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First Play: Lindi Ortega, Liberty

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By
Holly Gordon

Lindi Ortega's western noir aesthetic has been a matching trademark for the singer's alt-country music, a birdcage veil and cherry-red boots often completing her onstage outfits. In a recent essay for Lenny Letter — actor Lena Dunham's twice-weekly newsletter — Ortega opened up about the origin of those face-covering stage costumes.

Ever since being bullied in front of classmates over her looks at the age of 13, Ortega wrote, "[I have] struggled with my appearance, and my self-image grew so distorted that I actually felt I was deformed." She tells in heartbreaking detail how she was diagnosed with body dysmporphic disorder in her 20s, and how she often refused to leave the house because her "compulsive grooming, hiding and concealing rituals consumed so much energy."

A birdcage veil — or, at the beginning, sunglasses — was what Ortega used to shield herself, to feel more comfortable while performing. Years after her diagnosis and what she describes as invaluable therapy, Ortega is now sometimes able to wear a cowboy hat onstage, "letting my bare face shine to the audience."

"I am not cured of [body dysmorphic disorder], but I have learned to cope," Ortega writes. "People often ask me where my dark, lonely songs come from. This is that place."

Two weeks after sharing her essay, Ortega releases another vulnerable part of herself into the world: her fifth full-length album, Liberty. A character-driven concept album in three parts, it's heavily influenced by the melodies and arrangements of spaghetti western soundtrack pioneer Ennio Morricone. Recorded at Battle Tapes Recording in East Nashville, half of Liberty was written by Ortega, while the other half was co-written by Aaron Ratiere, Bruce Wallace and John Paul White (the Civil Wars), who produced some of her last album, Faded Gloryville. With the sum of all parts, Liberty is a vivid story of the Comeback Kid making her way from dark, lonely songs to something lighter.

Punctuated by three instrumental tracks — the second one kickstarting with the sound of a gunshot — Liberty is Ortega's most cohesive, yet delightfully unpredictable, album yet. On "You Ain't Foolin' Me," Ortega sings atop a driving drum beat and teasing guitar, insinuating that she knows how — and when — she's been lied to, while the country waltz of the following track, "Nothing's Impossible," sets the scene for the love story ahead. "The Comeback Kid" is a more traditional Ortega boot-stomper (not a complaint), and it's also the midpoint of Liberty's story, where it's clear that Ortega is taking matters into her own hands. The final track, a cover of Chilean composer Violeta Parra's "Gracias a la Vida," is a fitting full stop to Liberty's cinematic tracklist.

It's easy to picture a full film paired with Liberty, one that tells the story of a character on the fringes, making her way through the world to a life that makes sense for her. Crafted by a singer who's been relegated to Canadian alt-country status because she fits in multiple corners of folk, country and Americana — and who released 2017's Til the Goin' Gets Gone, a beautiful, heartbreaking EP about possibly giving up singing — it's also easy to picture Ortega as Liberty's Comeback Kid.

You can preview Ortega's full album via this First Play one week before its release in the player above (and pre-order it here), and the singer takes us through each (non-instrumental) track below to guide us along her character's story.

'Afraid of the Dark'

"This song speaks to those who feel a darkness within, so much so that they feel it would be difficult for anyone to love them. They feel their heart is black and anyone who tries to get close will only get sucked into their dark world of sadness and depression. I reference a horse in the beginning because often horses get spooked by things that don't feel right; the horse is meant as a warning to stay away or the darkness will consume you. The character is meant to embody the darkness."

'You Ain't Foolin Me'

"Our character seems to have some unsavory friends — particularly the backstabbing, two-faced variety — but is wise to this and knows maybe it's time to give these friends the boot. Some southerners say the phrase 'Bless your heart' may have negative connotations, and while it appears like a lovely thing to say, it is sometimes meant in a mean-spirited way. I was drawing from that concept when I wrote this song. The mean folks parading as angels but we know they ain't no angels."

'Til My Dyin' Day

"In this song, our character faces a loss of someone dear to them; perhaps a childhood sweetheart. The character laments their loss and the world seems so dreary without that person. Lines likes 'it's raining even when the sun is out' refers to the idea that it doesn’t matter that the sun may be shining when one is overcome with grief. Sometimes it feels as if we could cry forever."

Nothing’s Impossible

"Almost a sister song to 'Til My Dyin' Day,' the main character resorts to crazy things, like holding a seance to raise the dead and make deals with the devil to get them back. Reenacting the scenes of when they were alive together in hopes that the thing that goes bump in the night is actually the ghost of the deceased."

The Comeback Kid

"Perhaps this song could be part of the trilogy of loss, seance and resurrection. We have a character in this song who was shot but somehow didn't die. Now, they’re ready to haunt. Our character has been through a lot up until this point but they've now defied death and the tide is about to turn."

Darkness be Gone

"This is a song of real transition. The character has had to deal with a few demons but this is the final one blocking the path to the light. At first, it seems like a monumental task but somewhere in hell, the angels can be heard singing and banishing the dark, thus giving hope of finding the light. The chorus was purposely meant to be juxtaposing to the darkness of the verses to convey this transition from dark to light."

Forever Blue

"In this song, the character is making a conscious decision to follow the light and leave the darkness behind. It's time to survive and to find contentment and peace, but you can't achieve that following the storm. The spooked horse from the first song is now a trusty steed and a companion to ride into the sun with. Together they will ride away from the turmoil."

In the Clear

"Looks like they've made it. Looks like they found an oasis. It's full of sunshine and calm waters and blue skies. A happy place. Let's stay awhile and enjoy it. This song was inspired by a letter that my co-writer (Aaron Raitere) picked up and read to me during our session. He writes letters to random folks and they write back. This was one of the letters, which made mention of how there were 'no hurricanes here,' and it became the basis for this tune. Inspiration can come from the most random of places and things."

Pablo

"This was the first time I’ve ever written and recorded anything in Spanish. It was exciting and scary at the same time because, while my father is fluent in the language, I’m not. It was important to me to do it well. The song was inspired by my husband (then fiancé). He's a beautiful guitar player and songwriter and I wanted to write a song based on him but also fit in line with the character on the record. Our character finds love and inspiration from Pablo."

Lovers in Love

"Now that the character has met Pablo and found love, we speak of how being in love is much more fruitful than one-night stands and boozy flings. Our lives are enriched by this deep connection when partners make it past the fireworks of initial attraction, have lived and experienced a little together. We now have a deep and meaningful connection to another soul."

Liberty

"At the end of our journey, we are finally free. We are liberated from the dark and oppressive forces that shackled the mind and spirit. Now we have the power to be what we want because we are in control of our own destiny and nothing is holding us back."

Gracias a La Vida

"I chose to close the album with this song by the lovely Chilean composer Violeta Parra because this is a song that expresses gratitude for simply being alive and appreciating life's wonders. I thought it would be the perfect song to send a message of love and light to my fans, and the end of this harrowing journey from dark to light."

Find me on Twitter: @hollygowritely

Related:

Lindi Ortega: 'Til the Goin' Gets Gone

Lindi Ortega and Kira Isabella on why we still need to talk about women in country music