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Lindi Ortega Makes Smart, Soulful Country Music for the NPR Crowd

Listen to "Faded Gloryville," the smooth, clear-eyed new album from the plucky Canadian country singer who's way more Nina Simone than Shania Twain.
August 7, 2015, 5:38pm

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Photo by Julie Moe / Courtesy of Shorefire Media

Lindi Ortega's sound has a lot to do with whatever her musical taste is at any given moment. As a teenager, she perused CD collections at garage sales, gravitating towards bands and artists like Radiohead, Mazzy Star, Ricky Lee Jones and PJ Harvey. Making music herself came organically, assisted in part by having a bass-playing bandleader for a father whose gear sat in the basement. Through those trips downstairs, she taught herself to play the guitar and piano; her beginnings could be classified as straight-up singer-songwriter, before gradually evolving further into country. She's always kept a classic edge, though, be it cabaret or soul.

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Her fourth album, Faded Gloryville, reflects a recent diet of artists including Nina Simone, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, Etta James and Otis Redding. Recorded in Muscle Shoals and Nashville, the collection of ten songs is steeped in soul, especially her reimagining of the Bee Gee's classic "To Love Somebody," a vibe set into motion from its opening chords and solidified with steady percussion, horns and her smoky croon. Put Lindi's record on, and you might as well be listening to an album from another era. It's a tribute to golden years gone by, but in a realm of her own making.

The album also stands as a testament to her precarious path as an artist, one that's seen her jump label homes, sing backup for Brandon Flowers, and transition from the stages of her native Toronto to Nashville's intersection of country and commerce. Despite Ontario being the birthplace of all things Shania, there are only so many stages one can play there as an independent country artist. Spurred by reading biographies of country legends like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash, and noting Music City's outsize role in them all, she set out to experience for herself to take stock of where it's at now and determine where it's going.

The question of where anyone's going is central to the themes of Faded Gloryville: where they're going, what awaits, what's on the other side, what was even there to begin with, and whether to keep on. If there's anything'clear about Lindi, it's that, despite any setbacks and disenchantments, she's forging ahead.

Noisey: Your sound always seems to have a more classic vibe. What do you think makes you gravitate towards that since it's clearly not the direction current country music is going?
Lindi Ortega: I guess I was never really concerned with what would make me millions of dollars and give me a hit song and stuff like that. I was more concerned with making music that was paying tribute to what always inspired me. I always listened to that. I love the way classic music sounds. Not just country. I think classic country's amazing, but I also think that the way stuff was recorded in the 50s, 60s, 70s just had a really cool vibe. There was a warmth to it, an ambience to it that I feel was a bit missing with music in this day and age. That's what makes me really gravitate towards that kind of music and it's sort of what I hope to put across with the kind of music that I make as well.

What are your thoughts on the cross-over country that populates the radio nowadays?
I think it's great if all these people are creating music that inspires them and feel like it can inspire other people and it's coming from a place of honesty, passion and love for music. If it crosses over from them, that's great. I think it's a whole different thing if all you're chasing is a hit and fame. I think it takes a bit of the soul out of it. It's good that artists like Kasey Musgraves have been getting a lot of mainstream attention even though she's not exactly like the bro-country stuff—she's not doing that—it's quite different. I think that's great. That sort of gives me the feeling that I can be optimistic that mainstream country will be more accepting of music that isn't the bro-country that's dominating everything at the moment, and that maybe they can accept a sound that isn't so polished and so commercial.

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I use quotation marks whenever I refer to that kind of country music. You're saying "bro-country," which I think is totally appropriate, but it's also gendered. Is that part of the equation? Obviously there are female artists making country/pop hits, but this new iteration of country definitely seems to be dominated by guys in trucks with cowboy hats and hot girls dancing around.
Absolutely. Recently I wrote an opinion piece in regards to the Keith Hill controversey that came out, which had these radio consultants telling our radio programmers to take women out of country music radio and not play women back-to-back, and I think that's part of an epidemic in country radio. A lot of people say you shouldn't be all this way about it, because it's just a phase and all music goes through phases, but I think it's more than that. I think it's skewed, and I think it's skewed in a way that's detrimental to what country music is and where it came from, the history and the legacy of it. I think when you take women out or you perpetuate that notion, you alter things in a way that is not natural. There's so much controversy with regards to it—they say that it's the listeners that want this, but yet the radio consultants are advising the radio stations to do it this way, so it seems like it's a cyclical thing with no solution and it's just going to keep going like this and become stagnated like this unless there's change.

