Lindi Ortega in wonderland as she relocates to Calgary, rejuvenates her love of music

There are several things that Lindi Ortega enthuses over about her new home of Calgary.

There’s the proximity to the mountains, there’s the constant sunshine even in chilly winter weather and there’s even the food and vibe of downtown BBQ and music mecca The Palomino.

But there’s one thing that the Canadian alt country artist mentions that perhaps best describes the city and her own state of mind these days.

“What’s really cool for me is the fact that I came home from Nashville one night and there was snow on the ground and it was great,” Ortega says during a remarkably generous and engaging 30-minute conversation. “But my favourite bit was the white rabbits that are everywhere.”

She laughs freely. “I thought I was in Alice in Wonderland. There were these beautiful white rabbits hopping around the street — it was pretty beautiful, I loved it, it felt magical.”

Again, the picture Ortega paints is one that befits her current state of mind, her newfound bliss — thanks in great part to the reason for her recent relocation, her engagement to JJ Shiplett’s guitarist Daniel Huscroft — and her renewed sense of purpose when it comes to her main passion and purpose.

“It’s looking up, it’s looking up these days,” she says simply.

“I’ve got nothing to complain about now, not at all, and I’m looking forward to putting out some more music.”

That’s good news for longtime fans of the T.O.-born tumbleweed with angel wings, those who’ve followed her 15-year career, specifically the last third of it which has produced a quartet of almost timeless, wonderfully antiquated odes to classic country and its modern masters — Dolly, Emmylou, Lucinda, etc.

And for those folks and fans, there’s a little taste of what’s to come with the release last week of a new four-song offering from Ortega called Til the Goin’ Gets Gone.

The sensational self- and help-produced EP is even more welcome manna when you consider that it began life as her last, may never have happened at all.

“It was something that happened that I didn’t think was going to happen. I thought I was,” she says and pauses. “I thought I was probably going to throw in the towel musically. And then I had a bit of a change of heart.”

That would come later. And for myriad reasons.

But what got her to the point of perhaps walking away from it all is something worth exploring, something that Gets Gone deals with at its tender heart and tortured soul.

Ortega admits that a year or so ago, still living in Nashville, she was feeling incredibly “burnt out,” having gone through album cycle after album cycle after album cycle after album cycle, recording, releasing, and touring with virtually no breaks and no time to recharge.

“Even the year I didn’t release a record I was still touring like crazy,” she says.

“So I think it just all culminated in — it burnt me out a little bit. And on top of that, I wasn’t making any money. I was broke and I was having a hard time paying my rent. And I thought, ‘I’m working so damn hard and I can’t pay my rent: there’s something not right here.’

“So I didn’t have a whole lot of incentive to keep going.”

She notes that even the success she did have — the almost universal critical acclaim that each outing received, her constant appearances on Top 10 and stars-to-watch/saviours-of-country-music lists — wasn’t enough, stating plainly that “critical acclaim doesn’t pay bills.”

“There’s the dark underside that people don’t talk about and I understand why they don’t want to,” she says of the realities of the music biz before laughing. 

“They don’t want to talk about how a carton of eggs is meant to make breakfast, lunch and dinner last for a week and stuff like that. There’s a huge lack of security there. Living in the States I didn’t have health care, I wasn’t able to afford to go to a doctor. It’s tough, it’s tough because you work really hard and have very little money.

“And I’m not trying to whine and complain and be woe is me, because this is the situation for a lot of artists, not just me.

“Sometimes it’s hard to keep yourself afloat on your passion and love for what you do when there’s bills to pay.”

So she actually, in her mind, was ready to say goodbye. Without a record label, without a steady income, she was ready to walk away from her dream.

But not without one last song, one last curtain call, one Final Bow.

“That was the moment where I was pretty sure I was done making music,” she says of the devastatingly defeated, beautifully bleary and thoroughly through piano ballad that closes the EP. 

“I’d sort of come to that conclusion in my mind and I was finished a bottle of wine and had it sat up on the amp beside my piano and I thought, ‘Well, let’s write one more song and see what I got.’

“And that’s what came out.”

Thank whatever deity, creator or cosmic energy you pray to that it did.

The song would set the tone — artistically and emotionally — for what the record would become when Ortega finally came to the realization that one final black swan song wasn’t all that she had left in her, that there really was a reason, or reasons, to keep plugging and plunking away at her musical mission.

“At the final hour I said, ‘There’s all these people that come to my shows and buy my records and support me, and I don’t want to let them down. I owe it to them to keep going and to continue to try and put out quality work, and pick myself up and dust myself off and keep at ’er,’ ” she says.

