Guatemalan-born Gaby Moreno marches to the beat of her drum. While she is one hundred percent Latina and bilingual, she is not the Latin pop princess she may appear to be. She is approachable, humble and bit shy. However, when she takes the stage and gets behind the microphone, you would swear her voice was coming from someone else’s body. Moreno sounds like she is from another era, born 60 years too late (which she will tell you herself). Old jazz and blues records are what make Moreno tick, not the Latin pop some may expect her to play.
She is out living in Los Angeles now, doing what every other musician is trying to do, make music and pay the bills. She has a weekend gig in a cover band as a wedding singer. She is not yet a citizen and only has an artist visa, which means she cannot work a regular nine to five like the rest of us do. Her regular gigs are small clubs and coffee shops in and around Los Angeles. Having been signed to major labels off and on throughout her career, Moreno is now the true definition of “indie”. She is now completely on her own.
Her path to Austin came through a friendship formed with Austin’s own David Garza in 2004. Garza was playing a gig at Largo at The Coronet Theater in Los Angeles. A friend of hers recommended she see Garza perform. At the show she approached him and happened to mention that she was also a singer. According to Moreno, Garza gave her his phone number to keep in touch. It took her a couple of months to contact him because of her shyness and admiration for Garza. “I wondered why he’d want to talk to me. I am nobody you know? Once day I decided to call him and we’ve been friends ever since” said Moreno.
On May 30, Austin played host to Pachanga Fest at Fiesta Gardens. Pachanga Fest is Austin’s Latin-themed music, cultural arts and food festival. It was because of her friendship with David Garza that she even heard of Pachanga. Moreno originally asked Garza about which cool coffee shops she could come perform at when in Austin. Only a few days later, she was confirmed to play mid afternoon, on the same stage David Garza would later perform.
At Pachanga, Moreno performed songs from her current release, Still The Unknown, surprising the audience in attendance with her soulful voice. She was even joined by her friend David on stage for a couple of songs. It makes senses not only because of their friendship and musical compatibility. Garza also played piano on Moreno’s cover of the classic bolero, “Amapola”.
Still The Unknown, released in 2008, is Moreno’s first full album. Having already been received well by the likes of KCRW and NPR, Moreno is well on her way to winning over new fans and setting expectations higher for herself as she goes along. While in Austin, I sat down with Moreno in hopes of not only finding out more about her music, but also how she came to be the jazzy, soulful songstress that she is.
How did Still The Unknown come about for you?
Gaby: Before that record, I was signed by three labels. Although nothing went past preproduction, I wrote so many songs. I just couldn’t find the right producer to work with that could make sense of the sound I wanted. Then through David Garza I met Jay Belrose, who is also an incredible drummer. About a year past and I asked him if he wanted to produce my record. We recorded the whole record at his house. We finished it all in three days.
Are you completely independent because the opportunity isn’t there anymore or was it a personal choice?
Gaby: The opportunity wasn’t there and I had already been with all those labels. After the last label I was with, which was Jive Records, I said ‘no more’. I had it with those major labels. They always try to steer you into the direction they want you to go in.
What were some of the things the labels were telling you?
Gaby: At the beginning they were telling me to change my hair. When I was like 19 or 20, they told me to wear hoop earrings. They’d ask whether I’d like to sound like Avril Lavigne or Sheryl Crowe. They had already heard my demos when I was asked that. If you listen to my music, I don’t sound like either of those artists. They were just trying to make something commercial and make their money. That’s the struggle right now with so many artists.
So how did you come up with your sound? You have the voice for Blues, Pop, rock or soul.
Gaby: It is funny to hear you say that because a lot of my older demos had a lot of songs that were really loud rock songs. When I played early gigs I was doing that but it came to point where I told myself that rock was just not me.
What made you think that?
Gaby: I don’t know what made me think that. Maybe it is because I started listening to old records from the 1930s and 1940s. These people were making beautiful music. That music was so simple and organic. I just loved it.
Which records from that era exactly?
Gaby: The Boswell sisters and Ella Fitzgerald. I’m talking blues and jazz. I even started listening to some boleros. I listened to Trio Los Panchos, which were some beautiful records as well. I tried to go with that kind of vibe on Still The Unknown.
You know you’re different right? The average 27 year old Latina isn’t really looking for Ella Fitzgerald on vinyl.
Gaby: You’re absolutely right. My family doesn’t get it. They think I am this sort of weird alien or something. They don’t know who B.B. King is or listen to Robert Johnson. When I was 13 or so, I was singing classical music or just Latin pop from the 1980s.
What kind of Latin pop? Menudo?
Gaby: Yes! Menudo and Laura Pausini, along with some other super cheesy stuff. I was ten years old. Keep in mind I don’t come from a musical family. There weren’t any great records lying around the house. Then when I was about fourteen years old, we came to The United States for a small vacation. We were walking down the street and I just heard this music all of a sudden. I literally froze. I wanted to know what that music was. It was coming from a thrift store. I walked in to ask the guy working there what kind of music it was. His answer was “its blues”. I told my mom to take me to the record store so I could buy this “blues”.
Which blues records did you buy?
Gaby: Well obviously I didn’t know any artists, so I just bought compilations. I had to do my research. After listening to those records, there was no turning back. I was hooked.
So what artists or songs were on those “Now Blues” compilation albums that hooked you?
Gaby: (laughs) Do they have “Now Blues”? Those first compilations I bought were awesome. There was John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, and of course B.B. King.
What did the blues and jazz say to you that rock or Latin music didn’t? Was life that difficult at age ten that you needed the blue to get you through the day?
Gaby: No way, not at all. Here’s the thing. I didn’t even know what those artists were saying because I didn’t speak English at that time. I learned English from those records. I’d read the lyrics and go to my dictionary to learn what they meant.
