While the traditional country of Canadas Lindi Ortega and the vintage Southern California punk of Social Distortion may seem an unlikely pairing, both acts which perform Friday at the Fillmore Charlotte have much in common. The rising singer-songwriter and Mike Ness punk-rock band both end their sets with Johnny Cash covers.
Ortega spoke to the Observer from a tour stop in Cleveland in October about Cash, her unlikely path to the stage and her killer new album, Cigarettes & Truckstops.
Q. How did you start writing songs?
The first thing I wrote was when this guy I was seeing in high school dumped me before prom. It was called Faded Dress, about how I didnt get to wear that dress. My dad was a bass player in a Latino band and had this equipment around. I figured if I learned three chords, I could write a song. I had this thing happen and I kept writing.
Q. At what point did you think it could be a career?
It wasnt until I played a show on a stage. It was the euphoria of performing your music on stage.
Q. Theres some great imagery on the album. Lead Me On has a horse doing circles.
Unfortunately, Ive been in a lot of relationships that have started like that. It was the fifth or sixth time, and it was just an image that popped into my head. This old work horse being led around with a carrot and never actually getting it. It works with the alt country vibe, with the old timey country-esque inspirations I go for.
Q. Murder and death?
Im fascinated by dark things. I like the juxtaposition of the human condition. For anybody, its not a constant state of happiness unless youre downing Percocet. Im a big fan of Day of the Dead. They go to the graves and bring them candies. I think whats really cool is taking this dark subject matter and making it colorful and happy. One of my big country-music heroes is Johnny Cash these dark-subject-matter songs are set to kind of upbeat chords and musicality. I love that.
Q. Heaven Has No Vacancy sounds like Cash couldve recorded it. What inspired it?
That particular song was me exploring philosophy and religion, mental issues. Id finished watching a documentary called The Bridge, about people committing suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge. I dont think we understand that people who are afflicted with serious depression, how trapped and how sad their lives are. The fact that in some religions they wont be accepted into heaven if they were to kill themselves doesnt sit well with me. It struck a chord in me. I feel like you can take what you will out of that song if youre struggling with belief or whatever. Speaking of Johnny Cash, the chains on the drums were inspired by Aint No Grave."
Q. Didnt you study philosophy?
I went to university and got a degree in it.
Q. Similar to Cash, your music often has this lonesome feel to it.
Its easy for me to tap into loneliness and longing. Being an only child of two immigrant parents (from Ireland and Mexico) and a bit of a loner and introverted, that loneliness was a constant in my life. I felt alien to the world until music came along.
Q. Where did the interest in country come from?
My mother. I recall her listening to old Cash, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson. I remember watching the Dolly Parton variety show. I was attracted to all things Southern and country western. I really liked cowboy movies and pretty much everything about the aesthetic and the style. (Even non-country acts) Mazzy Star and Cat Power, (who) were an influence, had some Southern twang to what they do.
Q. Were there not a lot of acts playing traditional country in Toronto?
I wasnt doing the kind of music anyone else was doing. People thought it was a bit weird.
Q. How are Social Ds punkier crowds?
I feel like punk is more a mentality than an actual genre. Its accepting of people with conviction.
Q. Given your sound, are you a collector of anything vintage?
I love old license plates. I want to have an entire wall. If I had more money, I would want all my furniture to be vintage. Things have stories, and I like the idea of creating stories and thinking about where they mightve been. I have an old makeup case from the 50s. I envision who mightve owned it.