MusicMusic Features

Liza Ortiz Weaves a Solo Spell With La Brava

Armed with a pair of keyboards, the singer-songwriter has stepped out from the safety of band configurations and into the spotlight

Liza Ortiz holds a Lite Brite over her head surrounded by a purple glow
Liza Ortiz (Photo by Claudio Ortiz)

Liza Ortiz’s Spanish language song “Vida Debajo” (“Life Below”) begins with a seemingly liturgical chant. In her warm slightly reverberating alto, Ortiz issues a cautionary yet hopeful ecological prayer:

“Nos quieren quitar el aire/ Nos quieren quitar la voz/ El árbol que cae tiene vida debajo…”

Translation: “They want to take our air/ They want to take our voice/ But the tree that falls has life underneath…”

Robust and embracing, Ortiz enfolds the listener in her a cappella vocal. It suggests a call-and-response, except no response is forthcoming. Instead, Ortiz repeats her lyrics in a hypnotic incantation, this time accompanied by her own lilting harmonies. By the third reiteration of the achingly beautiful verse, harmonies swarm through the ecological hymn, coursing like an ever-quickening stream, rushing like the wind through the treetops.

Ortiz says that, in live performance, the song conjures a curious response from the audience: silence.

“It’s the most powerful thing,” Ortiz says. “Everybody goes quiet, especially the first few times that I’ve performed it. There wasn’t even a cellphone out.”

Ortiz insists she’s not anti-technology, just that she feels there’s more to an audience’s response than mere gratification for her.

“There’s something special when you can get everybody super quiet, and we’re all collectively in that moment together,” she says.

Liza Ortiz has been capturing incandescent moments and forging bonds with listeners for more than a decade through a series of bands including psychedelic cumbia purveyors Patabamba and tropical pop-rockers Chócala, but she has recently expanded her reach and repertoire with Latin electronic trio Bravo Pueblo, as well as her synthesizer-led solo project La Brava, which plays Petra’s on July 20.

The fact that Ortiz has emerged from the safety blanket of band configurations and has stepped out into the spotlight armed with a pair of keyboards is particularly laudable because she’s been managing depression and sometimes severe social anxiety for most of her life. She says she has learned to acknowledge her anxiety through songwriting and reconcile it with public performance.

“You don’t work on your mental health and then say, ‘Everything’s gone. We’re good to go,’” Ortiz says.

As she began to write songs and perform more often, however, she realized she could utilize both creative endeavors to heal or reframe how she felt about her condition.

“With performance, I get lost in what I’m doing,” she says. “Not to forget that people are there, because they play a huge part in the performance, but I surrender to that present moment.”

Far more challenging, Ortiz acknowledges, are the moments before and after each gig when she interacts uncomfortably with crowds.

“I love connecting with different people, but that’s the part where you clench up a little bit. [It’s] like, ‘I don’t know everyone and there’s a lot of stimulation happening at once.’ Even now, I can’t banter. It’s not my thing.”

Liza Ortiz acknowledges her depression and anxiety through songwriting

Born in Gainesville, Florida to a Venezuelan father and Puerto Rican mother, Liza Ortiz moved around a lot as a child. The family even returned briefly to Venezuela, where her father practiced medicine before the political situation in his homeland turned untenable. Ortiz’s family finally settled in Charlotte in 2000 when she turned 10.

Ortiz remembers being immersed in music, encouraged by her mother, who played guitar and mandolin. Home-schooled until 8th grade, Ortiz spent a lot of time with her family, learning to harmonize while singing with her mother and older brother Claudio. The siblings played guitar while Claudio took violin lessons and Ortiz studied piano and began writing songs.

Liza Ortiz holds her hair up in the air against a purple backdrop
Liza Ortiz (Photo by Juan Ricardo Yilo)

She and Claudio always loved to make as much noise as possible banging on pots and pans, but their tastes became more refined over time. Musical influences on the siblings included salsa, meringue, Spanish ballads and musica llanera — the folk music of Venezuela. Since Ortiz’s parents are Orthodox Jews, sacred Jewish music and secular Israeli songs were also in the mix.

Ortiz didn’t begin performing publicly until she started singing in high school choir. In college at UNC Charlotte, she joined her first band, Members of the Sea. She credits Claudio with urging her to join and play glockenspiel with the alt-folk-rock combo, which released its sole album We Wish to Communicate in 2009. Both siblings had a brief stint in Case Federal’s band Lost in a World of Color before Federal decamped Charlotte for Austin, Texas.

