Gaby Moreno: Lady Learns The Blues, And More

Originally published on April 10, 2011 6:43 pm

In 2001, Guatemalan singer and songwriter Gaby Moreno left her country for Los Angeles, where she got into the local music scene and took classes at the Musicians Institute. Her soulful vocals and ability to switch languages and genres have made her a rising star.

Moreno is part of a batch of young, soulful Latina singers whose voices evoke Fiona Apple or Tori Amos. On her new album, though, Moreno also channels her inner Aretha. Her songs have been used on popular TV shows, and she has two albums out; her most recent is titled Illustrated Songs.

Moreno says she finds inspiration in old-fashioned music of the vaudeville era, and was intrigued by the early visual art form of projecting images with musical accompaniment — hence the new album's name.

Moreno's musical life began when she was 13, on a family vacation in New York. She says she and her family were walking through Times Square one night when something caught her eye.

"I saw this lady who was singing on the streets. I just froze," Moreno tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Linda Wertheimer. "I can't even begin to describe to you what I felt when I heard her music. I asked her, 'What is that style you're singing in?' And she just looked at me like, 'You don't know what the blues is?' "

Moreno asked her mother to take her to a record store right away and buy her some blues records. Growing up in Guatemala, Moreno had been surrounded by Latin rock music, but she says it was never really an influence on her. Once she found the blues, however, it was all she could listen to.

"Those singers — they became my teachers," she says. "I would just lock myself in my room and sing Koko Taylor and Aretha Franklin."

Other favorites included Gladys Knight, Roberta Flack and Ella Fitzgerald. Listening to those singers, Moreno says she became fascinated with learning more of the English language so she could understand the lyrics.

"Sometimes, I would just go to the dictionary and look for the words," she says. "I could never tell what they were talking about, because it was all blues slang."

Now fluent in Spanish and English, the bilingual Moreno mixes languages as well as genres on Illustrated Songs. "Ave Que Emigra" includes the line "Vengo desde muy lejos, buscando el azul del cielo," or "I come from far away, looking for bluer skies." The song was inspired by Moreno's journey from Guatemala to Los Angeles, where she followed her dream of playing music while her friends and family stayed behind.

"I had just come out of high school, and I knew that I wanted to pursue music, and I was just convinced that I had to come here and do it here," she says. "I couldn't stay [in Guatemala]. There's not a very big music scene, especially not one for the kind of music I was into."

Stylistically, Ilustrated Songs is all over the map, but there is one constant.

"This is what makes me who I am," Moreno says of all the different influences audible on the album. "The common denominator there is my voice."

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GABY MORENO: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

Her songs have been used on popular television shows. She has two CDs out. Gaby Moreno is part of a batch of young, sweet and soulful Latina singers who have an almost Fiona Apple- or Tori Amos-like voice. But in her new album, Gaby channels her inner Aretha as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORENO: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

WRIGHT: Gaby Moreno, welcome to the program.

MORENO: Thank you so much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Tell me about that title, "Illustrated Songs."

MORENO: They would project images with a live accompaniment, and I just thought it was a great idea to just project visuals and have the music be a part of it and tell a story. And I also felt like each song has its own story to tell. So I just thought the title was very fitting.

WERTHEIMER: Mm-hmm. I've heard that you took a trip to New York City that really sort of started you down this path. Could you tell me about that?

MORENO: Yes. My parents decided to take me to New York City on a vacation trip, and...

WERTHEIMER: How old were you then?

MORENO: I was 13. And we had seen "Les Miserables." And afterwards, we were just walking down Times Square. You know, it was maybe midnight. And there was so much going on, and for me, I had never experienced that before.

WERTHEIMER: What is that music? What is that style that you're singing? And she just looked at me: You don't know what the blues is?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORENO: And I asked my mom to take me to a record store right away and just buy blues records. And the first song on one of the compilations was Koko Taylor's "Wang Dang Doodle."

WERTHEIMER: Well, let's just play a little inspirational moment here so we can understand what comes after that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WANG DANG DOODLE")

KOKO TAYLOR: (Singing) We gonna romp and tromp till midnight. We gonna fuss and fight till daylight. We gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Now, Koko Taylor sounds a great deal rougher and tougher than you do on this album.

MORENO: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORENO: Yeah. Well, I have two sides of me, and I think people will be able to tell on this record. I do like the softer songs, but I can also belt some songs. And that's my other side is just the soulful, blues.

WERTHEIMER: Now, when you were growing up in Guatemala, who were your other musical inspirations?

MORENO: You know, once I discovered blues, that was it for me. I just decided this is the music that I'm going to listen to nonstop. And everybody around me was looking at me like, what is that music that you're listening to?

WERTHEIMER: What was that music you were listening to?

MORENO: Yeah. Because everybody else, my friends, you know, they were listening to Latin pop music. And so it's almost like those singers, they became my teachers. I would just lock myself in my room and just sing Koko Taylor and Aretha Franklin. And I was also listening to Gladys Knight and Roberta Flack and Ella Fitzgerald.

WERTHEIMER: This track, which is called "Daydream in Design," kind of stands out for me.

MORENO: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: We're going to listen to a second of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAYDREAM BY DESIGN")

MORENO: (Singing) Bursting up above a symbol and a dove, all the beauty rising, hiding any traces of the burden we left behind, living in a daydream by design.

WERTHEIMER: So where does this come from?

MORENO: But then, they way Larry played it, you know, it was very jazzy, and it definitely has that '20s vibe to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAYDREAM BY DESIGN")

MORENO: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

WERTHEIMER: Now, there's a song called "Ave Que Emigra," which I guess is "Bird that..."

MORENO: Migrates.

WERTHEIMER: ...that Migrates."

MORENO: Yeah. It talks about my experience as a Guatemalan coming to the United States and, you know, leaving behind everything that I knew, leaving behind my family, my culture and coming into this country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AVE QUE EMIGRA")

MORENO: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: So you're telling the story here, but it doesn't sound mournful. It doesn't sound like - this is not a song that's filled with loss, exactly. It's very lively.

MORENO: No. It is, yeah. It's not a sad song. It's got a lot of positivity in it.

WERTHEIMER: What does it say: vengo desde muy lejos - I come from far away.

MORENO: I come from far away. Buscando el azul del cielo - looking for bluer skies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AVE QUE EMIGRA")

MORENO: (Singing in foreign language)

WERTHEIMER: So what we have heard so far, we've heard a kind of a 1920s- style...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAYDREAM BY DESIGN")

WERTHEIMER: We heard a little Aretha Franklin-type music or Motown at the beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORENO: (Singing) Baby...

WERTHEIMER: Slightly folky, I guess.

MORENO: Mm-hmm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AVE QUE EMIGRA")

MORENO: (Singing in foreign language).

WERTHEIMER: We've got like a survey course here, all kinds of musical styles.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORENO: That's right. But you know, I think - go on a journey. And for me, it's just - this is what makes me who I am. These are a mix of all my influences and what have made me. And I think the common denominator there is my voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: Well, thank you very much.

MORENO: Thank you so much, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno. Her new album is called "Illustrated Songs." It was released April 5th.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORENO: (Singing in foreign language).

WERTHEIMER: For Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. You can hear the best of this program on our podcast, WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at npr.org/weekendatc. We post a new episode every Sunday night. We'll be back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening. Have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.