Country's woman in black

A tough childhood and a passion for outlaw singers give Lindi Ortega's songs a darker edge. Ben Walsh meets her

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The Independent Culture

She was bullied at high school, dumped by her boyfriend before the prom and ditched again just before moving from Toronto, her hometown, to Nashville last year. It's no small wonder, then, that Lindi Ortega favours heartbreak material, although the eloquent country singer doesn't appreciate being pigeon-holed.

"I get bagged on a lot for writing heartbreak songs," maintains Ortega. "That it's a clichéd, female heartbreak thing I do. But I'm not coming from that place – I'm coming from the history of country music, and tears-in-your-beer heartbreak tales.

"A man can go out and do heartbreak songs and that's not a problem," she says, warming to the topic. "Ray LaMontagne can do it and that's fine, that's not clichéd."

The slender Canadian, dressed in black like her idol Johnny Cash, is riding the wave of her latest (alt-ish) country record, Cigarettes & Truckstops. We meet in a Paddington pub and Ortega, with her bright red lipstick, black boots and tattoo tribute to Leonard Cohen's "Bird on the Wire" (she loves the lyric "I have tried in my way to be free") on her right wrist, resembles a "country goth".

On stage, where this smouldering crooner is truly in her element, Ortega always sports a veil and fetching red leather boots because "they make me feel like Wonder Woman". Today, she appears to have floated in from a David Lynch movie – a cross between Madchen Amick and Béatrice Dalle – but she's never less than engaging.

The singer's sound might come across as fairly conventional country music, but her lyrics and subject matter suggest something weirder, darker, more interesting. In among the heartbreak material, Ortega delivers songs such as "All My Friends", from her 2011 breakthrough Little Red Boots, in which she deals with suicide ("I will sleep all night, flirting with suicide") addiction ("My friend Mary Jane, she will come and ease the pain") and mental illness ("Silence all these voices in my head"). Taylor Swift she isn't.

"I'm not an addictive personality," maintains the 33-year-old, "but I've got through dark times in my life, where I've suffered panic attacks, anxiety, depression – and I've reached for things in those times."

Ortega is refreshingly candid about her bouts of depression and an unhappy childhood in Toronto. "I was messed up," she admits. "I was an only child, and both of my parents were immigrants [her father's Mexican, her mother Northern Irish] so I had no extended family. I didn't have a lot of friends; I was really anti-social and spent a lot of time in my room and in the basement, playing with my dad who was the bass player for a Latino band."

Ortega spent her teens being bullied, having to hide in the "washroom stall during recess". However, she always "dreamed big" and was comforted by the "outlaw" country music of Cash and Hank Williams.

"I was alienated and felt nobody got me, but then I'd hear Williams's 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry' and that song really spoke to me," she says.

Her "big hero", however, is Johnny Cash. She loves the timbre of the Man in Black's voice, his "chicka-boom" guitar style and the fact that "he took shit from nobody".

"The first Cash song I heard was 'Folsom Prison Blues' [which she often performs live] and the line 'I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die' is deadly," she gushes. "It floored me when I heard that, and then I so got into murder ballads.

"Cash was an original," Ortega continues. "That's what I love about those country singers from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies – you can tell a Patsy Cline from a Dolly Parton from a Loretta, you can tell a Johnny Cash from a Waylon from a Willie; they were all different, unique and inspiring in that way."

Unfortunately, Ortega has had trouble selling her own brand of blues-tinged, "outlaw" country music, and Lady Gaga had a hand in capsizing her first major record deal.

"When I signed for Interscope Records they had a blend of eclectic acts like Feist," Ortega explains. "But after two months with them I got a CD with some of the acts on the label and there was this little-known artist called Lady Gaga – and the next thing I know, she's huge."

All the eclectic acts fell by the wayside, dance acts took over and Ortega's record was ignored. The singer entered an "interim" period where she supported Kevin Costner ("I didn't really get to chat with him too much") and toured as a backing singer for The Killers' Brandon Flowers for a year, which was a frustrating time.

"People think that the Flowers' tour was the launch pad for my career, but it wasn't," she stresses. "I was making music for many years before that."

Unexpectedly supporting the US punk outfit Social Distortion was a hugely more rewarding experience. "Their burly, tattooed fans got me, they were amazing; I get teared up just thinking about it," she says.

After spending the best part of a decade kicking around Toronto's independent music scene, Ortega's first studio album, Little Red Boots, on Last Gang Records, finally garnered the recognition she deserved. The perky track "Little Lie" appeared on the TV show Nashville; she's been nominated for two Juno awards in Canada; and she's just come off a successful US tour.

The bullied "nerd" from high school is in the ascendancy, but she still feels the need to defend herself. For instance, her cheeky track "Use Me", in which she sings, "Don't use cocaine/ Don't use marijuana/ If you wanna use something/ I got what you need/ If you wanna get your fix/ Darlin' use me", was vociferously attacked by one feminist blog.

"It's just a silly joke song," she maintains. "Someone else said I wrote too many songs about weed and whisky, and I said 'I'll go and write a public broadcasting announcement then'."

Even her onstage veil has come in for some flack. Complaints range from the fact that you can't see Ortega's face to it being too gothic-looking.

"It's my tribute to Johnny Cash," she insists. "People think the veil's weird, but it kinda makes sense to me. I really don't care if it doesn't make sense to the rest of the world."

Spoken like a true outlaw.

Lindi Ortega's second album, 'Cigarettes & Truckstops', is out now