Christian Music - Reviews, News, Interviews

Fernando Ortega - Hitting Home

  • 2000 24 Apr
Fernando Ortega - Hitting Home

Fernando Ortega's recent performance of "Jesus, King of Angels" on the Dove Awards was a highlight of the show. He undoubtedly won a legion of new fans with his graceful, stirring, acclamation of worship, especially in contrast with the pyrotechnics and vocal acrobatics that characterized many of the night's other performances.

==Home==, Fernando Ortega's third album with Myrrh, comes at a time when this reflective singer is far from unnoticed by the media circuit. The accolades have been pouring in: A total of five Dove Award nominations, including "Songwriter of the Year" and "Male Vocalist of the Year." A recent tour with Twila Paris. His own 35-city tour, which kicked off in late March with opening act {{Margaret Becker}}. A debut single, "This Good Day," moving up to the top spot on the Inspirational radio charts.

Ortega's new album of pop/inspirational music is partially built around the metaphor of the home. And for many artists, the key to continued success in the professional and personal realm is staying close to home base: a fruitful and honest relationship with Christ. The packaged warnings about the "dangers" of success seem to echo out as frequently as an airing of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" At the heart of the matter, however, introspection about how the fruition of one's vocational dreams dovetails with an artist's walk with God is a healthy choice. Indeed, it is a necessitated choice, helping to ensure that the heart producing the Christian music stays Christian -- in and through its own beats and rhythms.

Click to hear a clip from "This Good Day"

Without hesistation, it's clear that {{Fernando Ortega}} has a healthy perspective on the trappings of success and recognition, and during a recent interview reflected on the depth of his spiritual life and relationship with Christ during this exciting time for his music ministry.

"On the one hand, if you can stay focused on your calling as a musician and sort of forget all the trappings and all that stuff, I think then that's the truer sign of success." Ortega says. "But if you start scrambling after the notoriety and the accolades and everything, you'll fairly quickly lose any sort of musical sensibilities, which I think stems from something deeper. It's a pretty quick recipe for disaster." Ortega notes that all of the great writers who have been Christians, such as Flannery O'Connor, also were quite reclusive. All the hype has an impact on an artist, he says.

"Your mind tends to go, 'Ahhh. Any person would love all that stuff.' But you come back to scriptures such as not loving the world. That's a good admonishment to anyone who has a public calling, especially in a culture that loves its celebrities."

In terms of the spiritual disciplines that compose his own life, Ortega admits that he has struggled to maintain a steady devotional life. Frantic traveling schedules make it even more challenging to be disciplined, and returning home is a time of "trying to re-group." But given the chance, Ortega says, he seeks out solitude and looks for times to be quiet and pray or read.

Ortega's ongoing reading list includes plenty of novels, especially those by O'Connor. Ortega also spends a lot of time in the poetry of George Herbert, a 17th Century writer, and recently read three books by David Wells, a theology teacher at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. A book about New Testament morality also has found its way to his reading stack. For spiritual accountability, Ortega keeps in touch with a pastor in Pennsylvania named Bill Harter. "I consider him my pastor even though I'm not in his church. He's the real deal. I bounce a lot of ideas off of him, everything that happens."

The balance between being and doing is a tough act to walk. Ortega makes it clear that his music is integrally connected to his spirituality. "A tormented soul would write tormented music. A redeemed soul writes redeemed music. If you write anything else, you're not being true to that. When I write a song that's about my wife or my grandfather or whatever, even if it doesn't mention God, I can only write it from my perspective as a Christian, because that's who I am," he says. Connected to this concept, Ortega is leery of the tendency toward "looking at God as if we've solved some sort of mystery, and staying away from enjoying things sensual. It's interesting how we shy away from those things. God very clearly gave us senses of taste and smell. It's almost a step in the direction in gnosticism, if you think about it." Ortega sees his role and personhood as a disciple of Christ as "hugely daunting" in the sense that, on a day to day basis, his shortcomings seem to become ever more glaring.

Click to hear a clip from "Beyond The Sky"

"Under the kind of pressure of being a musician -- when you deal with people who are facing cancer or facing death or all kinds of tragedies that you run into when traveling around -- you feel like a real idiot when you think of the pressures of being a Christian musician. They (the pressures) are real too, but different. You're facing a pop culture that's kind of lifting you up, and at the same time saying to you, 'Be humble.'" Exploring his call as a disciple who records and performs music, Ortega asserts that his main calling is as a Christian, and that his giftedness is as a musician. The two go hand in hand.

"I don't know that I believe that contemporary Christian music is, for a lack of a better word, set up as an office of the church," he says. "It's not on the same level as being a pastor or bishop or overseer. It's sort of a melding that you're given a calling and gifts as a musician. And I've ended up living in a time when the culture enjoys its celebrities -- and when the church sort of extols its celebrities, and much to the peril of both."

Click to hear a clip from "Lonely Road"

==Home=='s 11 cuts include mostly original songs that Ortega composed with producer John Andrew Schreiner ({{Crystal Lewis}}, Donna Summer and Aretha Franklin) and Elaine Rubenstein. Kelly Willard and Cathy Schreiner lend their voices to accompany Ortega's own reflective pipes, while Cameron Stone adds a nice touch with cello

The home metaphors include longing for our heavenly home ("Beyond the Sky"); appreciating our God-designed earthly home ("This Good Day"); two friends' request for God to bless Ortega's new house ("Prayer For Home"); missing Ortega's spouse who is back home ("The Lonely Road"); homelessness ("Old Girl"); and Alzheimer's Disease, in the sense of no longer remembering the key details of home life ("On the Line"). The latter two cuts are story songs that especially contain strong imagery and serve to transport the listener to the scene.

Ortega points out that he actually has incorporated "home" metaphors on two records in a row now. "It's sort of a culmination, or maybe it'll continue that way. I think that ever since I moved to California, I have sort of put distance between myself and New Mexico, where my family lives -- and my family has been there for 300 years. I feel always this deep tie with that place and this deep longing. I sort of look for it everywhere I go. I was in Idaho and thinking of how much it reminded me of New Mexico. I'm always looking for things about New Mexico." With the recent purchase of his home in California, Ortega is amazed at the Southwestern feel that he and his wife have given to their property, complete with slate floors and wooden beam ceilings. As his career has taken off, Ortega has been more and more in the habit of missing the familiar trappings of home.

"And since I've been gone so much, maybe 80 percent of last year, and this year it's going to be worseI think that's why these songs all came very suddenly. This sort of flowed out of me."

Click to hear a clip from "On The Line"

Looking ahead to the lasting impact of his ministry, Ortega says that he hopes his music is not caught up in just another trend -- that "there's something deeper than just cool-sounding-ness -- or having it sound hip or whatever. I hope I have captured some things in those songs that mean something for people in another generation. I think that's a challenge for any songwriter, to say things that are universal or that are transcendent."

Rather than attempting to meet listeners in the midst of the theoretical or abstract, Ortega hopes to connect with people in the context of what makes up their own homes -- the good and the bad -- and God offering a redemptive hope in the midst of all of it.

Ortega adds, "The only way to be transcendent is to be firmly grounded in reality. If you write puffy images, it puffs right away. You've got to do a lot of hard-core observing, just looking at things and people and thinking about them. If you are half-way gifted as a storyteller or writer, you'll be able to make things that seem important to you important to other people."

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