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Fernando Ortega Bibliography: (click on each album cover to view tracks and Fernando Ortega lyrics)
Fernando Ortega Biography
After all this time ... After all the music ... After all his performances throughout the world, bringing hope and comfort to listeners whether radiant in their faith or shadowed by doubt ...
It's time to meet Fernando Ortega as you've not met him before. Which is why his next album is titled, simply, Fernando Ortega.
In his first release on the Curb imprint, Ortega offers a self-portrait that's as honest as it is inspirational. Already celebrated as a uniquely gifted singer/songwriter, he digs deep and comes up with songs that celebrate love, for family and friends, for the familiarity of one's hometown, even for a dragonfly that has darted into the picture.
But there is also fear-of failure, of weakness, of thoughts that race through restless nights-expressed sometimes directly, sometimes through metaphor and parable, always through songs as sensitively crafted as anything you can hear in any genre. It's an intricate yet intimate depiction, offering candor and trust, beckoning to draw near.
This is the key to Fernando Ortega-the album and the man.
March 2003. Ortega is home, in southern California. He and his wife Margee live near the ocean, on a sea of rolling hills shaded by eucalyptus trees. In this setting it would be easy to kick back and reflect on one's accomplishments-in his case that would include a 15 year recording career that has garnered wide critical acclaim, multiple Dove Awards and nominations, performances with musicians such as Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, Matt Slocum, eight #1 Inspirational songs in a row, according to the Christian Research Report (two of which were voted Inspirational Song of the Year), tours with artists such as Amy Grant and Vince Gill, awards from ASCAP and Billboard, a featured spot at a Billy Graham Crusade ...
Instead, he's restless. He knows the feeling well-it's time to write.
"That's how I am," he sighs. "I wish I could constantly write. But I've always written just for the next album, which means I have to set maybe six months aside to work under deadline. That seems to be the only way I can do it."
This means coming in from the deck, disappearing into the guest bedroom, closing the curtains, and hunkering down. On this project, though, Ortega set an additional challenge. Being with a new label stirred thoughts of taking risks and seeking something new in his music.
"I guess I was getting bored with what I'd been doing for so long," he admits. "I'd been relying on the mellowness of my voice, and now I found myself wanting to push things a little harder."
Throughout the summer, on the road, he kept writing. For a while he was in Estes Park, Colorado, at the hotel featured in the Jack Nicholson version of The Shining. "You'd walk down these halls and remember all those scenes," he laughs. "Outside it was spectacular-herds of elk would come down from the mountains in the early evening. But again, I was holed up in my room for three days, working on my lyrics for the song about the coyote."
That song, "When the Coyote Comes," captures some of the spirit Ortega was chasing. It's a "trickster" tale, offering images of danger stalking the land while the singer pleads, "Pull me from this waking dream ... Don't let my life be over. Let me come inside ..."
But that's just one side of what would emerge throughout Fernando Ortega. On his own, or partnered with two longtime collaborators, John Schreiner and Elaine Rubenstein, he created songs that each reflected bits of his image, like fractured glass. Some, such as "California Town," show him at peace: "Car lights, Pacific Highway. We look both ways, my baby and me. We find a fancy restaurant-'a table outside in a quiet corner, please.' Wind in the palm trees, candles and wine ... Remind me again-what's the question?"
("I have a lot of songs about my wife," Ortega explains. "When we walk down to the beach in our town, it's all tied in with my feelings about God and my faith. It's not something I put on and take off, like decorations on a Christmas tree.")
Then twist the kaleidoscope, and a different scene, just as true but less sanguine, tumbles into view on "Sleepless Night": " ... turning in my bed, long before the red sun's rising. In these early hours I'm falling again, into the river of my worries."
("Insomnia has become my friend," he admits. "I go to bed around eleven o'clock, then I'm awake at three for a few hours. Those hours can be filled with anxiety-unreasonable worries that go away when you fall back to sleep.")
Despair fuels the wounded demands of "Noonday Devil": "Walking through this desert, life is empty and mundane ... Oh, Lord, make me angry. Oh, Lord, make me cry."
("There are times when you want to give up, when you lose passion and it seems like your faith is in vain because God is so far removed from your life," Ortega says. "This comes from that state of spiritual depression.")
On some songs, such as "Shame," the words came from Elaine but spoke to Fernando as if they had haunted his own heart: "I am weak, sometimes weary, sometimes small. I hide away. When my hours are all accounted, please don't bind me to my shame."
("This isn't about shame in the Christian sense," he says. "It's more about looking in the mirror and feeling really insignificant or small. It's a painfully personal song in some ways.")
There are songs that recall friends who have passed through Fernando's world, including "Mildred Madalyn Johnson," his landlady while he was living at one point in Albuquerque: "A shy, pretty girl from East Texas, religious and restless ... She'd tell stories with friends after supper, ignoring the hour, a calico cat fast asleep at her side ..."
And more-"All That Time," a song of love dimmed by the years, mourned even as it assumes the permanence of memory: "It may have been love that held them fast, or want of love that made it last. Our long arms hanging at our sides, all that time, all that time ..."
And then there are the hymns-"Rock of Ages," "Immortal, Invisible," "More Love to Thee," each as much a part of Ortega as anything he's written himself.
Once the songs were finished, the sessions began. The results surprised Ortega almost from day one: "What we ended up with is more stripped down, more punchy, than anything else I've done. The vocals are a little more out; I sang more than I had in the past."
Much of the credit goes to Schreiner, who has manned the console for all but two of Ortega's albums to date, and to the musicians. Studio legend Leland Sklar alternated bass parts with Larry Taylor, whose colleague from the Tom Waits band, percussionist Steve Hodges, also joined in. "I'd been listening to Alice," Ortega explains. "There was such a great atmosphere on that record, and we just wanted to incorporate some of that into my songs, to put my voice into a different setting."
The range of style and sound was broadened further by bringing in Gabe and Michael, the Witcher brothers, whose fiddle and dobro wizardry turn "Rock of Ages" into a breathless meditation. Rich Nibbe's atmospheric guitar snakes through the dreamless haze on "Sleepless Nights" and slides through greasy levee licks on "Noonday Devil." As on previous albums, Cathy Schreiner, John's wife, harmonizes on several tracks, evoking Emmylou Harris, Karla Bonoff, or some church choir soloist whose name is lost to history.
Ortega stood at the center of it all. His voice and piano warm the music from within each arrangement until "More Love To Thee," where the journey mapped throughout the album comes to its end. Here he plays and sings alone, accompanying himself in the hymn that John Schreiner had sung for Margee and him at their wedding. Here, too, there is something special that touches on Ortega's life and, through him, passes through to the rest of us.
Ortega's road has taken him far, from near the banks of the Rio Grande in New Mexico, beyond his spell in missionary schools at Quito, Ecuador, his studies as a music education major at the University of New Mexico, and his four years as a high school teacher, through spiritual crisis and affirmation, and on to his Pacific vistas today. But on Fernando Ortega he goes to places he's never been.
More important-his music takes us with him, and then returns us to where we live, changed in some small but significant way.
Fernando Ortega is his title. But you can put your name on this record-it's your story too.