Campfire Tales: Lindi Ortega interviewed
After releasing her third, and best, album last Autumn, bright light of the new alt.country movement Lindi Ortega has just arrived on these shores for a tour of some of our finest towns and cities. The Tin Star singer spoke to us recently about Nashville, the tour, how she’s creepy (“But not that creepy!”), and how much she loves British farm animals.
This is Lindi’s first visit to the UK since 2012 (“I’m so excited”) and she’s looking forward to making new friends. “I always have a great time out there. I love the drives in between even more because there are fields of sheep! (laughs) I always make a point of trying to make friends with them by singing to them. I have yet to win them over, they always run away! I don't think they like me but maybe one day I will win them over and have a friend in the British sheep.” Ah, one of the lesser known differences between the two cultures. “We don’t have them over here, I don’t really see sheep. There’s just cows everywhere here, so it’s exciting!”
Along with meeting the livestock there are some shows to be played. “It’s kind of stripped down but it’ll sound full, it’s loud. I play guitar, we have another guitar player, he kind of covers what a bass player would, all that low end stuff; he’s got some of his guitars tuned way down, kind of like Duane Eddy-style guitar. Then we have a percussionist/drummer who’s gonna be joining us, so it sounds full even though there’s only going to be three of us. We know how to make noise! ”
Her album Tin Star covers a host of country related genres; Lindi’s influences come very much from traditional American music. “I’m somebody who’s very highly influenced by old school country, old school blues, and rockabilly. It’s kind of a mix of that stuff. Sometimes I say it’s a mix of Dolly Parton meets Johnny Cash (laughs)! I cover a lot of ground because I have so many influences, but the common factor is that they’re all classic.”
And that classic influence comes through not just in the music she plays but how it’s created. “I love old vintage sounding stuff. I love vintage amps, I love ribbon mics. I love recording live, that kind of vibe, rather than people emailing their parts to me. All that weird autotuning stuff people do, I don't understand it, that’s not for me.”
Despite the Cash and Parton comparisons she’s not totally comfortable with the country label: “You could call it alternative country. But I’ve had people come to my show and say 'I almost didn’t come because my friend said it was country but it’s not really country music'. In fact, any label is fine - “If you like it that’s all I care about, call it what you want: Spanish polka music if you want, if you listen to it that’s all I care about!”
With a lyrical content, and dress sense, different from your average Nashville star Lindi certainly feels authentic. “It’s just me. I’m a bit of a… I’m kind of strange! (laughs) I really like strange things; I’m sort of romanced and bewitched by dark things I guess.” Like? “I love crows, and I love skulls and skeletons, and I love black but I’m not really a super morbid person. I like that but I like juxtaposing it with other things that I Iove that are light. I love red roses, things like that too.”
You can hear this positioning of dark and light clearly in the songs. “My love for all that stuff comes out in my lyrics a lot, so like the song ‘Lived And Died Alone’ off of this new record about digging up the dead and then burying them, that really speaks to my love of a) skeletons, and b) loneliness.” Do we sense a theme here? “I think about it constantly, all the people that live their whole lives lonely, then they die and nobody comes to their funeral. I sit up in bed at night and think about those people and feel sorry for them and I wanted to write them a love song. Maybe part of that comes from me being existential and studying philosophy in university so I just kinda think in a weird philosophical kinda way sometimes. And those songs come out from that.” And ‘Lived And Died Alone’ is a good example of that, you listen to it and it is a little bit weird, then you start to get it, you know what it’s about. “Little did I know when I wrote it that I would have to talk about it so much. Some people take it really literally (laughs), and they’re like 'Are you into necrophilia, what’s going on?' I’m just like 'No! I’m creepy but I’m not that creepy!' I have to explain that it’s meant to be a love song for lonely dead people, I guess! (laughs) It comes from a good place in my heart, it’s not meant to be really gross and weird, you know!”
Other lyrics on the album are based on Lindi’s experiences, rather than stories “I have about four songs on this record that came out about where I’m at musically. I just kind of know what I know, right? My life is kind of consumed by music, so it’s natural for me to write about what I do. I feel like its relatable in that any time that people struggle with things in life, my experiences parallel that struggle with trying to make it in the music industry which is a very very difficult industry. And I try to deliver kind of messages of hope in that struggle for anybody who is going through the same.”
These struggles are particularly highlighted in the song ‘Tin Star’. “It’s absolutely about that. My experience, but also recognising the parallels living in Music City. Nashville is sort of what Hollywood is to actors, in that people go with these really big dreams and there’s a whole lot of them there. It’s great in one sense cause it's inspiring to see so many people being productive and working toward something, but it's sometimes a little sad because there are so many musicians and it’s hard to get to go out to a show cause there’s so much happening and its hard to get recognised, right? There are so many talented people out there that aren’t given much of a chance because they kind of get lost in everything that's going on, myself included. I wanted to pay tribute to the many talented people that I know that aren’t getting the recognition, and say “Hey I feel your struggle, I feel your pain, I know it, I live it too and here’s a song for us.”
Nashville itself is a fascinating place, with the past and the present colliding, it seems to be becoming too popular, and too difficult to make it there. “It’s hard in any kind of city, I think New York and Los Angeles are all kind of the same in that sense. They’re all cynical cities that people go to to try and get a career in the entertainment business. It’s easy to be a big fish in a small pond so if you're playing in a little town and there isn't a whole lot going on you can be famous in that town but… I’d rather be a small fish with more ocean to swim in, you know? (laughs). I like that I’m a little different in Nashville, I don’t dress like anybody there, my lyrical content is quite different from what’s being sung about on Music Row and I tend to touch on different things.”
As Lindi already had a career when she moved to Nashville, her choice of town was for different reasons. “For inspiration and for the history that’s undeniable. No matter what Nashville becomes musically, it’ll always have that history that will be inspiring, that is tangible, and that is there.” Despite sometimes being a harsh place, Nashville can be quite welcoming to ‘out-of-towners’ too. “In the style of music that I do, I think there’s more of an acceptance. It may be different in the commercial side of things, where it might be a little more competitive. Luckily I don't really deal with that side so there’s a nice sort of community thing going on with the kind of music that I do. We’re all just hard working musicians out there that all respect each other and we collaborate and we write with each other, it’s really really nice actually.”
Nashville seems to have lots of new musicians moving in these days. “When I started making this kind of music it wasn’t really a thing, people looked at me like I was odd, and were like 'How do you expect to do anything with this?' and 'What are you doing? You could do so many other things!', and then suddenly this country thing is kicking off now right. A lot of people think that Nashville is starting to get this cool factor, kind of how LA had it for a while, everyone wanted to move to LA, so now everyone wants to move to Nashville. It makes me think personally that it's time for me to switch my game up a little, you know? Which I’ll probably do; I’ve released three records that’ve been very much in the same vein and I’m proud of them and I’m happy with them but I personally feel like now that everybody’s getting sort of hip to this it’s time for me figure out ways to break the mold even further, which is great. It’s a wonderful challenge and that’s what I love about that city.”
And branching out might come in the form of a concept record? “It’s just in my head, I’ve never done a concept record; I’ve always just written what comes to mind. Now I’m toying with the idea of doing a concept record. I’m reading the new Johnny Cash biography called The Life. This is like my fourth Johnny Cash biography! I love reading about him, and I learned that he’d done a concept record and it sparked an idea from me to try that out. That might be something for next time, which would make it a little different to what I've done before, as well as incorporate a different sound and a different vibe.”
If Lindi’s half as interesting on stage as she is to talk to then these shows will be a treat. Her full tour schedule is available on her website.