Despite being under attack constantly by the pop music popularized by Taylor Swift, there really hasn’t been a better time for folk-tinged country music than we’re living in right now. When the Lumineers can take a song like “Ho Hey” and ride it up the charts, there’s nothing to say any band with talent and drive can’t do the same thing. All of this makes listening to Lindi Ortega’s latest effort, Cigarettes and Truck Stops, an album worth pushing in a mainstream direction seemingly unthinkable even a year ago.
Her propulsive blend of traditional country mixed with elements of Latin rhythms might not fit with what country radio wants to shove down our throats. Choosing not to worry about radio programmers’ fickle tastes, however, she’s chosen the smarter road: get the music out there and build a consistent reputation, as in “if you play it, they will come.” The strategy paid off when she caught the attention of T-Bone Burnett, who featured “The Day You Die” in a key episode of the ABC show Nashville back in November.
What makes Ortega’s music so effective is her total lack of pretension. She loves the music of Raul Malo and Buddy Holly in addition to the classics of “traditional” country, so she melds those influences naturally into her work rather than chasing trends. In this case she’s simply found herself at the crossroads of a genre revolution, if not quite as the leader of any movement.
“I can only speak for myself, what I do and the music I like,” she says, “I don’t really look at myself as trying to build a movement. I’m really just doing what I’m inspired by.”
Ortega, who admits to having few female country role models, speaks succinctly through her own music in a way which is sure to have her leading the shortlists of “must listens” for young women following in her footsteps. In a wide-ranging interview, Ortega sat down with PopMatters to discuss her new album, touching on the secret Nashville scene of alt-country up-and-comers, the sudden popularity of alternative folk, and why Social Distortion’s fans prove genre differences aren’t as vital as we’re led to believe.
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Your father played in a Latin band and you grew up listening to his music. How has that influenced your take on country music?
Well, I grew up listening partially to his music and also to my mom’s music. My mom was the country music lover when I was growing up. She had a whole record collection of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. My father listened to a lot of Latin music, which is very rhythmic, and I feel that influenced more my guitar playing style. I was taught playing initially on a classical guitar with nylon strings, using my fingers. I switched later on to the metal-stringed guitar and I still played with my fingers, because holding a pick in my hand felt very foreign to me. So it’s odd sometimes to people that I still play with my fingers, since the strings are a lot more difficult to strum being that they’re not nylon. So I developed this interesting style of playing which is quite rhythmic. I believe that influence definitely comes from my dad’s “Latino” music.
Did you listen much to the Latin-tinged country which came out in the 1990s from guys like Raul Malo and the Mavericks?
I’m influenced by all sorts of things not just traditional country. I love Elvis, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and all that stuff as well. So I feel like it’s an amalgamation of all the music I listen to which makes my strange brew of country, or if you want to call it “alternative” country, happen. I actually toured with Raul Malo, though, and I think he’s an amazing person. That and the Mavericks are great — they’ve actually gotten back together and I played a show with them in Nashville not too long ago, something of a private party show, and he’s a fantastic vocalist.
Do you wish more modern country music took to the propulsive rhythms you lean toward? Is there a place in the world of radio country for a song like “Little Lie” off your album Little Red Boots?
I can’t even begin to understand how commercial radio operates these days. It’s a whole different beast, I’d say. There’s a lot of people who love that kind of music, and if that’s what they love to listen to then I’m not going to stand in the way of that. I can only speak for myself, what I do and the music I like. It sure is nice to find these niche markets of things happening, especially in Nashville and East Nashville, there’s a lot of really cool underground alternative music happening, and this seems to take its influence from the old school. That’s where it’s all born from, but I don’t think it should be a dying art. It should continue into the future, I don’t think we should let that die. So there’s a few of us out there who are still trying to keep that alive, to keep the flame burning for the old-time sound. It’s the old way of doing things, less of the Auto-Tuned crazy multi-layered production aiming for perfection, and more of the raw intensity of how it used to be done.
It seems there’s more of a market for that these days. Mumford and Sons sold half a million copies of Babel in a week, while two years ago I never would have expected to hear them on the radio.
It’s the real deal, and it’s great to see that happening, really inspiring for people like me to hear artists like that — and I’m going to have to throw the Civil Wars out there — because I think the success of those kinds of bands lead the way for people like me who are more inspired by the raw experience of just getting up there, playing your guitar and singing. It’s the tradition of the singer-songwriter, and hopefully there continues to be more of a chance for people like us to keep putting it out there.
