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, her journey carries her steadily forward. Listen closely and you’ll find Ortega’s experiences in the lyrics too.
“I think the most important thing for me was that I ended on a very positive note because I've had so many people tell me that my songs helped them through really hard times in their life,” Ortega says. “That struck a chord for me, because just like everybody else, I have had hard times in my life, and continue to have pockets of difficult moments here and there. If I can provide some sort of solace with my music, then that gives me every reason to make music. I wanted this record to be all about helping people through the darkness.”
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 (Justin Townes Earle, Rayland Baxter) when she discovered their shared passion for Quentin Tarantino movies. It is fitting that NPR’s All Things Considered has described Ortega as “genre-defying in both her music and her personal style.”
“I’ve never had a cohesive album like this before,” she says. “This record's quite different in that I'm actually taking a bit of a step back, being softer, having more nuance in the way I'm singing, and it's been a welcome challenge. I went into this creating songs with unpredictable chord changes, which allowed for it to sound more musical and interesting to me.”
During the sessions at Battle Tapes studio in East Nashville, 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. Ortega cites Linda Ronstadt’s album Canciones de mi Padre (translated as Songs of My Father) and her mother’s vinyl collection of ‘70s country songwriters like Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson as major influences in her music today. The 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.
“I wanted to do something musical and cinematic. It was really important for me to expand my horizons and pave new ground for myself,” she says. “This is my first time singing in Spanish. I have always wanted to write chorus for a Spanish chorus for an original song. I won't claim to have the most perfect diction in the world with it. But I can say that I gave it my all, and that I felt very proud to be able to do that, because I'm a huge fan of Mexican culture. It's very different than anything I've done before and I find that really exciting.”
As the album progresses, the listener gets the sense that the protagonist is leaving behind her past, whether it’s a crowd of unsavory characters in “You Ain’t Foolin’ Me” or perhaps a lost love from childhood in “Until My Dying Day.” Grief turns to desperation in “Nothing’s Impossible” and “The Comeback Kid.” The tides begin to turn on “Darkness Be Done.” About halfway through, with “Forever Blue,” the character makes a choice to follow the light.
Meanwhile the song “Pablo” is inspired by her new husband, Daniel Huscroft. With a lilting melody and clever lyrics, “Lovers in Love” showcases Ortega’s skillful songwriting. For Liberty, she composed roughly half of the songs alone. On the remaining tracks, her co-writers include Aaron Raitiere, Bruce Wallace and John Paul White (The Civil Wars).
Throughout her career, Ortega has remained committed to putting on a good performance for her audience. Most nights, she will come out after the show to sign autographs, take photos, and just visit. When she shared her stunning wedding photos on social media, she admits that her followers were quite alarmed. They expressed their concern that the flow of sad songs would come to an abrupt halt. After hearing Liberty, those listeners will realize there was no need to worry.
“When you have experiences that are dark, you can always draw from that well. You don't forget it. You don't erase it -- I don't ever want to erase it because it makes me who I am,” Ortega says. “And it helps me relate to other people who have similar experiences. You can't truly appreciate happiness in life unless you've understood what it's like to feel the opposite way.”
Ortega concludes the album with “Gracia a la Vida” from the pen of Chilean composer Violetta Parra. The title translates as “Thank you to Life.”
“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 want everybody to be able to take something away from it at the end of the day.” - Craig Shelburne