In another time and place, Lindi Ortega just might have given up music altogether. But the ache in her heart, the 20+ years of plucking away on her guitar and the dirt underneath her fingernails pulled her back in like a siren on the shoreline. When her time was up with Last Gang Records following 2015’s Faded Gloryville, her life came to a halt. She was only left with two options: get off the road forever or dust herself off and get back up. Then, after a bottle of wine, she sat down at the piano and wrote “Final Bow,” a bone-chilling five-minute ballad which was supposed to be her last song. “No more singing. No more dancing. No more late-night pony prancing in these boots,” she mourns, not only about her career but her creative soul. “I get so tired of the rat race, chasing my tail like a hound. I’ll sing one last song for old time’s sake.”
Of course, this is not the first time she’s lamented the struggles of the working musician. In fact, she framed her 2013 studio album, Tin Star, around the concept of chasing the twinkly, enticing lights of Nashville’s Broadway center. “No, you don’t know me. I sing on the strip for a few pennies. I got a busted string and a broken guitar. I’ve been singing for tips down at the local bar like an old tin star, beat up and rusty, lost in the shining stars of Nashville, TN,” she utters outright. But on “Final Bow,” the sorrow is palpable and further ingrained in her vocal, as you are witnessing a broken soul splintering one last time. “It’s not an easy industry to survive in, and it’s not an easy industry to try to make a living in. I was working really hard. I was touring a lot. I got to a point where I was burnt out. It was just so much work, but also, I was having a hard time paying my rent and getting groceries,” she reflects to AXS.com over a recent phone call.
Feeling drained of energy or guiding compass, she turned to those close to her for direction. “People said ‘don’t you quit, that would be horrible.’ They encouraged me to continue making music and helped figure out a way I could have balance. Then, I decided I needed to stick with it. I also realized that I’ve been able to acquire a nice fan base for what I do,” she says. “I didn’t want to let them down. After thinking about them and hearing some of their responses to the rumblings of me quitting, I thought ‘I can’t do this to them. I have to keep going.’ I started writing a couple other tunes and went into the studio. I didn’t have any money to make a record, so I made an EP.”
“Final Bow” is just one of four new tracks on her brand new EP, Til the Goin’ Gets Gone, arriving this Friday (March 17). Her hardship resulted in some of the best work of her career, particularly on her striking cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Waiting ‘Round to Die” (found on his 1968 debut LP For the Sake of the Song and later in various other acoustic forms). Coincidentally, it was the first Zandt song Ortega had ever heard and which eerily provides a full circle journey. “I just felt like it fell in line with the other songs. I love him so much. I really relate to his songwriting. I find him really inspiring,” she says of deciding to lay down her own version. “There’s another songwriter I love, Leonard Cohen, who recently passed away (rest his soul). But those are the apex of songwriters for me and who I would aspire to be–and probably will not even be a shadow of any of that. It’s definitely a bar I set when I look at those two. People listen to my music and know I veer toward the dark side of things, so I don’t think it would come as a surprise that I would like a Zandt song or that I would record one of his darkest ones.”
On “Waiting ‘Round to Die,” Ortega steps into the shoes of a rough ‘n tumble outlaw who hops trains, robs a man and then goes to prison for his crimes. Once he gets out, he makes friends with codeine. “He’s the nicest thing I’ve seen. Together, we’re going to wait around and die.” Ortega’s rendering draws parallels between external and internal anguish, often signaling to the greater destiny of mankind. “I think anybody can relate to it. Life throws at you some terrible scenarios sometimes, and it’s inevitable. You can’t avoid things. Whether you live a long one or short one, there’s going to be moments that we can’t escape, that are going to be tragic and very, very sad,” she says. “At the end of it, what happens? We all go to the same place. Essentially, we are all waiting around to die. It’s a very devastating song but you can apply it to your own circumstances, if you like. That’s what I did. Not that I can literally say I robbed a man or that I bought some wine and hopped a train or went to prison. But you can take all that stuff in a metaphorical sense and apply it to the struggles of life and living, even internal despair.”
Ortega, who recorded in East Side Manor in East Nashville, shares producer credits with two good friends, Jason Cope (or “Rowdy” as he’s known around town and who played guitar on Tin Star) and his friend Jay Tooke. “I called [Rowdy] up and said ‘look, I don’t have any money to really do this. But do you know of any studios that might be able to help me out a little bit or cut me a deal?’ He said his friend Jay worked out of East Side Manor and that ‘why don’t you come by the studio and check it out and see if you like it and see if we can work something out?’ I did, and it was the most beautiful studio ever,” she recalls. “They’ve got horses on the property. It’s kind of tucked away. It’s a beautiful mansion that’s been renovated to have studios in it.”
“The minute I walked in I was like ‘who wouldn’t want to record here?’ I started recording these songs, and it was great. We didn’t have anyone telling us how to record anything or what to do. We had complete creative freedom. We experimented and worked as unit together. It was fun. I was making music with my friends and I had a really great time. It gave me a new purpose and desire to create. That whole experience turned things around for me,” she says. That turning point is mirrored in the music, detailed with every gruesome scar displayed to the entire world.
“Rowdy is a great musician and one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. On a producer level, and I think a lot of people don’t know this about him, he is really into it and really good at it. I think we’re going to see some great things from him in the future,” she says. “It was fascinating to watch him work. I’ve only ever known him as a guitar player. Seeing him work in production was amazing. He really listens. I would work with him again in a heartbeat.”