I’ve noticed Canada has a long history of launching bands which, I guess for whatever reason, tend to sputter out when they try to break into the US. I was wondering what your experience has been building a grassroots movement here.
I don’t really look at myself as trying to build a movement. I’m really just doing what I’m inspired by. There’s really not a big plan in my mind for the whole thing, it’s just “this is what I listen to, this is what I love,” and my music is what comes out of what I enjoy musically.
Perhaps “movement” wasn’t the right word. You’re building your audience here in the US, and it sounds like you’ve already developed a reputation up in Canada.
Right, and I’m slowly but surely beginning to develop that here as well. Not being on a major label, it’s really imperative for an artist like me to get out there and win fans over one at a time. I do that through constant touring, and it’s a grueling schedule but that’s what needs to be done. That’s how it was done in the old days and how it will continue to be done by someone like me. I don’t begrudge it, it’s all part of the life I signed up for because I love music and I love to perform.
Can you describe your songwriting process? I’m always interested in whether people prefer fleshing the songs out in the studio or working it out in front of a live audience.
I never really have a formula for what I do. I write most of my songs in my living room. The ideas will often come up while I’m on a plane or in a van, little things catch my eye. It isn’t usually until I get home, however, that I have any time to absorb or reflect, and that’s when most of the songwriting takes place. I do test out new songs on audiences, during tours I’ll throw out a new one here and there to see how it fares. The songs go through an evolutionary process sometimes, but other times they’re fully formed, they work immediately. There’s no set process; sometimes the guitar chords come first, other times I get lyrics in my head. It’s always surprising to me how they all come together at the end of the day.
How do you know when a song’s finally “clicked” and you know you’ve got it down? Is there such a thing as a perfect song?
Really it’s a matter of how much I enjoy playing it. The songs I keep wanting to play over and over, that I get excited about, are the ones I feel I should stick to. Who knows if that’s the right way to go about things, but that seems to be the way which works for me. Clearly if the audience members are digging it too I take note of that, and those are the ones which end up on a record.
It’s nice to be able to take some time to talk about the craft of songwriting and know that it’s more than just coming up with a hook and a bridge.
Right. I don’t think about formulas at all. I’m kind of funny in that I didn’t co-write for a long time because I’d gone to Nashville and did that sort of standardized sit in a room with people and “okay, go!” That didn’t sit well with me. Honestly, my co-writing partner I do work with, Bruce Wallace, he’s my type of guy. I refer to him as a dude, like the Dude from The Big Lebowski. When we write there’s no plan, we don’t call each other and say let’s get together and write at three, we’ll get it done in this schedule. What we do is we hang out, get together for dinner and chill. Inevitably guitars get picked up because that’s what we do as fans and lovers of music. We just end up writing songs together, they come together very organically, naturally. That’s how I love to write, and since he’s a quirky guy he gets my sense of humor. We’re just a good pairing.
You’ve spoken before about being inspired by the outlaws of country. Is there anyone you’ve been listening to recently who inspires you to push further afield?
You know, I’m discovering things all the time. I just discovered a band last night called Black Prairie, and they’re doing interesting things. Whenever I hear a new band taking the old school and reinventing it for this modern era, I find that very inspiring. I feel there are lots of artists out there who are making interesting alternative takes on Americana music. Black Prairie is one of them, and there’s a band called Timber Timbre up in Canada that I really like. It’s really rootsy, I almost want to refer to it as swamp music. I like everything from the blues to outlaw country and bluegrass, deep delta grooves. All that stuff, even rockabilly, continues to inspire me.
You keep hearing about these bands trying to take the country genre and see how far you can push it both from a traditional standpoint and beyond. Will hip-hoppers like country, and will country people like the hip-hop?
In saying that, I opened for a punk band, Social Distortion, and it’s interesting to see how musical genres can expand across markets and audiences. Interestingly enough, I was just talking to someone who made a Johnny Cash documentary, and she was saying there are a lot of hip-hop artists who have a deep, abiding respect for Mr. Johnny Cash. So I totally think it’s possible, I don’t think people need to have such tunnel-vision when it comes to genres they listen to. I think people can listen to all sorts of things and find things they can relate to across the spectrum of music.
