How Lindi Ortega's making her fairytales come true ...
Ahead of her Belfast gig next month, rising Canadian country star Lindi Ortega tells Chris Jones that her Northern Irish mum inspired her love for music
Published 20/12/2013 | 15:30
She may have been raised in Toronto and bases herself in Nashville, but for country star Lindi Ortega, her show at the Out To Lunch festival next month will nevertheless be something of a homecoming. Her exotic name and Latin looks come from her Mexican father, but it turns that the other side of Lindi's family is from rather closer to home – Newtownards, to be exact.
"My mum moved to Canada when she was 19," says Lindi. "She had family there and I guess she wanted to experience life in a different country."
Despite bringing her up in Canada, Lindi's immigrant parents were keen to give her a strong sense of where she came from, and she has fond memories of childhood trips to Mexico and Northern Ireland.
"We used to do big family trips when I was a kid," she recalls. "We did lots of travelling around Ireland, and I remember going along the Antrim coast road and visiting the Giant's Causeway and Portrush and all that stuff.
"My grandmother lived in Newtownards and I remember she used to have these little boxes in her garden and she said they were for fairies. She used to leave little pieces of toast out for them. They'd get eaten so I'd think it was the fairies, but it was probably somebody's cat. So that's what I remember fondly from being in Ireland!"
Lindi may have grown out of fairy tales, but one other aspect of her Northern Irish heritage had a much greater impact on her life – her mum's love of country music.
"She was a big fan of Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson," says Lindi. "Dolly Parton had a variety show and I remember watching that with my mum when I was really young. She kind of planted the seed and introduced country music to me.
"And my dad was a bass player in a Latin band when I was really young, so we used to have all this musical equipment in the basement. I would go down and play the piano. We had a microphone hooked up to a sound system and I'd mess around with that. I guess it all sparked my interest in music."
Lindi's dual nationality background gave her plenty of cultural capital to draw upon, but she admits that her early years weren't easy. "It was kind of hard growing up," she says. "I was an only child and I had no family in Canada, really, that was anywhere close to me. And I was bullied in elementary school. I was really very lonely for a very long time and then I discovered music and it changed my life."
Lindi's brand of country music can be playful and exuberant, drawing to some degree on her Latin heritage as well as elements of rockabilly, blues and soul. But it was the heart-rending sorrow of early country music that really resonated with her as a child, and that she continues to draw inspiration from.
"It's less about the style and more about what's being said in the songs," she says. "That's what initially drew me to country music. The first stuff I heard was Hank Williams' early country and I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry and, being a lonely kid and not having a whole lot of friends and family around, the content of early country was something that spoke to me."
Soon, she would start on the road to becoming a country singer herself, partly thanks to a friendly schoolmate and a well-timed school talent contest. Aged just 16, and emboldened by the words of a friend who heard her singing along to her Walkman, she wrote a song and entered the competition. It proved to be a wise decision.
"I was kind of a creepy loner and I didn't have any other talents," she says. "I couldn't really focus on anything and I was never particularly good at school. So that was the only thing I could do! It came naturally to me and it was a revelation. I got addicted to it and it made me feel good about myself.
"I decided at that point that I was going to start [playing gigs]. I would take the train into Toronto and play all the open stages and all the coffee houses and try to make a major go at it and see what I could do. Many years later, here I am touring all over the place."
Eventually, Lindi's devotion to writing and performing country music would take her to the global capital of the genre, Nashville, where she now lives.
"In Toronto, with the music I was making, there wasn't a lot of room for me to grow," she says. "The opportunities are greater in Nashville – I get called to sing on people's songs, there's more country-esque music being made. But the real reason I moved to Nashville is that there's an undeniable history. A lot of my heroes, especially Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, they all have a natural affiliation with, or lived in, Nashville for some time. It really was a Mecca for a really great movement in music at one time.
"Another part of it is that I just wanted to challenge myself. I'd lived in Toronto my whole life and I wanted to see if I could take that leap and do something different – different scenery, different inspiration – and what better way than just to go to a different country? It was something I needed to do."
Given her mum's decision to leave Newtownards for Toronto, it sounds like a little bit of history repeating itself. "Yeah, maybe in a way it is," she says.
"We're like our parents and we don't realise it sometimes. But my mum was much younger – I don't think I ever could have done it when I was 19. I was too scared of everything at that point. It took a long time to get any sort of confidence for me. It was the right time."
Still, getting to Nashville was by no means an easy journey, and even now with three albums behind her and devoted fans all over the world, you can hear the bumps and bruises in her voice as she relates the travails of the last 10 years. At one point, she recorded an album for a major label, but it was canned and she was dropped, and she even spent time singing in a ska-punk band before refocusing on country.
"Nothing came easy for me and it still doesn't," she says.
"I realised I worked hard my entire life just to work harder. That's the crux of my existence as an independent artist. With the scheduling and travelling, it's really hard to have any kind of roots. It's hard to have relationships because I'm never around and I'm always missing people's birthdays."
Still, the pay-offs – artistically but not financially, at least not yet – are great. "Nothing beats playing to a sold out show for a bunch of people that sing all the words to your songs," she smiles.
"It's nice to feel that connection with people that I don't know personally. What's really beautiful is when you go back around and the same people have come back and brought their friends.
"Then it really starts to feel like you're hanging out with a bunch of friends and singing them songs, and it's really great."
They've got the look
Famed for her 'Lady In Black' outfits and bright red boots, Lindi isn't the only star to lay claim to some trademark attire ...
Gabrielle – the London singer shot to fame in 1993 with Dreams, and her trademark eye-patch is almost as fondly remembered as the song. She wore it because of ptosis – a condition that causes a drooping eyelid
Elvis – the be-quiffed look of The King lives on thanks to Richard Hawley, Alex Turner and any number of rockabilly bands
Michael Jackson – with that single, gem-encrusted glove, Jacko looked like the blingiest golfer around
The Cure – frontman Robert Smith has spent years clinging to his scarecrow hair and ghostly make-up
Lindi Ortega plays the Black Box, Belfast, on Sunday, January 12, 3pm, as part of the Out to Lunch festival. For details, visit www.cqaf.com.