Songwriter Interviews

Lindi Ortega

by Dan MacIntosh

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Lindi Ortega has been described as the love child of Johnny Cash and Nancy Sinatra. Like Cash, Ortega always dresses in black when she performs, and similar to Sinatra her boots (albeit cowboy boots) were made for walking. Her 2012 album, Cigarettes & Truckstops, is like an emotional travelogue. She may traverse the same routes as truckers and many other troubadours, but when she does so, she adds so much color and a unique perspective.

We caught up with Ortega at Southern California's Hootenanny, a festival dedicated to the wide variety of roots, rock and country. Ortega was one of the few females to hold the stage, but she nevertheless held her own.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): So we're all about songs and songwriting. I wanted to ask you first, what inspired you to do an Aretha Franklin song, "I Never Loved A Man"?

Lindi Ortega: I'm a big fan of Aretha Franklin and I think she's an amazing singer. And I'm a fan of singers in general. I listen to a lot of Solomon Burke and Sam Cooke and Aretha and Etta James and that sort of stuff. So she falls in that vein.

And I love that song. I heard that song for the first time in a movie called The Commitments, and I loved it when I heard it. And then I found Aretha's version, and it blew my mind even more. I love singing it. I think it's a great song.

Songfacts: I think it takes a lot of guts to do an Aretha Franklin song, because she doesn't get the nickname The Queen of Soul for nothing.

Ortega: Yeah. I know I can't sing like her, so we tried to make that version of the song our own and put our own spin on it. That's the beauty of cover songs - they're not as interesting if you make them like karaoke, but if you're doing your own thing, it makes it cool and interesting to people. I just put the Lindi spin on it.

Songfacts: Let's talk about songwriting. Who are the songwriters that most influenced you as a songwriter?

Ortega: Johnny Cash has been a huge influence. I love Townes Van Zant, I think he's a great songwriter. I love Leonard Cohen, I love Neil Young, I love Kris Kristofferson, Waylon, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams.

Songfacts: You're not afraid to talk about using drugs and some different things that are kind of taboo in country music. Do you think of yourself as maybe in the tradition of the outlaw?

Outlaw country is a subset of country music. It started in the '70s with folks like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and hearkened back to country music's more rowdy roots. The music was also oftentimes louder and faster than much of the more sedate music that gets played on commercial radio. It was (and still is, in the guise of a reaction to the less abrasive Nashville sound.
Ortega: Yeah. A little bit. I usually write from my own experiences and my own perspectives, so a lot of what I write is real. I love outlaw country. I think outlaw country sort of led the way to make it okay for people to talk about those things. I love people being forthright with their music and I endeavor to do the same thing with mine. So I talk about it.

Songfacts: Well, your last album (Cigarettes & Truckstops) has a lot of songs that talk about being brokenhearted. Am I reading too much into it to say that it was inspired by some bad experiences?

Ortega: I think "Lead Me On" is the only one that's really about being brokenhearted. "Cigarettes and Truckstops" is a song of nostalgia. It's actually more of a love song than anything else. "Every Mile of the Ride" is also a nostalgic song about being on tour. It's a song about my tour manager, actually, that I toured with who I loved. And there was a deep friendship that we had and it was a song about wanting to just tour forever together. But other than that, there's not really much else that's heartbreaking. It's more about loneliness, I guess.

Songfacts: Do you like touring?

Ortega: Love touring. Yeah. I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it.

Songfacts: You talked on the stage today about really looking forward to this festival.

Ortega: Yeah. I really was.

Songfacts: You haven't played it before?

Ortega: Not Hootenanny, no. I think it's really fair as a female to play festivals like this, because as you can see there are mostly male-driven bands that are performing and it's really good to have a female-fronted thing happening. And I feel it's amazing that somebody like me can break the mould and be able to get up there and put a female voice on a festival like this. So I'm happy.

Songfacts: Who are the artists that you would like to see as far as females here?

Ortega: I don't know if Imelda May has ever played, but she's really cool. She's got a rockabilly kind of vibe, which I love. So yeah, I mean they're around. I think she could go over well with these crowds.

Songfacts: But you don't have a bass player?

Ortega: Nope. We could, but it's really more of a budgetary thing than anything else. But I don't feel like we need one. I feel like my guitarist is so good at getting that low end on his guitar that it fills it out and it works out. And it's kind of a tradition, I guess, the roots of my music was like three piece, so it works out.

Songfacts: You seem very confident as a guitarist, too.

Ortega: Well, I'm playing. I don't know about confident. I don't know if I'm very good, but I love playing.

Songfacts: So what do you have next? Are you working on any new music?

Ortega: I've got a record coming out in the fall, a new one. And I have tours - I'm going to Scandinavia soon. And I've got the Winnipeg Folk Festival in July coming up.

Songfacts: So what's your new album called?

Ortega: It's called Tin Star.

Songfacts: What can you tell me about it? How is it different from the last album?

Ortega: I think every album is an evolution and it's an exploration of the genre of music that I do, which is a mix of blues and folk and rockabilly and rock. It's always mixing it up, it's always delving into different territories of those things that I love. I worked with producer Dave Cobb, who's worked with Rival Sons and Jason Isbell.

Songfacts: Oh, I love Jason Isbell's new one.

Ortega: Yeah. So he did their records and it was great to work with them and I think he put a great sound on what I do. So I'm excited for people to hear it.

Songfacts: Can you tell me a couple of songs on the new album that you really like and you're really excited about.

Ortega: There's a song I wrote that I named the album after, which is called "Tin Star," and it's about living in Nashville and doing what I do and living amidst a city where people come to see stars. And kind of being in the underground of that. You don't have to be a singer or a musician to get into what that song's about. It's really about just struggling and then holding onto your dream and trying to make it in the face of maybe not having the huge success that people might expect you to have. But doing it because you love it. That's what the song's about.

Songfacts: How long have you been in Nashville?

Ortega: A year and a half.

Songfacts: Oh, wow. So you're still pretty new.

Ortega: Yeah.

Songfacts: What was your first celebrity encounter?

Ortega: I saw Billy Zane at a little country farm store buying eggs.

Songfacts: Last question for you. Your outfit fits right in with the whole vibe. Did you pick that outfit out especially for this festival?

Ortega: Well, I bought this in Austin. We just did a show in Texas and we went to the vintage store. I like shawls, maybe because I'm a fan of Stevie Nicks.

Songfacts: It almost looks like you're ready for a funeral, though.

Ortega: I'm always ready for a funeral. So was Johnny Cash. That's where I get it from. Johnny Cash was always dressed for a funeral, too. I'm also a big fan of Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead.

August 14, 2013. Get more at
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