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LINDI ORTEGA: BEHIND THE VEIL INTERVIEW BY PHIL KING/SHAY ROWAN

It’s not often that an artist who is compelled to follow a particular calling. Driven by the ghosts of fallen outlaws, Lindi Ortega is the latest convert to proudly fly the banner for country and western music. Steadily honing her song writing skills over the years, Lindi has finally produced ‘Little Red Boots’, the album she always wanted to make. It is at first listen a chocolate box full of sweet county tunes that lodge themselves firmly in the memory and prove impossible to shake loose. However it’s the bittersweet lyrics with their deep complexity that lies at the heart of the songs and give the music a delicious dark contrast.

We met Lindi on the eve of her sell out show at the Castle Hotel in Manchester for a chat before she rendered an exquisite solo performance for a reverent audience.                 

PHIL: Could you tell us how you got into music?

LINDI: Well it started with my Dad; he was a bass player in a Latino band when I was growing up and I used to go to his sound checks when I was four years old. He used to have these beautiful Latino women fronting his band and I would be awestruck by them, then I’d see my dad and these beautiful women on the stage and I wanted to do that y’know. So, when I was about fifteen there was a classical guitar that was hanging on the wall in our basement that my Dad had bought for my Mom to learn how to play, but she wasn’t very interested so this guitar ended up hanging on the wall as an ornament, and I think the fact that it was hanging on the wall as a showpiece made me go ‘I wanna play this!’ So I first learned how to play on classical guitar which is nylon stringed guitar and then I moved to steel stringed, and I still don’t play without a pick and that’s why my nails get chewed up every night because I don’t play without one.

PHIL: Would that be a Latino style of playing?

LINDI: I think it might be a little bit. I was taught by my Dad so whatever he was showing me in those first few chords was where my style of guitar playing originated and I think it’s quite a rhythmic style. Somebody once said to me that I play guitar like a drummer, I put fills in when I’m playing, so it’s very rhythmic and I’m sure it’s influenced by my Latino roots

PHIL: So you learn to play the guitar so did you then head out on your own?

LINDI: No. I was in high school at the time and I was fifteen or sixteen years old. I figured I only needed three chords to write a song and I was determined to write a song. The first song I ever wrote was called ‘Faded Dress’ and I wrote that because I didn’t get asked to my high school prom [laughs]. Somebody heard me singing it at my locker at school one day and she commented and said I should try out for the assembly that they had at school. I’d never really thought of it before, so I tried out and they said I could be in it. I played my song and the response was what made me really want to start doing it.

PHIL: Did you get a lot more invitations to the prom after that?

LINDI: Actually no! That was the beginning of my tumultuous love life which is a continuing on-going saga. But what I did discover was that I had an ability to write songs and that I could sing, and I was very determined to carry on doing that so it became my mission to become a singer songwriter. Much to my Mom’s chagrin, who wanted me to go to university. She was very practical about what I needed to do and I did go to university, and I’m grateful now that I went, but at the time I resented it. She was worried because of the experience of being married to my Dad and the lifestyle that he led as a touring musician was not easy. All she really knew was being broke and being pregnant while her husband was out on the road and she only ever knew that of music, so she was a bit worried for me. At the time I didn’t understand her fears for me so I was like ’what are you talking about, you just don’t understand my dreams!’ But she’s totally and fully supportive of me now.

SHAY: Were that a lot of outlets at that stage for you the play?

LINDI: Well you know I grew up in a town that wasn’t very musical in terms of original music. There were a lot of pubs that that bands that were my dad’s age playing top forties covers and there weren’t a lot of young kids out there doing music. So I was relegated to singing in my bedroom I wasn’t a very social child growing up so music was the thing that gave me comfort and my guitar was my companion all through school, but it was good because all the typical childhood angst was channelled through guitar playing and writing songs.

PHIL: What music would you be playing at that time of your life?

LINDI: Actually it’s really funny; my Mom was into Leonard Cohen when I was growing up, and she was also into a lot of country. I wasn’t allowed to buy CDs for a long time so I listened to a lot of her stuff. Then when I was in high school I started listening to a lot of Mazzy Star, Jeff Buckley, Cat Power, that kind of stuff. I liked a lot of ambient music, I thought it was cool and I really loved the Southern feel of Mazzy Star. I liked the harmonicas and a little bit of the twang but and I got older it seemed that I was progressively drawn towards country and old school country music.

PHIL: What was the next step in your musical development?

