Lindi Ortega grew up in Toronto, Canada immersed in the country music loved by her Irish mother and the Latin music played by her Mexican father. Her current album Tin Star was recorded two years after relocating to Nashville. Very soon she’ll be back in Australia as part of the Out On The Weekend Tour. Les Thomas asked her about her impending visit, the inspired perspective that keeps her going and the significance of winning the 2014 Canadian Country Music Association Roots Artist of the Year Award.
It wasn’t that long ago that you visited Australia. You must be developing a connection to the place by now.
Yeah. I’m really looking forward to going back and I’m so excited that I get another opportunity to be in Australia twice in the one year. I never would have expected it so I’m very excited and I’m looking forward to the festival and all the shows that I get to play.
A lot of people seem to make a connection between Australia and [your home country] Canada. Do you think there is a comparison, being former British colonies and all that?
Yes, I guess in some ways. Everyone says that Canadians are really nice people and my experience with Australians is that they’re really nice, so that’s a great commonality to have.
I wanted to congratulate you on a great win that you had recently, taking out the Roots Artist of the Year Award as nominated by the Canadian Country Music Association. Can you tell us what that means to you at this stage in your career?
It was incredible. I never expect to win awards; I don’t make music to win awards, so it’s always shocking to me to see that I’m nominated for something. I was sort of on a losing streak in that I’ve been nominated for quite a few awards in Canada and I never took any home, so I just kind of got used to being an awesome loser. (Laughs) I was literally not expecting to win and when they called my name I was more nervous than I’d ever been in my entire life and I had to go and talk to people at the podium. I don’t know how I walked to the stage and anything articulate that I might have planned to say in such a circumstance was out the window. I just couldn’t speak; words wouldn’t come out of my mouth and at one point I actually got so flustered and nervous that I actually hid behind the podium. And then I popped back up (laughs) and I said “Thank you for the support, for the award.” But it’s nice to be honoured, especially in that category; I love that category of Roots music. I felt like I wished I could share that across the board with the people that I was nominated with, because I don’t think that anybody’s any better than anybody else. I feel like we’re all in this together. I just really love roots music and I was really honoured and happy to win.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about that instinct to duck and hide in that moment when the spotlight’s shining. Your whole life’s path has been fascinating, seeing how you’ve used your art to put yourself into the spotlight, because you’ve described yourself really as an introverted person and someone who has not necessarily been an insider, as such. Can you give us your perspective on that?
I throw so much of who I am and what I do into my music. I am an introvert. I don’t really go out all that much, so it’s kind of contrary to being on stage and going out and signing records after every show. (Laughs) Definitely the music business has taught me to come out of my shell a little bit more in that respect. I live my life in parallels, you know? There’s the who I am outside of that and there’s the who I am on stage. The person on stage is filled with so much more confidence than I really actually have in real life. There’s a little bit of magic in that that I can’t articulate, because I don’t know what happens when I get up there. Something kind of takes over in me and turns me into a performer and allows me to not feel intimidated and shy, things that I would otherwise feel in any other environment. So it is quite interesting and people often question the authenticity of my being an introvert or self-conscious or whatever, but it’s true. It’s almost like you live a double life in a way.
Another strong thing I get from listening to your music is you’ve got this way of working with the light and the dark, so to speak, of that reserve as well as that attitude that you’re gonna have a good time. There’s a lot of kick up your heels kind of sounds on the current record. What are the messages you want to connect with emotionally?
This is sort of a tangent, but this might explain a little bit. I’m super fascinated with skeletons and skulls and the Mexican holiday Día de Muertos (The Day of the Dead). And because of that, I have these little skeletons, figurines all over my house and they serve to remind me every day when I wake up as I walk around my house that life is short. That holiday in Mexico is a celebration of life and the lives of people who are now passed. And I feel like life should be a celebration. Things are inevitably going to bring you down, things are going to happen to that you can’t control, that are going to be sad and tragic. Everybody’s lives have that in it somewhere, so the best that we can do is try to make the best out of the situation that we’re in.
There’s a great line in the Leonard Cohen song [‘Bird on a Wire’]: I’ve tried in my ways to be free. I feel like whatever our afflictions or our circumstances, that’s all we can do, to try in our own ways to be free. My mom told me this little poem, and I might get it a little wrong but it was: Two men behind bars, One looks down and sees the mud, One looks up and sees the stars. That’s perspective, right? And I think life about perspective and the way you deal with challenges is perspective. We all have darknesses and demons that we have to deal with, but I always try to find a way to not let it get you down, to not let it get the better of you.
Living in the times that we do, an attitude like that is probably sure to get you a really long way and I saw that you drew on Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and the idea that it’s actually the struggle that makes you who you are. When did you make peace with that idea? Do you think it’s something that never ends and you’ll still be working on it on the last day of your life?
