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

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

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones reviewWarning: Spoilers aplenty
Arts and Entertainment
Britain's Got Talent judges: Simon Cowell, Amanda Holden, Alesha Dixon and David Walliams

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral