Now midway through a North American tour in support of her 'Til the Goin' Gets Gone EP, Lindi Ortega makes an appearance on this week's episode of Walking the Floor. She chats with podcast host Chris Shiflett about her Canadian roots, her short time on a major label's roster and her adopted hometown of Nashville.
"There is a charm to the city, and that's the reason I decided to stay," she says of her Tennessee home. "When I first moved there, it was like a city with a small-town charm. But its exploded. . .I've had condos go up in my backyard, side yard, everywhere."
Perhaps that's why Ortega chose to scale things back with 'Til the Goin' Gets Gone, a collection of acoustic songs that double down on the time-worn ingredients of country music. She even tosses a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Waiting 'Round to Die" into the mix, performing it for Shiflett and the end of her interview. Listen to the entire episode below, and feel free to use our quick list of highlights as a guide.
Ortega was once signed to the same record label as Lady Gaga.
During the early years of her music career, Ortega inked a deal with Cherry Tree Records, an imprint of the industry monolith Interscope. Although she released an EP with the label, plans for a full-length project were derailed when one of her label mates struck gold with a sound that was vastly different from Ortega's own.
"I signed to them because Feist was a big name on the label at the time," she remembers. "[She was] a Canadian artist I knew. I thought, 'She's eclectic and I know she wouldn't sign a label that wouldn't treat her good. She's a smart lady.' But I remember signing to that label and they were giving me CDs of stuff that was upcoming, and they gave me this little known artist named Lady Gaga. . .The next thing I knew, she exploded and there was a big dance-pop craze in music, and what I was doing became irrelevant to the scene and the mainstream."
The label wanted Ortega to follow in Gaga's footsteps, pushing her to record music that was far more commercial.
"It was incredibly overt," she says of her label's insistence that Ortega polish up her music. "They made no bones about it. When you're on a big label like that, they're a huge business and they want to make money, and the way to do that is to have radio hits. . .The known way of doing that is conforming to whatever mainstream trends are happening at the time."
Needless to say, Ortega took her business elsewhere.
Years later, she's a proudly independent songwriter.
"I feel like the current model of the whole label thing is just really not conducive at my level. . .to making music," says Ortega, who now releases her music independently with the help of an outside distributor. She tours often, too, relying on the shows – and her audience's interest in leaving the gigs with merchandise in hand – to keep her afloat. Staying independent isn't easy, but she prefers it to the now-prevalent 360 deals that most labels prefer. "It's the one that siphons every level of income stream," she says of the 360 arrangement.
A no-good prom date gave Ortega the inspiration to write her first song.
After learning some chords on her father's nylon-stringed guitar, Ortega found herself diving into songwriting during her high-school years, after her prom date bailed on the dance one day before the big event. "The first song I ever wrote was about how I got dumped the day before prom, and I couldn't wear the dress I'd bought, so it was called 'Faded Dress,'" she remembers. "Faded Dress" later found its way onto a cassette tape of early recordings, which the teenage Ortega sold during her shows in the Toronto area.
Chris Stapleton cherry-picked Ortega as the opening act for his Canadian arena tour.
"It was really interesting, because before that tour started, I played for a preschool, and when that tour ended, I play a house concert," Ortega says with a laugh. "I book-ended it with real humbling experiences." Even so, the opening gigs gave an immeasurable boost to the indie musician, although they certainly presented some challenges along the way. "At arena shows, it's hard to create that intimacy with the crowd," she admits. "You're so separated from them."