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2012 Juno award nominee and Polaris Music Prize shortlister LINDI ORTEGA is back in Manchester to promote her new album “Cigarettes & Truckstops” and to warm our winter hearts.
In the cosy climes of the Soup Kitchen café, I meet with Lindi and her guitarist Tom Juhas as they take a short break from their hectic tour schedule to enjoy some food and much-needed R&R. Apologizing on behalf of Manchester for the chilly weather, the duo wave away the apology with “This is nothing!” compared with Toronto temperatures.
Signed to independent label Last Gang Records, Lindi Ortega is in an exciting period of her career. Shortly after making the move to country music heaven and haven Nashville, Tennessee, to absorb herself in the history and culture of the unique musical universe, she impressively earned herself an appearance in ABC’s hit TV show NASHVILLE. In person, she’s a positively interesting mix of Toronto edge and Nashville smoothness, while demonstrating a sharp awareness of her industry and the various mechanisms and niches that exist within. A fantastic example of bravery in pushing boundaries in her own career, she’s an inspiring figure with a great story to tell. All aboard the Ortega train! It’s full steam ahead…
Growing up, did you always know that country music was what you wanted to play?
Yeah, it was kind of a path that I followed because I was drawn to all things “Southern” and country & western. I loved cowboys and I loved western movies – one of my favourite movies growing up was “Gone with the Wind.” I think it came from my mum, because when I was growing up she had a big crush on Kris Kristofferson, and I remember watching Dolly Parton’s TV show with her – Dolly Parton had a variety show where she’d host different artists. So, that seed was planted in my mind and it just grew… the older I got the more drawn to the genre I was.
A lot of it had to do with the lyrical content which I found resonated with me – I found outlaw country so interesting, with people writing about murder ballads and things you just don’t hear much of. Maybe it’s starting to come back again, but just when I was growing up and making music, you didn’t hear murder ballads on the radio – people weren’t talking about that kind of stuff, and if they were it was Eminem and he was getting lambasted in the press…
The irony of the fact is that country music can get away with that kind of commentary, whereas the pop industry has had to clean itself up…
Yeah, isn’t that strange? It’s so weird that it’s happened like that…
So, how did this inspire your own lyrics?
I thought that taking on that fictitious world – that dark underground world – was really interesting. I remember listening to Delia’s Gone and Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash and just being completely blown away by the lyrics and what he was writing about, and I thought it would be so cool to write murder ballads from a female perspective, because I didn’t know a whole lot of people who were doing that at the time.
People are often quite surprised by your lyrics – they’re quite ironic and you don’t hold back when you want to comment on something or tell a story…
Yeah, I kind of do a strange thing where I do have songs that are outright dark, but I also have songs that are tongue in cheek and taking the rip out of clichés. What’s really funny is when people look at and review literally those ones I’ve actually written as ridiculous fun songs – I just want to write to them and say, “This totally went over your head!” But people will take what they take out of it.
So, you moved to Nashville in 2011 – I get the impression that you don’t hold back when it comes to your love for music…
No, music’s always been the one thing that’s pushed me in directions I probably never would have gone, had music not existed in my life. So, yeah I took that plunge – leaving my country to go to a new country, a new city, not knowing anybody. But my reason for going to Nashville is because it’s the country music Mecca – there’s so much history there. It wasn’t enough for me to just read about the history – I wanted to be there to absorb the history. I was reading a lot of biographies at the time: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline… and all of them had passed through Nashville at some point, because that was the place to go, the place to “make it.”
And how do you feel the country scene has evolved since those days?
Country music is a lot different now than it was back then. It’s just a different world – I would say it’s more “pop” than anything else, and it’s very driven by the formulaic machine that’s happening.
The stuff that I do, which is really drawn from the old-timey country and outlaw country, isn’t even regarded as “country” any more – it’s regarded as “alternative country” even though it stems from the roots of the genre. I don’t know when that switch happened, but I know that there are a lot of artists out there who are underground because they just don’t have the chance to get on the same platform as Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood or that kind of big pop star, but they’re there, they exist, and they’re making incredible music which has great vintage style and still pays tribute but has a little bit of a modern edge to it. Some of them are recording analogue, some are doing live off the floor, paying tribute to those old Sun Studios type recordings. It’s just nice to see that that is not completely dead, that it’s not a dying art, but it just doesn’t have the same platform as the big time. And I’m hoping that that will change, just the way Mumford & Sons has brought roots music to the forefront and it seems to have more of a level playing field these days – hopefully it’ll happen the same way in country music.
So, you like to keep some healthy distance from the more commercial aspects of the country music scene?
I don’t deal at all with the “machine” of Nashville and that whole Music Row turning-out-of-hits – I’m not part of that scene at all. It’s not really the kind of music I’m interested in making, I’m not interested in listening to it, and I have no desire to be affiliated with it at all. Sure, I might make a few extra dollars if I decided to go that way, but music has never been about money for me, ever. I don’t think I could be doing it this long, waiting for my million dollar cheque to arrive in the mail. It’s a labour of love and I’ve always done it for those reasons – I’ve always written from the heart and followed what feels natural for me. And luckily my label allows me to do that. It wasn’t about “making it” in Nashville – it was about learning the history and it was about inspiration, and it still is that for me. I find it very inspiring and it’s nice to be where the history is.
