Lindi Ortega gives fair warning: “Don’t come any closer to my heart /If you’re afraid of the dark.”
However, that shroud is slowly lifted in Liberty. As the narrative unfolds in this concept album, a central character emerges – one who finally sheds the darkness of her past and emerges into the light. As melodies and tempos change throughout Liberty — and its accompanying album of solo instrumentals, Liberty: Piano Songbook — her journey carries her steadily forward.
The melodies and arrangements of Liberty draw on the epic work of Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone, who became one of Ortega’s musical obsessions during the writing and recording of Liberty. Moreover, she enlisted Nashville producer Skylar Wilson (Joshua Hedley, Justin Townes Earle, Rayland Baxter) when she discovered their shared passion for Quentin Tarantino movies.
During the Liberty sessions, Ortega and Wilson scaled back the boot-stomping, throwback country approach that she’s known for, instead polishing a set of music that reflects her lineage. Her father is Mexican; her mother is Irish. The spaghetti-Western sonic landscape of Liberty is enhanced by Nashville band Steelism, known for their dramatic blend of pedal steel guitar and electric guitar, as well as Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy on harmonica.
Liberty received widespread acclaim, with Pitchfork finding Ortega “celebrating her artistic freedom by showing us how an old pop-culture tradition can be made new and vibrant. NPR’s Weekend Edition called Liberty “a journey that takes you to unexpected places” — a journey Ortega unexpectedly extended with Liberty: The Piano Songbook.
“I didn’t feel like I was quite done with Liberty,” Ortega says. “I didn’t want to write a full sequel, but it needed something else. This seemed like a logical next step to take.”
Ortega and Wilson developed the concept for the Piano Songbook, with multi-instrumentalist Robbie Crowell (Kesha, Midland, Deer Tick), who had played with Ortega previously, recording the solo arrangements at Creative Workshops in Nashville. The fresh versions of these songs transform them, moving away from the spaghetti-Western production while maintaining a cinematic tone that musically complements the lyrical themes of Liberty.
“I created Liberty for people going through a struggle,” says Ortega, who wrote the songs out of her own vulnerabilities, including self-image issues. “I wanted to extend that with the Piano Songbook, and I hope it adds an extra soothing element.”
While Ortega does play piano, having another musician record Liberty: Piano Songbook allowed her the critical distance to enjoy her songs as a listener, free of the self-critical ear artists typically bring to their own work.
“I find myself appreciating the melodies,” she says. “I can pay attention to them when I’m not having to pay attention to what my voice is like or how I’m singing.”
Ortega staged a North American and European headlining tour in 2018, and also toured with Jason Isbell and Asleep at the Wheel. In August, she released Liberty: Parkhill Sessions, recorded at the Parkhill Studios in Calgary, Alberta. The EP featured stripped-down versions of three Liberty songs — “The Comeback Kid,” “Forever Blue” and “Lovers in Love,” recast as a duet with Corb Lund.
“Even though I always tried to have a silver lining, whether it's by making my songs tongue-in-cheek, or writing some dark lyrics to happy music, there's always been an element of balancing light and dark on my previous albums,” Ortega explains. “But this is a full story, and I wanted everybody to be able to take something away from it at the end of the day.”