Gaby Moreno sounds like a gentle soul when she speaks, but when she sings, she has the power to transport you back to the sounds of the 1920’s. She says she’s like a sensitive and observant bird, inspired by what’s going on around her.
Originally from Guatemala, the up-and-coming blues musician has been residing in Los Angeles for more than a decade. In 2006, she says she won the John Lennon songwriting competition, which opened the doors for her to tour with Tracy Chapman and Ani di Franco. She also received an Emmy nomination in 2010 for co-writing the show title track for NBC’s “Parks & Recreation.”
Although her previous three albums have been in English, she is now crossing over with her first Spanish-language album dropping next week, titled, “Postales.” She is also wrapping up a world tour in Costa Rica this week with Grammy-Award-winning singer and fellow Guatemalan Ricardo Arjona.
“I only dreamed of it,” says Moreno about how just a few years ago, she was wishing for a break in her career. “Now I have to be careful what I wish for. It’s been non-stop — it’s crazy! I haven’t been home for more than two weeks since January.”
The 30-year-old says next week she goes to the Dominican Republic, and won’t get to rest until December.
“Since I was very little I was always singing,” says Moreno. “When I was 9, I sang in a big theater in Guatemala, and I knew from then that’s what I would be doing for a very long time.”
She says her mom bought her first guitar at around age 14, and she started on her quest — writing and playing music of all kinds, from musicals to church music.
“I am inseparable from it,” says Moreno about her guitar. “I feel naked if I don’t have have it.”
Not much has changed from the first time she performed in Guatemala. She says she still wants the audience to feel good.
“I want to move them and possibly transport them,” says Moreno. “If they are having problems — to make it all go away. Forget about it for a minute.”
Although she always know she wanted to take herself and others to another world with music, it took her time to figure out which route to take. She says she finished high school in Guatemala, and was discovered by Warner Bros. when she was 18. She then enrolled in the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, where she stayed and made her home.
“I was really working mainly on songwriting and playing live,” says Moreno. “I just wanted to get to work right away. I started to test the waters.”
She says it was a little overwhelming leaving her small town in Guatemala for Los Angeles and meeting lots of people at once, but she was also learning so much. Around 2002-2003, she says she was signed to a publishing company called “Famous Music.”
“I remember just writing and writing,” says Moreno, remembering back to that integral part of her musical career. “I learned so much from great writers…and exposed to many musicians.”
If she could though, she says she’d love to live in the 1920’s.
“It was such a beautiful era — or at least it seems to be who knows?” says Moreno. “I’m just a very nostalgic person. I’m constantly thinking about how cool it would have been. I love the music, the fashion.”
She says a lot of artists from the past have inspired her, including Edith Piaf and Carlos Gardel, old blues singers like Robert Johnson, Bessy Smith, and even soul music like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone — and you can hear remnants of them in her music.
Not all of Moreno’s songs are autobiographical, but her new album’s single “Ave Que Emigra” (“Bird that Migrates”) talks about the immigrant experience.
“It’s just a very important topic, and I feel somewhat responsible to be a type of spokesperson,” says Moreno who immigrated to the U.S. 12 years ago. “I’m living my dream, but I know there are people here 20-30 years working so hard, and they deserve rights and a good life in this country…Everyone should be treated equally…This country is what it is because of immigrants.”
For her, this country is still the land where dreams are made of.
“I had this dream since I was a little girl, and I don’t see myself doing anything else,” she says. “I don’t care if I don’t end up not [sic] selling records, I just want the opportunity to bring my music to people and do live shows.”