Bridging American Folk With Her Latin Roots, Gaby Moreno Is Beyond Categorization
Long before winning a Latin Grammy or appearing on Chris Thile’s "Live From Here," Gaby Moreno started out where so many singers begin: in her parents’ record collection. In her particular case, the defining album happened to be one of her mother’s favorites, Federico Moreno Torroba’s all-singing narrative tale "Luisa Fernanda."
“When I was 5 years old, she would play that record all the time,” Moreno says of that deeply influential romantic zarzuela, an operatic form of Spanish-language music. “That’s how she discovered I could sing.”
Genre has never been a hindrance for Moreno but instead a boon to her songcraft. Bridging American folk and blues with her Latin roots falls very much in line with her boundless discography, one that surprises almost as often as it captivates.
“There’s a word in Spanish I like to tell people who ask me what genre my music is,” she says, with a laugh — degenerado, or, in English, degenerate. “I love that word and it pretty much fits what I do.”
Neither traditionalist nor radical for radicalism’s sake, Moreno’s music can bop to a classic R&B groove, sway like noirish lounge, or rattle like a piano in a saloon. Her style, assuming one were foolish enough to attempt to categorize it, is hers and hers alone, engrossing in its emotive quality and expertly drawn from the diverse soundtrack of her eventful musical life.
Case in point, lately she has been actively writing Americana and bluegrass songs. “Those styles, I wasn’t so familiar with years ago,” she says. “It’s taking me to school!” Notably, her take on all of these musical traditions come with Spanish lyrics, a rarity to say the least.
Moreno will be performing at Club Passim in Cambridge on Thursday, Feb. 28.
Growing up in Guatemala, Moreno listened avidly to whatever she could get her hands on, her broad tastes hinting at her future as a multilingual songwriter unafraid of tackling seemingly disparate genres. From classical recordings to Disney musicals, she immersed herself in song, her interests encouraged by a clan of fellow creatives.
“I come from a very artistic family, though not so much in a musical way,” Moreno says. Her grandparents were actors and poets; her father and mother, an international music promoter and a radio personality, respectively.
Building upon that supportive foundation, an enlightening family vacation to New York City exposed Moreno to a litany of unfamiliar sounds and styles. At the cusp of adolescence, it was on that trip that she first discovered blues, jazz and soul.
Not long after turning 19, Moreno made the move to Los Angeles in 2000 by way of a student visa, while making her entry in the business. “It was really a different time,” she recalls of these early years, during which she signed with three different labels while navigating the industry’s pitfalls and promises. “I kept doubting myself,” she adds, having considered returning home after being dropped repeatedly by these companies without having recorded anything.
Though Moreno’s career may have taken a circuitous path, several of its twists and turns led to the kinds of extraordinary opportunities that characterize the singularity of her rise.
Her self-released debut "Still The Unknown" ended up in the hands of Tracy Chapman, who subsequently brought her on tour. Since then, she’s shared the stage with a stunning assortment of headliners, including Andrea Bocelli, Ani DiFranco, Hugh Laurie and Van Dyke Parks.
One of Moreno’s champions was Ricardo Arjona, a fellow Guatemalan singer-songwriter similarly disenchanted with the business. A kindred spirit, he signed her to his Metamorfosis vanity imprint, providing her with an artist-friendly environment where she could thrive. “He gave me a lot of freedom,” she says, quite the contrast from her previous industry experiences at other labels.
There, Moreno found critical acclaim and recognition following 2012’s "Postales," a soulful and mature folk pop effort conducted primarily in Spanish. The record led to her winning Best New Artist at the Latin Grammys the following year, beating out nine other contenders including present day hitmaker Maluma.
She has since put out three full-lengths through Metamorfosis, the most recent being 2016’s Grammy-nominated "Ilusión."
A core figure on "Live From Here," Moreno currently bears the auspicious title of duet partner, regularly appearing with Chris Thile as part of the house band. “Every time I get to be on the show is such a treat, such a blessing,” she says, delighted at the chance to sing both in Spanish as well as English on the program. “He’s incredibly generous and lets me play one of my own songs at every show.”
Though the originating genre seeds of a given Moreno song may vary, the ensuing germination inevitably yields distinctive results that only she could produce. “I feel that what you have to say and what you have to express is the most important thing,” she says. “At the end of the day, if you can sing that song, just you and your guitar, that’s pretty powerful.