The idea behind Lindi Ortega's song Murder of Crows seems simple enough.
Take one of those outlaw-murder ballads about desperate men doing terrible things and write it from a female perspective. The resulting swampy-blues number lands at the halfway point of Ortega's Cigarettes and Truckstops disc. It tells the tale of a femme fatale who buries her man in the backyard but seems more haunted by the fear of getting caught, or perhaps eternal damnation, than any sort of personal guilt.
"Have mercy on my soul," howls Ortega in the song's pleading chorus.
On a cellphone from a tour stop near Montreal, the Toronto-born, Nashville-based songwriter assures us the tune was an attempt to step outside autobiographical writing. One of the few co-writes on the album, she penned Murder of Crows with Matt Nolen, a staffer at the singer's Nashville publishing company.
"I think he was really excited about tackling that subject matter," says Ortega. "He's usually trying to get a cut on the next Taylor Swift or Carrie Underwood (album), the new-country realm of things. So when I walked into that writing session, I said, 'I'm a big fan of Johnny Cash and I love Folsom Prison and Delia and I want to do a take on a murder ballad.' I think as a writer he thought that was interesting because I don't think he normally gets to write murder ballads when he's getting up in the morning to go to his writing job.'"
Of course, even before she posed as a murderous lover, Ortega never had all that much in common with your average Nashville-approved modern diva. She proved that on 2011's Little Red Boots, a Polaris Prize long-listed and Juno-nominated album that established her as a fresh voice in country who nevertheless had a healthy reverence for the historic outlaw strains of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard.
Ironically, she may have captured her largest American audience a few months back with a cameo on ABC's Nashville, a critically acclaimed drama that explores the ins and outs of manufacturing a new-country starlet.
Ortega played herself in the show, offering a rendition of her own sly rockabilly number The Day You Die. So it's no surprise that when Ortega relocated from Toronto to the Music City a few years back, she was drawn more to the town's outlaw past than its focus on new-country star-making.
"There's a lot of history there from all the country greats," she said. "Everyone has sort of passed through, and if they haven't passed through then they pissed it off or something. Nashville is that kind of town. When I went there I went to the Grand Ole Opry, I went to Tootsies and Robert's Western World and sat in there and tried to imagine what it would be like back in the day and just tried to absorb all that. I'm sure it's had some effect on my music."
When it came to recording the followup to Little Red Boots, Ortega enlisted fellow expat Colin Linden, a producer and guitarist who performs as a solo artist and with country-folk trio Blackie and the Rodeo Kings. She had a specific sound in her head for Cigarettes and Truckstops, one that would recall the country greats that were in her parents' record collection when she was growing up in the Toronto suburbs.
Ortega may get lumped in with the alt-country crowd, but her approach on this album was old-school.
"Colin and I had a talk and I said I was a big fan of that classic country sound and the way things were recorded back then," Ortega says. "I loved the Sun Studio's recordings. He was responsible for putting together the right group of players and getting the right studios and helping me put that vintage stamp on the music that I make."
Still, while Cigarettes and Truckstops may be a tip of the hat to the ghosts of country past, it covers a lot of ground, both lyrically and musically. Ortega shows a winking sense of humour on the dreamy Use Me, in which she offers herself up to a lover in place of his usual intoxicants. The yearning title track is a classic heartbreaker, Don't Wanna Hear It is a defiant blues-rocker and Heaven Has No Vacancy is gorgeous, gospel-tinged melodrama.
Fans can get a glimpse of Ortega's varied influences on her Facebook page, where she not only offers sneak peeks of newly written material but also an endearingly diverse grab bag of cover tunes, usually recorded in her hotel room after shows. She has offered everything from Merry Christmas, Baby to Nancy Sinatra's Bang Bang.
Before Ortega hit the road for her current tour with Dustin Bentall and the Smokes (which hits the Park Theatre on Valentine's Day), she did two tours with L.A. punk-rockers Social Distortion, a pairing that initially may have initially seemed curious, at least on paper.
But anyone who has witnessed her live performance knows Ortega can stand boot-to-boot with any punk-rocker when it comes on onstage energy.
And the more she toured, the more she realized there wasn't all that much of a gap between punks and outlaws. Ortega certainly straddles the genres with her look. Alongside those famous little red cowboy boots, her penchant for black dresses and veils conveys a certain nihilism. The New York Times recently said she looks "dressed for a rockabilly funeral." You can't get more punk-rock than that.
"There's a lot of country-loving in those punks," Ortega says. "They just love the outlaw country, which makes sense, if you think about it. The outlaw movement was like a punk movement in a way. People started growing their hair long and started singing about whisky and weed and murder."
-- Postmedia News