Looking at Lindi Ortega — a ruby-lipped, raven-haired beauty who you’ll often as not see with a red rose in her hair and invariably wearing her trademark red boots — you could be forgiven for thinking that the alternative country singer-songwriter hails from south of the border. In fact, you need to look north, to the city of Toronto, where she was born and raised. Her heritage, though, does lie south, and east, too. She’s the only daughter of immigrant parents, a Mexican father and an Irish mother. And she locates many of her musical influences in those two sources.
“My dad was a bass player in a Latino band,” Ortega says the day after a show in Toronto (which is now her former hometown; she decamped to Nashville last December). “He’s the person who taught me how to play the first few chords on guitar, and I think a lot of my rhythmic style of playing is from that influence, from hearing that growing up.” The effect extends a larger aesthetic that’s evident in her music and presentation.
On her mother’s side, the influence was less heritage and more personal taste; she was a huge country music fan, with a particular affinity for Johnny Cash and the outlaws. Ortega grew up listening to that music via her mother’s record collection.
Those formative springs took a while to surface, though. Ortega’s first record (self-released in 2001) was essentially a piano record, with a single song on it that leaned country. She found herself leaning more and more in that direction until, with last year’s “Little Red Boots,” she had gone full-blown; although in her view, many other elements creep into her music, such that it’s not straight-up country — or straight-up anything, for that matter.
Ortega, who comes to the House of Blues on Tuesday, is typically categorized as alternative country, a description she thinks is as close as anything. “The running theme of my music is outlaw and traditional country, with little speckles and spatterings of blues and soul and folk and roots and rock that creep in from song to song.”
With that base and those speckles and spatterings, “Little Red Boots” started to gain Ortega some notice. So did her distinctive voice, which frequently gains her comparisons to Dolly Parton. Her voice was one of the main reasons that Last Gang, her record label, signed her, according to label owner Chris Taylor, who says, “Lindi has one of the purest sounding voices I have ever heard.”
With its trad country and classic rockabilly vibe, her just-released follow-up, “Cigarettes & Truckstops,” isn’t a radical departure from “Little Red Boots,” although there are some clear differences. One of them reflects Ortega’s decision to relocate to Nashville, a decision motivated in part by biographical investigations of Hank Williams and other musical heroes.
She elaborates: “A lot of their careers went through Nashville if they weren’t born there. So I thought it would be good for me to go and immerse myself in the history and retrace their steps, and learn and absorb as much as I could.”
The Hank bio introduced Ortega to the influence that early bluesman Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne had on the Hillbilly Shakespeare’s musical development, and more generally to the influence of blues music on early country. That exposure led Ortega to explore the relationship on her new record, which shows up most overtly in songs such as “Demons Don't Get Me Down” and “Murder of Crows.” “As I was writing songs, I felt that the blues was really seeping through into my writing, in my chord progressions and things like that, and just my fascination with the whole influence of blues on country music as well.”
She found the perfect partner to facilitate the exploration in Colin Linden (coincidentally a former Torontonian living in Nashville), who has a formidable resume as producer, player, and collaborator in the realms of electric and acoustic blues, folk, and country. “He totally understood where I was coming from,” says Ortega, “the vibe and the style and the eras that were influential to where I wanted to go and pay tribute to.”
Label owner Taylor sees the new record as a bit more developed and coherent, too. He points out that “ ‘Little Red Boots’ was a quick response . . . to get music out into the world fast. ‘Cigarettes & Truckstops’ is a more refined approach . . . [the] songwriting, production, and artwork are all more laser-focused.” That development shows up in songs like “Heaven Has No Vacancy,” where Ortega says she tackled a type of topic (the Catholic Church’s view of suicides) that she hadn’t broached before, and in the eerie “Murder of Crows,” her attempt at contributing to the murder-ballad tradition from a female perspective.
One thing hasn’t changed, though. Ortega’s little red boots — which gave her 2011 album its name and a prediction, via its title song (“You’re gonna know me by my little red boots”) — are front and center on the cover of “Cigarettes & Truckstops.”
“On tour, people were constantly commenting on the boots,” Ortega comments. “I guess they really stood out on the stage. So I thought, well, if they don’t remember me for the music, they’ll remember me for the boots. I continue to wear them even though I’m on my second record with the label. They’re almost like my lucky charm or something.”Stuart Munro can be reached at sj.munro