Hillbilly Highway – Lindi Ortega, honest and raw

by Sheldon Birnie

Lindi Ortega is a Toronto born singer-songwriter with pipes of a honky tonk angel. Now based out of Nashville, Lindi is poised to release her sophomore LP Cigarettes & Truckstops, on Last Gang Records October 2nd. Her tunes touch on classic country themes of heartache, hard travelling, over indulgence, infidelity, and all that good stuff. While the production and writing give nods to country music’s past, Ortega’s tunes are contemporary in all the best ways. Next week, she’ll be cruising the Hillbilly Highway through Winnipeg opening for k.d. lang.

Stylus: Your new record has a lot of tunes about travelling and heartbreak. Is that a result of the heavy touring you’ve been doing [since 2011’s Little Red Boots] or is that just exploring some classic themes? How did these songs come about?

Lindi Ortega: I guess a lot of the touring is kind of the life I’ve been knowing since Little Red Boots came out. Before then I was a back-up singer and touring a bit. It’s very much a part of me, I guess. I don’t know how it couldn’t be inspiring, so I’d say definitely.

Stylus: As far as influences go, you’ve been compared to Wanda Jackson and Loretta Lynn. On your new record you name drop gals like Dolly Parton. Who have been some big influences on you over the years, and who is influencing your writing today?

LO: I would say my main running theme of influence would be outlaw country and traditional country. Johnny Cash has been one of my biggest influences, along with Hank Williams and the few that you mentioned, Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson. With this particular record I wanted to delve into more of the blues. As I was reading this Hank Williams biography — I read a lot of biographies — his was sort of one of the first I was reading of my country heros. And it taught me a lot of lessons about country music and early country music. I discovered that he was influenced and learned how to play guitar from a man named Tee Tot, who was a blues guy. A lot of early country stems from a lot of early blues. There’s a lot of comparisons in the chord progressions and the way the songs are written in early country. Especially with stuff like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. I really wanted to explore that. So I started listening to a lot of blues. I got really into Lead Belly, Lightning Hopkins, Memphis Minnie, Blind Willie Johnson, and all those kinds of blues artists. I think, you know, me working with Colin Linden and listening to that music for so long really helped put a sprinkle of that onto the new songs.

Stylus: You mention Colin Linden there. How did working with him and recording and living in Nashville effect the record?

LO: As I mentioned, Colin‘s got a really good background in blues music. He knows way more than I could ever possibly know about the history of blues. He’s always talking about and recommending cool blues artists to me that I’ve never heard of. Not to mention he’s great at playing it. He has a knack for blues guitar playing. So, I felt like he was the perfect fit. He was wonderful. First of all he’s one of the nicest, friendliest, most down to earth people you could ever meet. He’s really easy going, just wonderful to work with in that respect. He’s got a lot of great ideas. He was really good at setting the tone. I wanted this to be sort of a record that created a bit of an atmosphere for the listener to step into with each song. He was really good at putting that together and realizing that vision. It was a real joy working with him, and I’d work with him again in a heartbeat.

Stylus: You’ve already mentioned how touring has become such a large part of your life. You’ve gone on tour with big names like Dierks Bentley, Burton Cummings, you’re touring right away with k.d. lang and you’re heading out again with Social Distortion. What’s it like touring with that, being the opening for such large acts with their own followings?

LO: Oh, it’s awesome! It’s so cool. With Social Distortion in particular, when I was first told about the possibility of that happening I, like everyone else, kind of raised an eyebrow, wondering “Is that gonna work?” I wasn’t entirely sure. I’ll be straight-up honest, I didn’t know much about the punk scene. I knew a few punk artists, but I wasn’t heavily involved or had any background in it before Social Distortion. It was my feeling that maybe their fans were not going to accept what I was doing. I was sort of afraid of getting rotten eggs or tomatoes thrown at me. So, I kind of took the idea of, if Social Distortion thinks I can open for them, there’s got to be something to it. They’re obviously not doing it out of malice. They probably feel their fans could accept what I was doing. On that alone I thought, OK, these guys have offered me this opportunity, I’m going to take it. All I ever want to do is win over one fan. If I win over more than that, awesome. So I got out there and it was kind of like, “This is what I do!” I was just myself. I think with fans like that, you can’t afford to be super meek on stage. You have to own it, you have to get out there and be who you are. It worked really well, actually. It was surprising to me. The punk fans seem to be some of the most accepting crowds I’ve played for. That taught me that punk is more the mentality than actually a genre of music. I feel they really accept people who are honest and raw in what they do, who stand behind what they do and have conviction. I think there was also an acceptance in that I ended my set every night with a Johnny Cash song, as did Social D. I think they made that connection through their. I think there are a lot of secret country punk fans. I think that artists like Johnny Cash were kind of the punks of the country music world. They were really making a different kind of music than what was going on at the time. I think they understood that, and made that connection. It’s so cool that an artist like myself could have an opportunity to open a show like that, for that kind of a band. It’s amazing to me. I’m so happy to be going out with them again in October.

Stylus: You’re in Winnipeg next week with k.d. lang. Have you been through Winnipeg before?

LO: I’ve been through Winnipeg before, yeah. But to be honest, I’ve never had a chance to explore Winnipeg, and I really hope this time around there’ll be some time to go around and check things out. It’s always been kind of a situation for me where I kind of roll in to town, play the show, and roll out. What I can say is that Winnipeg crowds have always been awesome. The few times I’ve been through, three or four times, they’ve always been awesome. I am pretty sure they’ll be awesome again, and I look forward to playing for them.

Lindi Ortega opens for k.d. lang at Pantages Playhouse Friday, September 14th. Tickets are still available.

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