Interview: Gaby Moreno
As Gaby Moreno poured every ounce of her heart into the microphone at Black Cat, I realized that I had never been to a concert where you could actually hear a pin drop if the artist stopped playing. The crowd was completely enthralled by Moreno, attempting to fight back rising emotions. The gentleman beside me visibly clenched his teeth and fingers, as he attempted to stifle an oncoming wave of tears. Her music transports listeners home—especially those from Latin America—as she tears nostalgic scars wide open with her soul ripping voice.
Gaby Moreno moved from Guatemala to Los Angeles 17 years ago to pursue a career in music and was forced to adapt to a new country and culture. What is typically a considerably long process came naturally to Moreno. “I did feel that cultural shock, but it didn't take long to adapt because I knew that I was going to be in an atmosphere that was surrounded by people who were doing the same things that I was doing which was music,” she says. “Of course it was difficult to leave my family behind, but I also knew that I wasn’t that far away and that I could still go back to visit them anytime that I wanted to and in that regard, I’m very fortunate to have that privilege.”
Gaby’s journey into music began when she first encountered Blues music on a trip to New York. “I was 13 years old when I first heard Blues. I was on a vacation trip in New York City and I heard it on the streets.” Moreno said, “it was something that I hadn’t heard before, I hadn’t heard music that passionate or that spoke to me so loudly and I knew that it was a genre that I wanted to discover more.” Over the years her musical palette has expanded to Jazz, Gospel, R&B, and Soul; all of which deeply influence her lifestyle and music. The most recent additions to her repertoire include Folk, Indie, Country and Spanish Folk.
Her wide range of musical influences can be heard on her latest album, “Illusión,” in which she seamlessly crosses genre boundaries to create a cohesive sound. “I listen to a lot of these genres, I really immersed myself in each one and studied it so much that it became part of me,” she says with a giggle. “It became a natural process. I don’t consider myself a traditional Jazz singer or a traditional Blues singer, but it was great to really learn from all these different styles so that years later I could mix them all up and come up with my own sound.”
Given her diverse music taste, Moreno struggled to answer when I asked her if there was one person that has influenced her music the most. “I’m going to give you my top 5, which are Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Harry Nilsson, Bessie Smith and The Beatles,” Moreno said.
Throughout her career, Moreno has shared the stage with a number of renowned artists. Most recently she was asked to be part of a tribute to David Bowie called “Celebrating David Bowie” which took her to several major cities around the world. When asked about the experience she paused before answering. “It was an unbelievable experience because it was with Bowie’s original musicians. Mike Garson who was Bowie’s original pianist, Gail Ann Dorsey the bass player, Sterling Campbell the drummer, and many different guest artists in all of these cities that we went to. Sting was one of the guests when we played in L.A., so you can imagine, it was just very surreal for me, and now I’m doing more. I’m going to the UK in November with Mike Garson and we are doing a week-long tour playing the Aladdin Sane record from top to bottom with again, some incredible musicians.” Next year, “Celebrating David Bowie” will expand its tour to include over 30 cities in the UK and US.
A project that speaks to Moreno’s versatility as an artist is her work on the theme song for NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” which was nominated for “Outstanding Main Title Theme Music” at the 2010 Emmy Awards. When asked if she watched the show Moreno giggled, “Oh God yeah, religiously.” Her favorite character is Leslie Knope, portrayed by Amy Poehler. “I just adored her. She was always positive and hardworking and I relate to her in a way. Not as intense as her, of course, but just the fact that she was always looking on the bright side.”
Moreno also created the theme song to the very first Disney Latin Princess Show. “It was amazing really, I have been a Disney Fan for a long time and it has always been a dream of mine to voice a character, which I happen to do on the show. They asked me to sing the theme song and sing a song on a Christmas episode and have a character. It was a childhood lifelong dream come true,” Moreno says.
In 2013, Gaby Moreno won the Latin Grammy Award for Best New Artist and to add to her ongoing list of impressive achievements “Ilussion” was nominated for a Grammy earlier this year. “Insane, just surreal I mean, already a Latin Grammy was amazing,” she said, “but to actually get an American Grammy nomination? That was just beyond anything I could have dreamed of.”
Moreno’s uniquely rich voice has attracted a number of artists that have wanted to collaborate with her in some way. She joined fellow Guatemalan, Ricardo Arjona on his single, “Fuiste Tú,” which was nominated for Song of the Year and Record of the Year for the 13th Annual Latin Grammy Awards and is Arjona’s most played song on Spotify with 50.5 million plays and over 500 Million plays in Youtube.
Her dream collaboration is with Mavis Staples. “She’s an incredible soul singer, she has been around for many many years, she used to be a part of a group called The Staples Singers in the 60’s and she has this amazing, soulful gospel voice,” Moreno says, “she’s one of my favorite singers.”
The entirety of her latest album, “Illusion” was recorded using analog equipment which is what artists used to record with before the digital era. “It was kind of a nerve-wracking experience because you only have a few takes and there’s a lot at stake. I love that aspect of it I really think that a lot of musicians back in the day that’s why they sound so amazing because they knew they had –pardon what I’m about to say, to rehearse the shit out of that song so that when they would get to the studio they would just nail it” she says. “They weren’t like ‘Ah will fix that later’ it was like ‘No that’s all you got,’ you got to be on your toes so I really enjoyed that.”
Gaby describes “Illusion” as a time to harken back to the beginnings. “I wanted to go back to an older sound, the analog sound. Like a vintage sound with warmer tones and not just in the production but also the song writing. I wrote songs that to me sound like they were written back in the day, the same structures.” Moreno explained.
When asked about which producers she’d like to work with she said that T-Bone Burnett has been on the top of her list but that she would also like to start producing herself. “My style changed a lot over the years and honestly I’ve been enjoying producing myself so I think for the next record I want to try and just produce myself because I don’t think that there are enough female producers. For the most part, the last record was produced by Gabe Roth from the Dap-Kings but the single off the record called 'Se Apago (Love is Gone)' I produced that myself and I really enjoyed it. I also want to produce other artists too, I really want to get into that.”
In her song, “Fronteras,” Moreno reveals a theme of finding the light in the midst of darkness. In a time when immigrants are being persecuted, she speaks directly to them. “It’s a message of hope, it’s a message of telling all those people who came to this country or are living in this country who are hard workers, who are honest people who just want a better life and a better opportunity and nowadays I have been dedicating it to the Dreamers, The DACA Dreamers.” she said. “it’s just my way of telling them, I’m there for you, I’m with you guys. You are not alone, this is something that we all have to be in together and I feel like with me it’s the best way that I can lend a hand, is through my music.”
Gaby Moreno will be back in the DMV when the North American leg of “Celebrating David Bowie” opens on February 10, 2018, at The Fillmore in Silver Spring. Follow her at the links below.
All photos by Xavi Dussaq for Capitol Sound DC.