Lindi Ortega's No Elvis Presley

Crédit photo: Handout/Last Gang Records Lindi Ortega's No Elvis Presley

Lindi Ortega says she's no superstar. Or, more truthfully, she sings as much. “I know I’m not legendary, I’m nothing extraordinary,” the singer-songwriter trills in her Dolly Parton warble on “I’m No Elvis Presley,” a rollicking cut on the Toronto artist’s 2011 disc, Little Red Boots.

That record is up for a best Roots & Traditional (Solo) Album Juno this year -- and Ortega herself is being recognized with a Best New Artist nod -- two honours that arguably fall outside of ordinary. “Oh, gosh!” says Ortega, over the phone from her relatively new digs in Nashville. “It’s completely unexpected to me, I’m still getting used to the fact that I got nominated.”

Still flustered and giggly, a month after nominations day? It’s believable -- especially if you’ve sampled Ortega’s Little Red Boots. Never mind what trivia you may know about her backstory -- a Pickering, Ontario-raised musician who released two solo albums, sang backup for Brandon Flowers and found herself on (then off) a U.S. record deal with Cherrytree Records before embracing her inner alt-country cowgirl and creating Little Red Boots. That album tells a pocketful of struggling-artist stories. There’s “Fall Down or Fly,” for instance, a weary ballad about persevering with your dreams, no matter the knocks. Then there’s the aforementioned “Elvis Presley” -- and there’s a career set-back origin story behind that one, which Ortega’s happy to share.

“There was a showcase in L.A. a little while ago, I guess it was a couple years ago now,” says Ortega, setting the scene. “Showcases are always weird things, especially in L.A.," she laughs, “when people show up from the industry they’re always on their Blackberries. You don’t know whether people are enjoying what you’re doing or not.”

But there was “one particular agent fellow” who left his feedback, e-mailing Ortega his review after the show. “He said something to the effect of ‘You’ve got potential, but I don’t see [you] being legendary.’ Which I thought was a really unfair thing to say! That’s a lot of pressure.”

Ortega laughs about it now. At the time, though, her reaction was different. “I just thought as a little response to that, just a little cheeky response, I would write ‘Elvis Presley.’ Because I know that a lot of artists that are going through those situations, and I’m not just talking musicians, but anybody who’s in the field of art. It’s a very subjective thing,” she says, “I wanted to write an anthem for the fellow artist.”

“I’m no Elvis Presley” is gentle as far as tell-off tracks go. The snidest line you’ll find is the chorus’ final refrain of “I’m no Elvis Presley, who the hell are you?” It did the trick, though. “Every time I sing that song I feel good about it,” says Ortega. “I never had to say anything to that guy, and I find you can get a lot of things accomplished with song. You can avoid the situation and you can just get it out in song and make yourself feel better at the end of the day.”

By her recollection, Ortega’s been singing herself through experiences like that L.A. showcase for, “gosh, over a decade.” She describes her Best New Artist nomination in one word: “hilarious.” (After the giggles dissipate, she adds a few more: “But I get it! I totally get it! I’ve been around for a very long time, but that’s all relative, right? It’s who knows you.”)

“I was doing sort of the grind in Toronto,” says Ortega of her beginnings, “doing all the coffee houses and open stages and little hole in the wall bars.” In 2001, she released her first album, A Taste of Forbidden Fruit. A second, Fall From Grace, followed in 2007 -- which she’s previously described as an “almost vaudeville cabaret type of album.”

“I guess it wasn’t until I met my producer Ron Lopata (Tomi Swick, Jully Black) that real doors started to open for me. That really wasn’t -- that was maybe four and half years ago that stuff started happening. That’s when I feel like I became more of a professional musician,” says Ortega, who recently came off a tour of Europe, and starts a North American trek, supporting punk veterans Social Distortion, in April.

“A lot of people would’ve given up or whatever and there’s that whole ageism thing where once you get older you hear ‘Well, I guess it’s time to throw in the towel or whatever,’ but for me, I genuinely love to sing, as cliché as that sounds. I couldn’t stop. You know?”

Showcases like the one that inspired “Elvis Presley” certainly didn’t stop her. “Yeah, you get stuff like that,” she says. “You just sort of roll with the punches. At least, that’s what I do. I’ve dealt with a lot of this” -- which has made her two Juno nominations so much sweeter.

“Oh, gosh! I’m very flattered about that, and it’s definitely a different side of the coin for me,” she says, adding that she’s not expecting anything extraordinary out of her upcoming trip to Ottawa, but she does hope for one little thing. “Canada in general, in terms of me releasing my records and all of that stuff, was a little slow coming to recognizing what was happening,” says Ortega. “Hopefully [the Junos] will get a few more Canadian folk to check me out. … That’s all I want out of this.”

Lindi Ortega is nominated for Best New Artist and Roots & Traditional Album of the Year (Solo). The Juno Awards are broadcast live from Ottawa, Sunday, April 1 on CTV.

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