Q&A: Grammy nominee Gaby Moreno on genre bending, her Bowie tribute and how the blues taught her English
Pick up an album by Gaby Moreno and you’re liable to find some songs that echo Latin American folk, others that channel gritty blues and a voice that aches with sweet melancholy. Think a pop Madeleine Peyroux singing in Spanglish. (The Telegraph in London described her as “rather like a Guatemalan Edith Piaf.”)
This is a singer-songwriter who is as comfortable belting out a tango — which she did on actor-pianist Hugh Laurie’s album, “Didn’t It Rain” — as she is an organ-drenched hymn. (See her recent tune “Sálvese quiene pueda,” a seductive, modern-day spiritual.)
This fall, Moreno — a Guatemalan immigrant who has called Los Angeles home for 15 years — released her fifth album, “Ilusión,” to wide acclaim. Felix Contreras of National Public Radio described it as “a high-water mark in a musical career that’s never been predictable.”
Today, the Recording Academy bestowed the singer with her first Grammy Award nomination for “Ilusión” — in the category of Latin pop album. (In the past, Moreno has been nominated twice for Latin Grammys and received the award for best new artist in 2013.)
On Wednesday evening, the singer will mark the release of “Ilusión” with a one-night concert at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood — a homecoming for an artist who refers to herself as a “Guatemalan Angeleno.”
In this lightly edited conversation (which took place before the Grammy nominations had been announced), Moreno chats about her wide-ranging influences, how her work celebrates the immigrant experience and how American-style blues helped her to understand English.
I listened for about 20 minutes and I said, ‘What’s that song that you’re singing? What’s that style?’ She said, ‘That’s the blues, honey.’
— Gaby Moreno
It’s been a while since you’ve done a big show in Los Angeles. What do you have planned for the Roxy?
When the album came out two months ago, I did a little showcase at Resident in downtown L.A. But this concert is to celebrate the release, so I will do pretty much the whole album. And it will be with a full band. There will be horns, there will be drums, bass and keyboard — the full sound, the total live experience.
Next month, you’re participating in a tribute to David Bowie called “Celebrating David Bowie,” which will travel to Tokyo, Sydney, Los Angeles and London. What will you sing?
Yes, we are touring for the whole month of January, the month of his birthday. It will include musicians from Los Angeles, musicians that played with him. Gary Oldman is involved. It’s three hours of music. I’m singing “Five Years” and another song, “Wild Is the Wind,” a cover that he did. I have been so inspired by it — by the music, of course, but most of all, the theatrical aspect. I just love how theatrical he is.
Your music pays tribute to Latin American traditional styles, yet you also have a long-running affair with American blues.
I made a trip to New York with my family to go on vacation when I was young. I loved musicals and my family took me to Broadway to see musicals — “Les Misérables” and “Phantom of the Opera.” After the show, we were walking in Times Square and I hear this woman singing in the streets and she is singing this song that completely enraptured me. I listened for about 20 minutes and I said, “What’s that song that you’re singing? What’s that style?” She said, “That’s the blues, honey.”
I immediately went to the record store and bought all these blues compilation albums — I didn’t know who the important singers were — and I took the music back to Guatemala, and I would lock myself in my room and sing. It helped me learn English. I’d be like, “What is that phrase?” So I’d look it up.
How else were the blues important to you?
The blues were why I started to play guitar. I saw a lot of these great blues artists, like Memphis Minnie and B.B. King and I knew I had to play guitar. And I knew I wanted to write songs that had a bluesy vibe. I knew I wouldn’t be a traditional blues singer, but it would be a big influence on my songwriting.
What similarities do you see between traditional Latin American music and the blues?
I think what defines them is the passion, the voices, the motion, the, how do you say it — desgarradora [heartbreaking] sound. Something very interesting is that when I was younger, I was not listening to a lot of music from Latin America. I took it for granted. It was my parents’ music. It was boring.
When I moved to L.A., I discovered it again, and I fell in love with it so much. I felt like I had been missing out on a part of me. So I want to be able to fuse Latin culture with the American genres that I so deeply love.
I wanted to speak to all of the Latin American immigrants who ... come to this country to follow their dreams and deserve to be here.
— Gaby Moreno
You write in English and Spanish — languages that express ideas very differently. How do you start?
They’re very different. Spanish is more poetic. In English, you can describe things better — it’s more exact. Spanish has a lot of syllables and it can be harder to convey a thought in one sentence. Both are beautiful.
I started writing in English first because I loved the blues and jazz. I thought it was more authentic. Someone asked me once, “Why don’t you write blues in Spanish?” And I said, “No way. That is going to sound so weird.” But one night I was strumming these blues-inspired chords and I started singing a melody and the words came in Spanish. I went to an open mike and tried it out and people loved it. That’s when I decided I would write in English and Spanish.
“Ilusión” marries your interests in jazz, blues, Latin American folk and even features the Mexican classic “La Malagueña.” How do you go about building an album around such an array of styles?
I always try to find a common denominator with my music, and I feel like that is my voice — the way I interpret and sing. A lot of people tell me, “Oh, you do so many different styles.” But I feel that my voice is always there, present. That connects everything.
And with those old classics, I always try to find an unconventional way to interpret them. So, for example, “La Malagueña,” which is usually done with a big mariachi band, I thought, “Let me break it down, bring it back to basics, make it just a guitar and voice.” It’s very dramatic. That’s what I try to bring out in those songs.
You touch on immigration in the song “Fronteras” in a very joyous way — but you end it with the line, “This where I belong,” which sounds very determined. What was the intent?
Originally, I wrote this song to Latin people who were straddling the fence between two cultures. But at the same time, I wanted to speak to all of the Latin American immigrants who are hard-working people who come to this country to follow their dreams and deserve to be here. I wanted to highlight those wonderful qualities. So the song ends with me saying that the immigrants are here to stay. We are going to make this a better place to live and we will help build this country — which has been happening with immigrants for many centuries.
What’s been your reaction to the election?
I don’t know what to think. I was in shock, of course. Like many people, I’m worried, I’m scared. We have to come together and get involved with our communities. And for us artists, this is the time where we need to be writing songs that have a very strong message — not just political messages, but trying to be beams of light, messages of hope, faith, love, compassion, kindness. Because we can’t leave that up to our political leaders, it has to come from us.
Where: The Roxy Theatre, 9009 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 7
Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.
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