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Fernando Ortega Biography
Over these past 15 years we've heard the music of Fernando Ortega as if it were the soundtrack to our lives.
We met this extraordinary artist though his early music, which danced to guitars and drums, fueled by the energy of youth yet crafted to the highest standards of pop composition, comparable in its vision and quality to the best of Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon.
This was music rooted in a village near the banks of the Rio Grande, where his family had lived for eight generations. From here it rose from a bedrock of classical training and blossomed through studies at the University of New Mexico and varied life experiences into a sound that embraces country and classical, Celtic, Latin American, and world music, modern folk and rustic hymnody.
His songs have proclaimed love and gratitude to God poetically yet conversationally, whether in English or Spanish. He has written, played, and sung about the feeling of a lover's breath, the beauty of a dawning day, of roaming far from home, the flight of a dragonfly, and the perfect combination of candlelight and conversation, the ocean's roll and the sun's descent - the wonders of our world, each a reminder of a better world beyond time's horizon.
Yet through all of this Ortega sensed something missing, something that his music had yet to say.
Usually I look for daily solitude so that I can think or pray, he says, quietly. But a while ago I noticed that my ability to concentrate was changing. I couldn't make it all the way through a book anymore. My mind was moving constantly, from one thing to the next.
And so, one day last November, he took a walk.
Pocketing a pen and a notebook, he left the home he shares with his wife Margee, making his way through the canyon and up into the hills that overlook the Pacific. It was wintertime, so the beaches at Laguna were deserted and for two or three hours, by his measure, he was alone to reflect on where he had come in his life. It was in some ways a difficult time: An aunt, to whom he was especially close, had just passed away. In the next weeks and months, several other friends and relations would follow her.
Before long, an idea began to take shape. He saw it initially as a mass - written not in the traditional sense, for the deceased, but for those left behind to grieve. Seeking inspiration, Ortega turned to The Book of Common Prayer. The text, already familiar to him, spoke as if he were reading it for the first time, beginning with this, from Isaiah 40:1-22: 'All flesh is like the grass. The grass withers and fades away. The glory of man is like a flower that shrivels in the sun and falls. But the word of the Lord endures forever ...
This became the first of the Scriptural passages he would set to music for The Shadow of Your Wings.
Most of it would be conceived during the time he now set aside for his long walks. Never had he composed away from the piano; this time, the notes came to him as if blown from the wind into his mind. Often he would leave them there, to settle and grow, before taking them to his piano and writing them down. As new passages presented themselves, and melodies attached to them, Ortega realized that he was moving in a direction he hadn't previously explored.
They weren't, first of all, pop songs, he points out. Instead, they came with a slightly classical feeling. And it began to feel less like a mass but rather a series of liturgical songs. The first one would be 'Grace and Peace,' whose entire text is 'grace and peace be unto you from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.' So it starts with bowing your head or bending your knees before God, and then it explores the worship of the Trinity and ends with a declaration of the supremacy of Christ. It follows one train of thought, which is something I've never done on a record, with the songs set in a specific sequence to accomplish something.
Just as important, the music that Ortega created for his selected texts emerged from a perspective that he'd pursued only in individual works before. My records have always been about how the Gospels find expression in a person's everyday life - the sorrowful, the mundane, the joyful, he explains. The focus throughout this record is one of devotion.
Ortega thought originally that he would record on his own, just voice and piano. In thinking about working at this level of intimacy, unprecedented by any album in his catalog, he decided to ask Gary Paczosa to come onboard as his co-producer. A nine-time Grammy winner, Paczosa is known for working with artists of uncommon creativity, from Alison Krauss with Union Station and John Prine to Mark O'Connor and Yo-Yo Ma.
I told Gary, 'This is going to be the easiest record of your life,' Ortega remembers. The idea was that it would be the piano and my singing, with three vocalists. But then one day I got the idea of adding a string quartet, so I called him again and said, 'This is impossible, but wouldn't it be great if we could get something like the Turtle Island String Quartet?'
Ortega laughs as he remembers his friend's response. He said, 'Oh, I know those guys! I'll call them!'
Shortly after that, they flew, with the basic tracks they had cut on piano at Ortega's home and arrangements written by John Schreiner, to San Francisco, where Turtle Island was ready to play. They poured themselves into the music, Ortega says. Whenever we made slight changes in the orchestrations, they rehearsed them until they knew it wasn't just good enough, it was right.
Other instrumental touches were added too, including guitar from Bryan Sutton and Alison Krauss band member Ron Block, viola from Andrea Zonn, and drums by David Owens from Ortega's touring ensemble. Then the vocals were cut in Nashville. Here Ortega was joined by several guests, chosen as much for their spirit as their sound, beginning with Marsha Skidmore of the Maranatha! Singers, whose entrance on Grace and Peace provides one of the album's most delicately uplifting moments.
Marsha's been through the ringer and she has a gorgeous voice, Ortega notes. She sang her parts just like I imagined. Susan Ashton, of course, was amazing: She sings until it's perfect. For the song 'All Flesh Is Like the Grass,' I asked Jonathan and Amanda Noel to sing almost like choir boys, or ghosts. It's so beautiful, what they did; they're so exceptionally gifted.
The record is graced even further by the vocals of Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, and Vince Gill. Alison was so gracious and eager to find the right harmony, in spite of not feeling well that day. She sounds like an angel on 'Sing to Jesus.' And it was a career highlight for me to watch Vince and Dan, these two giants - literally and figuratively - come up with parts. They are absolute masters.
All these additions are most remarkable in how they enhanced the hushed beauty of The Shadow of Your Wings. In the end, of course, Ortega is the soul of this performance, though he would demur that credit should be given to God.
For me, this work is tied to the deaths of some amazing people I have known: my two beautiful aunts, Nina and Lucy, and my dear friend Linda Harter. Right as we finished recording, another friend died. His name was Richard Martinez. Years ago he had donated a kidney to my father, who was on dialysis. I've dedicated this record to the blessed memory of these true saints.
My hope is that these songs will resonate with and bring comfort to people who have lost a loved one or who feel there's something lacking in their communion with God.