I think I will always be someone who’ll have the mentality of rolling the boulder up the hill, so to speak. (Laughs) That’s just the way my path’s been for me; I’ve had no easy, quick route to success. I’ve always had to work really hard to get where I hope to go with my music. I realise that the struggle is very important when you work so hard for a long time and you hit all these ditches and bumps in the road, and then something great happens somewhere. Then the amount you appreciate it is worth so much, and you wouldn’t appreciate that as much as you do if it all came so easily. That’s sort of where the lesson came for me, so winning that award is an example of that. I’m so humbled and so appreciative and maybe it would be different if I just came out of the gates winning awards left, right and centre. To me that one award is worth more than anything.
I was looking at Dollywood the other day, there’s a museum and she’s got hundreds and hundreds of awards to her name and she’s so accomplished. And I think of how long it took me to just get one, and how long it takes people who try their whole lives but don’t get any. It’s all perspective, you know?
You also have a really refreshing open-minded attitude to different genres of music. You’ve had quite varied experience, but seeing you get up and kick arse with punk rockers, it breaks down the notion that music is really compartmentalised. There’s a lot to be gained from looking around and taking on what you see. Can you talk about those musical connections?
I’ve never been somebody that you could easily fit in some sort of musical genre box. People would never say that I’m straight up country, or straight up singer=aongwriter or this or that. I draw from so many influences. Of course, there’s the main thread of country that I love, Johnny Cash and outlaw country, but I listen to Rockabilly, Surf, Old Classic Rock, Blues, Soul and I find elements of that creep into my music and because of that I find I’m able to play with people that maybe other people who are labelled country or singer-songwriters wouldn’t get to do. So I get to tour with social distortion; I get to open for KD Lang. And they’re all very diverse and different and I’m just so grateful that I get that opportunity and people will take me on. I always love odd pairings that seem like they’d never work. I love the challenge of opening for somebody who wouldn’t typically be my audience. It keeps you on your toes. (Laughs)
And the idea of three chords and the truth stands up pretty well between outlaw country, punk rock and a lot of soul as well. I guess whatever style you choose to adopt, it still sounds like you’re very much expressing what’s in your heart.
Yeah, and that’s what it’s all about, really. I feel like there are so many similarities between old country and punk rock. Especially outlaw country, I think that’s a punk movement in itself. They all draw from people pouring their heart out and touching people in some way. To me, that’s meaningful and that’s what I always hope to do with my music somehow.
What would you say are the main differences in approach between your current album Tin Star and the previous album Cigarettes and Truckstops?
I did use a different producer and a different group of musicians; that was one way I tried to differentiate. The content of my writing was a little bit different. I think on the Cigarettes and Truckstops album I was really into my outlaw country music phase, so I was talking about all the marijuana and whiskey and all that sort of stuff and I steered clear of that for this record. (Laughs) I’ve been touring so much, I’ve really been living on the road, getting to know other musicians and also being in Nashville for two years, getting a handle for the city itself and I just kind of wanted to speak to that experience a little bit. So I put some songs in about that, but of course I always put my typical songs about loneliness and heartache. (Laughs) I’m none too good at the romance department, but it always makes for a decent song, so they always end up on my records too.
What are you looking forward to taking on in the next year or so with your music?
I do have plans to release another record next year. I’m putting together some really great songs for that. I’ve been paying really close attention to my lyrics and what I’m trying to say and get across in the stories and vignettes I’m telling. So I’m looking forward to putting that one out and keep touring and keep gunning for it, meet some of my goals, maybe, do some collaborations with people that I love and get to visit some places in the world that I’ve not yet been to with my music. And I get to go to New Zealand this time around on this trip. I didn’t get to go last time. I just want to keep doing what I love doing for as long as I can keep doing it and I’ll be a happy girl.
LINDI ORTEGA AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATE INCLUDING OUT ON THE WEEKEND
Saturday 11th October – Astor, Perth, WA w/ Justin Townes Earle
Sunday 12th October – The Gov, Adelaide, SA w/ Justin Townes Earle
Monday 13th October – The Gov, Adelaide, SA
Wednesday 15th October – Metro Theatre, Sydney, NSW w/ Justin Townes Earle
Thursday 16th October – Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC w/ Justin Townes Earle
Saturday 18th October – Out On The Weekend Festival, Williamstown, VIC
Sunday 19th October – The Toff In Town, Melbourne, VIC
Wednesday 22nd October – The Tivoli, Brisbane, QLD w/ Justin Townes Earle
Thursday 23rd October – Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane, QLD
Friday 24th October – Tuning Fork, Auckland, NZ