American singer/pianist FERNANDO ORTEGA has been making moving Christian music for more than 15 years. But with his latest album he has found a new creative peak, reports Mike Rimmer.
There's a dash of Paul Simon about Fernando Ortega. It hasn't struck me before but as we wander around the Hilton Hotel in Nashville, I'm uncertain whether it's his small stature or the music on his recent self-titled album that elicits this response. It is at this point that I make a fatal error of judgment. The foyer of the hotel seems a little busy and as I am recording my interview for radio as well as this magazine, we opt to plonk ourselves down on a couple of seats on the mezzanine floor. This wouldn't be a problem except that every now and again a hotel employee decides to vacuum the floor near us. We persuade him to stop.for a while!
Fernando is in fine form. The self-titled album is almost a re-invention as his signing to Curb Records gives him an opportunity to take his music in a fresh direction. His albums of worshipful songs and hymns for which he has been most famous have been distinctive and beautifully crafted but I have always wondered what would happen if he did something a little different and now he has! Was he aiming the album at the mainstream? "Well I don't feel personally that it's aimed that way," he shrugs. "It's just that I was trying to expand what I could write about. I was trying to see if, for once in my life, I could write songs that had a little bit of humour in them and light-heartedness, as everything has always been so serious. There are plenty of serious songs on this record, so I wasn't like saying 'I want to cross over' or anything like that. I just wanted to write new kinds of songs and that's what ended up coming out."
A few days earlier, I watched as Fernando stepped onto a small stage at a music showcase and wandered over to the piano stool to share songs from the new album. He chatted to the audience, telling us the stories about the songs and unveiling some amazing music. I was particularly captured by a lighter song about a lady "Mildred Madalyn Johnson". Fernando reminisced, "She was a landlady. She took me in right after I was out of college. I was dirt poor, she was dirt poor! She let me rent a room from her at $50 a month. I was teaching school at the time and she was a little bit on the eccentric side but the most giving, kind person. She poured her life into the people of the church, the people that she served. Her whole life was service. So I found a letter from her that she had written to me when I moved to LA in '84. It just inspired the song."
If I am honest, it's probably my favourite song on the album because it's so funny and yet poignant. Fernando added, "It's a tribute to her memory. I wanted it to be both because she was a funny person without particularly intending to be funny. She said funny things, she was a very light-hearted person. She didn't take herself seriously at all. I wanted to capture that idea of her travelling around in her big old car that she had. She literally could not see past the steering wheel. I don't how she managed to not get in a wreck! But at the same time, what I take very seriously about her was the fact that she lived out her devotion to God in the work of her hands. She was not a real 'preachy' person but her Christianity left such a lasting impression on me, this little old lady from East Texas, who drives a car that's too big for her but really, through her life, so many people found God and recognised God through her."
"California Town" opens the album and simply describes the place where Fernando and his wife live. It does sound really nice! "It's a little town called Laguna Beach. The song "California Town" was written at a café that's down the road. My wife and I go to it all the time. It's called The Sundried Tomato, if anybody happens to be in Laguna Beach. It's a great place! The town is sort of an artist community; there're little shops of paintings and different kinds of crafts and stuff like that. It's right on the ocean. It's probably the nicest town left in Southern California.if you ask me!"
So I sit and wonder what Fernando's life is like! Is he the kind of guy who plays in the local cafes? "Oh I wish I was!" he replies, "No, I don't play in a lot of cafés or pubs. I would love to do that kind of thing it's just, I don't get invited. I'm known only in CCM circles so I play mostly the gigs that I get asked to play like churches, theatres and things like that. I go on my tours. I played a very famous club in New York last year called the Bitter End, which is a great rock and roll club. It wasn't exactly a disaster." He pauses to reflect and continues, "Well maybe it was somewhat of a disaster! Like 15 people showed up. They charged $10 to get in and there was this huge line of people waiting for me to finish so they could come in and enjoy their drinks and hear all the rock and roll music but it was really a funny thing - but I loved it."
