Cipriano Ortega started off in theater when he was twelve and never looked back. His love for the craft has informed the jazz, punk and spoken-word-inspired music that he writes and performs around Denver.
“When I was a kid, I would just go in the back yard and put on costumes and reenact characters I was fond of,” the 29-year-old performer says. “They were mostly villains or antiheroes and misunderstood characters. Even as a kid, I related to those kind of characters.”
From 2002 to 2009, he attended Denver School of the Arts, where he majored in stagecraft. He also spent his summers performing at the Arvada Center; it’s where he discovered the musical theater that informs his music. He admits, however, that when he was younger, he avoided listening to music, mostly to be contrary. His iPod sat for about a decade.
“When I discovered music, it was more so in college,” he says. “I really didn’t start until I was a junior or senior in high school, because I was just anti-everything — like, everyone listens to music, so I’m not going to listen to music.”
He eventually got over his avoidance of music, and Nirvana was the first band he found himself truly immersed in. He says he really identified with the punk-rock spirit and general angst of Kurt Cobain. Even now, he gravitates toward ’90s music like Alice in Chains, Tool and Blind Melon. He’s currently on a big Morphine kick — the alternative band, not the drug.
He says he wants to bring back grunge, because it’s okay for people to be upset.
“Sonically, what I liked about the ’90s was that it was so introspective about people’s personal experiences,” he says. “It was also universal, because it resonated with me and it resonated with a whole generation.”
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Ortega, who draws from jazz, considers what he is doing to be minimalist in nature. He also finds inspiration in film scores, Japanese Taiko drums and Native American drumming.
“That comes from my heritage as well,” says Ortega, who is part Apache on his mother’s side. “I looked at the concept of Native American drums, and it’s just a single pulse. Ever since I was a kid, that pulse always kind of drew me.”
He says he has been experimenting with a bass strung with only two strings as a way to keep with the minimalist spirit present in his music. He also incorporates long samples into his songs, like sounds from the film Apocalypse Now and a distorted version of a track from West Side Story.
Thematically, Ortega covers a lot of ground in his songs: everything from his indigenous heritage and his relationship with technology to more overtly political content as of late. He says he never set out to be a political musician, but he wanted to write songs that reflect the times he lives in; that means he's writing about consumerism, capitalism and his frustration with them. One track, “This Is a Pig,” was inspired by his mother’s run-in with a police officer about two years ago.
“Lyrically, I try to stem from a personal place,” he says, “but I also I really want to elevate myself further and see a bigger picture.”
It’s all a bit difficult to define genre-wise, and Ortega says he’s always felt like an outsider growing up, partly because he was an only child who spent most of his time around older people.
He says his lack of a genre and the fact that he incorporates performance into his sets can make it hard to find venues to play.
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“My goal is to really embrace the more theatrical part of it and really try to market or sell that,” he says. “I enjoy that part the most.”
The performance aspect of Ortega’s craft is at least as important as the music itself. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, live music is hardly existent. He is waiting until he feels comfortable performing without a mask before he returns to the stage.
“I’ve been invited to do a couple of online concerts,” he says. “I really feel like the material is not portrayed the best behind a screen.”
In the meantime, catch some of Ortega's performances on Vimeo.