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Gaby Moreno is making music on her terms

Over the years, Gaby Moreno has shared the stage with a wide array of artists, including Tracy Chapman, Calexico and Punch Brothers.
Alejandra Barragán
Over the years, Gaby Moreno has shared the stage with a wide array of artists, including Tracy Chapman, Calexico and Punch Brothers.

Gaby Moreno's "home away from home" is a small, West Los Angeles theater called Largo at the Coronet. She's been a guest singer and has performed her own show at this historic nightclub for more than 20 years.

"It just became like this place that I would just go to get inspired," says Moreno. "And my God I was so inspired! I really believe that something changed in me, how I wanted to express myself musically."

Moreno arrived in Los Angeles in 2001 and released her first album in 2008. Seven albums later, Moreno found her voice singing various Latin American music genres and a wide spectrum of American music including R&B, soul, pop, rock, country, old-time and more. Moreno is equally at ease writing and singing songs in Spanish and English.

But before she released her first album, she did not write songs in Spanish. "I think it was because when I was really young, about 13 years old, and I did this trip with my family to New York, I first discovered blues and jazz. And I remember I was obsessed with that music," she says.

During that trip, she bought a lot of CDs and took them home to Guatemala. Moreno says she would lock herself in her room and listen to Muddy Waters, and Big Mama Thornton, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.

"I just remember thinking there's no way I'm going to write in Spanish, I just didn't think it would sound authentic singing this style of music in Spanish, 'cause that's what I wanted to do, I want to do blues I want do jazz."

That all changed when she started playing at Largo.

Her friend, bass player David Piltch, was doing a weekly residency at the club and invited Moreno to join him with any song she wanted to sing. "And I remember him telling me, 'Hey why don't you bring a bolero?' And I was like, 'a bolero?'" she says. "I mean, really, at that point, I knew all of these boleros just from growing up in Guatemala and that my parents would play a lot, but I didn't know how to play, I don't think I'd ever sung a bolero."

Moreno went home and started listening to boleros. Then she came upon one called Quizás, Quizás, Quizás. "And that's when I first started playing that song Quizás, it was here at Largo," she says. "And I remember people coming up to me after the shows, and saying 'that kind of music, songs in Spanish, you should be doing.'"

With her seventh album, Alegoría, Gaby Moreno says she's making music on her terms.
/ Alejandra Barragán
Alejandra Barragán
With her seventh album, Alegoría, Gaby Moreno says she's making music on her terms.

"Gaby has immersed herself in all this American music," says fan Jackson Browne. "One of the times I saw her at the Largo, she was playing electric guitar and playing this really rock stuff, really punky, very punky kinda, you know. She gets it, she really gets to the essence of lots of different musical styles."

During one of the shows at Largo, she met the renowned composer and arrangerVan Dyke Parks, whose work includes writing songs for The Beach Boys and collaborations with Randy Newman, Little Feat and Ry Cooder.

Moreno says they talked for hours. "He said to me, 'this is the music that I grew up listening to, I would play shows with my brother back in the 60s, singing corridos and rancheras and boleros, and I love this music so much, we have to do something together!'" In 2019, Moreno and Parks released the album titled ¡Spangled!. It was nominated for a Latin Grammy the following year.

Moreno says though she's been honing her craft for decades, something keeps pulling her back to her roots. And that has influenced her latest album Alegoría. She says she can hear how much she has evolved, not only as a songwriter but also as a singer.

"I feel much more connected with the songs that I'm writing and with my experience, especially my experience as an immigrant, here in the U.S.," she says. "Even after all these years, 'cause I've been here for a long time, over 20 years, I still feel that my home is Guatemala. My whole family is there."

In the song "Til Waking Light," Moreno sings in English and Spanish from the perspective of an immigrant making the treacherous journey from Central America to the U.S.

"And I personally know people that have made that crazy, crazy journey," she says. "It was really that, I was just kinda trying to think what's going on in their head. Like, how desperate must they be to like just up and leave everything they know and risk their lives just to come to a place where they'll have more opportunities and be in a safer environment."

Over the years, Moreno has shared the stage with a wide array of artists, from Tracy Chapman to Calexico to Punch Brothers. She toured the world with British actor-singer Hugh Laurie as part of The Copper Bottom Band. In 2009, she co-wrote the theme song for the TV show "Parks and Recreation." In 2020, she was named the first UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador from Guatemala.

Guitarist, pianist and producer David Garza met Moreno 18 years ago. "For a creator, a songwriter of her stature to be blessed with a voice like that, it's an unbelievable package that is a gift to anybody that comes across it," he says. "You don't usually get that kind of, the voice and the writing talent."

This month, Moreno will embark on a big tour of Europe. She'll be doing 28 shows in six weeks, covering 11 countries, including Germany, The Netherlands, Spain and Ireland. One thing is for sure, Gaby Moreno will always come back to her favorite venue, Largo at the Coronet.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Betto Arcos
Betto Arcos is a freelance music journalist. He writes stories about music from around the world, with an emphasis on Latin America. He has been a contributor to NPR programming since 2009, when he began reviewing music for All Things Considered on the weekends.