One of the brightest moments on Lindi Ortega’s latest record, Liberty, comes through once a great storm has been weathered. “In The Clear” floats along on a ray of full-hearted sunshine as Ortega sings, “There ain’t no hurricanes or tornadoes here,” conjuring such an enveloping sense of calm that, for a moment, you’d be forgiven for wondering whether our hero from this concept album has died and gone to heaven. A guitar that manages to be both twangy and peaceful slips in near the end of it to drive the vibe home. By the end, it feels like you’ve been laid down in pure light. Everyone has their own idea of what heaven might be, so when I speak with Ortega in early February, I’m curious what visions arise when she closes her eyes and sings that song.
“I didn't realize until today, but I kind of imagined Cozumel,” Ortega says, docked at the Caribbean Sea paradise during the Cayamo cruise and hanging out at a souvenir shop. “I got off the boat and I was like, 'This is it. This is me, in the clear, right now.' It's exactly the place. I didn't know it because I'd never been to Cozumel, but I got off the boat, and I thought of that song right away. There wasn't a cloud in the sky, the ocean is the most beautiful blue you've ever seen. It feels magical here. It feels like nothin' bad could happen.”
If that’s the idyll that Ortega’s protagonist finds herself in toward the end of Liberty, it’s only after she’s been through hell. Drawing on the timeless arrangements of Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western scores and the sounds of her own Mexican heritage, Ortega drags her character through the darkness and despair of dusty, sinister honky tonks, backstabbing “friends,” the loss of a loved one, literal and metaphorical demons, and a bullet to the head. She rises like a vengeful, ghastly Lazarus, swaggering through “The Comeback Kid,” and emerges victorious in a showdown with the devil, angels by her side as she fights toward the light on “Darkness Be Gone.” And there’s even time to enjoy the spoils of her new, hard-won life, celebrating her freedom on the title track, and devotion with “Pablo” and the swooning “Lovers In Love.”
Until Liberty, Ortega hasn’t explored the territory of such grand narrative. Her shit-kickin’ tunes skew toward outlaw country, but more in the sense that she’s a bit of an outlier than employing a lot of ‘70s twang. It’s an uneasy place to put her in at best. Her oeuvre blends sparse folk, old school rock ‘n’ roll, simmering soul, and yes, some very down-home songs (her signature cherry red boots are perfect for stomping along to hard luck anthem “Run-Down Neighborhood,” certainly). But after years of hearing from fans after shows about how her music had helped them through hard times, she decided to build a whole album out of that fight.
“That really impacted me a lot, and it made me really think about how my music might be affecting people,” Ortega says. “So I thought, instead of having a song here and there on an album that might help them get through something, it might be nice to make a whole record that's dedicated to helping somebody through any sort of struggle, from the darkness into the light.”
Her goal was to make that story relatable to any listener. There are few among us who can say they’re free of their own demons, or they don’t yearn to be loved. But Ortega says she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t put some of herself into the story. Shortly after 2015’s Faded Gloryville, she found herself worried about making rent and surviving, ending up in a moment when she had to decide whether or not she was going to give up on music. Her first release since then, 2017’s Til the Goin’ Gets Gone, is comprised of a very stark four songs, including an especially haunted take on Townes Van Zandt’s dire “Waiting ‘Round to Die.” Beyond her music industry woes—she’s lost a record deal and had to leave another one, she’s had an album shelved—the ups and downs of her personal life, including anxiety and depression, and being bullied so badly as a child that she had to change schools, have also been part of what she calls, “the very long journey” to now.
About halfway through Liberty, the hero’s metaphorical demons are handily slain at the end of “Darkness Be Gone.” But there’s a clear recognition of life’s balancing act between light and dark that runs through the whole album. Even at the end, with trials and tribulations beyond Liberty’s rear view mirror, Ortega’s gorgeous, understated cover of “Gracias a la Vida”—more drawn out and meditative than Violeta Parra’s original—gives thanks to life while invoking its sorrowful nature. It’s a reminder not to forget those demons that came before, and that time isn’t likely to keep ticking without others drifting in and out of your life.
“I think there are moments you're gonna still encounter them,” Ortega says. “For me, anyway. I don't know if I've rid myself of them forever. But for me, it's the fact I've been able to beat them before, so I can beat them again. It's that kind of vibe. I came out victorious in this struggle.”
“I guess the last demon, musically, was letting go of some things I could tell weren't right for me or right for my career,” she continues. “And having the confidence to do that and know I can pick myself up and figure out how to survive in this industry. “
Fortune has favoured Ortega for a little while now, though. About a year ago, she moved to Calgary from Music City after falling in love with and marrying a Canadian boy (her words). They drove the 3,336 kilometres in a rented U-Haul with their two cats meowing for hours and hours on end. It’s been a challenging but amazing year, she says, and good to get out of a music industry centre. Her husband, Daniel Huscroft, backed her up on guitar during a tour with Chris Stapleton. His own gorgeous classical compositions, along with his lengthy mane, partly inspired the album’s “Pablo,” the nickname she affectionately bestowed upon him while they were on the road (the other inspiration for Pablo, she says, is Antonio Banderas in Desperado). They got engaged in December, three months after meeting, and had made the move north by February. “It was literally like, we’d known each other for all of 10 days,” Ortega says.
“I liked it, because it was a very transitional period for me, but there was a lot of the unexpected. Which might be scary, but I kind of liked it. I kind of thrived on the fact that I was taking this big leap off a cliff, and had no idea if I was gonna crash and burn. But I figured, man, at that moment, if I crash and burn, at least I'll have known what it was like to fly for a second, you know? And it felt good.”
Throughout our conversation, Ortega describes things as “beautiful” a staggering number of times. The water is so blue and so beautiful. Planet Earth is beautiful. Frida Kahlo’s paintings are beautiful. The Mexican folk song “La Llorona,” which tells the story of María, a woman who drowns her children and then herself after discovering her husband cheated on her with a younger woman, is beautiful. Mexican people are beautiful. The Spanish language, which she sings in on record for the first time in her career with this album, is beautiful, beautiful. It’s deeply endearing, and hearing her express appreciation for so much lends her voice, as she sings, “Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto” during Liberty’s finale, extra weight. It makes the message, well… just that much more beautiful.
“I'm just grateful that I get to do what I do,” Ortega says. “And no, I'm not rich, and I don't make Billboard hit songs or anything, and every day I see people sort of surpassing me. But it's not a race, and I'm just grateful to be doing it. I'll just do it for as long as I can. I don't know how long I'll be able to, but as long as people keep coming to the show and buying the records, I'll keep making the music.”
Matt Williams is a writer and photographer. Follow him on Twitter.