What were your first English words? Thrill is gone?
Gaby: That was one of the first songs I heard actually. I can’t tell you what it was though. I don’t remember.
I am surprised by what I am hearing form you though. I don’t think these aren’t the responses people would expect. I mean, where’s the story about you listening to your old Ricky Martin cassettes in your room?
Gaby: Well, here’s a crazy story for you. My dad was an artist promoter. He would bring artists (musicians/bands) to Guatemala. He brought Ricky Martin. I opened the concert for him when I was ten years old.
Really? Ricky post Menudo? Like General Hospital Ricky Martin?
Gaby: A little earlier. I have a picture with him at home. I also opened up for Christian Castro and Magneto.
How come that isn’t any of your bios? That is sort of big deal.
Gaby: Because I am not proud if it.
Gaby Morenoon stage with David Garza at Pachanga Fest 2009 in Austin, Texas.
I mean I love David Garza’s music and understand why you make that association public, but why not milk the Ricky Martin thing?
Gaby: Noooooo….that’s okay.
Stop acting like you weren’t dancing to “Cup of Life” or “La Bomba”.
Gaby: (laughs) No, I really didn’t. I was way past that at that point. I don’t about you guys but when I was growing up, I really didn’t like what my parents listened to.
Like what? Give us an example.
Gaby: Well, the marimbas are the national instrument. It was in a lot Guatemalan music. I just found it really cheesy. Now The White Stripes used marimbas in a song, so all of a sudden it is a cool instrument.
Do you still hate your parent’s music and the marimbas?
Gaby: Now I appreciate it all. It was one of those things where you are young and stupid. When you are like that, you don’t appreciate things. Now I am starting to really get into all the salsa, cumbia, and boleros.
When did you write your first song in Spanish?
Gaby: I didn’t write my first song in Spanish until 2006.
Spanish is your first language. Why did you wait so long to write a Spanish song?
Gaby: Again. I was all about blues and jazz. I had never heard blues or jazz in Spanish. I didn’t know if it would fit. I wanted to write in English because that was the music of those genres.
You don’t think people thought the same of rock and roll, hip hop or country? All those American born genres are now performed in Spanish all the time. Why not blues and jazz?
Gaby: You’re right. What was I thinking all those years? It was silly. I think in Spanish.
Were you ever worried about something you thought in Spanish not translating over into English with the same meaning? I mean you and every other Spanish speaker knows that some songs just should not be done in English.
Gaby: That’s why I can’t write a song in Spanish and translate into English. It is not going to work. It sounds so cheesy when people do the whole English and Spanish thing.
Are you ever going to go that route? I mean you already have one bolero track on Still The Unknown?
Gaby: Yeah absolutely. I love my boleros and do want to make a record. In fact, I think The Beatles were listening to a lot of boleros. If you ever listen to their early songs, the rhythm and melody is the same. (She starts singing “Do You Want to Know a Secret” to prove her point. I then heard what she was referring to).
I have never thought bolero and The Beatles would ever be in the same thought or sentence.
Gaby: I think they were. Boleros were written in the 1920s and 1930s. It’s possible.
That’s an interesting ear you have, but back to your voice. The record Still The Unknown is indeed still unknown. What else besides having played Pachanga Fest here in Austin are you going to do to promote it?
Gaby: Well the record came out last year. I am on my own. That’s the thing. The press I got while in Austin was a huge deal to me. Being on the local Fox News thing was huge to me. Being on KGSR was huge. I had never done television. I had been on the radio in Guatemala. I don’t have the label. I play all the time in LA. I book myself in these little clubs.
How did you feel about your Pachanga performance?
Gaby: Let me tell you….it was the most fun we’ve had playing!! Even though we were melting in the sun, it was so worth it when we saw that people were really into it, dancing or singing along. We had such a good time. I loved that David Garza spontaneously jumped onstage towards the end of the set to play with us!!
Which performers at Pachanga did you enjoy?
I was blown away by the diversity of music and talent. Every band I heard had something new and different to offer and made us all want to dance and jam with them! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see them all, but the ones I got to check out were outstanding: Los Bad Apples, Dignan, Ocote Soul Sounds, Maneja Beto and of course David Garza and Mexican Institute of Sound. They’re all amazing performers. I felt very honored to have been a part of the line-up with all of them.
How was your visit to Austin overall?
Gaby: What could easily have been just a short tour trip (get there, promote, play, and leave), turned out to be such a fun little vacation for the three of us (me, Sebastian and Leslie). We had a few days to get the vibe of the city. We rented a canoe, had some amazing BBQ (Rudy’s), saw the bats at Congress, walked around town and overall really enjoyed ourselves. Everybody was super nice and friendly. Yeah, we’re definitely coming back. We need some more Austin! Oh and I almost forgot….we had Rounder Rock Doughnuts!!!! They were sooooo good!!!
So when is the rest of the country going to experience your music live?
Gaby: It is hard to say. I really want to get out of L.A. It is really hard to get noticed out there. I am trying to get out but you need money for that. I am going to Europe in August. My boyfriend, also my drummer, is from Germany and he hooked us up with some gigs over there. When I was playing in LA one time, this guy from England gave me his contact information and offered me some gigs in England.
I have one last question before we wrap up. If we could showcase one song to introduce Gaby Moreno to our readers, which song would it be?
Gaby: The first song off Still The Unknown called “Little Sorrow”. I really love that song. To me, it is one of the bluesier songs on the record. I would also say “Green Horn Man” because it is an upbeat, soulful song. I want people to know I am Latina but I am doing the blues/soul thing.
With that being said, Austin Vida gives you this exclusive video for Gaby Moreno’s song, “Little Sorrow”: