Fernando Ortega is a profoundly gifted musician, singer, and songwriter, who grew up in New Mexico near the Rio Grande, and spent time in Ecuador and Barbados due to his father’s work with the US Department of State. He is the product of eight generations of family hailing from Chimayo, New Mexico.
Ortega’s approach to music includes elements of folk, classical, Celtic, Latin American, world, and rustic hymnody, according to Wikipedia. These roots are made possible both by his heritage and his formal training at The University of New Mexico.
Fernando graciously spent an hour of his time with me for a phone interview on December 19, 2014. (In the interest of time and subject matter, some parts of the interview have been omitted below.)
I can’t recall exactly when I happened upon Fernando Ortega’s music, but I can recall being deeply moved, and doing a lot of crying. It was somewhere during a very rocky transition from my former life to my current one, which included bouts of mental and behavioral dysfunction, profound spiritual searching, and emotional upheaval.
I’ve never been a fan of Contemporary Christian Music (a subject we discuss below), so I had to look in different places for balm. Fernando’s music took hymns from my childhood and infused them with new life, and often rearranged or interpreted them in a way that spoke to my experience. When I discovered that the bulk of his albums were about his own misgivings and struggles, I latched on rather furiously and began to follow his music with devotion.
In later years, his albums grew increasingly liturgical and mirrored my own growing hunger for richer and more robust approach to God and life. When I was married to my lovely wife in 2008, some friends of ours in Nashville, TN, transposed his music by ear and allowed our wedding to be filled with its depth. Each time I met him at concerts or corresponded with him (he actually helped point us in the right direction for our wedding when I wrote him on Myspace!), my admiration for him reached new heights.
Thoughts About the Interview:
Key Words: Simplicity, Doubt, Authenticity
During our interview, I took great note of Fernando’s authenticity. I like to think of myself as a rather keen observer of human behavior, so I was greatly pleased to detect no pretense or mask-wearing. The depth of his words didn’t emanate from their length or eloquence, but from the opposite – it simplicity and straight-forwardness.
What’s more, much of the spiritual profundity expressed in both his time with me and his lyrics and musical composition seems to be, by his own confession, strongly driven by doubt – the kind of doubt most “professional Christians” aren’t terribly comfortable admitting is present. It takes guts to acknowledge that we live in the tension between hope and disappointment.
The Interview (Abbreviated Transcript)
RTN: When I introduce my friends to your music, perhaps, especially, Christian friends, one of the biggest barriers is the label that has — unfairly, I think — been thrust upon you – CCM (Contemporary Christian Music). What do you make of that particular label? Does it apply to you?
FO: When I was squarely in CCM music – I was in contract with Myrrh records, Word Records, and Curb Records – I was a relentless critic of the system. So much about it seemed so silly, awkward, and contrived. Each year, all the CCM artists attended “our” version of the Grammy Awards (the Dove Awards) and I always felt at odds with that whole scene.
Granted, there are some people I toured with that valued CCM Music, and I highly respect them. So I can see why I would be labeled that way. But I don’t think my music really fits the bill. During that time frame, fifty percent of my music was “folky-pop songs” – songs about my grandfather, about traveling through the southwest, about walking along the beach, about a homeless lady. They made no references at all to God.
Even back then I struggled – perhaps more with the people within CCM who thought I was trying to be theologically vague, or who would refer to these folk-ish songs as my “secular” songs. I always resented that label as well. Just because a song doesn’t mention God doesn’t mean it isn’t influenced by Christian thought. I resent the labels for what they did to the Christian Music Industry. CCM has come to its right end.
I am comfortable making the distinction between “secular music” and “sacred music,” by which I mean music intended for the church. I’ve composed a lot of that stuff and I’m not remotely ashamed of that kind of label. When I write a sacred song, it’s very specific, and there’s no guessing what it’s about. When I do write about God, it is very obviously about God. I’ve always felt it should be that way and still feel that way now.
Since my daughter was born about 6 years ago and I’ve been so much more involved with the local church, I haven’t been traveling as much. I haven’t written many more folky-pop songs.
RTN: I grew up in a Protestant, charismatic, evangelical church. To translate, this equals a virtual vacuum of liturgy, or rather, a vacuum of purposeful liturgy – kind of a liturgy by default. As a result, I’ve been very drawn to all kinds of liturgical things in my adult life, not the least of which is your music.
I’ve noticed that your last two albums, The Shadow of Your Wings: Hymns and Sacred Songs, and Come Down, O Love Divine, are undeniably liturgical. Talk with me about that.
FO: It’s funny – My path is similar to yours. I was born in the Presbyterian church – back then it was the UPC – United Presbyterian Church. At the age of 15, I discovered Pentecostalism and became pretty hardcore Pentecostal. That freed me (in my mind) from the stodginess and formality of the Presbyterian church.
I was Pentecostal for 6 or 7 years, and then I joined a Congregational church in Pasadena that’s somewhat famous, where the music minister became (and remains) a mentor in my life. I was about twenty-five. It was fairly liturgical and formal. The church had an incredible choir and orchestra – I was blown away by that – to see how such a magnificent ensemble could be used as a medium of worship each week without being pretentious or exclusive.
Thereafter, I joined a Seeker-Friendly church. There, we went in a totally different direction, decidedly away from hymns. During the offering we would do songs like, “Desperado.” I remember singing James Taylor’s, “Shower the People You Love” for a service during Valentine’s Week. [Laughs] Instead of holy days, we would observe cheesy holidays.
Then I stumbled along Chaim Potok‘s book, “My Name is Asher Lev,” which is the story of a very young, genius artist who becomes world class and presents gallery shows in Paris, New York, and Los Angeles. It’s a very religious book, which got me on the path to reading about church history, and realizing there were massive gaps in my overall knowledge of my own roots. There’s an assumption among contemporary Evangelicals that “This is how it’s always been and how it will always be.” This goes in line with CCM music – you see the demise of Evangelicalism along with it. That’s why they call this country a post-Christian nation – that and other reasons.
So, all my blabbering to say, I have been drawn back to liturgy and the church calendar.
RTN: What’s the draw though?
FO: The draw is…[slowly, pausing] the attentiveness to the church calendar – the attentiveness to the narrative of Christ’s life each year. There’s a rhythm to it that really affects the tone of each season – it starts with Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, then Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension Day, Pentecost. The liturgy changes subtly through all of these, and you feel like you’re living in that story every year – there’s a pace to it.
So, my wife and I became Anglican about six years ago. That really, really affected me. I felt like I’d finally found a home in orthodox theology and high liturgy.
Unfortunately, that church fell apart. There were some disagreements among the muckamucks, and I’m now back in an Evangelical Free Church. My pastor, Josh Swanson, has been very enthusiastic about moving in a more liturgical direction. The two of us have collaborated together to move towards the following liturgy: Opening song, Welcome, Call To Worship, 3 songs of Orientation, Confession of sin, Absolution of sin, Passing of the Peace, Gospel Reading, Sermon, Offering. We’re following the church calendar, without the use of the Lectionary– the main holy days fall where they are and we lead into them. We have a lot of Anglicans and Presbyterians who come to our church because of that.
RTN: One of the threads I identify with in many of your songs is a sort of introspective uncertainty and world-weariness. This comes across particularly in the album, Storm, but on other albums and songs as well. Sometimes it is expressed peacefully, as in it seems you’ve come to peace with it and in yourself. Other times it seems to have much less resolution. In either case, what is that about, do you suppose, for you personally? Why do you suppose that thread resonates with listeners?
FO: It’s about…
…doubt. After being in a Pentecostal church, where I thought the leaders communed with God in a way that others could not – they were so highly spiritual – those leaders ended up being embezzlers of our money, addicted to prescription pills, adulterers. It seems like every church I’ve been in, there has been some kind of scandal. The hypocrisy really affected me – I don’t think I’m totally jaded, but there is a definite mournfulness over the hurt that has found its way into many of my songs.