The final product is meticulous and cuts to the core of human desperation– lingering well after the music stops, like a specter damned to haunt the earth. The title track blends that unshakeable misery with a downcast hope. “I think about people who decide to get off the road of life. I can understand a little bit, but also, I wanted to be encouraging. I can identify with people’s sorrow but I still want to say ‘don’t give up.’ The reasons I can identify is because I’ve been there. I’ve almost wanted to give up on my music and life and all sorts of things,” she says. “Resilience is such an important quality to the human condition. It’s much harder to keep going but you are much better for it. That’s why the last verse of the song was my daydream of riding into the sunset. The road has been arduous. I’ve fallen into ditches and had all these weird experiences, some good and some terrible. The last verse is like here I am in this vintage cadillac riding into the sunset on a highway kind of vibe. You can use that as a metaphor for anything, whatever your dream is at the end of your life. You hope you get there and all the struggles will give you the lessons and stuff that you need in order to be at peace with life.”
On “What a Girls Gotta Do,” Ortega follows the twirl of the stripper pole for her muse. Seriously. “It’s such a weird story. Somebody took me on a date to a strip club. I don’t know why. That should have been a red flag right there,” she laughs. “I was like ‘OK, sure, I’m up for anything, let’s try it out.’ I went and it was a weird thing. I ended up taking some reprieve and going to the lady’s room. Little did I know, it was also the place where the exotic dancers would go and freshen up.”
“I was sitting in there, and they would come in. I was like ‘well, I’m going to chat with them.’ So, I started chatting with them. I didn’t want to be rude, but I am always very curious about people’s lives and stories. I said to one of the women ‘do you enjoy what you do? I don’t mean any disrespect by asking the question.’ She said something like ‘a girls gotta do what a girls gotta do.’ That line stuck in my head. I knew one day it would become a song,” she continues. “I recall afterward that I would be thinking about her. I didn’t know what her actual story was but I would be imaging what I thought it was. It was me pondering that phrase and what kind of life would lead her to feel like she had to do that. I would go over scenarios in my head, like maybe she had a family to feed. Also, I wanted to shed a light on the fact that there really shouldn’t be any shame in that. People have to earn a living all sorts of ways, and you shouldn’t stigmatize that and come down on people.”
When Rolling Stone revealed new music was on the way, fan reaction was swift and overwhelmingly positive. “I am so happy fans seem to be really digging it. It is very encouraging. It makes me realize that I do need to make a full-length in the same vein as these songs–keep it simple and stripped down. My whole reason for going there in the first place was twofold; one reason was because the older I get the more appreciation I have for simplicity in music, and the other reason was I would put up little clips of songs and I would always get some kind of comment like ‘you should do an acoustic record!’ I thought I would take heed. I’m really glad I did. I like the results of what we created.”
Things are also coming full circle for her in other ways, with the release of the new EP independently. “I wanted to get back to who I was and why I started making music. I realized when I was doing things myself, I was more connected. It was important to be a boss lady. I wanted to own my masters and be in control of what I was doing. I’ve never been and I’ll never be a commercial artist. I have no desire to chase that carrot. I find that there’s no point of me being on a label, really, unless that is something I want to do. I might as well go into business for myself.”
Soon after making the tough decision to regain her independence, she moved back to her native Canada, outside of Calgary. Stylistically, the Texas scene might seem like an no-brainer in the future, if her life wills it so. “I never take anything off the table. I tend to get restless after a certain amount of time. I did consider New Orleans for a little while. Who knows. It’s not completely out of the question,” she says. “I just don’t know where my life is going to take me. Texas is definitely a place I wouldn’t mind living. I’ve done a thing where I’ve lived out of a hotel for a month and absorbed the atmosphere and the city and the people. I wouldn’t put it past me to go and live out of a hotel in Texas or New Orleans just to get inspiration.”
Ortega poured out her heart in Nashville for five years, much longer for many other songwriters and musicians, but it wasn’t the industry that pushed her out. It was love. She sets the record straight amidst pesky rumors. “Some people sort of misinterpreted my reasons for leaving. It was so disheartening to hear it. I have no ill will toward Nashville. I’m always happy to go back. It was nothing to do with the industry or anything like that,” she explains.
“I got engaged, so my fiancé lives in Canada and I wanted to be with him. I didn’t want to be in a long distance relationship. That was my reason for leaving. Nashville is a great city. What have I experienced in my five years of living there? A lot of construction in my backyard. That’s great for the city; there’s a lot of growth. Personally, I loved it when I first moved there, because it seemed more like a private, small town, even though it was a city. I really liked that. In the past few years, it has definitely gotten busier. It’s still a great city and has a lot of wonderful things to offer.”
Several blog posts have since popped up since the big announcement, a few of which take on a more bitter tone towards the music business. “It’s hard to defend yourself. You don’t really know how, unless you make a statement or something,” she laughs. “It was nothing to do with the industry. I know what the industry is. I knew what it was before I moved there. I never went to Nashville to ‘make it.’ That was never my intention. I went because there was a history lesson that I wanted to get. I wanted to go to all the places that my heroes had played and absorb all that. I just ended up staying. It was never because I wanted to win over Music Row and be a big deal. It’s funny to me that people think I left because I somehow didn’t make it. I don’t care. What does making it even mean? I don’t even know.”
Ortega has countless tour dates lined up for 2017, including several on Chris Stapleton‘s tour which hits up major markets in Canada beginning this weekend. Otherwise, she is already eyeing her next release. “I want to get back to work. I want to tour and put out another full-length record. I want to finish writing all the songs and maybe make a music video. I have some songs in my pocket that I’ve been working. They are all in the same style of the EP. I definitely want to keep it atmospheric and simple. For the first time in a long time, I’m really excited to put out another record.”