Lindi Ortega: Nashville's Black Sheep

Music Features Lindi Ortega
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It was in her adopted town of Nashville—believe it or not—where Toronto alt-country thrush Lindi Ortega first spied the outrageous necklace in a thrift-shop window. And she flipped for it the moment it caught her eye—a long, pointy rifle bullet with soldered-on pewter angel’s wings, the same one she’s sporting on the back cover of her new, third album, Tin Star. “I saw that necklace and was like ‘This is awesome! I need to have this!’” she says of the unusual piece, which she never suspected would be problematic.

But there was a problem.

“I loved that necklace so much, I wore it when I was touring,” explains Ortega, already renowned for her edgy stage outfits of lace veils, black mini-dresses and red cowboy boots which—when combined with her vintage-country keen—give her the aura of a Goth-rock Dolly Parton. “And I even wore it to the airport, but they escorted me out with the police and told me that I had to check it in my luggage. So it was mandatory to have a police escort, just because I had a bullet on my necklace!” Recently, on her way back from the Canadian Country Music Awards ceremony in Edmonton, she stumbled into virtually the same snafu. “The top part of my purse resembled brass knuckles, so I had to leave it there,” she sighs. “So I’ve gotta be careful with my jewelry and my accessories—apparently they’re dangerous!”

Or maybe their owner is. At least to the staid Music Row status quo. Because—even in a year when alt-country kittens like Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark are unsheathing the sharpest of claws—Ortega is a lioness from a distinctly different pride. She’s toured as the opening act for Mike Ness’ roughneck Social Distortion, just tracked a duet of The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” with Rancid’s Tim Armstrong for his Tim Timebomb side project and appeared on the analytical music series Song By Song, covering and dissecting the work of (you guessed it) Dolly Parton. She was also quickly adopted in certain Tennessee circles, and was offered a high-profile, name-checking cameo on the hit TV show Nashville, wherein a young struggling artist grouses that all the gigs in town are going to that high-falutin’ newcomer, Lindi Ortega. Which wasn’t far from the truth.

Ortega debuted in the States with The Drifter EP featuring what would soon become catalog classics, “Black Fly,” “All My Friends,” and the loping “Dying of Another Broken Heart” (also featured on her full-length 2012 followup, Little Red Boots). And while she continued to issue EPs, like the bluegrass-minded Tennessee Christmas, her albums can be divided into three separate career phases. Boots, basically, was a Torontonian staring longingly at Nashville and romanticizing it; 2012’s darker Cigarettes & Truckstops was a wide-eyed naïf, new in town and open to Tree-Publishing-serious collaboration, and Tin Star is the cold, sobering reality of waking up in a bustling metropolis that might always view you with suspicion, as a carpetbagging punk-rock outsider.

And the singer doesn’t pull any punches on Tin Star. Respectful of her C&W elders—and truly fascinated by Grand Ole Opry history—she did everything by the book this time, recruiting Grammy-nominated producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Shooter Jennings) and allowing him to assemble a crack country backing band, with Mike Webb on keyboards, Brian Allen on bass, Chris Powell on drums and Cobb himself on acoustic and electric guitar. “Dave was familiar with the Nashville scene, so I said ‘Look, you’re gonna know better than I will who the right people to call are,’” she notes. “So he made those calls, and I trusted him. And I think he did a great job—I’m a huge fan of the musicianship on this record.” So the set is studded with laconic, Harlan Howard-artful ballads like “Something for You,” “Lived and Died Alone,” and “Waitin’ On My Luck To Change,” alongside the Duane Eddy-booming chuggers “Gypsy Child,” “Voodoo Mama,” and “Hard As This.” But in three other hard-hitting numbers, Ortega tells it exactly how it is, sans apologies.

The funereal title track, for instance, likens struggling for country-music acclaim to being “an old tin star, beat up and rusty/ Lost in the shining stars of Nashville, Tennessee/ Well, we don’t got fame/ No name in lights/ No billboard hits/ No sold out nights…If the music wasn’t runnin’ through the blood in my veins/ I might just walk away.” Ortega counters that resignation with the defiant rockabilly rabble-rouser aimed at every last naysayer, “All These Cats”: “You can go ahead and intimidate me/ All you’re gonna do is really just make me/ Try to prove you wrong, try if I must/ Sing a little song, leave you in the dust.” And she re-states her case on the waltzing “Songs About” closer, with “Little red boots and a little black dress/ For every occasion I’m wearing my best/ When the curtains close and the lights go down/ I’ll still be singing when no one’s around.” If a feathered, rifle-shell necklace had an equivalent sonic frequency, it would probably sound something like this.

Were there country “cats” who didn’t cotton to Ortega’s retro-purist individualism? Indeed, she growls. “When I first got here. Sometimes you’ll do these shows with six bands, on and off the stage in a row. And, well, I look different. And I dress different than a lot of people out here that are making music.” She can’t help it, she adds. “I just look darker, and people give me the stare-down, like ‘What’s she doing here? What’s she all about?’ Just because I don’t have the style and the look that everybody else does, they think I’m this foreign object in their town. So I wrote that song to say ‘You know what? I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not letting anybody intimidate me.’”

The singer also sensed some antagonism when she was invited onto the T-Bone Burnett-overseen Nashville. She couldn’t put her ebony-nailed finger on it, per se. “But I’m sure some people were like ‘Well, she’s not even from here and she’s already on that show?!’” she chuckles, with last-laugh finality. “But I always have a bit of tunnel vision when it comes to my own career—I don’t really pay too much attention to what other people are doing. I just do what I do, I’m influenced by what I’m influenced by and I follow my own path.”

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