OLEAN — Christian artist/songwriter Fernando Ortega is grateful for a career that spans more than 25 years. He will bring his artistic talent to the Olean First Baptist Church on May 6 at 7:30 p.m.
Ortega is sometimes surprised by the longevity of his career.
“I’m so grateful for that,” he said by phone from his home in New Mexico. “I love what I do and I hope it doesn’t go away.”
With songs such as “This Good Day”, “Jesus King of Angels” and soulful rearrangements of beloved hymns such as “Give Me Jesus” and “Be Thou My Vision” in his catalog of works, Ortega is aware that things can change.
“I have friends who are super talented and have been doing music for a while but weren’t seeing sales anymore,” he said.
A voice can lose its elasticity after a while and Ortega shared a story about listening to music with his daughter that he recorded when he was around 30. Ruby, who was 11 at the time, said, “Dad, you look so young!”
“I could go pretty high back then, but there’s less elasticity in my voice now,” he said. “I hope I don’t lose it.”
Ortega is originally from New Mexico where his family has lived for eight generations. He was 5 or 6 years old when family friends traveling in Europe left their piano at his house.
“I was immediately drawn to it,” he said. The lessons came a few years later, which he resisted because he didn’t like them, but he liked playing.
“I was talking to some friends here in Albuquerque recently and they told me I didn’t play the street with them much because I was always at the piano,” he said.
He would receive formal training at the University of New Mexico and remembers starting to write songs in the late 1980s or early 90s. When he heard the songs, they didn’t sound so good. “But I liked a few enough to hone my skills, and then I signed up for poetry classes at a local college,” he said.
It was there that he met professors Elaine and Peter Rubenstein, who became lifelong mentors. His collaboration with Elaine produced the haunting “Breaking of the Dawn,” a song Ortega says he wrote when his mother had a stroke. “It’s about her trip across the country to see her and expressed how vulnerable she felt at the time, traveling before cellphones and the like,” he said.
The song became the title of the album and is still featured in most of his set sets. “I practice it a lot. I never tire of it,” he said.
Like Nichole Nordeman, who performed at Olean First Baptist the Christmas before the COVID-19 quarantines, Ortega often writes about life’s questions and struggles from the inside.
“I think a Christian songwriter should write about the people he knows, the relationships he has, and the places he’s been,” he said. “Let’s hope that their view of the world and their view of God will be reflected in that.”
An example comes from another much-requested book, “Lord of Eternity,” written by Ortega and John Andrew Schreiner. It was written for a college chaplain going through a difficult time about 20 years ago. Big questions live in lyrics like “Sometimes I call your name/But I can’t find you./I’m looking for your face/But you’re not there”. The artist then implores God to lift us up anyway.
“Songwriters shouldn’t be afraid to address and own their brokenness,” he said, adding that issues even within faith are there for more people than not.
Although he has many inspiring compositions of praise and adoration to his credit, he is known for his deeply thoughtful and intentional interpretations of sacred music.
“I like to distinguish between music for church and congregation and other music,” he said. “He should be very direct in expressing his theology, moving away from self and exalting God.”
As he rearranges the anthems, he has faced his share of criticism.
“Especially with one as well known as ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness,'” Ortega said. “Some people in my congregation were a little angry when I released that one. A guy in the 90s said the anthem, his favorite, didn’t need to be changed, but after hearing it for a while, he liked my version too.
Ortega cut back on touring for the first five years of Ruby’s life, first taking jobs at an Anglican church and then others. He now attends a free evangelical church. Sometimes Ruby travels with him when school isn’t a conflict.
“It’s fun to have her backstage,” he said. He also noted that balancing family and career and other commitments can complicate touring schedules, but said it was worth it, especially being there for Ruby.
Ortega has explored his creative side during the pandemic by writing and publishing a book, “Fernando’s Birds: Photographs and Tales.”
He also hopes to convey the universal in his writing, to touch the hearts of others through his music.
“For me, if a listener identifies with something from my life experience and it resonates with them, I hope they get what they want out of it,” he said. “I hope they find something that resonates inside a song that sparkles.”