LINDI: Well there was high school to finish and then I was forced [laughs] to go to university to get my philosophy degree. While I was in school I remember struggling, I’d have and exam I’d have to do but I’d be inspired to write a song at three o’clock in the morning when I had an exam at nine. And I’d be like ‘What shall I do? I don’t want to fail this exam but I really want to write this song!’ I think I could’ve been a much better student had I not been distracted by wanting to be a musician. But it wasn’t until after I’d finished university that I really wanted to get my name out there. During university I’d played shows in and around Toronto but when I finished some people wanted to manage and I slowly started to my way up the rungs. Toronto is a very difficult town to get recognition, at least in my experience, and I spent many years playing coffee houses and little bars, every kind of gig you could imagine. But it was all totally worth it and I’m so glad for all those tough times because I think they make you more grateful for when the good things come along. So I went from there and recorded my first indie CD which was called ‘The Taste of Forbidden Fruit’ At the time I was listening to a lot of Edith Piaf and I discovered I had a dark vibrato in my voice and I started playing cabaret music. But on that album was a song called ‘Tomorrow You’ll Say Goodbye’ which was country inspired, so even though I was dipping my hand in different kinds of music, I had an interest in recording country style songs. It was actually met with decent reviews from the Toronto press. After that I recorded another CD called ‘Fall From Grace” there was quite a gap between the releases of the two records because I was busy figuring things out. I actually joined a ska-punk band [laughs]. I had this management experience that went really bad. I had a really bad manager who was really intimidating and made me cry on a few occasions. I got to the point where I thought I was just awful and I was on the wrong path musically and I shouldn’t be doing this, so I guess as a rebellion against myself I thought “what could I do that would be so different?” so I thought “Screw it I’m just gonna go and join a ska-punk band!” I found an ad in the paper from people who were looking for members so I went and auditioned and found myself in a ska-punk band called ‘Sugar Kill‘ for over a year and a half.

SHAY: Is there pictures of you with a pink Mohican?

LINDI: I actually had fire engine red hair and I’d strut around the stage wearing these little outfits because I didn’t play guitar. I co-wrote some of the songs; the band wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics, but it got to a point where I realised I was missing the feeling you get as a singer-songwriter when you get up on stage with your guitar and play your songs to people. I missed people coming up to me after and telling me that one of my songs really touched me. I wasn’t really getting that with Sugar Kill. All I’d get was “Oh you looked hot tonight!” or “That was a fun show!” but there was none of the connection, and that’s why I play music to make that connection. So after a while it didn’t really feel like me so I quite Sugar Kill.

PHIL: Did you have much with the two CDs you’d released?

LINDI: I just put it out myself so it was just me selling it off the stage; twenty-five hundred copies and that was it. But it wasn’t until my producer for the Little Red Boots record came along into my life that things started to happen. He found me on Myspace and he told me he loved my voice and I’d like you to come by my office to talk and see if maybe we could do something together. I didn’t know who he was, and as I got a lot of people contacting me through Myspace you’d never know who was legitimate and who wasn’t, so I looked up his website he worked with some really great Canadian artists and I figured I had nothing to lose at that point. So I went in and I talked to him. He was doing an electro acoustic side-project called ‘The Year of The Monkey’ and he asked if I wanted to work on a song with him and I said “Sure” [laughs]. It was funny because we wrote this song together in half an hour and we recorded it in half an hour, so we realised at that point that we worked really well together. So after that experience of working with him he told me he’d like to record a record with me what d’you say? I said “I’d love to record a record!” At the time I had no money, I was really broke and I was working four jobs. I was doing music, I was working in a photo shop, I also had a job at a gift shop and then I had a gig playing at this upscale yuppie bar where nobody listened to me at all. So I was really broke and excited to get the opportunity to record.

PHIL: How did the recording go?

LINDI: It started off sounding a little different than how ‘Little Red Boots’ finished up because he was determined to get me on a global scale. He told me “We’re gonna get you a US deal and this and that” and I’m like “Okay! If you say so” [laughs].

PHIL: Didn’t believe that was possible?

LINDI: I didn’t believe it was possible, no. I’d been struggling for so many years but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and we did end up getting a US deal and I thought my dreams were coming true. But then there was this little known artist at the time on the label I’d signed to called Lady Gaga, who released a record that became a huge phenomenon, and the next thing I knew the label started to shift and change. All the eclectic acts were through by the wayside and all the dance pop acts started to get signed instead so the release date for my record kind of came and went. We released an EP with them and that was it after which they tried to palm me off to Decca Records. Decca wanted me to be more like Nora Jones and I told them, no, I really love country and I want to go in a country music direction. I’m really into the old school traditional stuff and no offence I don’t want to be like Nora Jones.

