On the title track of her latest (and freshly Juno-nominated) album, Tin Star, Lindi Ortega viscerally recalls feeling like a beat-up, rusty tin star, lost among Nashville's blinding constellation of new-country chart-toppers.
But Ortega's star is rising -- and shining.
In the past couple of years, Winnipeggers have seen the Toronto-by-way-of-Nashville country singer/songwriter -- whose dusky drawl is a dead ringer for Jolene-era Dolly's, filtered through the ink-black lens of Johnny Cash -- open for everyone from Social Distortion to k.d. lang, and play the Winnipeg Folk Festival mainstage. She's released three albums in as many years -- 2011's breakthrough Little Red Boots (named for her signature lipstick-hued cowboy boots), 2012's Polaris Music Prize-longlisted Cigarettes & Truckstops and 2013's Tin Star -- and she's toured tirelessly all over the world in support of them, racking up accolades for her punk rock-inflected brand of outlaw country.
This weekend, she'll join the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra for a run of shows that will feature reworkings of her high and lonesome tunes, arranged by conductor Charles Cozens.
"It's definitely not going to be your typical Lindi Ortega show," she says over the phone. "I'm just as interested as everyone else to hear what it'll be like. I've never played with an orchestra in my life. I'm a big fan of hybrid styles of music, so I'm excited."
Like Cigarettes & Truckstops before it, Tin Star is a product of the road -- but it's more introspective than its predecessor. "A lot of what I write about is informed by my life," she says. "I tried to draw from that. This record spoke a lot to where I was musically. I'm in this place where there's been an incline in my career, but I still have a lot of work to do."
Ortega, who is in her 30s, is all too familiar with the grind of the dive-bar circuit, having worked it herself in Toronto for the better part of a decade. Before the release of Little Red Boots, her career was a series of fits and starts; she put out two obscure EPs, sang backup for the Killers' Brandon Flowers and was signed to -- and then subsequently dropped by -- Cherrytree Records, a now-defunct subsidiary of U.S. giant Interscope.
Still, Ortega would be the first one to tell you she's stubborn. She relocated to Nashville, signed a multi-album deal with indie heavyweight Last Gang Records and the rest, as they say, is history.
She's tasted success, but she also knows what it's like to struggle.
"I really felt I needed to express what that was like," she says. "I see so much in my travels and it's interesting (to see) what makes people really famous and what makes people not famous. And I think it all comes down to a stroke of luck, being in the right place at the right time. I wanted to speak to the artists I know are out there who are working really hard and, for whatever reason, haven't gotten that break. I wanted to send out a beacon to them, saying 'I appreciate you, and I'm out there with you.' I know some of my success is due to that stroke of luck."
Ortega was interested in exploring that concept within the context of her adopted city. When she sings, "Well we don't got fame/no name in lights/no Billboard hits/no sold-out nights," she beautifully articulates what it's like trying to make it in a tough, competitive town.
"Nashville is the place where many musicians go to make those dreams come true," she says. "It's to musicians what Hollywood is to actors."
For Ortega's part, her love of music is what keeps her motivated to continue to work very, very hard.
"I love the connections I get to make with people through music; it's the closest thing to magic that exists," she says. "These songs come out of the ether and, through music, people relate to them. That's really beautiful. I live for that. That's the payoff and the reward for me."
She recognizes that it's easier said than done to follow one's dreams, especially in the music industry's current climate. "If I didn't see a tangible result, I don't know if it would be worth the sacrifice of touring," she says. "I might decide to keep it as a home-based thing. But because I've seen things happen, it keeps me out there."
Still, Ortega's slow and steady climb is encouraging. She's been able to carve out a sustainable career without making creative concessions. That she's been able to do so in a city whose bread and butter is bankable pop-country music stars is doubly impressive.
"Because I'm not pandering to a certain radio format, I have a lot of freedom," she agrees. "I'm glad I stuck to my guns musically. You have to make that choice and ask yourself, 'Am I going to fit within the new country realm?' I think it puts you in a box. It's creatively limiting.
"I'm bad at being what people tell me to be. I don't know how to be anything but me -- but the more I'm me, the more people pick up on it."
While the theatres Ortega plays are bigger, she's still rocking her little red boots.
"They're like this superhero thing for me," she says. "I got them because I was a big Wonder Woman fan.
"It's funny -- when I'm onstage, I feel like a superhero. All the insecurities I have offstage disappear when I get onstage. I have this confidence I don't really have offstage. It feels like a superpower."
And, like Wonder Woman before her, she's inspired a legion of imitators.
"I sign people's red boots all the time -- and I feel bad because it's like, 'Oh, let me ruin your beautiful boots with my Sharpie,'" she says, laughing. "But I think it's amazing."