“Personally, as a human being, I’ve always felt like a weirdo.” Lindi Ortega’s lilting laugh rings clear from her home in Nashville. Country music’s Woman in Black, perpetually clad in black dresses, veils and her trademark little red boots, has much to celebrate, despite her perceived outsider status in the genre: her latest album, Tin Star, marks her eighth release since 2001 and third full-length since she first appeared in the larger public eye in 2011 with Little Red Boots. Ortega’s trademark fashion and steadfast dedication to traditional country influences — Dolly Parton, Hank Williams and, of course, the ultimate outlaw, Johnny Cash — may set her aside from bubblegum-bright country pop stars, but her rise to the forefront of country music has been all but meteoric. Indeed, Tin Star has been lauded almost universally as one of the strongest country releases this year, touting her impeccable voice and personal songwriting style. In just a couple of years, Ortega has gone from another singer-songwriter plying the craft in the bars of Toronto to one of Nashville’s cornerstone artists. Not bad for a weirdo.
Since she can remember, Ortega has used music as a way of connecting with people and coming to terms with herself. When she first discovered outlaw country as a teen, via her mother’s records, she found solace and acceptance in the music that celebrated self-reliance and being an outsider. “I spent so much of my life dealing with a lack of confidence and insecurities and stuff… I think music helped me come out of my shell and helped me have a sense of who I am and and be happy with that. When I was younger, that wasn’t so easy to accomplish.”
Indeed, Tin Star is perhaps Ortega at her most confident and secure. Tracks like “Gypsy Child” celebrate both her upbringing and her journey to Nashville, while “Tin Star” is a devoted ode to persevering in an overpopulated market and staying true to her blood and roots. Further on the album, “All These Cats” dares her critics to run her out of town: “All these cats keep staring me down/trying to run my ass out of this town/I ain’t gonna look/I ain’t gonna listen/I’m just gonna continue on my mission.” The message is clear: Ortega has spent more than a decade working to get to this spot and there’s no quitting now.
“I’m pretty happy right now, I can’t lie: I’m making a career for myself, which is what I’ve always dreamed of doing. For me, success is being able to make music my job,” she says. The industry has been quick to pile the accolades on, too: Cigarettes was longlisted for the 2013 Polaris Prize, Ortega was nominated for Roots Artist or Group of the Year by the Canadian Country Music Association and reviews for Tin Star have been overwhelmingly positive thus far. Even so, she will always feel like the underdog, fighting for her career on each release. “I think it’s the fact that it’s taken me so long to get to this level, I’ll always feel like a struggling artist, even if I’m not. It’s hard for me to really grasp what’s going on in my career right now. All I know is continually working hard and proving myself — I don’t know anything else than that.”
With each release and each tour, Ortega steps closer and closer to attaining her life-long dream. As she prepares for another cross-Canada tour, this time as a headliner, she’s excited to continue to watch her fan base grow. From the basement of the Palomino opening up for Dustin Bentall earlier this year, to headlining the Commonwealth this month, “it’s really cool to see this organic, genuine build… it’s so nice to see bigger venues and more of a fan base with each album,” she says. “People really like the music, it seems.”
Each new fan is the possibility of forging a new connection, of reaching out through song to speak to them and encounter them on their level — as Ortega says, that is the entire point of her music. “When I listen to music, I sometimes feel that someone’s written a song and they’ve been in my head, somehow. That connection is so amazing — ‘that person gets me’ — and I want to be able to provide that for people to let them know that they’re not alone.”
Catch Lindi Ortega at the Royal Alberta Museum (Edmonton) on November 8 and at the Commonwealth Bar & Stage (Calgary) on November 9.
By Sebastian Buzzalino