SHAY: At that point it was a brave move to stick to your principles…

LINDI: They were trying to get me to go out and record hits and this and that, but I wasn’t feeling it so I didn’t care. I just wanted to do music that I loved to make and I loved to sing, and my favourite thing is to perform and I don’t want to be counterfeit when I’m up on stage. I don’t want to do anything that’s not me because I do mean everything I’m singing about. So I told them to forget that and I went back to the drawing board. My manager said we can’t give up here; we can try and get a Canadian deal, there were a couple of labels that were interested in you before you signed the US deal and maybe they’ll still be interested. But then he suggested to me that he has his own record label called Last Gig Records so why don’t I put it out on his label. And he sold it to me by saying there’d be no middle man and if he said he was going to get things done he’d get things done. If it’s not happening as fast as you want it to, give me a call, you have my number so there’s not going to be ten people to go through. I thought that sounds really nice right about now, because with my last label, Interscope, it’d be weeks before you’d hear back from the A&R guy. I realise that that’s the way the machine works, that’s fine, but it was nice to be more grass roots family orientated and it sounded perfect. So I signed with Last Gig and it was an interesting foray for them because they had never done anything contryish before.

PHIL: Had you considered leaving Canada?

LINDI: No, up to then I didn’t think I’d ever leave Canada [laughs], but I had toured outside Canada at that point. With the Interscope deal I’d toured with Kevin Costner across the mid-west of America and I’d gone to the UK. I tried to get a record deal in the UK, I had meetings with all the big labels here, a couple showed interest but I wasn’t offered a contract. After the Interscope deal fell through and I realised I was going with Last Gig, my manager said to me you make the record that you want to make. We’re not going to tell you how to do it, just do what you want to do. I said okay, I want to do a country inspired record that pays tribute to my heroes.

We had no idea what was going to happen when ‘Little Red Boots’ was released, but the response has been really, really great. It’s on an indie label and it’s a grass roots projects and I’m very proud of it and what it’s accomplished. I’m very proud that me, from Canada, can come here to Manchester and play a show and have people turn up and buy tickets to come hear me sing, to me, that’s a measure of success. Anything beyond that is just icing on the cake. 

SHAY: And as well as creating music you’re proud of, you can also look yourself in the eye and say you didn’t veer and change your  music and you did what you wanted..

LINDI: I think it’s great that I was able to go in that direction and now I’m even more sure of where I want to go and my next record is gonna be amazing. I’m excited because we’re recording more in June and hopefully put it out this year.

PHIL: I was quite surprised to learn that on this tour you’re playing on your own because your album has a full band playing on it… 

LINDI: I’m so used to playing solo. The band thing is kind of like a luxury for me and we had to think hard if we could afford to bring them along…

PHIL: Did you want to bring your band on tour?

LINDI: At first I thought I did but something I’ve discovered on this tour is that people really get something when it’s just me and my guitar and I think they appreciate it. My tour manager has suggested to me that I should do a few solo songs in the full band set to relate that to people because it’s a little bit of a different feel. I love playing with the band and I work with some really great people who’re super talented, but there’s something to be said for both experiences. So yes I love the band, but I also love the intimacy of just me and the audience.

PHIL: The tunes on 'Little Red Boots' are really strong and bright, but lyrically it’s very dark. There’s a suicide or two on there, rampant drinking and drug taking although the overriding emotion I get most from it is loneliness. Are you writing from a personal perspective?

LINDI: Yes it’s absolutely personal perspective and there is darkness. What I hope with my writing, even though you say there is darkness which it’s true, I try to splice that with a little bit of humour and silver lining. I kind of mock it because I find for me that makes me feel better. My parents are both immigrants and I’m an only child so I don’t have a lot of family. I had a lot of anxieties through my high school years, I was slightly anti-social…

PHIL: But seems from the word go with ‘Faded Dress’ all the way to ‘So Alone’ on the new album, there is this theme running throughout your work…

LINDI: Sometimes it when you feel alienated in your mind and I think that’s why I like music so much because I do often feel a little alien to the world. But the only time that I don’t is when I have that connection through music and I’m able to feel involved, and that’s what I crave. I’ve had moments in my life when I’ve been slightly agoraphobic and I haven’t left my house. This is all deeply personal stuff but everything I write comes from a true place, I’m not making stuff up. I’m not putting on a character except maybe for the 'Little Red Boots' song which was a character in my mind. The darkness is real and there are things I’ve suffered with and suffered through and I write about them because I’m hoping that mocking my own darkness might help somebody else see it that way as well. The reality is that everybody goes through dark times in their lives, and the people that sweep it under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist are the ones with the real issues [laughs]. I acknowledge it and it’s there and you can either let it get to you and get you down. I’ve just wrote a song called ‘Demons Don’t Get Me Down’ and it’s about overcoming them because they are there and they may always be there but you don’t have to let them get the better of you.