Thinking about some of the songs on the album, there are some themes that emerge which hook into the honesty of Ortega's walk with God. These aren't all pretty songs. Fernando explains the origin of "Noonday Devil": "It refers to the Scripture that says 'Beware the Devil that lays waste at noonday.' Which is taken to mean by certain monks in centuries past to refer to the heat of the day, of the spiritual day. Like when you're serving God and it gets so hot that you're in a desert situation. There's no emotional contact with God. He doesn't seem to be really connected with you in a prayer life and all the good things that you are doing seem to be in vain. So it heads towards a spiritual depression. This song is about that; spiritual depression. The chorus saying 'God please, just don't leave me in this place but move me out of here. Lift me out of this place. Make me angry, or make me cry.devastate me somehow but just don't leave me in this place of nothingness.'"
There is a sense as you wander around Nashville that Christian music artists don't have any problems! There is the perfect image but Fernando admits, "The truth is very different. I don't know anybody that doesn't get that way. I do know people who I always admire for their consistency in everything; but for the most part, the Christians I know go through times of deep doubt and struggle and questioning what in the world God is trying to do."
Ortega has made a career out of creating albums that are filled with such calm and peace and beauty and yet along with "Noonday Devil" dealing with spiritual depression, there is also "Sleepless Night" that addresses his insomnia. "I've had insomnia for years! Last night I went through that. I can go to sleep okay, 10 o'clock at night, and at 1 o'clock in the morning, I'm wide awake. It's just something I've learned to live with. These days, if I pick up a book and read, it will put me right back to sleep. Sometimes I just wake up and I'm flooded with worries. I have unreasonable anxieties, you know? Sometimes I'm even obsessing over things I said 20 years ago to somebody. Then you wake up in the morning and you're saying 'Why was I so upset over that?!' I guess that's just part of being an insomniac. So "Sleepless Night" is a prayer that God would just speak to me, lift me and hold me through it; because it can be really quite dramatic when you're in the middle of one of those things."
So how does Fernando deal with the insomnia physically and spiritually? "What I try to do the next day is not to take a nap. I just work really hard, physically and I'll go out and do stuff in the garden. Then usually that night, I can catch up a little bit. If I get five or six hours sleep, that's a very good night of sleep. Last night I had about three and I'm okay today but, you know; I guess you just learn to deal with it different ways."
My jet lagged self can relate to what he's saying. Flying into Nashville I stayed up until bedtime American time and still woke up three hours later despite having been up nearly 24 hours! The only consolation is that one of the channels on my hotel TV was showing the DVD of Fernando's album so I was able to enjoy live performances of these songs from an excellent band including producer John Schreiner and the legendary bass player Leland Sklar.
Fernando is aware that musically the album is a bit of a stretch from his previous material. His hopes for the album? "My number one hope is that the newer songs won't alienate the people that have heard my music before. I don't think they will. It just requires a little patience with the songs. And that the people, who haven't paid attention to it before, might find it appealing. This is my 12th record! It was good for me to stretch a little bit and vocally sing songs that push my voice and push my range up a little bit. So I just hope that the audience will stretch with me a little bit."
Part of the stretch began with listening to other music before the recording process started. Fernando remembers, "We were sitting around listening to old Los Lobos CDs and thought how great these sound. And a couple of Tom Waits CDs. My producer happened to know the bass player and a percussionist from Tom Waits' band, so we called these guys up and they came and played on it. So there's those kinds of sounds. Tom Waits has sort of junk-yardy percussion sounds. This guy brings in brake drums. He brings in bedsprings and plays them with his spoons, scraping against them! There's all of those things on the record that he brought, that I thought made it sound just a little bit more mysterious and a little bit deeper or something. I was trying to play a little bit more rocky on the piano. Those were big stretches for me. My producer John Schreiner, who's a great rock and roll player, basically had to sit down and say 'Try this.' Then he'd show me what to play and I would experiment with it and make it my own."
The album sounds fabulous and wouldn't sound out of place on the Radio 2 playlist. It's strong enough to cross over and if he does have mainstream success, it couldn't happen to a kinder guy. The vacuum cleaner starts up, we bid our farewells and Ortega shuffles off purposefully to his next appointment.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.