Her label dumped her for Lady Gaga. She survived touring with Kevin Costner. And when she first played Nashville, five people turned up. Meet Lindi Ortega, country’s unstoppable star
Lindi Ortega is talking about the last funeral she was at: her own. “I staged it for a music video,” she explains. “We were in this very old cemetery in Mexico and I was dressed in full Day of the Dead makeup. This may sound weird, and I do have issues with self-esteem, but I have never felt more beautiful. I had violet petals all over me. I looked up and saw the trees and the sky. I thought, ‘I hope my funeral is like this.'”
A 33-year-old Torontonian of Mexican-Irish descent, Ortega is the fast-rising dark star of country and rockabilly. If Johnny Cash, her all-time hero, is the Man in Black, then she is the young, occasionally veil-wearing Woman in Black. Or as one critic put it: “a country-fried Amy Winehouse in widow’s robes”. Her recent breakthrough album, Tin Star, mines the seam of country misery in the manner of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline: it’s full of superbly observed songs of desolation, isolation, loneliness – and of course unrequited love.
Which makes it a surprise to encounter someone so cheery and chatty, happy to carry all her own gear into tonight’s venue in Sheffield. She chuckles frequently – even at herself. “Could I have been a goth?” she says, after we’ve been discussing her love of skulls and ravens. “I’m a different sort of goth. Romantic gothic!”
So why the sad songs? “I have a penchant for them. There’s an underlying darkness to me that I fight constantly. I’ve had that since I was a kid. I have to work at being happy.” As the “introverted” only child of immigrant parents, Ortega was bullied in her teens, which led to depression and anxiety attacks. Hearing Hank Williams’s I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, which features in her set, drew her to country as she recognised a kindred soul. “Certain social situations make me feel like a square peg in a round hole,” she says. “Realising you can connect to the human race through song makes me feel less alien. “
She was 17 when – after picking up the guitar that hung on the wall of the family home – she wrote Faded Dress, “the first in a long line of heartbreak songs”. It was about her first boyfriend dumping her the day before the prom. “I wrote about the dress hanging in the closet, that never got worn. It was sad, but I thought it would be better the next year. But nobody asked me.”
Many of her songs are the result of long, lonely spells of people-watching: “I love anonymity. Sat in the darkest bar, observing, feeling like a ghost.” However, she’s the opposite on stage: she can’t play a show without giving everything. “I’ve been warned, ‘Your voice is hurting – don’t hit those notes.’ But I can’t help myself.”
After “butting heads” with her mother over her urge for a musical career, Ortega spent years trawling around record labels as the Toronto scene dubbed her “indie Lindi”. In 2008, she signed to major label Interscope, releasing one EP before they directed their resources into the more conventionally radio-friendly Lady Gaga. Ortega remembers “singing my heart out for suits with BlackBerries. Your emotions are all over the place – and they’re staring at the ceiling.”
After a decade of making ends meet by working in pizza places and fleamarkets (“with rats and flies!”), in 2011 she signed to Last Gang, home of the not-very-country electronica act Crystal Castles. Other unlikely leg-ups included a tour with none other than Kevin Costner. Supporting the Oscar-winner’s hobby band Modern West was, she says, “strange, I’ll be hones. I love Dancing With Wolves and it was hard to disassociate him from that. But he didn’t do much disassociating himself – his movies were playing before he came on. He did say hi a couple of times, which was nice.”
Then there was the time she found herself on tour with veteran punks Social Distortion, a baptism by fire that eventually proved a revelation. “I couldn’t go out there and be meek, so I became this kickass thing. After that, I thought, ‘I can do anything.’ People are mistaken if they think I’m fragile.”
Five years ago, Ortega played her debut show in Nashville – to five people. But now that she’s based there, the phone frequently rings with offers, such as the one asking her to cameo in the TV series named after the city. The Canadian expat enjoys feeling like a “black sheep”, soaking up the atmosphere in the place where Cline and Williams played and were so revered.
The trick, now she’s had some success, will be to balance her growing popularity with the insecurities that fire her muse. Perhaps it won’t be too hard. “I still feel like a struggling musician,” she says, “because that’s all I’ve ever been. I mean, I spend my days with four lovely people in a van, but at the end of the night it’s pure loneliness.”
Does she ever wish she’d followed her mother’s advice? “I love singing,” she smiles. “I came back from one really gruelling tour and was totally burned out. I thought, ‘I’m not singing or playing for a month. I’m done with it.’ And I walked in the door, picked up my guitar and wrote a song about it.”
• Tin Star is out now on Last Gang. Lindi Ortega plays the Wardrobe, Leeds (0113-383 8800), tonight, then tours. Details: lindiortega.ca