In terms of change, do you think speaking up is going to be what turns the tide?
I actually feel that it is, because there's more and more stuff coming out now where people are speaking up in defense of their bro-country. They'll make some negative connotation of what outlaw country was—"I'm not that"—and then they talk about how country's gotta evolve and it seems like they're being quite defensive. I think the reason they're being defensive is it's because people are speaking up, because people do want to see it change. I think it's so indicative of that, so yeah, I think speaking up about it helps. I think if we don't say anything, we could risk ruining this beautiful genre and turning it into something will no longer produce the respected and legendary artists that came from it.

It's very bizarre that something that started with telling stories steeped in authenticity has mutated so far from that to what's popular now. I don't like listening to country radio.
I don't either. What I don't like beyond that is that there is sort of an idea that you have to respect it and accept it because a lot of people like it. I don't think that the playing field is level at all. It's male-dominated and it's skewed, and I feel like it's fine if you want to have a passive-listening party song about drinking in your truck, that's fine, but when the entire genre is dominated by that sort of stuff, I think we lose the beauty of what country music is and what it came from. I think it needs variety, I think it needs women and I think it needs men and I think it needs everybody to coexist in a way that gives it that variety.

When you have people coming up to you after a show or having listened to the album, what kind of listeners do you find are coming up to you? Is it people who are attracted to more classic country music, or is it people who say "i listen to Toby Keith and I listen to you."
A lot of my listeners, from what I can glean, are the NPR kind of crowd—they like public radio, they search out podcasts online, they find their satellite radio stations that suit their taste and also word-of-mouth and blogs that are in the know with up-and-coming acts who have a hint of that classic country thing going on that they can't find on country radio. A lot of them are that, but I've definitely had people on Twitter that are big fans of Miranda Lambert and Toby Keith or whatever, they like my music too, and that's great. I think that's kind of proof that people can definitely accept it on the radio too. I just don't think that country radio is opening any doors for diversity; they're just found this formula and they're sticking to it, it's like they locked it up and through away the key kind of thing.

How did you come to form this concept of Faded Gloryville for the album?
I was watching this movie called Crazy Heart with Jeff Bridges. It was that opening scene where he's playing in a bowling alley and he's got $10 to his name, they won't give him a free beer, and he doesn't know what he's going to do. He's got an addiction problem. He's in his 50s. I looked at him in that movie and thought of myself and wondered if I was going to end up like that too. Then I started thinking about how many artists like me asks themselves that question, or how many artists in reality are exactly like Jeff Bridge's character, just trying to survive.

When I started out, I was 16 years old. I had really big dreams and ideas of how I thought it was going to work when I said to myself, "I'm going to be a singer." I was naive, and in a lot of ways, those dreams and that naivety propelled me. I was signed to a major label deal, a sub-label of Interscope called Cherry Tree Records, before Lady Gaga got huge; Feist was on there and a bunch of other eclectic artists were on there. It felt like a good home for my music at the time, but then with the advent of Lady Gaga and how huge she became, what a phenom she was, the label shifted and changed. It went from being a label that was doing more alternative kind of music into a dance-pop label. We had a full record done and ready to go, and I saw release dates come and go and then finally I released an EP, and then they said, "We're not putting your record out." That was very daunting and I think for a lot of people, they might've just quit then and there because you kind of have to start from scratch and start all over again after that, and also when you're coming out of a contract, there's legalities and things that you have to wait on before you can start doing anything else, so it was a bit of a heavy time.

If you don't get a huge record deal at 19, and things don't go amazing like that, you're in for a lot of very, very hard work and you have to have a very, very thick skin. A lot of people only see the glory side of music, when people are famous, going to awards shows and getting all dressed up, and they make assumptions. For the working musician who's just trying to make living, who maybe is a little famous or has a following, it's a very different story. There comes a time where reality comes down on you. It's whether you let yourself get buried by those bricks or you build something from them. It was another time of reassessing, figuring out what I was going to do, where I was going to go from there. You could say that was the first time I visited Faded Gloryville. Then I found a way. 'Faded Gloryville' is out today, August 7, on The Grand Tour/Last Gang.