Onstage, this feisty cowpunk of Mexican-Irish descent talks tough, wears cowboys boots that match the color of her ruby-red lipstick (and her Gibson J-200) and prefers to sing Johnny Cash instead of Bob Dylan.
She honors her mixed heritage by partaking in "Guinness for dinner, tequila for dessert," and twice chipped her teeth on the microphone after downing one too many Fireball whisky shots.
Offstage, Nashville-by-way-of-Toronto singer-songwriter Lindi Ortega is as sweet as one would expect a self-proclaimed "mama's girl" to be.
"My mom was a little heartbroken," Ortega said when her parents' only child left Canada two years and nine months ago to attempt to jump-start her career in Music City USA.
"It was a little hard in the beginning because I didn't know anybody, so it was kind of a whole new situation for me," Ortega said during a brief interview after her recent appearance at the High Watt in Nashville. "I hadn't done a big major move to another country like that before. It was kind of like jumping off a cliff. But it's so worth it. I love Nashville. I can't imagine living anywhere else now."
Ortega, the second subject of this "Backstage Pass" series of Nashville-based artists who played at AmericanaFest from Sept. 17-21, had just wrapped up a four-song, 17-minute set last Friday (Sept. 19) afternoon.
The youthful daughter of Paco and Sharon Ortega, wearing a cute, frilly black minidress and a black veil (with a rosy adornment, perhaps signifying her positive outlook), seemed as fresh as a daisy afterward, when we met in the stairwell of the venue.
At a listening party her talent booking agency threw with acts that included The Harpoonist & The Axe Murder (really) and Jamestown Revival, Ortega charmed a supportive crowd ("If you're looking for a creepy friend, that's me," she said) with numbers such as "The Day You Die," "Demons Don't Get Me Down" and a sexy, soulful cover of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody." A voice the quivers and shakes conveys what it means to be a lonely heart in search of true love.
As comfortable supporting k.d. lang or Social Distortion (and singing with Mike Ness) as she is performing old country and pop standards, Ortega covers a lot of ground on albums such as Little Red Boots and Cigarettes & Truckstops.
Yet, that doesn't mean she's reached her final destination.
Two days earlier, her showcase scheduled for midnight at spiffy new City Winery was delayed more than 45 minutes by the preceding act, Americana emerging artist award-winning Sturgill Simpson.
That cut into her time on stage with touring band mates Champagne James Robertson of Toronto, a dazzling electric guitarist formerly with New Country Rehab, and Nashville-based drummer Noah Hungate.
The disappointment still showed in Ortega's big, beautiful eyes as she talked about half the sizable room departing after Simpson's set, but her steadfast determination remained.
"It was a little difficult," she said of what was supposed to be her moment in the midnight sun. "It is what it is."
That also made the emotional title track of 2013's excellent Tin Star, her most recent album, strike the saddest of minor chords at the High Watt.
"It's such a humbling city in that there's so much talent," Ortega said when asked if "Tin Star" reflected her true feelings. "You can go into any place on any given night and walk in on something incredible, mind-blowing. What I always thought was interesting, I would walk in and I would see an incredible blues band. And there would be five people there. It just blew my mind that these artists were so filled with talent and that the world didn't know about them. And it just got me thinking about how many artists there are like that.
"Especially Nashville because it's Music City, so a lot of people are attracted to the city with the hope of making it. Sometimes, I genuinely feel it's not for lack of trying or hard work or talent. Sometimes it's just that stroke of luck. Somebody's in the right place at the right time and makes the right connection and then things blow up for them, you know. Some people just don't get that little shot of luck. It's like a lightning strike. And so, yeah, I wanted to write a song that's paying tribute to all the road dogs out there working it, pounding the pavement."
Feeling "beat up and rusty" like an "old tin star," as she writes, "lost in the shining stars of Nashville, Tennessee" might be somewhat overwhelming, but not for Ortega, who's been making records since 2001 and whose listed date of birth (May 28, 1980) must be a misprint.
She's already written several songs for her next album, which she plans to start recording "probably in December" ahead of a 2015 release.
"At first, I was a bit intimidated," Ortega said about the move to Nashville. "I'm not anymore. I try not to let that get to me because I feel like, when you compare yourself to everything else going on, it can be daunting. It can allow you to be a little jaded, I guess. But I try to have a bit of a tunnel vision with what I do and just sort of gun for my goals and not pay attention to what else is happening. And just try to be inspired and try to be the best that I can be."
Following in the tradition of initial "Backstage Pass" interviewees Justin Wade Tam and Leslie Rodriguez of promising act Humming House, Ortega went on to provide a behind-the-scenes look at her profession, including pre- and post-show habits. Some snippets from the random Q&A:
Do you still get nervous before a show?
No, no, I don't really get nervous. It's just more like I'm pumped and excited to play shows. It's like a shot of adrenaline really more than it is nerves. The only thing I got nervous for was, we did the Canadian Country Music (Association) Awards just recently in Canada. And I won an award this year for roots artist of the year and I've never been more nervous in my life accepting the award and doing the speech. I really wasn't prepared to win anything.
But you've been nominated for prestigious awards before (including the Polaris Music Prize and the Junos, Canada's equivalent of the Grammys).
Yeah, yeah, but I was kind of used to having a losing streak and not winning anything. So I was really expecting not to win. And I couldn't get my words out. I think I said "um" a hundred times. I actually ducked behind the podium because I got so flustered and nervous. But it was fun. A lot of people liked the speech because they thought it was funny that I ducked behind the podium. Yeah, so that and presenting was a little nerve-racking. ... But actually singing, that's something I love doing, so I don't really get nervous for that.