Nashville has a very rich culture, but has quite a different energy from other big entertainment cities like LA, New York…
Yeah, and it’s quite a different pace of life for me in Nashville versus Toronto, because Toronto is like a concrete jungle – there are buildings everywhere, there’s a lot of hustle bustle, there’s a lot going on all the time… Whereas Nashville is a big city but it’s laid back, it has a small town feel, you can stroll along the streets, and it’s nice to come back from a hectic tour to hang out there. The food’s great and there’s a lot of great music, and if you’re interested in finding blues, honkytonk or bluegrass, there’s so much of that happening all the time – the talent is mind-blowing. For example, there are a bunch of 70 year old guys who are amazing finger pickers, and it’s really, really humbling to be able to stumble into that. So I think it’s a good place for me to be now and to learn.
Toronto is another one of those places with a great music scene – but I guess not necessarily your music scene…
Yeah, not my music scene… There is a music scene there – indie-rock does really well and singer-songwritery stuff does alright, but for me there was just no place to go. There was like one venue that catered to the kind of music that I did, but you can only play that same venue so many times, and it’s a small industry – it’s a big country with a small industry, and once you’ve sort of met everybody and shook everyone’s hand it’s like, “Where do I go from here? I could stay here and make myself a big name in Toronto if I want to, keep pushing and pounding the pavements in Toronto…” But I felt like that wasn’t enough for me, I needed to go to the places that inspire me – the South. I love Wyoming, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee of course where I moved to – those places all call to me, and I can’t really explain what it is about them, but when I’m there I feel like, “This is where I’m meant to be.”
Let’s talk about your appearance in hit TV show “NASHVILLE.” I’d say it’s a pretty important show for the music industry. It’s so good at showing how rich that music scene is, the real struggles faced by artists in different areas of the industry, and of course we get to see some of the more disturbing business elements…
Yeah, I mean all of this is based on a degree of truth of what goes on in the industry. The show is about two duelling pop diva country artists, but then there is also this subplot of indie musicians who try to make it, so it really does try to encompass the whole way it works, which is really interesting. It was really great to be part of it, because I had just moved to the city when I got to be in the show. And it was very cool to watch the first few episodes, not only to hear my songs on it (“The Day You Die,” “Little Lie” and “Murder of Crows”), but to see the places that I’ve grown to love, all the little venues that they show: The Bluebird Café, The 5 Spot…
So these are genuine locations?
Yeah, genuine locations!
That’s really exciting for people watching the show from outside Nashville – they’re really seeing that world as it is…
Yeah, the opening scenes for the credits that roll in, that’s the scene I see whenever I fly into Nashville, or when you’re driving in from a long tour – I’ve grown to feel an affection for it…
Would you say that it’s important for musicians and writers to retain a certain amount of independence in their work?
I can’t speak for everybody on that, but for me it was a very good move to side with an independent label. I’ve done the whole major label thing, and I don’t think my story is unique because I feel like a lot of people have gone through the major label and then got dropped from the major label. At that point, you can choose to duck out of business if you want, or figure out a way to survive. And I was lucky that my manager who runs Last Gang Records offered me the opportunity to put me on his label. The way he sold it to me was, “You don’t have to go through 10 middle men to talk to me – you can just pick up the phone to call me.” That’s been true since I’ve signed with him, and it’s been true ever since. He’s there, you know… and that’s important. I mean, when I was on a major label, I was a “backburner artist” but when I’m on this indie label, I’m a priority. And I would rather be a priority than to stay a backburner artist just so I can say, “Hey, I’m on this big label.”
Has that made a difference in terms of feeling comfortable and being able to focus on the music?
Yeah! You know what? I feel like it’s more of a family, and that’s kind of how I operate with most people that I work with. I mean, it is the music business, and I understand how I’m affiliated and I fit into it, and what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to build things. But at the same time, maintaining close connections to people and working with good people and nice people who get my goals is important to me – and my goals are very modest really at the end of the day: I just want to pay my rent, continue to do what I do, and I don’t have a desire to sell out giant arenas… I’m not interested in being the next Lady Gaga. I just want to do what I’m doing – play shows and have people come and see me perform, and keep releasing music, because that’s what I love to do.
So yeah, being on an indie label is good for me, it works for me. If you’re a young band, if you’re like One Direction or something, then I’d say that a major label’s maybe the right place for you. It depends what kind of music you want to do, and it depends how much control you want to have over what you do. I like being the one the ideas come from. Everything I do musically from the aesthetics, the look, the videos, is always born of my ideas so I can stand by them with conviction, and there’s not someone telling me how to dress, how to act, how to look, how to be – I don’t think I could do that anyway…
And you’ve got some great role-models in your industry – people who aren’t familiar with country music may (wrongly) assume that women don’t have a high profile in that world, but actually Dolly Parton is such an inspiration…
Dolly Parton is one of the most respected businesswomen in country music. She used to make jokes that people would think she was a dumb blonde because she is a character – she’s buxom and blonde, but she’s also a very smart woman, who’s made tonnes of money and has been very, very successful. Yeah, I think it’s important to stick to your guns and be a strong woman, and hopefully that’s what I’m doing and that’s what comes across.
So would that be your message of advice to other artists?
Yeah – Stick to your guns, and be strong!