Lindi Ortega Just Wants to Make Good Art
"You don't know me/I'm a nobody/I sing on the strip for a few pennies/Like an old tin star/ Beat up and rusty/Lost in the shining stars of Nashville, Tennessee/ I wrote this song for those who are like me/ Lost in the shining stars of Nashville, Tennessee." - Tin Star (from Ortega's 2013 release Tin Star)
It's been more than four years since country outlaw Lindi Ortega penned these telling lyrics. While there are still times the songwriter feels lost, lonely and wondering whether to throw in the towel on her career, luckily - these days - for her faithful fans and for those just discovering her music, those thoughts are few and far between. Instead, she's got an arresting new 4-song EP (Til The Goin' Gets Gone) that dropped this spring and she's gearing up for the summer festival circuit.
I caught up with the souful Ortega recently during a pit stop in Calgary where the Toronto native now lays down her cowboy boots when she is not following the highway's white line. The musician was in the midst of a cross Canada tour with Chris Stapleton. We chatted about the new EP, her newfound love of Townes Van Zandt, and why we need dark, sad songs - now more than ever - in these troubled times. Til The Goin' Gets Gone drifts away from the honky-tonkin' sounds of her previous releases and offers a more minimalist take in both the songs, the songwriting, and the production. This stripped-down approach allows her vocals to take centre stage. When we chatted, Ortega had just finished shooting the haunting video for Van Zandt's classic: "Waitinng 'Round to Die," partly on a digital camera and partly on her iPhone; she also edited the piece, but admits she had lots of volunteers. The video, which premiered today via Huffington Post, was shot at Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, two hours north of Calgary, Alberta. Watch it here:
David McPherson: What made you decide to include a Townes Van Zandt song on this EP?
Ortega: I became a fan of Townes a little later on in my life. I didn’t grow up listening to his music but many of my country heroes loved him. I always thought he had a pretty cool name, so I started to wonder, 'What is this guy all about?' I came back from a tour and started to delve into his catalogue. Immediatley, I was crushed by it. Up until then, nobody had hit the pinnacle of songwriting like Leonard Cohen had for me. When it came time to record, I knew I had to include a Townes' tune. It was a toss up between "Waiting 'Round to Die," and "Rake." Given the content of the other songs, ‘Waiting’ really made sense. It was a dark and sad EP, so I figured I might as well bring it on home with one of the darkest, saddest songs I’ve ever heard.
DM: Why was there so much darkness and sadness that crept into these songs at this point in time in your career?
Ortega: I was going through a period where I thought I might have to give up music and the career I had known for 20 years. I've had moments of self-doubt before and wondered whether I could keep going, but this was different. It really felt like a final thing for me. I was depressed and sad about it. I felt a feeling of finality and that things were coming to an end. I had written some songs and wasn’t sure I would ever record them or what would happen. I was prepared to put them away and that was it. Then I was reinvigorated and decided to retool the way I was conducting my business and living my life as a musician. It was hard being on the road and working as hard as I was. The incentive of it was lost. I wasn’t making that much money, and couldn’t pay my rent. I don’t want to make it into a 'woe is me sob story' as this tale is not unique to me. Being an artist is not an easy path to take. There are many moments of self doubt and there were many times I thought that I shouldn’t continue and that maybe there were other things I could do. It felt a bit like I was burnt out, but then I realized I just needed to strike a better balance between how I work and how I do the business side of things and figure out a way to survive. So, instead of throwing in the towel I figured out a way to survive.
DM: Those sentiments remind me of a few lines from an old tune penned by a songwriter friend of mine where he sings, "Most of my friends have moved on/Dollar bills have replaced their songs." Listening to your EP, the three originals all capture that sentiment. Describe how this trio of songs came about?
Ortega: Those three songs are what came out of that time of turmoil. They are their own entity – sad and dark - that's just the way it came out. I stand by it. This world, modern pop culture – music – whether it be country or any genre, I think people often want to escape from something sad. They want the party songs. They think those will help them exist in a surreal universe where dark, sad stuff doesn’t happen. I think people need sad songs the way I did when I heard Hank Williams sing "I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry." Songs like these makes one feel you are not alone. It’s a way to connect with the whole human race and the emotions we all feel. It’s nice to have moments of escapism, but we also need to acknowledge that life gets sad and dark too. There is a danger in pretending it doesn’t happen and just sweeping it under the rug. I like to address and talk about it.
