touch on that. 

Nico: That are sexy?

Lorely: Yeah. 

Nico: OK, well, I haven’t listened to them. 

Lorely: You know, [sings] “Ice Age comin’, Ice Age comin’.”

Juliana: Of course, “Idioteque.”

Lorely: That’s a sexy ass environmental song. It’s not even a song that I listen to all the time, but…

Juliana: Anohni did it too. 

Lorely: Oh, my god, that record [Hopelessness] is so good. The way she talks about capitalism and that, like, twisted, perverse corruption, is kind of hot. What I guess I’m getting at is: I think you’re misled that it’s not hot. Because “Terminal Woes” is a really dark song that is really vibrant and fun.

Nico: Yeah. And maybe I’m misled because I’m the one that did it with Juli, so I don’t have that perspective on that. It’s quite interesting talking about your own music, because there’s a blind spot always. 

Juliana: I also think, noticing post-making the record, there’s resistance and joy [in it]. And I think it’s very Latino, where these things are dark but we always kind of have this hope. I think being from Colombia, there’s always a sense that we kind of make the best out of things, and there’s always hope. You never let your heart fully sink. Being an immigrant and all this stuff — I mean, you come from a Latino family. I don’t know if you’ve seen that, but the resilience is insane.

Lorely: Yeah, I think if you’re not a straight white man, one of the strongest things to do is turn your oppression into ambition.

Nico: That’s wisdom.

Lorely: So that’s something that you learned on this record. What did I learn on my record? My record is so different from yours, because mine was like… I downloaded Raya and was single and dating a lot. And the album is about all these people coming and going, but I’m controlling the narrative of how I feel. 

Juliana: Do you feel that you can actually control the narrative? I only ask because, for example, I talk a lot about phone addiction and hyper-connectivity and this desire to reconnect with nature and humanity — but sometimes I spend, like, 40 minutes watching TikTok.

Lorely: Of course. 

Juliana: So I’m not preaching. It’s like, I’m concerned about this too. So I wonder if when you control the narrative [in a song], does it equate? Or is this like a search through music to control the narrative?

Lorely: Well, it’s aspirational. I definitely have called you many times sad about some stupid boy. And what I have to show for it is a bunch of songs about how I’m much better than that. Obviously there are songs like “What’s Love” — those very emotionally vulnerable songs. But I think with this record, I was just trying to have fun. There’s a song on the record called “What Type of Girl Am I?” And the lyrics are like, “Fuck on the first night, don’t care if you call.” wWanting to have immediate gratification, but also wanting to be in love. It’s just like me looking back at these things and just trying to own my own story and feel good. I’ve been talking to people about feeling good — and I think that’s why you wrote those songs, because you wanted to feel good about the situation you were in. 

Juliana: Yes.

Lorely: You were like, “My phone doesn’t make me feel great. I’m going to write a song about it, because maybe that’ll make me feel good.”

Juliana: That is so accurate. 

Lorely: I want to talk about the visual world with the record. You made some really stunning music videos. 

Juliana: That was a big part of this record. We went to Peru and we shot these music videos that kind of add up to an album film. “Terminal Woes” specifically — which is about corporate greed and the planet — I came up with this idea of having an auction scene where the highest bidder gets to pollute the planet. Which is what it feels like sometimes, the biggest corporations who are like, “Well, we can get away with it,” or “we’re carbon offsetting.” It’s like, you shouldn’t even be offsetting monetarily in the first place… So that was really fun, just being more involved in that. I know your whole visual thing is like Hollywood, right? Is it Oscar inspired? 

Lorely: Yeah, “for your consideration.” It’s like all very statuesque, prize-worthy glam, Diana Ross vibes. You know, I’m from LA.

Juliana: Yeah, I was going to ask if you’re particularly connected to that because you’re from here.

Lorely: Yeah. Well, part of the visuals on the record felt special, because during the Us album, I did the Latinx LA thing — I was always wearing Nike Cortezes, I was wearing Dickies, stuff that I wore as a kid. And I felt like I showed my LA story in that way, but now I love that I’m showing my LA story through, like, things I saw driving on the freeway, seeing billboards that say, “For your consideration.” I had never been to Chateau Marmont or Sunset Tower or any of these Hollywood places until I was 20-something, and to go to the other side of LA where all the glitz and glam is… I just feel like it’s fun to tell that side of LA.

Juliana: I also feel like it’s very fitting. I think you have this very grandiose personality that’s like, Hollywood icon. 

Lorely: I mean, it’s definitely tongue in cheek. It’s cheeky. She’s cheeky on this record. [Laughs.]

Juliana: We love a cheeky record. 

Lorely: I just want to have fun! You know? 

Nico: Talking about fun — you were talking about LA, but I remember seeing some photos of you going to Miami. I felt like you were having a lot of fun there.

Juliana: Didn’t you get a convertible?

Lorely: Yeah, I got a convertible. I went to Space and stayed up ‘til four in the morning watching Nick León and Johnny From Space DJ. I went to strip clubs, I went to the beach and I wrote “Preciosa” and “Cura.” I wrote a bunch of songs. I wrote “Femenine” in Miami — that vibe of that heat. For me, it was really important to travel and become part of the environment I was in, because I needed stories to tell. Did you guys write the whole record in New York?

Nico: Yeah. But wait, I need to know more, because I think this is the first time that I’ve heard Empress Of connecting with Miami. Am I wrong?

Lorely: Yeah, I mean, I never went to Miami to write music.

Nico: And then you had Nick León working as well. 

Lorely: Yeah. 

Nico: So you have the visual — the party, this freedom — and then you come back and it’s combined with your LA story as well.

Lorely: Yeah. I think was just for the music — it was for the vibe. Just to get the heat and the sand and the sweat for those songs. 