I wrote a song called “Grace and Peace” on the Shadow of Your Wings. John Andrew Schreiner wrote the orchestral parts. That song says, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The other day, John and I were talking about the notion that when we pray for peace in our lives — maybe after someone dies or has been in a life-threatening situation — that prayer is tinged with tension. We worked hard on that song to make “Grace and Peace” sound tentative and filled with tension. Then, in the process of looking for God’s peace, the song ends with great resolve and faith, by proclaiming, “And the Lord, Jesus Christ” repetitively.
So, there are people I know that do not seem to struggle with doubt about their faith, but I certainly do. And I always have.
Just recently we lost a young man in our congregation who was very well-loved. He was the interim music minister before I was there. In our church services and at home in the middle of the night we were on our knees, literally begging God to heal Matt – begging God!
Yet, the prayers were punctuated by the phrase, “if it be your will.” I suppose it’s a kind of “out” you give God, if you figure he’s probably not going to do this. And Matt died. And the whole church was completely devastated by his death – it rocked us.
RTN: Do you suppose that’s what people relate to primarily – the doubt, the common experiences with failures in the church, and when things don’t go the way we want?
FO: I do. That’s why I’m surprised to hear that people might lump me into CCM. Most CCM seems escapist to me. CCM just seems to try to be constantly happy or positive. You hear that still on CCM radio. Radio spots will say, “Positive music” or “Life-assuring music.” Rather than music that’s really about life.
RTN: That’s a perfect segue to the next question I wanted to ask you. Maybe you’ve answered this already, but in the US, and perhaps everywhere, we really, desperately want God to act reasonably – and by reasonably, we mean we want him to act in the way we think he ought, in the timing we think he ought, and to tie up everything with a neat little bow on the end. I think some of why we do this is because we want to be able to defend God to our friends, to say, “Look – see! I told you God was good!” Your music, in my estimation, refuses to do this. It is imbued with a sense of mystery and even, as I mentioned, a sense of uncertainty. I was going to ask you why, but do you think we’ve answered that already?
FO: I think so. I haven’t lead a horrible life. I’ve gone through horrid things in my life, and I’m going through something insufferable right now, but I’ve had really happy times. Overall, I just don’t believe that coming to Christ in any way makes you free from the pain of life. I imagine that a Christian might feel the pain more deeply because of the constant conflict with hope in God’s goodness.
We did a song in church recently where I changed the words dramatically. My friend wanted to do it and I said I was only willing if we changed the words. The chorus said, “Come down to the river, Come and let yourself in. Make good on a promise to never hurt again.”
I said, “That’s just totally untrue. God does not promise us that we’ll never hurt again.” So I changed it. [Laughs] I’m always doing stuff like that to songs before we do them in church.
RTN: As a therapist (and a human!), I’ve often appreciated the depth with which you convey personal relationships. Your songs have covered your relationship with your grandfather, your wife, your daughter, and unsung spiritual heroes like, Mildred Madalyn Johnson. They also cover your relationship yourself, and of course, with God. Even some of your original instrumental tracks have a very relational element to them as when you write about winter, dreams, etc. What about relationships are worth noticing, and why are they the context for so many of your songs?
FO: I remember once reading a book by Flannery O’Connor, where she said, “The writer should never be afraid to stare.” I don’t really know if she meant to physically stare at things, but I know she meant that a true writer is constantly observing and making mental notes.
There’s a song I wrote about a homeless woman, called, “Old Girl.” This woman lived in Laguna Beach, where I lived, and I stared at her every day – she would come to this coffee shop called Zinc and rummage through the trash can. Her name was Rita, I knew that because I’d spoken with her before. One day, I was sitting there watching her go through the trash and I decided I would buy her breakfast. So, I went up to her and touched her on the shoulder, and said, “May I buy you breakfast?” She turned around and said, “What are you staring at?! I saw you staring at me! You go to hell – I don’t need your breakfast or your money!” And she stomped out of there.
In the moments before I decided to buy her breakfast, I was mentally patting myself on the back, like, “Wow, what a good heart I have!” [Laughs] Old Rita gave me a lesson in humility I’ll never forget. Immediately, any kind of pride I felt about my good intentions dissolved into thin air. I was really offended and pissed and embarrassed.
