Roberto Ortiz Reflects On Going From 'Guitar Hero' To Making Music In A Multi-Media World

We hope you checked out the single and video for the comedic and love-lorn “Dorrigo” by Roberto Ortiz when we spotlighted it on Tower's PULSE a few weeks ago, but if you didn't, you can still check it out below and also hear directly from the indie R&B artist about his journey into music. Well, more like journey from music to music, taking in a lot of strange and wonderful experiences along the way.

Ortiz, who hails from Indiana, is full of stories from his wandering life so far, but now catching up with him in LA, where it looks increasingly like he'll stay, he's focused on songwriting, making plans for releases, and finishing up the songs that he's been able to work on during quarantine.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Is there somewhere that you’ve been able to use studio space while you’re out in LA to work on songs?

Roberto Ortiz: Yes, there’s a rental service that you can have a subscription to. You can use these studios when they are available, and because of COVID, they’ve been available every day.

HMS: That’s kind of awesome. I haven’t heard of that before.

RO: It’s really affordable.

HMS: That seems to be the big question for a lot of people right now, do they have somewhere to record to make this time useful.

RO: It is pretty doable at home these days, though not everyone has the gear.

HMS: Yes, a number of musicians I’ve spoken to are teaching themselves the software they’ve never used before and making strides.

I’ll ask you a big question: why do you think you make music? When did you go from being someone who listened to music to someone who wanted to make something?

RO: I’ve always been doing it since middle school. I knew I wanted to play guitar. I remember that I heard a John Mayer record, and I specifically remember that I saw a video of him playing. I thought, “Wow, I have to do that.” It was the album, Where The Light Is.

Also, I was part of the Guitar Hero generation. I was in my room just rocking out and I thought, “This is the coolest thing ever. I need to be able to do this for real.” Then, I hustled my parents into buying me a guitar.

I must have been like 13, but I found an ad on Craigslist. I called this lady and said, “Hey, I’m injured right now. I can’t really pick up the guitar. Is there any way you can drop it off?” Because my parent were adamant, saying, “We’re not buying you a guitar, son. You quit Little League. You quit football.” So I found this random ad, and this lady came all the way to my house in this little midwestern town. And my mom was so embarrassed that she bought the guitar.

That was the start. I carried that thing around for years. I took it to school. I’d get in trouble in class for having it with me. But then eventually it became standard and everyone expected me to have it. I couldn’t play it, but it was there, leaning on someone’s desk.

HMS: [Laughs] I’m assuming this is an acoustic guitar?

RO: Yes, I had a little acoustic.

HMS: If it was electric, you probably would’ve broken your back! This does remind me of various plots that happened in my family with my siblings to get guitars when we were teens. Though that was less of a small town.

RO: Yes, I come from a small town in Indiana. It has about 10,000 people. That’s the one thing I really miss right now. Indiana is so open, there’s not even hills, just flatlands and grass for miles.

HMS: I think everyone misses open spaces right now.

When did you make yourself learn to play the guitar?

RO: In middle school, I just started watching Youtube videos. I remember learning something like “Hero/Heroine” by Boys Like Girls. I remember going on Youtube and watching the same three middle aged dudes teaching me to play the guitar.

HMS: This is the way of the future. This is a lot of peoples’ story now. In the old days, people learned to play from the radio or from books in the library.

RO: Also, the website Ultimate Guitar. For every song that was hot on the radio, I’d find the tab and learn how to play it.

HMS: Was learning about having that time alone and having a sense of accomplishment, or did you think, “I’m going to show other people I can do this?”

RO: I never thought too deeply about it. It was more that I got obsessed. There was nothing really to do. It was that weird age when you’re not really hanging out with friends, you don’t have your own car. I was home all the time.

I remember that I had an Xbox and it broke, so I just switched to guitar.

HMS: Wait, did you just say that your Xbox broke and then you didn’t have anything to do, so you had to learn guitar? [Laughs]

RO: Yes. It was the “red ring of death”. This is any boy’s nightmare. You get an Xbox and all the sudden the ring turns red, and it has died. It was crazy that we lived in a time when you couldn’t really look something up. No one knew what was going on.

HMS: The universe shut you down. No Xbox.

RO: When I had the Xbox, I was playing Guitar Hero the whole time, so then it was, “I guess I’ll try the real thing.” There’s also something kind of spiritual about playing the guitar, just sitting in a room by yourself with the sounds. It’s the realest thing you’ll probably ever do at 13, play a guitar or sing a song.

HMS: I was actually just reading a book about the history of The Beatles…

RO: Which one?

HMS: Philip Norman’s book Shout.

RO: Shout. I have it right on my bedside table.

HMS: Seriously?

RO: Yes, I’m obsessed with reading music bios.

HMS: Well, in Shout, it has quite a breakdown of how each of them got guitars and started playing, and in many of those stories, the parents were just so fed up with how many hours they were spending locked in their rooms playing guitar. Some of them thought it was an unhealthy obsession.

RO: My parents were always working, so they never said anything. They were happy I was doing my thing and not in trouble. They were very pro-independence. Live your life how you want, just don’t ask for help. That kind of mentality.

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Unnamed and Unreleased

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HMS: That sounds like it has its pros and cons.

