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April 3rd, 2009

Interview: Lindi Ortega

Opening for ex-Mavericks-gone-solo troubadour Raul Malo at the Keswick Theatre on Sunday, April 5th, is the emerging Canadian country/pop chanteuse Lindi Ortega, who just released her debut EP, The Drifter, on Cherrytree/Interscope (also home to Feist and Lady Gaga). Ortega’s got a lovely voice with a bit of old-school twang that’s drawn fair comparisons to Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris; there’s a certain kind of sentimentality, but not sappiness, to her songs, and she renders heartbreak with both sorrow and dark humor. Taught to play acoustic guitar at 16 by her father, a bass player in a Latino band, Ortega has since gone on to open for the Kinks’ Ray Davies, James Blunt, Noah and the Whale, and now Raul Malo. We caught up with Ortega over the phone from her home in Toronto the other afternoon:

So you were just down at South By Southwest doing a bunch of showcases, right?
Oh yeah, that was fun, I had a good time there.

How many shows did you do?
I did about five. I ended up getting a little bit sick at the end, so I unfortunately had to cancel one of the shows, but yeah, it was great, it was a lot of fun, and it was my first time and I was just taking it all in. I totally did some crazy stuff – I had to serenade a Mexican restaurant, kind of like a mariachi. And I did this “mustache march” — I actually wore a mustache during my performance, which is something I’ve never done before.

Did you enjoy wearing the mustache?
I did, I did. I actually wanted to when they suggested it …when they were handing them out I said I wanted to wear one. I love doing stuff like that.

So have you spent much time here in Philly?
Never. I’ve never been there, I’m so excited!

The Keswick Theatre is kind of outside the city a little bit…
Ohhh, okay.

So you won’t get the full dose.
Mmm, maybe next time. I’ve heard a lot about the Keswick Theatre though, a lot of artists I know have played there. And I have a friend who lives there –- well, I’ve never actually met him, he’s sort of like an online friend — but he’s been to many concerts there and he always tells me how great it is and he bought tickets for the show, he’s really excited about it.

So what’s your feelings about your debut to the world, The Drifter, now that it’s out there?
I’m just happy to have stuff out there in stores. That’s the most exciting thing for me, that’s always been one of my dreams, to be able to go to a store and see my record on the shelf. I know that it’s just an EP, but it’s still going to be in the store and I’m totally excited about it.

There’s millions of people in the world who want to be a singer and have an album and all of that, but you actually went and did it. How does one make the leap from dreaming about something like that to actually doing it?
I’m very stubborn. I just never gave up, that was never a thought that entered my mind. I dunno, I had this innate feeling that I couldn’t do anything else, music was what I had to do and there was no plan B. This is just what I have to do and that’s it, and I was just so stubborn in that vision, and I guess it worked out.

How old were you when you realized you had the talent to possibly pursue this as a career?
I think when I was probably…I was in high school when I started to play assemblies that my school would put on, and I really got addicted to the whole being onstage and performing for people, it was a euphoria that I’d never experienced before. It was definitely an addiction. I think after that I just realized that…it wasn’t a matter of me thinking I was good enough to do it or not good enough. Honestly, it was just something I had to do, it was something I couldn’t stop doing, and I just went with that. I was a strong believer in following your heart and following your gut and doing what feels right to your being, and that’s what felt right to my being.

Do you remember first time you played in front of an audience?
Yeah. I totally remember. I was in high school and it was funny because I didn’t really realize that anyone would think I was any good as a singer until somebody said that they thought I had a good voice. I was singing to myself to my Walkman at my locker during lunch hour and this girl was like ‘Hey that’s really good, you can sing!’ and I was like, cool, I’m gonna give this a shot. And so I did this assembly and I got onstage in front of the whole school in the gymnasium and it was thrilling, and I felt like I never wanted to stop doing it, and I couldn’t wait for the next one.

Is it the same kind of thrill nowadays, or has that feeling changed at all now that you’re a more seasoned, experienced performer?
Well, I’ll tell you, I opened for James Blunt a little while ago and it was like a 3,000 capacity theater and that feeling was even more intense, it was totally intense. It’s an amazing thing to hear a room full of 3,000 people clap after you’ve played an original song, you know? So yeah, I think even now it still gets to me and I’m sure it’s going to continue.

When you’re up there, are you able to look out and see individual faces or does the audience just sorta become a big blur?
It really depends where it is. Of course if it’s a smaller venue you can see people because they’re right there and there’s a beauty in that, it’s very intimate and you can connect with individual people as you’re singing the song. But with a large audience, like in a theater, it’s a completely different thing. It’s its own entity but it’s suill just as special when you’re connecting with this huge audience as a whole.

Do you prefer one experience over the other?
No, not really. I respect them both, you know? It’s so great to play the big places and hear the huge applause, but it’s also so amazing to play a small venue where it’s such an intimate setting and you just feel like you’re all hanging out in a basement.

