Lady Empire: A Lady Like No Other

Lady Empire's connection runs deep in the city of Richmond. With hip-hop, rock, and blues influences, the band is looking to shake things up on the local scene.


As a kid, Isaac Friend secretly watched his Dad play acoustic guitar in the living room. “He would never play in front of us, so I hid at the top of the stairs,” he says. Decades later, he would form the band Lady Empire with guitarist Joe Vanderhoff and drummer Ryan Tinsley. Isaac grew up in Richmond, Virginia and joined his first band, an alternative rock trio called Crashing Karma, at 14. Enrolling at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Isaac dropped out after one year. He played drums for several bands, shifting between hip-hop, rock, and blues, before moving to guitar and lead vocals for Lady Empire. Isaac first crossed paths with Joe and Ryan at a music store a few years ago. Ryan and Isaac worked in the drum section and Joe worked on the guitar side. Joe and Ryan had actually met in the early 2000’s when they played a few shows together.

Long before Lady Empire, Joe craved music even as a toddler. His first memory was hearing the saxophone lead in “Careless Whisper” by Wham. “I was only two or three years old, but the sound and power of the melody really spoke to me,” remembers Joe. Picking up the guitar at eight years old, he idolized Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, and other 90s alternative bands. Like Joe, Isaac also had many early influences. Isaac listened to everything from Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd to Citizen Cope and Rage Against the Machines. In high school, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen ignited his passion for singing and songwriting, while Aesop Rock and Atmosphere sparked a flame for rap. “Underground hip hop had a huge effect on me,” says Isaac. Entrenched in 90s rock, Ryan chose the drums after watching Carter Beauford of Dave Matthews Band. “Seeing them live is what influenced me to play music,” he says.

To their Mom and Dad’s dismay, Joe and Ryan also dropped out of college to play full time. “My parents weren’t very thrilled about my passion for music early on, but have come to be more supportive over the years,” says Joe. Ryan’s folks were more understanding. “My parents are my biggest fans,” he says. Only Joe graduated, earning degrees in Philosophy and Religious Studies from VCU. “I had to drop out of college at one point to record an album in Chicago, but came back to finish. It was definitely difficult juggling music and academia,” he says. Before college, Joe moved around as a kid. Born in Suffern, NY, he lived in North Carolina and California before settling in Richmond. In middle school, he joined his first band. “Back then, we’d play anywhere we could…friend’s parties, neighborhood pools, and ice skating rinks,” recalls Joe. Traveling to more gigs in high school, he played with a band called “In Loving memory.” Later, Joe crossed over into jazz metal with the bands Mind’s I and Crossing the Event Horizon.

Like Joe, Ryan also started playing in middle school. Growing up in Mechanicsville, he toured the local Richmond scene in high school before joining the band Conditions. Active almost nine years, Conditions recorded three EPs and two albums before breaking up. Two years later, Isaac played an acoustic set in Richmond where Ryan happened to be listening in the crowd. “We started talking about playing music together, and when we did, it clicked,” says Isaac. As a drummer, Isaac had been playing with Joe the past year and mentioned his run-in with Ryan. Soon after, the three formed Lady Empire and started rehearsing for a gig booked before the group was even finalized. “I’d told the booking guy I already had a band,” admits Isaac.

Photo Cred: Sound Snap Photography

Photo Cred: Sound Snap Photography

For Lady Empire, three different journeys collided into a new sound. Their earliest gig, opening for Evan Barlow at The Broadberry, marked the first test. The band practiced only a few times before the show. “We played that gig and the crowd was into it, so we kept booking gigs until we got studio time and recorded our demo,” says Isaac. Isaac wrote the first few songs on acoustic guitar before Lady Empire formed. The group then tweaked the music to fit the full band, practicing twice per week in a converted storage unit. The cramped unit booms with reverb and new ideas. Often scheduling one show per week, the band has played as many as four. A break in performing leaves more time to write new material. On stage and in the studio, communication is key. “We try to communicate well regarding band related issues. There’s no time for bullshit. We try to stay focused on moving forward,” says Isaac. Gear maintenance, booking, travel, and other unglamorous realities leave no time for group tension.

As for free time, the band enjoys little. “Lady Empire is my free time,” says Ryan. Isaac spends rare downtime with friends and family, and Joe scours the Richmond music scene. “When I’m not writing, practicing, or playing, I’m usually at shows. There are so many killer bands playing around town,” says Joe. Lady Empire, named after the women who have shaped Isaac’s life, will try to stand out in the saturated music space. “Our success is measured in the ability to write decent songs, perform, connect with people, and make enough to survive,” tells Isaac. The only way to survive, obsession and execution, will carve out more chances for success.

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