Alt-country singer Lindi Ortega is reflecting on her teenage years. "In high school I really did think I was a hideous creature," she maintains. "I had a hard time understanding how I really looked. I didn't know how to take a compliment, I thought when people were complimenting me they felt sorry for me." The candid Canadian musician is talking about Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), which she has experienced from her pre-teens, ever since she was mercilessly bullied ("the whole school turned against me") at her Toronto school.
We talk on the day when the country music singer's bold, searingly honest, and eloquently written essay on BDD has been published on Lena Dunham's Lenny Letter website. In it, Ortega admits that "my self-image grew so distorted that I actually convinced myself I was deformed ... throughout my teens, I constantly obsessed over how unattractive I was," adding "the faulty wiring in my brain had me convinced that, without make-up, I was monstrous - a fragmented Picasso painting on acid".
Her parents - her father is of Mexican descent, her mother Irish - were exasperated and worried by her behaviour. Her mum told her that she was wasting the best years of her life by devoting so much energy on her appearance. "When I was 15 or 16 I would spend four or five hours getting ready to go out anywhere, to make myself look the way I wanted," Ortega emphasises. "It was a frustrating time for me and I would end up crying on the bathroom floor and cancelling my plans. I felt so alone in it and back then the internet didn't exist and I couldn't type it in and find out what was wrong."
BDD continued to affect Ortega throughout her 20s and as her music profile blossomed, she became increasingly anxious about photoshoots and videos and how she looked on stage.
The 38-year-old is a sensational live performer with a persuasive blend of haunting, pristine falsetto vocals (she sounds like giddy mix of Emmylou Harris, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn), tangy heartbreak lyrics and a sharp wit. But she often dons a country-goth look that incorporates a black birdcage veil and huge black shades, which acts as a sort of "protection" against the world. However, of late, things have steadily improved. Her Lenny Letter essay has had a cathartic effect. She's also quite recently got married, to a part-time musician and housebuilder, and they're trying for a baby.
She is evidently thrilled by her new "concept" album, which was produced by Nashville's esteemed Skylar Wilson. "I told Skylar my idea for Liberty was something that might end up on a Tarantino movie soundtrack and his eyes lit up," says Ortega. The most obvious reference is on the track The Comeback Kid on which the singer proclaims "You took my life and wrecked it, but I've been resurrected", which smacks of Uma Thurman's vengeful Bride in Kill Bill. Ortega acknowledges the comparison. "A lot of people have said it and the reference totally makes sense," she admits. "The song was just inspired by wanting everybody to be a comeback kid ... you can take the story literally if you wanted to and see it as a revenge ghost story."
Liberty is her fifth album on a major label and Ortega, a champion for the downtrodden, claims that the album was inspired by "talking to her fans after shows".
"I heard their stories about how some of my songs helped them through dark times in their lives," she says. "People would open up to me, and I want to give them a whole album that could help them through whatever struggle they're dealing with."
As our conversation comes to an end, we return to Ortega's piece on BDD and how the singer wrote with the intention of making people "feel less alone".
"I thought maybe if I wrote this piece, somebody who was suffering with something like this might feel less alone," Ortega maintains. "Sometimes people who suffer from mental illness feel stifled by it, and they can't follow their dreams. I wanted to say, 'Look: I was able to do it'.
Lindi Ortega plays the Empire Music Hall in Belfast on Sunday, June 3, www.lindiortega.com. Her essay is at www.lennyletter.com