RTN: That’s a great story! I had no idea that was the background of that song. So is that it then? The notion that relationships sort of “reveal” us, through the stare, whether it’s at us, through us, by us, relationships have a way of revealing what’s really going on?
FO: Yeah. Stare at your own peril. With really close friends, or even not-so-close friends they can tell you what’s really going on. I have three or four friends that I keep in touch with, and when I’m walking hard times, they tell me, “You’re looking at this wrong.” or “your perspective is skewed”. I appreciate that about them. I rely on them for it. I need that in my life.
I guess it’s like writing a song. I have two friends – Peter and Elaine – both very accomplished writers, poets, and critics. They’re married. Whenever I write a song, I send it to them when I think its done. Many times, Peter (especially) will say something like, “The fourth line of the second stanza is the only keeper. That’s really the start of your song.” And all the while I’m thinking I’ve handed them something fantastic! [Laughs] So, it’s brutal. I say, “Oh, really?!” It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s right. Some songs have been more successful when I didn’t follow his advice. But just the fact that we’re close enough that he says that. Elaine often tells me, “You have polish something until it shimmers.” That tells me it’s not about my emotional attachment to a line. It’s something transcendent.
RTN: The very first time we met, I think it was in 2007. Not to be overly dramatic, but your concert was like a very special gift from God because I was getting my rear-end handed to me by this job. I had wanted to go to your concert – it was at Trevecca. Do you remember that concert?
FO: Trevecca University? Oh yeah, I remember that gig!
RTN: I really wanted to go, and I’d never had the chance to see you before. And then I found out that my job — there was no way they were going to let me go. And then I got fired two days before your concert. And I was like, “Oh man, this is awesome! Now I can go to the concert!”
RTN: That was just how I viewed it. It was the end of a long, very unpleasant tenure with a company and I was like, “Man, God packaged this up for me just right!”
When we met though, I was trying to explain the significance of your music to me and I became very teary. As I was trying to explain its significance and found myself hurling gobs of compliments at you, I stopped and said, “Please forgive me for gushing!” You laughed and responded by saying, “No, no! Please continue – I love this stuff!”
FO: [Laughs heartily] Oh, no!
RTN: No, no, listen! Listen to where I’m going with this.
That’s such a different response than a lot of artists have. This has actually happened to me before – they get super uncomfortable, they seem to deflect praise or admiration. If it’s a Christian artist, they point it at God. I’m willing to say this is my perspective – it may not be reflective of who they are — but although it looks like humility, it actually feels like the opposite. It’s like an inability to receive something that is essentially as much about the giver as much as it is the receiver. I guess I’m asking you to brag on yourself here…but why are you able to receive that sort of thing, rather than deflect it? What enables you to do that?
FO: When people come up and they’re emotional, which is very often, I think, “Gosh, I wish I could sit down and tell you the sadness in my life.” I think it’s probably a recognition of a kindred spirit, you know?
Honestly, I don’t think that highly of myself on a personal level. At the same time, I realize that if I’m going to stand up and sing my songs in front of hundreds or thousands of people, I’d better have a pretty substantial ego to back myself up. Otherwise, I’m going to suck. As the years go by, I become more and more aware of my shortcomings. That’s a good thing – so that when people like you come up to me and gush, I can keep my ego in check and still wallow in the praise. There’s a real tension in that for sure. Listening to your story, it sounds like I was trying to be funny. I hope I was!
RTN: [Laughs] You were! It was funny.
FO: I try to make the person feel at ease. People come up to me shaking sometimes, like they’re meeting the President or something. I’ll go out of my way to make the person try to feel comfortable.
RTN: So it sounds like it’s about two things: Firstly, like you said, there’s a level of self-awareness and identification there – you recognize the well from which this comes. The other thing is that you’re aware it’s something going on for “them,” so your response is in an effort the person in front of you comfortable with what’s transpiring.
