Published Oct 22, 2013"My mom calls me a gypsy child because she says I'm always just going from city to city," Lindi Ortega admits while explaining the origin of one of the standout tracks on her new album, Tin Star. "'Gypsy Child' is an ode to her and an appreciation of the support I get from people who love me and understand what I do. They accept that this is my path."
Throughout the decade it took Ortega to get from her Toronto hometown to her ultimate destination, Nashville, she was determined to not be just another starry-eyed dreamer eager to risk everything on a guitar case full of songs. Everyone she worked with in Toronto knew she had the talent to make something happen south of the border, but doing it on her own terms — as she has to this point — by playing a firebrand style of decidedly non-mainstream, outlaw country, has taken uncommon amounts of guts and savvy.
Tin Star is Ortega's third album in three years, yet the first to really capture the spirit of her journey. Her previous efforts, Little Red Boots and Cigarettes & Truckstops, were widely praised for their vintage charm and grit. But Tin Star is steeped in the punk-like attitude it takes these days for female artists to stand out in Music City, defiance that's especially evident on "All These Cats," in which she sings, "Gotta do what I can to survive, the music is the only thing keeping me alive."
Ortega says she's not just speaking for herself in the song, but for a Nashville underground community to which she now belongs, ready and willing to take over when given the opportunity. "I'm not intimidated by those guys in black suits staring me down at showcases, because I know through touring my last two records that there is an audience out there," she explains. "I think that radio at some point needs to come around and start realizing that when an odd thing breaks through, it's not an anomaly. I look at people like Kacey Musgraves, who's straddling the worlds of country, pop and alternative, and she's up against Taylor Swift for Female Vocalist of the Year at the CMAs. If you give more chances to artists like her, it won't be considered an anomaly anymore."
Ortega already has years of fighting stereotypes behind her, so it's hard to dispute her conviction. After several stylistically all-over-the-map indie releases, she found her footing with a 2008 EP called The Drifter, which was picked up by Interscope Records subsidiary Cherrytree, and led to touring as the opening act for UK folk-rockers Noah & the Whale, alt-pop trio Keane, and actor Kevin Costner's country band the Modern West.
In 2010, Ortega landed a back-up singing gig for a solo tour by the Killers' Brandon Flowers, as Cherrytree shelved a planned full-length over concerns about its commercial viability. Several months of legal wrangling ensued to get out of the deal, whereupon her manager, Chris Taylor, decided to release Little Red Boots on his own Toronto-based Last Gang Records. From there, the field was wide open. In December 2011, Ortega moved to Nashville, ostensibly to record Cigarettes & Truckstops with producer Colin Linden, and over the next year she faced grizzled punk audiences opening for Social Distortion before shifting gears to face soft-seat theatre crowds opening for k.d. lang.
"I wind up in these places where I seemingly shouldn't fit and I end up fitting," says Ortega, who grew up listening to her mother's country records, while immersing herself in her father's Mexican heritage, particularly the work of painter Frida Kahlo. "But it kind of speaks to my entire existence. I was definitely a square peg in a round hole when I was in high school. My biggest inspiration is Johnny Cash. I think he's unmatched as an artist who commands respect from all different genres of music, from hip-hop to rock to punk to metal. So maybe subconsciously by looking up to someone like that leads me to the places where I've ended up, like this summer when I did the Ramones cover with Tim Armstrong from Rancid."
Ortega's punk cred may still rub some in the Nashville establishment the wrong way, but with a group of session stars assembled by producer Dave Cobb (Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings) backing her, Tin Star is as true a reflection of the city's mystique as anyone has offered in a long time. As she sings on the title track, "We got dues to pay, tryin' to make a way. Some of us wait on luck, while some just pray."
"That song, which is also the first single, speaks to the parallels of living in a city much like L.A. with its boulevard of broken dreams," Ortega says. "I was lucky in a way because I didn't come here looking for a record label or agents or anything like that. I had my team together, so I came here for inspiration really, and because of the history. All of my heroes have a lot of history in this city, so it was important for me to be where the action was and absorb that."
Ortega's trademark red boots are indeed following in the footsteps of many legends, but perhaps none more so than lang, who — it's often easy to forget — hit Nashville like an atomic bomb in the 1980s, revolutionizing the perception of female country artists in the process. Although Ortega can't have that same impact, she is part of current wave of Canadians, including Corb Lund and Daniel Romano, who are bringing something significant to the party.
"I'm a super-big fan of both those guys," Ortega says. "We're all sort of finding each other in the scene. When I was in Toronto, it was hard to find others like me. I guess it's a little different because the alt-country scene — or whatever it's called — wasn't a huge thing then. But now since places like the Dakota Tavern [in Toronto] have been established, it's more prevalent. All of us seem to be finding each other like beacons in the night."