“Claudio has always been the one to get me into bands,” Ortiz says.

Even having her become the lead vocalist for Chócala, was initially Claudio’s idea, she says.

In 2015, the Ortiz siblings — Claudio on percussion and vocals and Liza on vocals and keyboards — joined percussionist and songwriter Davey Blackburn and guitarist/vocalist Patrick O’Boyle in Patabamba. By then, Ortiz had chosen her ideal instruments for making two sounds at the same time: a Korg synthesizer acquired from Claudio and a vintage Farfisa organ. When the Farfisa broke down, Ortiz bought an Arturia MatrixBrute synthesizer.

“[It’s] my primary tool now,” she says. “It is a beast of a synth.”

In 2017, with the departure of O’Boyle, Patabamba transitioned into Chócala, adding saxophonist Michael Anderson. Along the way, Ortiz wrote her first song. Intentioned for Patabamba, but released on Chócala’s self-titled 2019 debut album, “Tinieblas” (“Darkness”) touched on Ortiz’s battle with depression. At the time, Ortiz’s anxiety was exacerbated by the failure of a serious relationship, a falling out with a best friend, the death of the family dog and her car breaking down after all four tires were punctured by nails.

Over cantering percussion, rubbery bass and swaggering saxophone, Ortiz’s vocals chart a sassy course with Stygian undercurrents.

“No te desates de tus tinieblas internas/ Que sin la oscuridad no se ven la estrellas/ Se despertó la bestia en mi…”

(“Don’t detach yourself from your inner darkness/ Because without the darkness you can’t see the stars/ My inner beast has woken up…”)

Ortiz’s second song, “Reina de Mi” (“Queen of My”), which also appears on the band’s sole album, serves as a rejoinder to “Tineblas.” Over insistent tom-toms and honking sax, Ortiz lays out the tune’s thesis:

“La próxima vez que me encuentre/ Enjaulada por incertidumbre / Me ato a mi presencia/ Y me transformo en mi propia numen…”

(“The next time I feel trapped by uncertainty/ I will attach myself to my presence-the present/ And I will become my own muse…”)

“’Tinieblas’ is that initial moment of realizing and accepting [depression], whereas ‘Reina de Mi’ is completely taking power over it,” Ortiz says.

“Reina de Mi” came to Ortiz when she was taking a shower, she says.

“A lot of times … I’ll hum something, [usually] the first thing that comes to mind even if it doesn’t make sense,” Ortiz says of her songwriting process. “I’ll typically have a thousand voice notes that I go back and work on.”

Although she’s more comfortable with speaking English than Spanish, she writes songs in Spanish.

“There’s something about the imagery in Spanish, the way the words sound,” she says.  “Honestly, a lot of times the way I write is [to] make a list of words that I either want to use, or I like the way they sound, and just build on that.”

Ortiz likens songwriting to channeling.

“A lot of the song lyrics feel like they’re not even coming from me,” she says. “[Instead], it’s a message for me. I think it is just processing one’s own truths about life.”

Bravo Pueblo and La Brava are gaining momentum with upcoming shows and new music

In 2016, musician, playwright, songwriter and former educator Molly J. Brown approached Chócala to play songs she has composed for a live performance of her satirical musical comedy Frannie’s Feel-Good Farm at Petra’s. Brown subsequently asked Liza Ortiz to sing and act in Brown’s musical homage to film noir, Murder & Moonbeams, which debuted at Petra’s in 2019. During the COVID-imposed quarantine, Murder & Moonbeams was adapted into a feature film.

Ortiz reprised her stage roles for the production, which was filmed during lockdown.

“I’ve never considered myself as an actor, but I love musicals,” Ortiz says. “The Sound of Music was huge in our home.”

Brown has high praise for Ortiz’s talent.

“Apart from being a joy to be around, Liza’s talented and crazy expressive,” Brown says. ‘[She’s] definitely one of the best singers in town. She’s a superstar.”

Cast of Murder & Moonbeams
From left: Liza Ortiz, Bo White and Molly J. Brown on the set of ‘Murder & Moonbeams.’ (Photo by Jake Yount)

Chócala wound down as Blackburn devoted himself to dealing with his son Cuauthy’s diagnosis of leukemia, and Charlotte began to go into a COVID-necessitated quarantine. Prior to that, Ortiz and her brother had begun to play gigs that Chócala was unable to do. Blackburn has since returned to the local music scene.

“Claudio and I decided to form Los Ortiz as a little side project to be able to do songs [that weren’t right for Chócala] — work on a more electronic sound and get a bit weirder,” Ortiz says.