Nico: You definitely feel that with “Preciosa.”

Juliana: And “Femenine” — it’s club, hot, sweaty Miami.

Lorely: Yeah, I was in the club until four in the morning before I wrote “Preciosa.” I came back and I was like, “Guys, I went to a strip club, I went to the beach, I went to an anarchist bookstore. Let’s write a fucking song!” I was so hyped. But I wrote one song in Montreal, and that was very cold.

Juliana: What song?

Lorely: “Lorelei.” You guys have gone to Colombia and worked on music, haven’t you?

Juliana: We never really wrote — have we?

Lorely: You guys have done destination writing trips before.

Nico: Not really. What we do, basically, is we absorb the places and then we go back to New York.

Lorely: OK, that’s a vibe too.

Nico: Yeah. We were listening to a lot of Caribou for this record, the Suddenly record. So it was more like that sense of freedom in the club, freedom in electronic music aspect of it. There’s no barriers, no limitations. But geographically speaking, our record doesn’t portray somewhere.

Juliana: No. I think, in fact, it was like a post-pandemic phenomenon of feeling less localized, because you couldn’t leave where you were and everyone couldn’t leave. So you kind of felt — or, at least, I felt like I was — part of humanity. It was less like my identity as a Colombian or as an immigrant or as a person who’s in a certain place, and it was all like, “We’re all going to die.”

Nico: [Laughs.] That was the vibe. 

Juliana: You’re rich, you’re poor, you’re hot, you’re not hot — you could die. So I think that the record comes from a point of a view of the world that’s very zoomed out. 

Nico: Yeah, we were thinking about the planet. Juli has a song called “Protect Her,” and it’s about the planet. The sound is very cosmic; it’s like seeing the world from outside. Because when you see it from outside, you see how, “Wow, we’re really fucking this up.”

Juliana: It says, “Would you believe, if your body had wings, in the beauty of this earth that we’ve inherited, that we most definitely don’t deserve?”

Nico: Before we did CARISMA, and that was very influenced by dancehall, reggae, Jamaica, Colombia. I went to Jamaica to explore that, to connect with producers and understand the culture. But then with this one, it was more like, “We need to get out of ourselves, because this is bigger.” During the pandemic, New York got hit very hard and we didn’t leave New York, so it really traumatized us. This is our conscious era.

Juliana: Maybe our fun record is next. Maybe we need to go to Miami and rent a convertible, go to the club.

Lorely: I think you can write your record about whatever you want to write your record about, but people might listen to “Protect Her” and be like, “I need to be protected right now.” 

Nico: A hundred percent.

Lorely: You can’t control how people attach to certain songs. People tell me stuff about my music all the time — they’re like, “Oh, I came out to this song,” or “I got through a breakup with this song.”

Juliana: The amount of people who’ve come to me and said that “Holy Soul” was their breakup song — it’s a song about immigrants and immigrant stories. But if to you it’s your breakup song, if it’s a love song to you…

Lorely: Yeah. Even though for you, it’s this processing trauma, outer body narrative, you never know how people [will interpret it]. I think all the stuff you’re writing about is important. But my favorite type of music is music that has a meaning, but also makes you shake your ass.

Nico: That’s it. That’s the combination.

Juliana: We come from Latino families — it’s non-negotiable. Music should make your body move.

Lorely: But even house — house was such a a message of unity. We were listening to this record in the studio yesterday that was like, “Peace! Love! Unity! And happiness!”

Nico: I know that one.

Lorely: Yeah, it’s a classic. I think when you’re talking about trauma and processing, the best way to do it is on the dance floor. Music is so healing, and I think it’s great if you can see this record as processing trauma on the dance floor.

Nico: It is.

Lorely: You were alone when you wrote this record and now you’re in a room full of people playing it. It’s so powerful. You manifested collective wholeness.

Juliana: Yeah, and it always felt like that. You put your stuff out there, and you know there’s people out there who feel like you. We’ll feel alone about something, and then when you realize, Oh, I’m literally not the only one, it just feels so much more comforting.

Nico: I agree with everything you’re saying, but also when I was listening to your music — even if what you’re talking about doesn’t have to do anything with trauma, somehow the positive energy of your own story really is uplifting. Doing your own thing in your own way on your own terms — you can’t imagine how inspiring for a lot of people that is. And you don’t repeat yourself. You don’t have one song that says the same thing, or the production is the same, and it’s very inspirational for a lot of us.

Juliana: I agree.

Lorely: Thank you!

Nico: You’re always changing, looking to a new path. You’re not part of the empty machine. You’re not being complacent. 

Juliana: Yeah. If you want to talk about social media a bit, I think that’s something I’ve come to terms with. Because you and I are not going to do the thing that’s going to make us successful, necessary. We’re not writing TikTok songs. We’re writing the same songs we want to write. 

Lorely: Yes. 

Juliana: We’re also not spending, like, 80% of our waking time trying to create content.

Lorely: Yeah. I mean, I think our “content” is the music. That’s what we’re busy creating, whether it’s profitable for us or not. But I’m still trying to figure out how to connect with people online. And as much as we can say how difficult it is to be an artist on the internet, I don’t want to let that stop me from making music. 

Juliana: I think that is the most important thing, to not let it become defeating. You have to play the game to an extent, but make it so that it’s comfortable, so that it’s genuine. Like I saw the video you posted today of you dancing — when you’re not posting the video, you’re playing merengue and you’re dancing. It’s you. 

Lorely: You have to make the game fun. If it’s not fun, then what are we doing? 

(Photo Credit: left, Kaio Cesar)

Nicolás Losada and Juliana Ronderos are the duo behind the Bogotá-born, Brooklyn-based band Salt Cathedral. Their new record, Before It’s Gone, is out now.