Lindi Ortega is one of this year's truly interesting vocalists, having recently dropped her stellar "Tin Star" record. Peeling back the layers of the struggling artist, she hopes to shed light on those talented individuals who may not be getting the commercial success and acclaim they so rightly deserve. As the followup to her critically heralded "Cigarettes & Truckstops" disc, Lindi continues to march to her own melancholic drum, beating down naysayers and digging up lonely bodies along the way.
Nashville Gab had the chance to catch up with the singer-songwriter to discuss "Tin Star" and its place among the year's best releases and what's behind her fascination with skulls and death. Lindi also weighs in on the mainstream country radio landscape and praises the work of Kacey Musgraves, a pioneer in her own right.
Nashville Gab: You are getting rave reviews for “Tin Star.” How do you keep yourself grounded?
Lindi Ortega: You know, I realize that…it’s been great. It’s been awesome. I realize that music is a subject thing, and there’s always going to be someone who doesn’t like it. I think that’s what’s always going to ground you and humble you. You’ll never please everybody with what you do.
NG: You’ve described the album as a look at the struggles of the starving artist.
LO: It’s not really a concept album, per se, but there seem to be a number of songs that speak to that. Living in Nashville, you get to really get a sense of the parallels of the two different sides of the industry which is the one side being the stars with the commercial success and all the fame and the glory that all the tourists come to town for. Then you get the underground of the people that struggling and trying to make a living and people that have been here for years that haven’t quite got that lucky break not for lack of trying or talent…just not got that bit of luck that some people get.
[Adding:] I guess I wanted to [speak] for the people that are really doing it as a true labor of love.
NG: “Nashville” the TV show attempts to show the two sides of the industry.
LO: It’s in a slightly more glorified way[, though].
NG: Is the show accurate?
LO: Some scenarios. Some other scenarios are beefed up for television purposes and drama purposes. They show co-writes on some of these episodes that I don’t think I’ve ever been privy to a co-write that quite went down the way [they displayed] on the show. You know, I think it’s good, for the most part. They’ve got a good idea of what goes on.
NG: What is one thing you wished the show would explore?
LO: I like that they have the two stories kind of running against each other with Scarlett and Gunner versus Juliette Barnes and Rayna [James]. I like that they are using a lot of local talent as the artists for the soundtrack, which is really great.
NG: The album’s title track is rather poignant given the current heated debate about modern country music.
LO: I hope it helps in that discussion. There were remarks from a certain country singer awhile ago that “only old farts and jackasses” listen to classic country and that we needed to evolve to the new pop. I couldn’t disagree more with that. I can’t say that the new country is an evolvement when it comes to lyrical content or quality of song. I’m not sure what was meant by “evolve.” When you stack up your Johnny Cashes and your Patsy Clines and Loretta Lynns against some of the lyrical content that’s going out today, I can’t see that as a progression.
I believe there should be a change at radio, don’t you? It’s funny. Artists like Kacey Musgraves, who is kind of crossing over a little bit, she’s not quite in the same vein as a lot of these mega pop-country stars. People will say, ‘yeah, she crossed over, but that’s kind of an anomaly.’ How do you know? If you gave other things a shot that are like that, maybe it’s not a true anomaly. Maybe it’s worth putting other things on the radio. Maybe other people will like it.
[Adding:] I think it’s awesome that she’s bridging that gap. Hopefully, it serves the platform for artists that do still carry a torch for the traditional sounds.
NG: Was the song intended to be a direct response to that?
LO: I don’t know. I can’t say intentionally it was, but subconsciously, it might have been. I know that that comment definitely struck a chord in me. I think it was just more speaking to where I was at, just living in Nashville and discovering [the town] and getting a vibe for it and understanding the parallels that exist in the city and the parallels that exist in myself and my own career.
NG: There is a line in the song about music running in your veins. What inspired that lyric?
LO: The truth. Especially for someone like me who’s been at it for a number of years, I’ve had many struggles along the way. Things that might have caused a number of people to give up…I’ve had a major label deal that went bust. I had to start from scratch. I could see how daunting it could be for people who do give up when scenarios like that happen. I think what propels me forward is I kind of don’t have a choice, in a way. I wouldn’t really know what else I would do. Whenever I’ve threatened to give up, I’m just always drawn to it, and I come back. It’s a testament to the fact that it’s just innately within me to be doing it. I love it.
