Lindi Ortega left quite the impression when she played The 5 Spot last year. While she commanded the low-slung corner stage, millions of people overheard Avery Barkley — nursing his beer and bruised ego at the bar — bitching about how Ortega had landed a coveted gig opening for The Lumineers. Of course, the script of ABC's Nashville made no distinctions between the real-life East Nashville singer-songwriter, with her actual accomplishments, and the guy who just plays one on TV.
"My name was thrown around a couple times [on the show] after that," says Ortega. "It's funny to me, because apparently I'm the one getting all the hot gigs, which is not really true. But it's nice, in fictitious Nashville, to be somewhat of a presence here."
Besides placing three songs on the first season of the show, Ortega could genuinely hold her own onscreen alongside the cast of larger-than-life musician characters. She's equal parts country-gothic stylist and confessional pop performer, with an expressive, peppery vibrato and a mainstream entertainer's instinct for making a dramatic visual impact.
"My favorite music heroes all had a look," Ortega says. "So I think it's just a good way to leave a lasting impression. ... If you think of Elvis Presley or Dolly Parton or Johnny Cash, all of them, they had looks."
Ortega describes her own as "a little bit Wonder Woman, a little bit Johnny Cash, a little bit Frida Kahlo," adding, "I don't know of anyone else that wears veils and red boots." Cash, she notes, fleshed out his "Man in Black" image in song. And she did a similar thing herself — sans social-justice commentary — with "Little Red Boots."
"You may not know my name, 'cause I have not met fame," Ortega purrs over a sinewy, swinging groove. "But you're gonna know me by my little red boots." When the next verse comes around, she subs "ruby red lips" in place of footwear.
That was two albums ago. Since migrating from Toronto to Nashville in late 2011, Ortega has released the Colin Linden-steered Cigarettes & Truckstops and the brand-new Dave Cobb-produced Tin Star. While Truckstops made high, brooding drama of relationships — from the co-dependent to the dysfunctional and even murderous — musical passion and ambition are recurring themes on Little Red Boots and Tin Star.
Each album, for instance, has its sassy retort to music-biz haters. Ortega wrote the earlier of the two, "I'm No Elvis Presley," following "one of these shows where people come and they look like they don't want to be there and they're on their iPhones or their Blackberries and their arms are crossed." Nashville has its share of chilly industry showcases, but this one happened in L.A. The feedback Ortega received afterward was the real kicker: " 'Oh, she's good, but I don't ever see her being legendary.' "
"I thought, 'Wow, that was a really tall order,' " says a giggling Ortega. "I didn't know I was supposed to be legendary."
In the woebegone alt-countrypolitan ballad "Tin Star," Ortega takes on the role of a struggling musician who feels utterly invisible in a city populated by the famous. It's an exercise in empathy, considering the scenario is about as far from Ortega's current reality as she insists her turn on Nashville was.
Train beats and murder ballads clearly aren't the only things Ortega has learned from the country stars of yesteryear she frequently invokes (Hank Williams being a favorite). Like them, she speaks and sings about striving — rather than politely sweeping that part of music making under the rug — which is a time-tested way of bringing the fans along for the ride.
Sure, Ortega conducts herself with the combined self-consciousness and self-awareness of a contemporary roots artist who's planted herself partially in the shadow of towering personalities. But the bottom line is that she's a striking performer.
"We've come to the point where some people want people to want to know what they ate for breakfast," she says of offstage celebrity oversharing. "And that's not something I'm aspiring towards at all. It really is about the music. Maybe that's cliché, but it's the truth."
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