Armed with an inimitable, irresistible singing voice The Independent hails as “a truly magnificent instrument,” and a heart bursting with creative ambition, the Canadian songstress whom American Songwriter calls “the love child of Johnny Cash and Nancy Sinatra” decided to relocate to Music City from her native Toronto to birth her brand new musical offspring, Cigarettes & Truckstops.
A logical follow-up to her 2011 critically acclaimed alt-country masterpiece Little Red Boots, the 10-song Cigarettes & Truckstops further flaunts Ortega’s distinctive vision; one that embraces the oft-neglected, politically incorrect realism of traditional country and frames it in a charmingly, and sometimes darkly humourous contemporary context.
Bookended by a couple of romantic road ballads in the title track and the reflective “Every Mile Of The Ride,” Cigarettes & Truckstops further evolves the promise foreshadowed by the JUNO-Award nominated-and-Polaris-Music-Prize-long-listed Little Red Boots.
The writing is stellar, her musical discipline undoubtedly galvanized by a fearless 2010-2012 tour schedule that saw Lindi open for a variety of acts, from punk vets Social Distortion; pop icon Burton Cummings; country fave Dierks Bentley; folk outfit Noah & The Whale and Academy Award winner Kevin Costner with attention-grabbing finesse, making serious inroads with North American and European audiences, and prompting Exclaim! to declare Ortega an “electrifying” performer.
Whether it’s the plucky shuffle of the hilarious “The Day You Die;” the angry harrumph of “Don’t Wanna Hear It;” the high lonesome feel of “Heaven Has No Vacancy” or the haunting twang of guilt that is “Murder of Crows,” Ortega continues to deliver a refreshing twist that walks vintage and contemporary lines in imaginative and inventive manners.
But in order to realize this next step of her artistic fruition, the two-time JUNO Award nominee (Canada’s equivalent to the Grammy Awards) had to pull up her Canadian stakes and come to the well.
“I was really inspired by being here in Nashville,” explains Ortega, the daughter of a Northern Irish mother and Mexican father who has been performing since she picked up a guitar at age 16.
“I wanted the authenticity of my influences to shine through on this record. I knew I liked country and I think moving here, I wanted to delve into those influences more genuinely.
“To be able to read a Hank Williams biography and then go to where his house was, or the places that they talk about, and absorb that was invaluable.”
As Ortega is the first to admit, she’s anything but a “straight-up country artist,” so other elements played into the equation.
“I found that I was really inspired by going to New Orleans, after I shot that music video for (Little Red Boots’) “Black Fly” – and the Deep South.
“After Little Red Boots I read the Hank Williams biography and I learned that he was very highly influenced by a man named “Tee-Tot.” (Rufus Payne). Tee-Tot was a blues guy, and I discovered that a lot of early country drew influence from early blues. So I really started getting into listening to blues.”
She recruited a sympathetic visionary to produce the album in fellow Canadian Colin Linden, (O Brother Where Art Thou, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, Bruce Cockburn, The Band), who also happens to reside in Nashville.
“When it was time to start working with producers, Colin’s name was thrown in the hat,” recalls Ortega. “I looked him up on YouTube, and the first thing I saw him perform was this crazy awesome Dobro solo.
“I realized that I loved that instrument, and I needed to have it all over my record,” she laughs.
“There was something about the sound of it that resonated so much with me. Colin was very influenced by the blues and had a lot of knowledge about its background and history, and I thought it would be cool to bring that into the record.”
The blues touch is a subtle one, a seasoning of sorts on this album of longing and vulnerability; travel and romance; of anger and passion; of fact and fiction.
A big breakthrough was Ortega’s topical candour.
“I was sort of delving into the darker corners of my mind with some things, which was interesting for me, and not being afraid to put some other things out there,” she reveals. “The song from my first record, “All My Friends,” alludes to certain things in a metaphorical way, where on this album, I’m a little more straight up about it. I’m not trying to hide.
“I guess that I’m just willing to take that risk. I’m just being honest and talking about my experiences, and by doing that, I’m not advocating anything and I’m not telling anybody they need to do anything: I’m just writing about my life and the experiences that I go through.”
But it’s not all autobiographical: “Murder of Crows,’ co-authored by Matt Nolan and one of three co-writes on Cigarettes & Truckstops, is pure Man In Black-inspired fiction.
“I was actually thinking of Johnny Cash’s Murder album when I wrote that,” Ortega chuckles. “I just wanted to delve into fictitious territory, and not write from experience – sort of make up stories.
“In a lot of old Cash songs, there’s a lot that didn’t come from his experience: he made them up. It’s cool to be able to make up crazy stories like that.”
One of the album’s real kickers is the Bruce Wallace co-write “The Day You Die,” a humorous look at love’s clichés, a future classic that begins with the opening stanza,
“You said you’d love me ‘til the cows comes home/Well I’m hoping that they all go blind.”
“That’s why I love writing with Bruce, because we never set out to write,” Ortega admits. “We just get together as friends and pick up guitars and it just happens naturally. He’s a quirky guy, because he totally gets where I’m coming from in that respect.
“We pick up the guitar and make up joke songs. We thought it would be cool if all these cliché things that people say to people, things like ‘Love you ‘til this, love you ‘til that’,” were taken literally, what would they have to do to keep the love going?”
There are more gems on Cigarettes & Truckstops that are ripe for personal discovery, a riveting tour-de-force of an album that will open up more ears and hearts to the scintillating sounds of Lindi Ortega and an appreciation of the unique perspective she brings to her craft.
Two trademarks impel her artistry: sincerity and honesty.
“I’m not going to deny it because I can’t,” Ortega admits. “It just comes out. I owe it to the song and to myself to expel that expression, put it into music and be very honest and forthright about the good, the bad and the ugly of Lindi Ortega.”