NG: Your song “This Is Not Surreal” is getting an overwhelmingly positive reaction online. The line “one must always suffer for the sake of the art” really sticks out. What does that mean?
LO: That song is actually one I wrote as a tribute to one of my favorite painters, Frida Kahlo. The song is all about her. If anybody ever suffered for their art, I would say it was her. Not only did she suffer for her art but she depicted her suffering to great extent in her art.
[Adding:] I think it comes up a lot with people who are creative and making music. They do tend to draw from their own suffering when they’re writing songs. I know I’ve done so as well. So, I guess I was relating to her in that respect.
NG: What is it about suffering that makes such great art?
LO: I believe it’s just a human condition. I think nobody’s immune to going through moments in life that they suffer from something. It’s universal. Undoubtedly, there’s a lot of aching in the world. I think when someone writes about it, it’s something the world relates to in some way. It happens everywhere, all the time.
NG: “Lived and Died Alone” is so vivid. You talk about digging up bodies. How did that song come about?
LO: Well, it’s definitely contrary to the songs currently being written on Music Row, that’s for sure. I studied philosophy when I was in university. I tend to think existentially about a lot of things in life. Loneliness is a theme that crops up in a lot of my music. I started thinking about people that live their whole lives alone. Say, their parents died when they were younger and they had no siblings. Ultimately, they ended up dying alone. No one comes to their funeral. I just thought about how tragic of an existence that is. Then, I thought of me and sort of my strange obsession and appreciation for skeletons and bones. I have a lot of referencing to skulls in my house. I have skull pictures; I have animal skulls. I know it sounds really morbid but the reason, I think it comes from my appreciation of Dios De La Muertos, the Day of the Dead. [It’s] a Mexican heritage kind of thing. I was thinking in a quirky way how I’d appreciate the bones and appreciate them posthumously. It’s a bit of a quirky song. It’s really more of a tribute and love song for someone who may never have had a love song written about them.
NG: Do you consider yourself one of those people? Or have you been in love?
LO: Yes, I have. [laughs] It comes and it goes. I’ve been there. I can definitely tap into that emotion.
NG: Death and loneliness is a central theme to the record, as you mentioned. Was that the goal from the start in its creation?
LO: I don’t really think about concepts and things in writing. It’s kind of what just strikes me and what comes out of me. Then, I just put it together on a record. That’s what seems to continue coming out. The loneliness thing comes from being the daughter of two immigrant parents. I didn’t have a big family. My grandparents and aunts and uncles were all overseas. I kind of always felt a little strange and alienated in my life from humanity. Ironically, it was music that helped me build a bridge or connection to humanity and make me realize my experiences of loneliness are what can help me relate to everybody else and that I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was growing up. That’s what made me want to tap into that subject.
NG: You have a new tour starting up. How do you prepare yourself for the road?
LO: I always feel a little bit of anxiety before touring because I’m going away for so long. I’m always nervous about whether I’ve packed everything. I get ADD about making sure I check my suitcase a hundred times. I go out and stock up on all the essentials, all the emergencies and any kind of cold medicine I might need, things like that. I make sure I have everything to keep me healthy and sane. [laughs]
NG: Is there one personal item you have to take with you every time?
LO: My red boots. I don’t play a show without them.
[Adding:] My inspiration…I realized the other day…was initially Wonder Woman. But I then realized that I was also a fan of Super Girl when I was growing up. Then, I saw that she also had red boots. The show She-Ra had red boots[, too]. I realized every female superhero I looked up to was a wearer of red boots. [laughs] I think it was only natural that I would feel the need to step into them when I got out on stage.
NG: So, I hear you do some Britney Spears in karaoke.
LO: [laughs] Sometimes, yea. Whenever I don’t really need to use my voice. That’s an easy one to sing.
NG: What was the first concert you ever attended?
LO: This is a crazy one coming out of left field. Sonic Youth.