Lindi Ortega’s voice harks back to country’s Seventies flair, and while hard work has elevated her name to a must-know in today’s Americana scene, it wasn’t all steel guitars and cowboy boots that got her there. Ortega’s first taste of music came from her father, who played bass in a Latin band, and growing up she was always picking out tunes on the various instruments in her home. She began sneaking into bars and nabbing coffee shop gigs at seventeen, and she’s since varied her performances from quiet singer-songwriter to frontwoman for a ska-punk band and back to the gothic country she makes today. Her brief foray into the ska scene found her feeling more of an entertainer than an artist (“I put down all my instruments and just sort of pranced around the stage”), and it was a comment from a fan after a show, longing for the meaning and the feeling of her old songs, that snapped her back into the singer-songwriter scene.
“I realized the music I wanted to make was music that did move people and music that people could relate to. That really sat in my mind,” she says. Ortega says the connection her songs forge with an audience is largely why she is so drawn to the stage. “They relate to the songs, and it shows me that my music means something to somebody.”
For her most recent release, Faded Gloryville, Ortega draws from her diverse background, but rather than bouncing around genres or performance styles, she toggles between producers and recording environments. The album was recorded over three sessions and with a total of four producers: one session with Dave Cobb, who worked with Ortega on Tin Star, and whose work on breakout albums from Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell has made him one of Americana’s hottest producers; one session with Colin Linden, who produced Ortega’s 2012 release Cigarettes & Truckstops; and one session in Muscle Shoals with co-producers John Paul White of the Civil Wars and Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes.
“I was very apprehensive about [splitting it between producers] at first — it was my manager who suggested I do it that way, and I wasn’t sure how it would work and if it was going to be a cohesive thing,” Ortega says. “Then I sat and thought about it for a while and realized there were some records that I really liked that had different producers on it, and that it was certainly something that could work — I just needed to give it a chance. I ended up looking at it as a challenge, and I was up to it. I needed to try something different that I hadn’t done before.”
For sessions with Cobb, Ortega and the band would spread out in the middle of the room and run through tracks acoustically to get the skeleton, recording almost everything live. The songs she recorded with Linden had a more “ambient” feel, layering guitars and instrumentals. For the Muscle Shoals sessions, strings and horns were integrated after the bulk of the tracks were recorded live.
“You’re switching gears because you’re working with a completely different person who has a completely different way of recording,” says Ortega, who would jump between the starkly different recording environments on back-to-back days. “There were similarities in that all the producers at the helm on the sessions really appreciate the vintage sound and vintage gear — using old tube amps and mics and old guitars and old drum kits and things like that. I think that really lent itself to what would be the cohesion of the sound as a whole.”
Faded Gloryville includes nine originals and one cover — the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody” — and while Ortega is insistent that the album doesn’t have just one overarching theme, the title track is a dark ode to compromised dreams and apathetic realities, whether they be in relationships or lifestyle or even a career.
“It’s really the idea that you have these romantic ideals about something, and they don’t quite turn out the way that you had envisioned them to,” Ortega says. “How everybody kind of reaches this place where they either get jaded by the fact that things didn’t work out, or they reassess the situation and learn from it and move on.”
The road to Faded Gloryville was its own twisted one. Starting out, Ortega self-released a few records before connecting with a manager and signing with Cherry Tree Records, an imprint of Interscope with an eclectic roster that included Noah & the Whale, Feist, and the Fratellis. It seemed like a perfect home for Ortega’s unique and evolving approach to Americana, but shortly after releasing an EP with the label, it began to move in a different direction — think dance pop and Lady Gaga — and releasing a full-length from Ortega made less sense. Citing creative control as a more important factor for her than the support of a major label, she released her debut, Little Red Boots, in 2011 via Last Gang Records. The Toronto label has been her home ever since. The records forge the connection she has with fans, but Ortega says that as much as she enjoys writing and recording, they don’t hold a candle to the live show. Surrounding her sophomore release on Last Gang, Cigarettes & Truckstops, Ortega moved down to Nashville and holed up in a hotel, spending as much time out on the road as possible. That dedication only continues to reveal itself.
“I love performing. It’s always been my favorite thing,” says Ortega. “[Music] is a hard industry, and it’s difficult to make a living. Traveling can be grueling — months away from family and friends. There’s a lot of things that can bring you down, and there are a lot of things that can disappoint you. The one thing in music that can help you forget all of that stuff and focus on the positive is the shows.”
Lindi Ortega plays the Rockwood Music Hall on October 15. For ticket information, click here.