Do you have a process you go through to get rid of jitters if you do get them?
I guess my only process for singing is just drinking lots of water before I go onstage and making sure that I'm well-hydrated and a little bit of vocal warmups kind of thing.
How do you kill time backstage before a show?
Writing out everybody's set list is what I do. (laughs) I hand write everybody's set list. I just do it. I want to make sure its all right.
What's your favorite pre-show tune? Do you listen to music before you go onstage?
Yes, sometimes I do. I love Johnny Cash, so I'm always listening to a lot of Johnny Cash. I like "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" and "Ain't No Grave." I love stuff like that. I love Duane Eddy as well. He's got a song called "Stalking" that's really cool. It always gets me in a mood for a show.
Do you have any superstitious pre-show rituals?
No, I don't really. I only recently have been reading tarot cards. I find everything to do with witches really interesting to me, so I've been studying witches. I think that's all kind of cool.
Did you learn anything?
I learned that tarot cards are, no matter what, 'cause I've been studying ... there's a whole bunch of them in the deck, that no matter what one you pull, there's always a life lesson you can take out of it that you can apply to any situation that won't do you any harm. You're always good to listen to it.
Do you have a favorite tarot card or lesson you learned?
Yeah, one of the really good ones I read sometimes is just be aware of your friends and family, people that love you, and make sure you always appreciate that love and give it back. A lot of people always look at it like it's really hokey or whatever. I guess if you're trying to tell the future with it, it could be. But if you just take it for what it is, as good advice, it's great.
What's your onstage good-luck charm?
I'm not actually wearing my good-luck charm I have, but ... I think I took it off by accident and forgot to put it back on. It's a little eagle pendant that I bought in Mexico when I shot a video out there. I'm usually always wearing it. Today, I forgot. (laughs)
Hopefully, that's not a bad omen.
No, no. It's in my bathroom. I just forgot to put it on.
What's your pet name for your instrument you play onstage?
I've got a few different instruments with a few different pet names. So I have a Gibson Hummingbird that got almost totally destroyed on an Icelandair flight. And I didn't discover it until a week after, so I couldn't claim it. And it cracked half the body with a big hole in the side. And I got it fixed. But now I call it "Frankie" after Frankenstein. It's got this big sort of Frankenstein scar on the bottom of it. Today at the High Watt is a (Gibson) J-200 that I got custom made. It's like my dream guitar. And usually it's got a certain kind of pickguard, the J-200s. But I got the Everly pickguards, which are like old country. Back in the day, Johnny Cash and his J-200 used to have like these old funky pickguards on it. I decided to put on the Everly pickguards because it looked like a Mexican mustache sort of thing. I decided to call my guitar "Sanchez." There's (also) "Blackie," my ES-195 guitar.
What's a must-have food or drink before a show?
Ginger. I have to have ginger in my tea. I don't really demand it. I put it on my rider. I don't always get it because situations don't always call for having a rider. I didn't get it today, but I do love ginger in general.
You've already played, but was there someone you wish you could've joined (or could've joined you) onstage this week?
Well, The Harpoonist & The Axe Murder gig looked pretty cool right before me. So it would be cool to sing with them sometime, maybe. (laughs)
Which cover do you never get tired of covering?
Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire."
And which cover are you sick and tired of covering and plan to never do again?
Well, I can tell you, I love Bob Dylan. I'm a huge fan. But I had sort of a bad experience at a tribute show (May 7, 2011 at Hugh's Room in Toronto) where I forgot the words halfway through and just went blank.
"It Ain't Me Babe." So halfway through, I just forgot it and there were all these Bob Dylan fans. So I couldn't listen to Bob Dylan for like a year after that because it just reminded me of that mortifying experience. It's kinda like ... I haven't really touched a Bob Dylan song since. I just let him do his thing. Too many words for me.
Backstage social media addiction: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or something else?
I'm always tweeting and Instagramming and Facebooking. Sometimes I take silly little pictures and post them before we go on. (laughs) Instagram's my favorite. I like posting pictures all the time. It's nice to tell stories with a photo.
Do you ever have a reason to alter your set list?
Yeah, sometimes. It depends on the crowd. Like I said, I've opened for Social D. When we do that, we sort of rock it out a bit more, do a little bit more of the upbeat sort of rockabilly numbers. And then I've opened for k.d. lang, and there we've sort of done some of the softer songs. That's a completely different audience.
Favorite onstage beverage?
Water. It's the best one. I've tried the other and I just realize that the set kind of goes "Whooo." (laughs)
Craziest thing you've been asked to sign at the merch table?
Well, it's not really crazy, but people wear red boots to my shows because I wear red boots all the time. So people ask me to sign their red boots. And I always feel bad because I feel like I'm defacing their beautiful leather red boots. I'm like, "Are you should you want me to sign this?"
What do you do to unwind after a show?
I don't normally unwind until I actually get home from the show and then I sort of chill. I'm usually in a hotel room, so I just put on some music and relax.
Any certain kind of music?
Just whatever's on my iPad. I'm into the blues, I guess, lately. A lot of Lightnin' Hopkins or Leadbelly, stuff like that.
What time do you usually get up the day after performing a late show?
Oh, it depends. If we're on tour, sometimes we've got to leave really early the next morning. And we have like two hours' sleep when we get home from the show. It gets really tiring after a while. ... I'm not really a morning person, not unless I have a pot of coffee going.