I read about the Social Distortion tour, and it doesn’t seem that country and punk are really that far apart. If you’ve ever listened to Hank Williams III, they kept trying to force him to do music like his father and grandfather did and he rebelled, showing you could do a show of punk followed by a show of metal: “If the audience doesn’t want to come along, too bad. I’m going to do what I want to do.”
I’m glad that you say that, because to me it seems like an obvious thing. Every night when Social Distortion finished their set they ended with “Ring of Fire”. Whenever I finished my set, I ended with “Folsom Prison Blues”. We’re both Johnny Cash fans, country music fans, and I think there are a lot of country music lovers out there in the punk world. I don’t know about new country music, but I know there’s a lot of people who dig the outlaw country. I feel that’s just as punk as anything punk out there.
Look at Johnny Cash — he clearly “got” it. His biggest hit in his final decade was “Hurt”. Who else would have thought that an acoustic version of a Nine Inch Nails song would be a hit?
Exactly! It’s great, and I love the fact that I have this opportunity and that my music gives me the chance to open these kind of shows because I think they’re so fun and I really love playing them.
Let’s talk a bit about women and country music. Women tend to find themselves marginalized, at least in the mainstream sphere, because there’s this narrow idea of what you have to have to make a hit. When you get to a certain age you have to partner up with these younger, hipper artists in order to even have a chance to get your music out there. It all skews “young, young, young”. You’ve said in the past you took a lot of influence from Frida Kahlo.
Yes, I did!
Do you think young women today need to be able to draw on stronger female role models, and does music give you the opportunity to take that challenge?
I think that’s an interesting question. People always assume my role models have to be country stars, and while I’m a big fan of a lot of female country stars, my big female role model happens to be a deceased artist, painter. People might find that to be an interesting connection, but I take a lot from Frida Kahlo. I’m a huge fan of her as a person, somebody who had to deal with immense physical and emotional pain her whole life, while turning it into the most incredible art. I believe that art is art is art, whether you’re painting, making music or writing a screenplay. It’s all art, all creativity. So I find taking inspiration from a woman like that is empowering for me. I hope that I can inspire people myself through what I do.
I do feel that we could use some stronger female role models, especially in the commercial world. It’s a highly sexualized world, and I don’t really have a problem if somebody’s comfortable in their sexuality but I don’t think that’s what should ultimately sell your music. I think at the end of the day, as an artist, your music should sell itself by its own merit. If that’s part of who you are, so be it, but the commercial music industry is more the “entertainment industry”. These shows are all about song and dance, fireworks, and less about somebody with a guitar playing music.
Again, it’s a different world we live in, eras have changed, but it’s nice to remind people once in a while where it came from and what’s important. When tragedies strike and things happen in this world where we need those telethons, the artists they call on to play, for the most part, are the tried-and-true trusted role models, the Bruce Springsteens, Tom Pettys and Neil Youngs. These are the artists with real messages which cut through and deliver. They’re not calling on Black Eyed Peas to play “My Humps”. That’s all fine and good when people want to dance and listen passively, but I’m a subjective music listener and I think it’s important for people to still be introduced to music which benefits from subjective listening, to absorb lyrics rather than have it all be entertainment-based. Hopefully those traditions keep going, people keep bearing that flame and making it happen.
It’s nice to see how country music has ranged further afield beyond just being “a Nashville thing.” Where do you see your music going in the coming years, now that country has gone global? Have you had the opportunity to tour much outside North America?
Yeah, I did a whole tour of France not too long ago, earlier this year. I toured with a rockabilly band called Kitty, Daisy and Lewis. What an incredible experience that was, I have toured quite a bit of Europe, and it always blows my mind every time I can go and play a 500-capacity venue in Switzerland and people still show up and sing. It’s incredible that there’s a market for my kind of music out there and I love the fact that I’m able to go out there and do it. It’s my goal and intention to explore that further and maybe at some point take my music to Japan.
If country music can be big in Japan, it can be big anywhere.
Exactly! Somebody told me they have a country music festival in Japan, which I would love to check out. It would be something incredible to witness. Though this isn’t the day my music is just going to explode, but it’s my job to put it out there and whoever takes it on and enjoys it and wants me to keep coming back, that’s where I’ll be playing the most. We’ll see in the coming months where things are really going to happen, where the “hotbed” for what I do is. I’ve been having a fair bit of success in Canada, the US and parts of Europe, so I just hope that continues to expand.