FO: Yes. Many times, especially with people who’ve lost children – I’ve met so many over the years – I end up crying with them. I’ve never lost a child, but I have a young daughter, and, good grief, I can’t imagine what that would be like. So, when I wrote Shadow of Your Wings, it was about what I mentioned before – the tension in trying to find peace. That record was written after three major funerals, and then attending an Anglican Burial of the Dead Rite II service. I wanted to write a record that people could listen to as they were dying, or while they were sitting in prison, while they were in hospice care. And it ended up being very much that way. I think its the most successful record I’ve ever done, in that the feedback I get from it is very much along those lines. People find that record when they think they’re not going to make it, or when they don’t make it.
RTN: There is a sense in which much of your music is apolitical, in that you don’t directly go after hot-button political issues like some artists do. I can’t think of a time in your musical history where you’re writing about some current trend in that direct sense.
And on the other hand, of course, much of your music could be called deeply political, even if not directly, in that you speak to the reality of Jesus Christ. So, here’s a tough question. What are the political (and other) implications of following Jesus Christ, would you say? What does that look like?
FO: Christ was very counter-cultural. His life stands as an avatar against the very prevalent sense of consumerism, the incessant drive for self-fulfillment, the notion that you can be whatever you imagine yourself to be – all that stuff.
Beyond that, then, I don’t know. I don’t feel as though I have a very keen eye about things political. The band, Jars of Clay, has become more and more political and cause-minded. And inherently, when you do that, people think, “Commie Liberals!” Jon Foreman, Sandra McCracken, and her husband, Derek Webb, Sara Groves — they’ve felt drawn to write certain types of protest songs. But I’m not highly involved in politics so I tend to shy away for fear of saying something stupid. I’d rather read fiction than news, so I end up somewhat out-of-touch with the breakdown of this century, as Joni Mitchell once said.
RTN: So, there’s a level at which you do identify with those sorts of people and their spirit, even if you don’t do the same thing directly. Is that true?
FO: Very much true. Keith Green was the first one in CCM who fancied himself as a “voice of the prophet.” He would say, “Do you care? Don’t you care? Are you going to let them down? Do you care? Don’t you care? Are you going to let them drown? How can you be so numb, not to care if they come? You close your eyes and pretend the job’s done!” I would sit there and think, “Ok, so you’re the only one who cares?!” Sitting through his rhetoric was a bit torturous for me.
RTN: Hmm. So there’s a level at which you actually recoil from all of that as well.
FO: Yes. I think there are better ways to say these things than in first person. We have to find a different kind of rhetoric than to think that you are Moses, or Isaiah, or Elijah. It seems at odds with the fact that you’re selling CD’s out front at the booth.
RTN: So, do you think there are prophets, currently, who are called to a more Isaiah-like posture?
FO: Yeah, if we’re talking just in Christian music, Michael Gungor seems to call things out. He’s a cranky, young guy. He’s said a lot of things I don’t think he should’ve said, not because they were wrong, but they may have jeopardized his voice for a while. But I think it will come back around for him – he’s a thoughtful person.
I really like Jon Foreman and the way he says things and the way he thinks about music. From my point of view, he and his band seem to get better and better with each recording.
And of course, Jars of Clay and Sara Groves are actively supporting poverty-stricken communities in Africa and other parts of the world. Listen to their songs about their experiences in the world. There are a handful of others who are doing the same.
RTN: I live in St. Louis, MO. Since the shooting death of unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, St. Louis has somewhat become an epicenter of social unrest and racial tension between black and white persons. Certainly it’s brought to light a lot of what is already here.
In preparation for talking with you, I read some interviews you’ve done with others. You previously interviewed with Dwight Ozard. He very directly asked you about racial issues being a Mexican-American operating largely in evangelical, white subculture. It’s hard to fathom some of the things that people said to you and in your presence.
But, I guess I wanted to ask, what words of life would you offer surrounding these issues? What are we to do, and what do we do with our discouragement at racial injustice and the seemingly slow pace with which people seem to wake up to it?
FO: Well, it seems to me there is such an obtuseness to people who have hidden racist sensibilities. Things lie under the surface that reveal themselves so unexpectedly. People don’t recognize it in themselves. I don’t know what words to offer.