And it was those same supporters that also nudged her in the direction that Final Bow was facing, that of a more stripped-down and acoustic affair, even further away from the games that Nashville people play.

“I don’t want to play that game, I’m not really interested in chasing the carrot really,” she says and laughs again. “I was listening to the fans.

“The reason why the EP sounds the way it does is that I would put up little clips of songs that I was working on and fans would request that I would do a more acoustic recording or album or whatever.

“So I listened to that because they’re the ones that come to the shows and they’re the ones that support me and I need to do right by them.”

In doing so, she also did right by herself and everyone else.

Til the Goin’ Gets Gone, which was recorded in Nashville with a small group of friends that included her guitarist James Robertson with help from co-producers Jay Tooke and Jason “Rowdy” Cope, is disappointing only in its brevity, but delivering in its four tracks more emotion, feeling, life lived and lost than any barstool or ’tender could speak to.

But it also speaks specifically to Ortega’s mindset prior to and during its creation. It actually plays out in reverse order, with the resigned Final Bow closing things out and the EP opening with the somewhat more optimistic title track, one that speaks not of a journey that’s yet over, but the road that lies ahead. It’s one that, in the song, Ortega envisions she’ll keep going down, offering that you’ll see her “on the 66 in a vintage Cadillac.”

“That’s me saying all of the lessons that I’ve learned and all of the pitfalls that I’ve been through, all of the ditches that I’ve been in hopefully all will culminate in a point where things are a little easier and the roads a little smoother and I can go out riding into the sunset,” she says.

“So it’s kind of like, yeah, you’re going to deal with struggles in life and there’s going to be shit thrown at you but at the end if you just keep sticking with it you’ll have this moment of smooth sailing.”

The final original track on the album, What A Girl’s Gotta Do, is just as defiant, just as optimistic, just as gorgeous.

As for the fourth song that fills out Gets Gone, that’s from the deep, dark well of hopelessness and humanity that the late, great Townes Van Zandt supped from for most of his tragic but fruitful existence. It’s a truly desolate and lonesome cover of his grim Waitin’ Around to Die, that Ortega somehow manages to make even more grim.

Surprisingly, the singer admits that she’d never actually listened to the Americana icon before last year, having been aware of him only by name — “Heroes would talk about him,” she says — and that people would often point her in his direction.

“So I got back from a tour one day and said, ‘OK I’m just going to sit down with this Townes Van Zandt fellah and get to know him.’ And I fell absolutely madly in love with the music …,” she says of the songwriter who died at the age of 52 due to years of addiction.

“He has a very sad story but he has beautiful songs that help all of us. When you go through dark times, you put on a Townes song and know you’re not alone. That’s part of the human condition.”

Well, these days it’s not really part of her condition. As noted earlier, life is going along pretty wonderfully for Ortega, including her career.

As usual, Til the Goin’ Gets Gone has earned her nothing but praise and adoration from those who’ve had the pleasure of hearing it, critics and all, and she’s currently in the midst of a huge Canadian arena tour opening for Chris Stapleton — a big-time opportunity tour that will bring her back to Calgary for a Friday night Saddledome show.

She’s also feeling a renewed spark of artistic impulse and inspiration, revealing that a full-length from her could possibly come later this year, next at the very, very latest.

“I have every intention to make a whole record in the same vein as this EP, for sure. I’ve got songs in my back pocket that I’m working on,” she says noting that she has no timeframe and that has actually instilled in her a sense of freedom on every level.

“It’s very important for me that this next venture I feel very, very confident in what I’m putting out and there’s no rushing involved, and I’m proud of every single song and recording on there. Then I can put it out into the world and not hold my breath and wonder if people will like it, I’ll just be happy with the fact that I’m proud of it and I like it.”

She continues. “Maybe, I guess, the lesson I learned in all of it is to try and strike a bit of a better balance between the hard going, crazy touring and working really hard versus giving myself some time to reflect and soak in the experiences I have and live normally for a month or two here and there.”

And when she does that will be back in her newly adopted home, one that has all of those aforementioned amenities and more — including a house that she and her husband-to-be are renting, a post-war two-bedroom abode in the city that has everything her Nashville bachelor apartment didn’t, such as space and all of the appliances anyone could want or need.

“It’s amazing,” she says with a laugh.

“I don’t have to wash my clothes in the sink and hang them on my balcony any more.”

Apparently Wonderland comes in many different forms.

You should appreciate it when it does.

Lindi Ortega opens for Chris Stapleton Friday night at the Saddledome. Her new album Til the Goin’ Gets Gone is available now.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at He likes beer. Buy him one.