“Imagine if Banoffee played with Empress Of,” my roommate joked with me last summer. I had just told him that Empress Of was coming to the Echo, and around that time I had been gushing about Banoffee’s masterful second EP, Do I Make You Nervous? It clearly amused him to tease me about two of my favorite artists actually coming together at the same show. “I’d die,” I replied, thinking that this combination of two artists at different points in their careers and across continents would be pretty unlikely. And though I did nearly have a heart attack when I saw that they would be performing together for Red Bull Sound Select’s 30 Days in LA, I am still very much alive. I have yet to shake off the excitement from their show at Club Bahia this past Monday night.
I’ve spent countless hours listening to Martha Brown’s music under her alias Banoffee, dissecting video clips, and admiring her clothing line, and I can confidently say that her career has only gotten better over time. I caught her set when she played at the Echo during Culture Collide back in 2014, before she had released anything beyond her debut five track self titled EP, and even then she blew me away by being able to recreate complicated beats that are the foundation of her body of work. At Club Bahia, she had newer toys to play with and also more material to share, so even before she hit the stage, I knew this was going to be a party.
Glowing in orange camouflage, Banoffee ran onstage and began her set with “Oceans,” first playing the melody on keys before dropping in the synths. The glorious clash of synth progressions at its climax is why I call “Oceans” my favorite song by Banoffee, and experiencing it live was well worth it. Even tracks with simpler composition felt like they had been upgraded, notably “Got It,” which was supported by a perpetually sustained vocal modulator that overpowered her natural voice.
Unlike many other synth-based musicians, Brown didn’t rely on backing tracks, which certainly added to the magic. It also gave her more freedom to play around with melodies without being constrained to her own original recordings. Banoffee is very much a product of ‘90s era R&B; her lead single from her second EP, “With Her,” even features an unexpected tribute to Mario, which she was able to expand when played live. Bars of “Let Me Love You” began and ended the song that night, waking the sleepy crowd up just in time for her set to be nearly over. She took one last opportunity during her finale to smash her keyboard for the DJ equivalent of shredding a guitar, and then let the stage fall quiet for Empress Of to follow closely behind.
In a set she wrote specifically for this RBSS showcase and with custom graphics projected behind her, Empress Of went wild. She launched into “Water Water,” darting around in a dress her mother made. (Mom’s nickname? “Latina Knowles!”) As an opener, this underappreciated single from her debut album, Me, demonstrates not only her command of high octane beats but also her knack for biting lyrics. Among my favorite lines on the record is an image comparing higher education to drinking the proverbial Kool-Aid:
“Water, water is a privilege
Just like kids who go to college
There’s a ring around your mouth now
Where you used to whisper knowledge”
She continued her set, performing almost every song on Me and mixing in clips from Beyonce to Elvis Crespo to David Bowie. She mentioned that she didn’t have much time to chat because of how dense her setlist was that night, and she wasn’t joking; she rarely took any breaks between songs. Empress Of also deconstructed some tracks, pulling apart basslines and manipulating each to seamlessly bleed into the next. “Kitty Kat” led us right into “Standard,” then that became “Icon,” another song with lyrical significance. Performing it live makes ironic its message of working diligently without recognition, but at that moment, everyone looked to Empress Of as their goddess.
Beyond the music, the personalities of Banoffee and Empress Of shine through their music. Both are strong women who communicate the complexity of youth and young adulthood based on their own personal experiences. Being a newly minted Angeleno myself, the driving motifs in Banoffee’s music resonate (“With Her”/”Fall Fast”). Growing up without the endless means of some of my childhood peers, I can also relate to Empress Of’s mentions of poverty (“Standard”/“Icon”). In a genre dominated by men, and at a time when gender disparity has come to the forefront, their fearlessness is inspiring.
They both gave everything to their performances on Monday and aside from the obvious omission of some tracks from their respective discographies, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. But if there were a gun to my head, I’d demand more music. Banoffee confirmed that her debut LP is on the horizon, and let’s hope Empress Of’s March single, “Woman is a Word,” will appear on a sophomore record sooner rather than later.
Words: Zoë Elaine
Photos courtesy of Red Bull Sound Select
Empress Of – “Water Water”