RO: Definitely. I definitely did whatever I wanted for a long time. I still do, to a certain extent. Now I have teams of people that I’m supposed to be in communication with and accountable to and that’s kind of hard. I’m not used to this form of communication.

HMS: There’s a lot of mechanism involved in releasing music to the public and promoting it. It can be a lot of communication, especially during COVID.

How long ago did you start working on the songs that you’ve been releasing or are considering releasing? What made you decide to release them now?

RO: I’ve had a few offers over the years, but I’ve usually always said, “No”. It’s been a kind of vulnerable experience, bringing out stuff that I wasn’t sure was ever going to come out. I think it’s a good choice since the whole world is in flux right now.

HMS: How long have you been out in LA now?

RO: I’ve been bouncing around between here and other places. I lived in Mexico City for a year and in Ecuador for a year. But this is my first full year here. I’ve only been doing the musician thing for maybe two and a half years. I decided I was going to try to figure it out.

There was a time a while after high school when I tried music school out, I wasn’t really into it, and I just started traveling. Somehow I ended up trained as a videographer. That took me to the Amazon where I worked on a documentary for a while. Then it took me to Los Angeles where I worked on a Youtube channel. Then, during that experience, I was doing a lot of music videos on the side. I’d shoot a Yoga Facebook infomercial.

Then one day, I saw on post on Craigslist saying, “We’ll pay you $1000 to shoot a video today.” And it was kind of misspelled, but I didn’t really have anything else. So I hit them up and they said to meet them at midnight. The address was only a few minutes away, and it was this alleyway off the side of the freeway in a brick building.

There were no signs on the brick building, but I knocked on the door. They said, “Come on back.” And it turned out to be a world-class studio. I met this producer called Bekon [Kendrick Lamar], who’s doing amazing now.

HMS: This is crazy. Wow.

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Ask me if I’m alright again and I’ll smack ya #imnotalright

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RO: I met them as a videographer, but we just got along, and I didn’t end up getting work that night, but they told me to come back and keep catching the vibe. So I did that every night for months. I would just watch and just be shook.

I was always, “I am a musician.” That was always part of the goal. But I had started to be sidetracked because I was doing well in a video career. I thought that once I got super-stable in video, or helped build the Youtube channel, then I’d be a musician.

But after going to the studio, it was like, “I have to do this.” I went cold turkey on everything. I quit the Youtube job, I moved out of the Youtube house. I got a room in Venice. I got an acoustic guitar and I just wrote songs. I just wrote every day.

HMS: That’s amazing.

RO: I’m still friends with these guys. But then I decided to move to Mexico, again, and lived in the countryside, and wrote music every day. Because I had met my grandpa there previously.

HMS: Do you have other family there?

RO: This is a whole other story, but I took a long bicycle trip where I went from Portland to Guatemala, and met family along the way. This happened right out of college, after I dropped out. I had switched to online classes, and I took my loan money, bought a bicycle and started riding it. Along the way I met family and did online classes at the same time.

But when I went back to Mexico, I went and stayed in my grandpa’s village for a while. Then later, I went back to LA, and I had one song recorded, and that one song kept bringing me opportunities.

HMS: Did being down in Mexico and out in the countryside influence the way that you think about music?

RO: Definitely, but also the time I spent in the Amazon. I was given the money to test out a documentary idea I had in the Amazon, which started with an oil spill that I was covering in the Amazon rainforests. I had a team of people with me. I was only 19 and 20 out there. It was way too much stress. We were trying to learn how to do all this and work in three different languages. I decided to get the heck out of there. I went into the mountains to decide what I wanted to do, but that’s when the Youtube channel hit me up.

HMS: Do you think you’re a visual artist also, and that’s where some of this videography is coming from?

RO: Potentially. I think of myself as an artist in the traditional sense, but music has the strongest footing right now. I’m definitely open to exploring those other things. I’ve been taking acting classes for a long time and studying the Meisner technique. They all seem to overlap for me, the core of artistry.

 

HMS: I agree with that. I think in any era of art history you’ll find some people who are operating in multiple fields. But a lot of musicians I talk to have crossover with visual art and it can be really helpful for making your own videos and things.

RO: Yes, we did our video recently. It really helps with direction. It helps in knowing how to communicate creative directions and in understanding the work. The more I do in the creative world, the better I get at it. I know I need to have a fully formed vision for what I want to do and know who needs to be on what team to execute that.

HMS: If you can make yourself the center of a small team, you can do almost anything, I think. Like you said, if you can maintain that original creative objective and maintain that original tone, even if some of the details change, it often makes a big difference to the end product.

RO: I’m interested in a lot of things, but I try not to rush it. People will put that “jack of all trades” title on you, but I don’t think that’s the case when it’s a team effort. So far I’ve been able to do that with music. It took me a while to record an album without signing to a label. It all takes a lot of time and patience.

But Gambino is great and has done amazing things. He’s definitely one of my heroes because of the story he brings to everything. I definitely hope to follow in his footsteps in some manner.

HMS: You’ve managed to record a whole album already? That’s wonderful.

RO: Yes, I have a lot of songs. I’m playing it by ear and seeing how many I want to put out. But I have a lot of other songs I want to finish. I’m definitely going to put out an EP, so maybe four songs over the next few months.

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