Some musicians lie low and rest their vocal chords in the days leading up to a cross-continent tour, and others, just can’t resist a night of killer karaoke.
Lindi Ortega, recovering from stop at a Christmas-themed karaoke pub before she tours from Nashville to Victoria and back, clearly falls into the latter category.
“Singing is too much fun,” she says, the gravelly tone in her voice accentuated with a laugh. “Maybe I should be (preserving), but it’s too much fun. I’m such a nerd for it.”
Between all-nighters at Santa’s Pub, recording critically acclaimed albums and shooting music videos in downtown Nashville, music city has been good to the Canadian songstress. Ortega – known best for the 2011 Juno nominated Little Red Boots and last year’s Polaris Music Prize long-listed Cigarettes & Truckstops – had etched out a place for herself at home in the Toronto music scene before she made the southern leap two years ago. At the time, packing up her signature red boots seemed crazy, but also a necessity for an aspiring country singer-songwriter in Canada.
“My mom was shocked,” Ortega says. “‘What are you doing? You’re giving up your apartment and your friends – and you’re leaving me here?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve gotta do this.’ I’ve gotta go because it felt right.”
Ortega’s mother only had herself to blame after instilling in her young daughter a love for the classic country sounds of Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
“I remember being a kid and watching the Dolly Parton Variety Show, then I kind of forgot about it for a bit. I got into Guns ‘n’ Roses and I was a little grunge girl in high school. When I started making music, I found that hints of country started coming through. It was a natural progression and an inevitable step for me to move to Nashville.”
Despite songs clearly marked by those early influences, Ortega says her music isn’t accepted as country by those who let Top 40 radio define the genre.
“The main thread of my influence comes from old, outlaw, classic country, but I listen to a lot of blues, and I love soul and Motown – all that culminates in my music.”
A performer since the age of 16 – when she lied about her age to play the El Mocambo Tavern in Toronto – Ortega, now 35, has long since established her style and stays true to her sound, regardless of any labels from the industry. Often around the recurring theme of loneliness, Ortega finds herself continually drawn to blending sweet melodies with shadowy storylines. “I do that a lot. Dark, lyrical content set to a happy beat – a lesson learned from Johnny Cash.”
Being a touring musician creates a prime environment for those sentiments to flourish, as they do on Tin Star, the title track from her latest record, written for the plight of the struggling musician. “There’s a lot of sacrifice. … I devote my life to music.”
Yet Ortega’s lifestyle, as the Canadian in Nashville, is nothing extraordinary, she says.
“I do think the strange brew of country that I make is a rarity. The content of my songs and the way I dress is very different and alternative to how a lot of country female artists dress in this city. That, I think, makes me stand out.”