People who need songs like that is the reason why I still create. I can’t tell you the number of times people at shows come up and tell me a certain song of mine has helped them get through a dark time. That just feels right. If I've helped them in even a small way I will continue to write songs like that. Most of the feedback so far for the EP has been very positive. Some people have commented that it is too dark. So be it. Music is subjective and some people jsut don’t want to face these emotions. I know it’s not for everyone, but I want to be as honest as I can with the music I create. Sometimes it’s dark and sometimes it’s cheeky. I don’t make any apologies for my music.
DM: Tell me more about your discovery that you could - and should - continue your career as a touring musician and about your new approach to the music business, whatever that means these days?
Ortega: For the longest time, I was buying into the whole idea of what others idea of success is. I had to be a certain thing or I was a failure. Then I sat and reflected on what I’ve accomplished and realized I'm not a failure. I just exist in a different realm. I don’t exist in the mainstream realm of success. There are niche markets out there for people and fans of my music and I realized I do have a fan base and they want me to put out music. I acknowledged that these people are the most important aspect of what I do. So it's not about buying into what the mainstream ideals are of what success is, but instead it's about the fans and continuing to love what I do as a performer and a writer and knowing that I don’t need to have a Billboard hit or sell out arenas in order to make a living. I just need to continue on my path and build my fan base. It won’t happen overnight. I also needed to retool the people I was doing business with and explain to them where I saw myself as an artist. I'm not going to chase the carrot anymore. I'm not looking to be the next huge sensation. I just want to make a living in this crazy industry where it is difficult to make a living and just be myself.
DM: The music business, like most industries these days, is changing so rapidly. Crazy is a good word to describe it. It's sometimes hard to find your way and figure out how you fit into this puzzle isn't it?
Ortega: Yes, it's just the nature of this business. Some months are easier to make rent than others. It’s a funny industry that way. I could get on a whole other tangent about the industry. I feel the artist is the subject of a lot of injustice of how the business model functions for people that are not on major labels. A lot of indie labels these days are trying to function like a major label and siphoning all of an artists’ income streams, which makes it more difficult to make a living. I understand why people find it difficult and give up and find a more secure ways of making money. I still always grapple with that. The title song, "Til The Goin' Gets Gone," talks about my road life versus the actual road of life. I feel anyone that is following some sort of artistic dream encounters the same pitfalls and ditches and can probably relate to that song. One of the other songs, "What a Girl's Gotta Do" is not necessarily about the music industry, but it still taps into that theme.
DM: "Final Blow" sums up the whole theme of trying to 'make it' in the music industry, whatever your definition of 'make it' is. Was that intentional?
Ortega: "Final Bow" is definitely the most esoteric song on the EP. It’s also very specific. It's about getting tired of the rat race and always chasing a carrot. That's not easy. You feel like you constantly have a carrot dangled in front of you, but I don’t want that anymore. What is more important is what I'm trying to accomplish.
DM: What is it that you are trying to accomplish these days?
Ortega: I just want to make good art. If I end up being poor and broke at the end of it all and I don’t have a retirement fund, I can rest knowing that I tried my best to make great art. I can’t tell you how many times I've thought of throwing in the towel, but I just can’t. There is something in me that can’t. I need to continue. I need to create. I need to be a creative person. It’s this innate thing in me.
DM: Tell me a bit about the recording of Til the Goin' Gets Gone. It has a real skeletal feel in terms of the arrangements and the production. Was that intentional?
Ortega: We recorded in a really cool place: EastSide Manor Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. What was cool about the studio is there were horses on the property. It's a little oasis in East Nashville, very hidden and tucked away. It makes you feel like you are in the countryside. It was not a clinical studio; it felt much more comfortable and very homey. The whole recording was a wonderful experience. For a while, recording was my least favourite part of my career. I got to co-produce this EP and have a creative hand in the production and that meant a lot of to me. It also made the process more fun than it had ever been. It made me excited. The whole thing was done in four days. The stripped-down nature was all a result of listening to the fans. I had heard people constantly say they wanted me to do something more acoustic. I had done posts on Instagram of just me and my guitar and fans said I should do a whole record like that, so I tried that out on this EP. It's nice to just let the songs breathe and the lyrics breathe and take centre stage. A lot of the music I love and grew up listening to, as well as a lot of my musical heroes, their music is sparse, they did not have ProTools and did most of their recording on analog equipment in just one take.
DM: So, what's next after the EP?
Ortega: I'm just happy right now to be back in the saddle. I have a full summer ahead of festivals, some solo, some duo, and some trios. I have every intention to put out another record next year and I plan to write a lot more songs. I'm hoping I don’t run into writer’s block. I'm quite excited. I've done a 180 from wanting to throw in the towel to looking forward to making more music.
Hear the title cut: "Til The Goin' Gets Gone":