Lindi Ortega: Shades of Grey

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Lindi Ortega likes to collect animal skulls. She’s been picking them up in vintage stores across the South and dropping them off at her rented loft in Nashville, where she hopes to eventually display her stash without offending any landlords.

“If I ever have a place of my own,” she promises, “I’ll cover a whole wall with different skulls, and I’ll hang crazy, velvet, Victorian wallpaper behind them.”

That’s an unexpected admission for a singer whose new album, Cigarettes & Truckstops, channels the breathy coo of Dolly Parton and the sassy, slinky sway of Nancy Sinatra. Pretty and petite, Ortega looks and sounds like alt-country’s sweetest ingenue. There’s something dark about her music, though, something that lends an edge to her moody blend of old-school Americana, gospel, and haunted honky-tonk.

“I really love Dia de los Muertos,” she explains, “where they celebrate the dead by dressing up and bringing candies to people’s graves. They take something that’s typically morbid and turn it into something colorful, something worth celebrating. Maybe that’s the reason I like Johnny Cash songs so much. “Folsom Prison Blues” has one of the most crushing lyrics of all time – “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” – but it’s set to this jovial, happy, clip-cloppy beat. If you took away the lyrics and just listened to the music, you’d think it was a different kind of song. So it’s the light and the dark, the ups and the downs, that I’m most attracted to.”

Raised in the suburbs of Toronto, Ortega grew up shy and introverted. Her father played bass in a local Latino band, but Ortega didn’t touch any instrument until her teenage years, when she picked up the guitar and strummed her first C chord. Later, while auditioning for a high school talent show, she realized that the rush of performing live – the  lights, the noise, the applause – could be an antidote for her anxiety. Everything fell into place during her last few months of school, when Ortega’s prom date broke things off right before the big dance. Crushed, Ortega went to her closet, looked at the prom dress she’d never have the chance to wear, and wrote her first song.

Years later, she’s still writing about heartache. Cigarettes & Truckstops was inspired by her time on the road, and its songs are littered with images of a sad-eyed girl doing whatever she can do to keep love alive. She chases her loneliness with booze and pot during “Demons Don’t Get Me Down,” and stumbles after a departed lover on the vintage-sounding “Lead Me On,” comparing her own movements to “a sad, sorry horse doing circles ‘round a course.” Ouch.

“The heartbroken, tears-in-your-beer, lonesome country thing really resonates with me,” she says. “I grew up watching the Dolly Parton show with my mom, and the older I got, the more I was drawn to slide guitars, pedal steel and artists who told stories with their music.”

When it came time to record Cigarettes & Truckstops, Ortega booked some time at a Tennessee studio – just three days, since that was all her tour schedule would allow – and rounded up a group of musicians with some stories of their own. Colin Linden, who palled around with Howlin’ Wolf, Rick Danko and Levon Helm before their deaths, pulled double duty as her guitarist and producer, while David Roe, longtime sideman for the late Johnny Cash, played bass. It was intimidating company, but Ortega’s voice – a gorgeous, otherworldly instrument, capable of switching between a bedroom whisper and a fluttering, vibrato-laced wail – wound up being the highlight of the album.

Lindi Ortega hit the road immediately after the recording session was finished, and she hasn’t had much of a break since. Some unexpected things have happened in the interim, including a pair of Juno nominations for her 2011 release, Little Red Boots, and an appearance on the ABC sitcom Nashville. Ortega prefers to focus on her touring, though, saying that live shows are the best part of her job. The long drives and run-down motels that come with it are pretty valuable, too.

“There’s a lot of character in cheap motels, and that kind of character lends itself to my songwriting,” she says. “I spent a year touring with Brandon Flowers as a backup vocalist, back when I was stuck in lawyer-land after my deal with Interscope went bust. We stayed in five-star hotels every night. There’s definitely a lot of perks to that kind of lifestyle, but I think roughing it lends itself to writing great songs.”

“I love being in a van, seeing out all the windows. I love showing up to a busted-up motel, where everyone spends the next day talking about how horrible it was, and how the toilet wasn’t working or the garbage hadn’t been emptied or the dirty floor hadn’t been swept. Because it’s a story, you know? Those fancy hotels don’t typically have stories like that to tell, and I like collecting stories.”

Stories and skulls, that is.

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