When you’re up there, do you feel like yourself and that it’s this personal expression of things, or do you feel more like a “performer” or “entertainer”?
Umm, wow, that’s an interesting question. I do feel like I’m myself in a sense…I do and I don’t. The songs that I’m singing are personal expressions mostly of things that I’ve been through, so I feel like I’m myself in that sense. But it’s quite a strange thing to be a performer and be onstage in front of a whole bunch of people, especially for somebody like me because I’m typically not the most social person. I grew up sort of a loner, I was never in the big social situations, I was never at the center of the party, you know what I mean? So it’s kind of bizarre. I think it’s funny because a lot of people who are on the other side don’t really understand what a bizarre experience it is to be on stage — you have all these people staring at you and it’s up to you to engage them.

When you’re writing songs that come from a personal place, do you tend to write them when you’re right in the middle of experiences, or do you need time to process feelings and emotions before you can write a song about them?
It’s funny that you ask that because I just had this epiphany yesterday that it very much has to be a thing where I need time to process, because I actually wrote a song yesterday and I was hit with this sort of emotion to let it out and it all came out in one thing, in about 15 minutes. Sometimes I grapple with songwriting and it takes me a long time to get something going, and I’ll write a little bit and come back to it. But the other day there was this situation that had been on my mind for the longest time, and I guess it took me until yesterday to actually get it out, and when it came out it came out in 15 minutes. It was a burst of creative energy.

Would you say the process of songwriting, rather than the song you end up with, is its own reward? I ask that because a lot of times, people become detached from the actual songs they’ve written after years go by, but maybe they still cherish the process of creating them?
Yeah, I mean, I think the process is a reward in and of itself. I don’t feel like I become detached from songs. I have a special relationship with a few of the songs that I’ve written, and you know, even outside of the content of what they are, just the musicality of them, they’re fun to play and I love playing them every night. And yeah, there are songs where the content does speak to me every night when I play them. But it terms of like, do I feel the exact same emotion as intensely as I did when I first wrote it? I guess the way songs work when you’re not a singer and you hear them, they have kind of a nostalgic thing for you. Like if you had your first date and you kissed a girl and that song came on, you’re always brought back to that moment when you hear it. And I think it’s the same thing for a songwriter whenever we play it, you know? There is something that brings us back to that moment.

A lot of musicians say that songs are living things that change in meaning over the years — sometimes something that was very personal to you at one time becomes this more universal thing…
Yeah, I completely understand that as well. The “Drifter” song on the CD, I didn’t originally write that about me, it was about somebody else, and it seems funny to me because I find that now that I’m living this nomadic lifestyle now that I’m touring, I feel like the song speaks to me now and it wasn’t originally supposed to. So it does take on a different meaning.

Do you like talking to fans after shows?
Oh, I’m always so excited when people want to talk to me! I was never very popular in high school or anything like that, so it’s like, “Wow, you really wanna talk to me? Let’s hang out!” So yeah, it’s great, and I’m so happy when someone comes up to me and says they enjoyed the show or wants to buy a CD, and I love talking to people and meeting new people.

What do people want to know about you? Is it a weird dynamic having all these conversations with strangers?
It is sometimes, it really depends. Some people can connect to something you sang in one of your songs, and they’ll come up to you and say, “Oh I had this experience and that song spoke to me because of that.” It’s cool to see how they were affected and how they interpret your music. But usually like, yeah, people ask me questions about my music and I’m happy to answer, it’s fun to talk about.

Have you been happy with the things that have been written about your music? Reviews and critics’ opinions and so forth?
Umm, it’s not that I actively search for reviews -– I’ve read stuff or I’ve had people send me stuff and uhh, I mean, it’s cool. I understand that music is a very subjective thing and you can’t please everybody, but as long as you’re happy with what you do and the people you work with are happy with what you do — like my producer, whose opinion I respect immensely — then that’s all that matters. As wonderful as it is to read a nice review, it’s all about you being happy with what you’re doing.

Have there been artists you’ve read or heard yourself compared to where you’re happy with that comparison, and others you’ve been compared to where you’re like, bleeaahhh?
[Laughs] I’ve actually never had anyone compare me to someone where I go, “Oh my God I cant believe they’re comparing me to them.” I’m usually like, sometimes I’m shocked and I’m like, that’s amazing they would even put my name in the same sentence with this other artist. Sometimes they mention Johnny Cash or Dolly Parton and I’m like, wow, that’s incredible because I love those artists and respect them immensely and I’ve been influenced by them and I think they’re fantastic, so I think it’s great. If people are comparing me to that then wow, that’s amazing.

How would you like someone who’s just seen your show to describe it to someone else who wasn’t there?
Umm, I think I would like them to leave feeling like somebody understood them. I write a lot…a lot of my songs come from a lonely place and I think a lot of people feel loneliness at some point in time, and it would be nice if somebody could leave going, “There’s somebody here that gets that feeling of loneliness.” But at the same time I want somebody to say, “Yeah, that show was awesome, she sang really well, she had some cool songs, and they all spoke to me.” I hope I can connect with someone and they leave feeling like they made some connection with me, is basically what I’m trying to say. At the very least I’m always dressed up in some funky outfit with crazy feathers in my hair, so maybe someone will leave saying, “Wow, she had a cool outfit on.”

Dying of Another Broken Heart (Live)

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