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Singer-songwriter Juan Fernando Ortega, 61, has recorded many traditional hymns and written profound yet accessible songs, such as “This Good Day.” His family lived in Chimayó, N.M., for eight generations: Reviewers have cited that history as an influence on his music. Here are edited excerpts from our interview in Issaquah, Wash.
Did you grow up speaking both English and Spanish? Growing up I didn’t speak any Spanish. When I was 11, my father took a job in South America, so the whole family moved down there. I went to an Ecuadorian school, completely immersed in Spanish. It was do-or-die situation, so I learned.
I heard you talk about living in Ecuador and having culture shock there, and then reverse culture shock coming back to the United States. Your music conveys the feeling of being a sojourner here on earth, not feeling quite at home. Did your experience influence you that way? Hmm. I’ve never thought about that before. It’s beginning to feel that way. Here’s an incident at my daughter’s school just last week. A school play was about some atrocities in history, the main one being the Holocaust. Ruby is in third grade: That’s heavy material for a third-grader. Then, as a response, the teacher was having them sing John Lennon: “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky … no religion, too.”
I took exception to it. I told Ruby, “It’s a cool song, but I don’t believe in imagining there’s no God. It’s just the opposite for us: God will redeem the earth.” I complained about it, and that’s the first time I really realized how the school system was. … They looked at me like some kind of relic: What? Are you kidding me? That’s really how you feel?
Your latest album, The Crucifixion of Jesus, follows the flow of your albums as liturgical. As you travel around the United States, are you seeing a need or a desire for a more liturgical form of worship in the evangelical church? I see a desire and a need. One student worship leader at Wheaton College told me, “We appreciate anybody who comes here and teaches us a historic hymn that we’ve never heard before that sheds some kind of light on the character of God.” Those songs connect us to generations of Christians who have gone before us, and give us a sense of groundedness in our faith.
‘[Historic hymns] connect us to generations of Christians who have gone before us, and give us a sense of groundedness in our faith.’
In many of your songs, there’s a tension between the sorrow of this life and trusting God. Do you have a theology of suffering—how sadness is meant to be part of the Christian life? I’ve never really experienced God in any kind of profound way without going through a road of loss or sorrow or suffering. The Sermon on the Mount starts out with negatives: Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the poor in spirit.
What about doubt? You’ve mentioned in writings and interviews that doubt is part of Christian life. I had a time up to three years ago where I really doubted, questioned whether He had truly ever been in my life or whether I ever knew Him. It was like going through this wilderness where I would just go days on end where I just couldn’t feel Him, I couldn’t feel that He was answering my prayers, that He was even hearing my prayers. I really don’t know what fixed all that in the end, why the anxiety now is gone, as it seems to be gone. There was that long period of doubt, and then it seemed He finally answered my prayer.
You lost your father this year. How has that loss colored your work? It’s made me more aware that there’s a communion of the saints. There’s something mystical that happened: I don’t think I’ll ever think about the kingdom of God or heaven as I used to.
You’re working on an Easter album? I do not want it to be a sad Easter record! I want to include the fact that the women were the ones who found Jesus risen, and then He charged them with taking the news back to the disciples. And then Peter and John, the race to the tomb. I want the road to Emmaus: Did not our hearts burn within us as He was speaking to us? They had been with Christ but they didn’t know. And doubting Thomas. There was tension. I want those things to be part of this Easter record, but I really want it to end with something glorious—yet without the standard timpani and trumpets.
That leads to my next question: You play the accordion, an old-fashioned instrument that’s now cool and hip—a worship instrument? It adds a warmth and charm you don’t find in digital instruments, even digital accordions on the keyboard. It can resemble an organ, and I love the folky element it brings to a lot of pop music. You don’t hear Katy Perry or Taylor Swift using an accordion on their songs—at least not yet.
Advice for young Christian artists. What should they be doing in the church? They should first of all steep themselves in good writers: People who have a poetic sense about them, not necessarily Christians. Good poetry—Elizabeth Bishop or Denise Levertov. Young Christian artists should find how really big the English language is. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories helped me write a lot of my songs.
For example? A pretty consistent theme for her: Pride gets in the way. Think of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” or “Revelation.” The woman in the waiting room of the doctor’s office is so proud she’s not “white trash,” as she says—then this girl sitting there and listening gets so disgusted that she finally throws a book at her, conks her, and calls her, “You warthog!” The woman goes home and this thing—that she’s a warthog—festers in her. God uses that crazy girl who threw the book at her to help her find her salvation.
I have a song, “Old Girl,” that always reminds me of that. It’s about a homeless woman I saw in a restaurant. I was going to buy her breakfast. I got so caught up thinking about what a good guy I was for thinking about buying this woman breakfast, that before I ever got a chance to ask her if I could buy her breakfast, she saw me staring at her. She started cussing at me and stomped out of the restaurant. I thought, “Ooo, God used that woman to get me away from my thought.”
As I was typing out my questions today, two birds came to my bird feeder at the same time, a red-winged blackbird and a woodpecker. How’d you know I like birds?
I read an interview you did last year, and you talked about how you liked birds. I’m a tiny bird-watcher. Before I left to come up here, I had to take in the bird feeders—counted 14. That’s not counting the hummingbird feeders.