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Solemn Stylings

Pop music * Balladeer Fernando Ortega's Christian convictions are expressed in a personal manner that disregards the genre's trend toward uplifting danceability.

April 30, 1999|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fernando Ortega could be a hot commodity in the world of pop music before long--if the Y2K threat proves real and lands us back in 1972.

The Laguna Beach resident's quietly graceful, finely etched, richly melodic music harks back to the mellow heyday of Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens and James Taylor. In addition to original songs steeped in the imagery of traditional Christian prayer, Ortega's albums include his arrangements of old, traditional hymns, among them a medieval Irish prayer-song dating from before Y1K.

The quiet, inward quality of Ortega's music doesn't fit easily with the hit formulas of contemporary Christian music, where dance-ready beats and uplifting messages tend to rule the charts.

Nevertheless, Ortega, 42, is finding his niche on the Christian pop scene with his deeply personal approach. The Mexican American balladeer, who performs tonight in Newport Beach, sings of his beloved grandparents and of his attachment to New Mexico, where he was raised and where his family has lived for 300 years.

He is willing to delve into moments of grief and loss--including "If You Were Mine," a song of unrequited longing inspired by an episode two years ago, when he and his wife adopted an infant girl, only to have her reclaimed 10 days later by the 15-year-old birth mother. Ortega's religious songs can be quietly celebratory, but they also portray troubled supplicants pleading for God's comfort and support without any assurance that it will come.

Ortega's talents have attracted a deal with a major Christian label, Myrrh Records, and gained him praise from Amy Grant, among others.

They also have won him the assistance--as supporting players--of such respected musicians as Alison Krauss (who plays fiddle and sings harmony on Ortega's catchiest, most upbeat song, "Children of the Living God"), among many others.

Not least, Ortega's gifts have found a substantial audience. His 1997 album, "This Bright Hour," has sold 100,000 copies, according to his Nashville-based manager, Mitch White, and "The Breaking of the Dawn," released in October, promises to surpass it.

Ortega tours frequently, often playing in large churches. His manager says that continued touring--Ortega is booked heavily through next spring--could set up the musician for a gold record, topping the 500,000 mark, next time out.

*

Ortega says he is happy with his perch right now: "My audiences are terrific; I'm not looking to break out [commercially] or anything. I'm in just the right-sized venues"--typically churches and halls holding 1,000 to 4,000 people.

Ortega, a trim, compact man who speaks softly, says he is "really torn" between Southern California, where he has lived for 15 years, and the New Mexico he cherishes. He expects to return eventually to Albuquerque to be near his aging parents.

While absorbing centuries-old Mexican folk-art traditions growing up in the Southwest, Ortega as a child also was taken with equally venerable European musical ones.

He fell for classical music and began studying piano at age 8. He was also fond of pop and rock: He got into the Beatles while living for three years in Ecuador, where his father, a career diplomat for the U.S. State Department, was stationed. After his return to New Mexico at 13, Ortega found such favorites as Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, Janis Joplin, Neil Young, Mitchell and Taylor.

After earning a degree in music education from the University of New Mexico, Ortega embarked on a career as a choirmaster and music coordinator for youth ministries and churches.

He says his recording career began by chance after the owner of a small, Texas-based label heard him sing at a religious convention in 1988. Ortega released five albums on small labels from 1991 to 1995, before landing with the Nashville-based Myrrh.

In Orange County, his home since 1987, Ortega has found key collaborators. John Andrew Schreiner, who has a home studio in Laguna Beach, has produced Ortega's albums; local cellist Cameron Stone is his longtime concert accompanist (Ortega recently added light percussion and bass to the live mix).

Seeking to improve his lyric writing, Ortega studied poetry at Irvine Valley College; his teacher, Elaine Rubinstein, has since written some of the musician's most affecting lyrics, and Ortega runs his own lyrics by her and her literature-professor husband, Peter Morrison, for critiques.

Ortega's music readily calls to mind Taylor; Ortega's vocal range, phrasing and timbre are Taylor-esque, and so is the mellow, crafted, reflective cast of his songs.

"My music is all so quiet," he admits.

Ortega doesn't see himself composing any dance-ready numbers for a shot at the big Christian youth audience.

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