For many folks, the old idiom "home is where the heart is," rings true.
Home is where you want to be. It's a place where you're surrounded by the people, places and things that give you security and satisfaction. For Canadian country artist Lindi Ortega — who's coming to Charlotte for a performance that's part of Urban Ministry's Housing Fest at The Fillmore on May 28 — home is currently in Nashville, Tennessee.
But more importantly, at least from a musical standpoint, her home is on Last Gang Records. Having released a trio of independent albums in the 2000s, followed by a sour stint with a major record label, Ortega found refuge in signing with the indie label. Fast forward to 2015, when she released her fourth full-length album, Faded Gloryville, on the label and in her home away from home. In 2011, Ortega moved from her longtime dwelling in Toronto, Canada to Nashville. From a cityscape with far and few country artists to a cityscape with a colossal country music scene, Ortega credits the change to having an inadvertent effect on her music.
As a child in Canada, the only exposure Ortega had to country music was through her parents' record collection, which she raided in her early days.
"I never even knew a single country musician when I was living in Toronto," she says. "The only sort of country that I would have been exposed to — and I didn't play with these people or anything — was Stompin' Tom Connors and K.D. Lang, stuff like that. I wasn't very much exposed to it at all in Canada."
Ortega, now 35, has since reaped the rewards of more than a decade devoted to the genre. In 2014, she was nominated for not one, but two awards at the Canadian Country Music Association Awards and, in the States, her Faded Gloryville has generated more acclaim than any of her other records to date.
Part of that, she believes, comes from delivering raw, honest songs that audiences can relate to.
"I think early on in my career — and this was when I was like playing crappy little coffee house gigs with maybe three or four people — one of the things that I felt was most rewarding and what I still do find rewarding was and is people being touched by my experiences," she says, noting that 85 to 90 percent of her lyrical material is autobiographical. "We all go through these same experiences and emotions and that's really what connects humanity to each other," she says.
On Faded Gloryville, Ortega grapples with heartache and with her own personal struggles with the music industry. On the album's title track, she recalls her ups and downs on the music front; "The road can break you coming down a hill, but going up is always fun. And here we are in faded Gloryville, the victory is never won."
The song was inspired by Jeff Bridges' bruised character — a country music legend with fleeting success — in the movie Crazy Heart.
"I think a lot of musicians who watch that movie would ask themselves what they would do if they were to end up in the character Bad Blake's position."
Does satisfaction come from reaching a certain status? And what about that nudging feeling that there's somewhere else you should be on the totem pole? These are the kinds of questions that the song lends itself to.
"There's this personal struggle with you saying 'Ok, I've accomplished a lot and I should be quite proud of myself,' but then there's the labels and the business side that's like 'You haven't sold x amount of records and you're not played on radio and you haven't reached this area of venues yet, so you'll probably never make money,' so there are a lot of things that can be daunting."
Though Ortega notices an increase in attendance at her shows, which in turn have moved to larger venues, she doesn't feel like an overnight success story.
"It's interesting for me because it's been a slow build, so I don't see it the way other people see it because I'm touring constantly."
When her deal with a major record label went astray, Ortega toured as a backup singer with The Killers' frontman Brandon Flowers. After globetrotting, she returned home and had an epiphany about her musical endeavors. Though risky, she wanted to continue her solo efforts. "It was not so much about being in the spotlight, but more about creating and singing my own songs."
Since then Ortega has shaped her identity and honed her craft as a songwriter. Of the album that didn't make the major label cut: "I listen to it and kind of cringe a bit. I guess it was trying to pander to a major label and what would get put on the radio," she says. "It was a little too polished and a little too pristine for my liking. I like things that are gritty and rough around the edges and I really developed my love for that more and more with every record I've put out."
That being said, that doesn't mean that Ortega would snub mainstream success or never sign to a major record label again. For her, it all depends on how much creative control she would have as an artist.
"I feel like now that I've kind of solidified myself as a certain thing, I would have more of a gambling chip than I would have initially as a complete unknown," she says.
As a singer/songerwriter, Ortega has many layers. Country, folk, Americana, soul, rockabilly are all genres she can easily nestle into. Her voice can be sweet and soulful like Dolly Parton, and deep and melancholy like Jersey psych-rock songstress Nicole Atkins, while her appearance lends itself to country goth and rockabilly assertions — red lipstick, red cowboy boots, black-fitted dresses and a church lady hat complete with fishnetting.
"At the end of the day, genres don't really matter. All that matters to me is that people that come to the shows are enjoying what they're hearing," she says. "They can call it whatever they want."
Ortega thinks that some of the confusion comes in overgeneralizing of the country music genre. In addition to negative stereotypes about country music being a male-dominated genre with lyrics centered around drinking, girls in blue jeans and pickup trucks, Ortega feels that the genre's many layers remain uncharted. It's a large, diverse home filled with squeaky doors and vast hallways worth exploring.
"A lot of people just think it's super twangy hillybilly music, which I personally like, but a lot of people will take sort of all of country as being that. The reality is that country music is so multi-faceted."