Armed with her dual keyboards, Ortiz began playing solo gigs at Goodyear Arts, but they were never full sets, just a two- or three-song maximum.

“Then I played a ‘Senses of Healing’ event at The Frock Shop, where I put together 45 minutes of music. I used binaural beats,” she says, explaining a practice in which two tones of slightly different frequencies are played so that the brain perceives the creation of a new, third tone. “Then I added a lot of different textures.”

Ortiz says the majority of the music she writes is the sum of “happy accidents” that occur when she’s playing around with a sequencer or different beat machines.

“I’ll create something, end up liking how that sounds and just build around that,” she says.

The first time Ortiz performed as La Brava was for Highlights Fest, an all-day event featuring electronic music at Goodyear Arts in Camp North End. She recalls that it took place right before the March 2020 quarantine.

During quarantine, Ortiz devoted her time to songwriting and started working with Florida-based Venezuelan punk band Zeta. That band’s frontman Juan Ricardo Yilo, aka Juan Chi, subsequently moved to Charlotte from Miami on July 2021. Zeta had come through Charlotte, where Yilo had seen Chócala play and noted Ortiz’s performance.

“During the lockdown, [Zeta] decided to work virtually with a group of artists, different people, and make this album that was a collective experience. I did vocals for that album [Todo Bailardo].”

Charlotte eventually started emerging from the lockdown. In June 2021, Ortiz played the annual Doomsday event at Goodyear as La Brava.

“I had to write three songs for that and it just went from there,” Ortiz says. “I started getting offered shows, and that gave me a reason to write more music.”

When Zeta played Snug Harbor in November 2021, the band asked Ortiz to open as La Brava.

“The majority of songs I play today, I wrote two days before that show,” Ortiz says.

At the Snug show, Ortiz joined Zeta onstage for its performance. She has since played with them twice at the famous Gainesville, Florida festival called Fest.

One of the times Zeta came to Charlotte, they asked Los Ortiz to open, which is when musician and resident Goodyear visual artist Lisandro Herrera saw the Ortiz siblings play.

Herrera asked them if he could be in their band. The three artists clicked and ended up creating tropical electronic trio Bravo Pueblo.

“Claudio and I were just beaming the second [Herrera] approached us about making music, because it’s a dream,” Ortiz says.

Ortiz’s busy schedule has recently included singing in a commercial for the North Carolina Brazilian Arts project and playing as La Brava at the annual Brazilian Festival the group and Charlotte’s capoeira community hosted at The Neighborhood Theatre in February. La Brava also composed the soundtrack for Baran Dance’s “Big Moves” performance in May. Thrilled to work with dancer/choreographer Audrey Baran, Ortiz recorded the soundtrack quickly, as she knew the troupe had to start choreographing.

“Not once did I think about the fact that I would have to play those songs exactly as I had recorded them,” Ortiz says, laughing. In the end, the performance went off without a hitch. Ortiz had thoughtfully provided the dancers with translations of all the lyrics in her songs so they would know what each tune is about.

After the July 20 La Brava gig at Petra’s, Bravo Pueblo will embark on a mini-tour of the East Coast, opening for Zeta in Connecticut, Virginia, Washington D.C., and culminating at Hopscotch Music Festival in Raleigh in September. They also have a show on Aug. 5 at Petra’s.

Bravo Pueblo is currently working on recording, Ortiz says, and it turns out there is some musical crossover between the trio and La Brava.

“Honestly, the two projects are in the same vein,” Ortiz says.

All of the songs for La Brava are Ortiz’s and most of Bravo Pueblo’s are as well. In a few cases, Claudio and Herrera have loved some La Brava songs so much that they’ve asked Ortiz if the trio could record its own versions of the tunes. Ortiz said yes.

“Those two projects are always going to be combined, except that Claudio and Lee bring additional layers [to Bravo Pueblo],” Ortiz says. “Hopefully, once we finish recording the Bravo Pueblo songs, anything we don’t take for that project I’ll release as La Brava.”

By Ortiz’s own admission, La Brava’s and Bravo Pueblo’s music is tough to describe.

“It’s a mixture of electronic, tropical, and there are some pop elements,” she says. “It’s experimental, but it’s not that far out.”

Ortiz recalls that she recently played a show where one of the bands on the bill asked what kind of music she plays.

“I said, ‘You know what? You watch it and tell me what you think.’ Afterwards, they said, ‘I get it. I understand,’ So, how do you categorize that?”

There’s no need to categorize. The vibes are what matters.

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