PHIL: Is that what drew you to country music?

LINDI: Absolutely for sure. There is a lot of that in country music and it’s funny because I read reviews from the places I play and some people see the way I write as clichéd because it’s about the drinking and this and that. I’m not an alcoholic but I’ve had moments were I’ve turned to drinking to help me deal with things just like a lot of people have. I understand and feel I can connect with the lyrics and the things that’s sung about in country music and that’s exactly what draws me to it. I’m not trying to be clichéd; I’m just following what I connect with.

SHAY: Stepping away from the album which is full of fantastic songs, the cover versions you play live were tremendous choices and handled so well…   

LINDI: I’m a huge fan of Johnny Cash he’s my favourite and I love him. The Aretha Franklin number is hard to do because she’s a powerhouse singer. But with every cover I do I don’t try to try to make my version exactly like the original, I try to put my own spin on it because I don’t believe in trying to be like other artistes because covers aren’t that interesting if they sound exactly like the original.

PHIL: You obviously think a great deal about your stage presentation. Why do you wear a veil?

LINDI: It all started with the outlaw thing - Johnny Cash was the Man in Black. I’m very much into costumes; even my normal daywear is a sort of a costume and my favourite artists have costumes. You’re in a world where you’re trying to stand out get attention so I figured if I dressed up and made the effort to get out there and be entertaining visually as well as musically…

PHIL: Usually a black veil signifies a funeral and death…

LINDI: I sing a lot about death though, you know, dying of another broken heart, all my friends are gonna kill me dead. I’ve got a new song called ‘Murder of Crows’, so I think it all fits in some strange way. I actually have a big fascination with the Dia de los Muertos which a Mexican festival that celebrates the dead. There’s a character in the Dia de los Muertos called Katrina and she’s a skeleton with a veil. I think I drew for that and I drew from Frida Kahlo and I draw a little from the Man in Black, then threw it all together and made a costume for myself. I get weird looks and stuff but I’m okay with it. Life is absurd so I might as well be absurd [laughs]   

PHIL: Did working with Brandon Flowers of the Killers help your career?

LINDI: When I first started there was a bit of a backlash because I think there was a lot of girl fans in love with him that they didn’t want to another girl on stage with him [laughs] After a bit, when they realised I was there to stay for the duration of the tour, a few people got in to my music and came to my shows as a result. I had a little EP at the time that I was giving away for free and after the shows I took advantage of the opportunity to give them to people to check out. So it was positive in that respect and a great learning experience because I was really interested to learn about being the background person for a front person. I just wanted that experience from that perspective. And then I was also interested to learn about that level of performance, being on those big stages playing festivals and TV shows…   

PHIL: I don’t know which would be scarier; playing to a great sea of humanity out there in front of you, or something like tonight, where there are only sixty people but they’re pressed up against your nose…

LINDI: It’s funny but it was never about me, it was about Brandon, so I never really felt nervous. I was just the back-up singer and I never felt eyes were on me. There were slight nerves with television performances and stuff like that because it’s live TV and you don’t want something weird to happen. But other than that there were so many cool things I got to do, but in the end I did realise that I didn’t want to be a back-up singer because I longed to perform my own songs. I was out on the road for a year with him and I wanted to get back to doing my thing and I didn’t care if it was going to be in small clubs with twenty people. I preferred that because it was my songs and music. But I’m grateful for the experience and I don’t begrudge it at all and I’m happy that I was able to do it

PHIL: Finally could we ask you about the causes you champion?

LINDI: I had a parrot when I was living in Toronto and owning that parrot prompted me to learn about him. I started out with one book to start reading about parrots. I got interested in parrots then got obsessed and I ended up reading a bunch of books on the subject which developed from a parrot fascination to a full-on bird fascination. Now I love birds and I took out ornithology textbooks and did a lot of studying of them, but one day I was surfing on the internet doing some research on them and I learned about the World Parrot Refuge and I thought man I really want to help. I read that this sanctuary was struggling and in need of help because the government was withdrawing its funding so I thought what can I do? I don’t have a lot of money to give so I thought I can sing so maybe I can put on a benefit show. And that’s what I did. I rounded up some Toronto musicians and I put together a show and we raised eight or nine thousand dollars for the sanctuary. I was so grateful for the opportunity to put on that concert and be able to help in whatever small way that I could. If I ever got famous and made a lot of money I’d be giving to that cause for sure.   

www.lindiortega.com

Interview by Phil King and Shay Rowan
Live photos by Mel /portrait by Shay Rowan