“Well if the music wasn’t running through the blood in my veins, I would walk away,” Lindi Ortega sings on the title track of her upcoming album, Tin Star (out October 8). “But the music keeps on running through the blood in my veins, and it just makes me stay.”
Ortega has been making music for over a decade, but it’s only been in the past few years that she’s started to move to the “next level” with punk rockers and music supervisors taking an interest in her and her career. After years in the trenches, Ortega’s been given some well-deserved breaks (more on those in a moment), but doesn’t feel like she’s made a name for herself just yet.
“I still identify with buskers who are working and struggling every night,” she told Radio.com. “At the same time, more people now know who I am, things are starting to happen for me.”
Some of those “things that are starting to happen” for Ortega are due to some fortunate and unusual turns of events. First off the Canadian expat, who currently lives in Nashville, has done two tours opening for punk rock legends Social Distortion. “We had no idea how it was gonna go,” she said. “I thought I might get big burly tattooed bearded guys throwing tomatoes at me!”
Instead, she gained a noticeable amount of new fans.
“A lot of people who have come to my headlining shows–I play 200 – 300 capacity rooms–are from the Social D shows,” she said. “They were accepting of what I do, even the slower songs. I feel like I owe a lot to Mike Ness and Social Distortion for putting me in front of their audience. I hear it at every show, ‘I discovered you opening for Social D!’ The exposure to their audience helped me turn a corner in my career, I’m very grateful.”
Another punk icon who is now a fan is Tim Armstrong of Rancid and the Transplants. He caught Lindi’s performance at California’s annual punk/Americana festival Hootenanny and invited her to his studio to be part of his Tim Timebomb recordings, which is a series that has Armstrong recording and releasing one song a day, often with help from a special guest. The two recorded a country version of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
The video has over 22,000 views now, which has likely exposed her to even more punk rock fans. As did playing Hootenanny, where fans show up in their rockabilly best: pompadours, Bettie Page bangs, bowling shirts and pinup dresses. Ortega felt right at home at the festival.
“It’s funny: usually when I play folk festivals – with my black dress, a veil and the red boots – I feel like a freak of nature,” she said. “But at these rockabilly shows, I feel like I’m among my people, I don’t feel like a freak at all. I feel like I totally fit in. I felt like I made a lot of connections at that show.”
Less connections, perhaps, were made during her stint as a backup singer for Brandon Flowers of the Killers during his solo tour. “I was in the middle of getting out of a major label deal that kind of went bust, and my hands were tied as far as making my own music,” Ortega explained. “So I still wanted to keep working and this opportunity came up, and I took it because I thought it would be a learning experience, and it would be interesting for me to see how the world of music functions at that level. I definitely learned a lot.”
What did she learn? “That I really have no desire to continue to be a backing singer,” she demurred. “I learned that my heart is in writing songs. I have a lot of respect for people who do it, it just wasn’t for me…It’s probably not something I’ll do again.”
Something she would want to do again: licensing her songs to, and appearing on, ABC’s Nashville. Last year, she performed “The Day You Die,” off her 2012 album, Cigarettes & Truckstops, on the show.
Her management team has made it a point to get her music out to TV and film music supervisors.
“They make me do all these funny things when I’m in areas like [Los Angeles],” she said. “I would go to these people’s houses and offices and sing for them and do a little show pony-ing. You do your best, you hope that someone will maybe consider you for something. You leave it not knowing if something is ever going to come of it.”
At one of those events, she was invited to perform at a music supervisor’s party and ended up singing in her kitchen. “It was kind of difficult,” she said. “I didn’t have a mic or anything and it was difficult to get people’s attention.”
But luckily, Ortega is a good socializer and is usually one of the last to leave a party, just as she was on this particular night.
“I was straggling around the campfire at the end of the night,” she explained. “Raul Malo from the Mavericks was there, and so were a bunch of music supervisors, and I was just singing Hank Williams songs, Patsy Cline songs, having a good ol’ time, and went back home that night, and thought ‘That was fun.’ Next thing I know, they tell me they’re gonna use my songs on Nasvhille. And then they told me they wanted me to appear on the show. It was a lot of fun, plus my mom got to see me on TV.”
For now, she’s preparing for the October 8 release of Tin Star, and has tour dates booked through November. This album may well be the one to bring her to a larger audience, but if that doesn’t happen, she’s okay with it.
“I don’t need the whole world to know who I am,” she said. “I just want to be able to make a living doing what I love, and I’m doing that now so everything else is just icing on the cake for me.”