There are ugly prejudices in my life, and bizarre ones. I don’t think I’m a racist in the classic sense, but there are things in me, stereotypes because of race, and they are there, to my deep shame. I think the first thing therefore is recognition.
I don’t know how to answer your question. But what I do know is that I’ve been in getting ready to go on the platform before with groups of famous Christians. We’re standing there praying ahead of time, and I heard one woman say, “And we pray for that precious little black girl who’s going to offer her prayer…” And it’s just sort of shocking to hear! We’re not going to pray for the “precious little white girl,” we’re going to pray for, you know, “Stephanie.” But the other girl doesn’t have a name – we distinguish her because she’s a black girl.
So, I don’t know. It exists. And it comes out so obviously some times, in prayer even. Sometimes if they mention me from the platform, they’ll say, “Ferrrrrrrrrrnando” [rolling R’s]. Like, “You killed my father, prepare to die.“ [Laughs]
I remember being interviewed on a radio program in Nashville. They were are asking about a song I’d written for my grandpa. I told them he lived to be 102. The DJ asked me if he had spent his whole life eating burritos and tacos. I was so incensed!
RTN: Wow. Wow. Well, I appreciate the fact that you don’t know what to say on some of this. There is some level at which no one knows what to say. But I think what you are saying, even if not in so many words, is that you have a level of identification with the struggle, you validate its reality. It’s not something people are making up.
FO: This brought to mind last week’s advent sermon by a brilliant pastor we have, Ryan Bestelmeyer. He tied Advent in with Ferguson and St. Louis and other places. Talking about the notion that racism does exist, and that we are called to ask, “Who is your neighbor?” And he said that your neighbor is the person next to you who is hurting, who may have a different skin color, and like it or not, Advent is tied in there. We long for Christ’s coming to bind us together, of one heart and mind, regardless of skin color.
RTN: Who is Jesus Christ, and what is his Gospel?
FO: I think the more you delve into the mystery of who Jesus Christ is, the bigger the mystery becomes, and the more you realize it’s not something that you say, “Bang! Now I know. “
For me, last night was an incredible prayer night. I was wailing before God. Partly because of my friend, Matt, who died in a car accident. And then another friend who is in a coma – a young woman whose husband is so deeply in love with her. I was wailing, and super angry at God. I was saying, “What do you want us to do?! Rub our faces in piles of dung?! How do we approach you?! Do you want us to grovel?! Who are you?!” I realized then, I don’t know how to answer that.
But somehow in my head, and somewhere in my heart, I know that he is the one who redeems us from these things, and that he is establishing his kingdom in me. In his death, Matt has joined in the communion of the saints. He’s singing the eternal songs of those multi-eyed creatures with all the arms and wings, singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, Almighty!” Matt has joined in that song that goes on all around us that we completely cannot recognize because we’re so caught up in our own stuff.
So, it’s a very emotional mystery to me right now how to answer, “Who is Jesus Christ?” But that’s who he is. We can all easily say the stock answer, “He’s the Son of God.” I know that. But more than that, he does somehow tie you and me, and you losing your job those few days before we met at Trevecca, and my friend Matt who died, and my grandfather, who died in 1991, and other people around the world who are suffering greatly, the tragedy in Ferguson. The incarnation, God becoming flesh, ties all of these things together.
I don’t know. When we come to God, and become Christians, we join together in that eternal song, and are dragged through the mud, but yet, God empowers us to sing and live his praise in our lives.
This post is part of the ongoing series, Interviews with Spiritual Heroes.
Header image and Fernando Ortega seated image courtesy of The Cove, used for non-commercial purposes. No copyright violation intended.
Fernando Ortega headshot courtesy of Hope EV Free Church, used for non-commercial purposes. No copyright violation intended.
Chaim Potok image courtesy of Wikimedia commons, used under Creative Commons License.
Christian Rock Star image courtesy of Christian Post, used for non-commercial purposes. No copyright violation intended.
Fernando Ortega and Ryan Thomas Neace image courtesy author.
Michael Gungor image courtesy of Flickr user Paul Williams, used under Creative Commons License.
Inigo Montoya image courtesy of Sodahead, used under Creative Commons License.