Q&A: Gaby Moreno, Singing Portraits Through Time

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I had the privilege of sitting down with Gaby Moreno, a prolific singer/songwriter who has recently become better known in Latin America due to a duet she collaborated with Ricardo Arjona, which became a tremendous hit. I met with her a week before the release of her junior album Postales — Gaby’s first all-Spanish album – released today on Arjona’s own label, Metamorfosis. This could (and I predict will) be the album that changes Gaby Moreno’s career forever. Every song is carefully crafted and Moreno’s sultry and sweet voice is at the helm of this auditory experience. The album is extremely well produced and has the feel of a classic that gets better with each listen. Gaby Moreno has been making waves in the L.A. independent music scene with two independent albums and unforgettable live performances and now she is ready to take on the world with Postales.

Is there a specific moment when you knew you wanted to be a singer/songwriter?

Well, a singer, I knew from when I was about 9 years old—that was the first time I got on stage in Guatemala in this big theater back home and from that moment I knew I wanted to sing. Now, a songwriter, I believe that was when I was about 17, which is when I started writing songs and really taking it seriously, and I was playing my guitar. That’s when I saw myself as a singer/songwriter.

You then moved to L.A. in 2001 from Guatemala. Is there a reason you chose L.A. over other cities?

I liked the music scene here a lot and as far as the singer/songwriters in L.A., they are unbeatable. There is a good scene in New York, too, but I didn’t want to go to New York. I didn’t see myself living there. I like the weather here as well. But the main reason was because I was signed to Warner Brothers. They signed me when I was 18, and so when I moved here, I came with a contract already, and they had their offices here. I thought, okay, this is a good place to be. Then I enrolled in a music school to stay in the country legally with a student visa.

That was part of my next question, about the labels. I read that you were signed several times and then—

Dropped several times. Three times!

During that time, did you ever think maybe I shouldn’t be doing this?

Not so much me but my family. I had a lot of pressure from my family to go back and rethink it all and look elsewhere. I remember my mom telling me that I should maybe consider starting in Latin America, but I was always so stubborn. I was like, “No, I want to start in English.” I always knew that. I don’t know why. Maybe because I love blues and jazz, and I just knew that this is where it had to happen. Because if you make it in the U.S., that’s it. If you make it in Latin America, you stay in Latin America. If you make it in the U.S., you can crossover to everywhere else, even Asia. I always had my mind set on being here in the U.S.

What does your mom think of all your success now?

Oh wow, she is beside herself. She’s really excited about everything. They don’t regret anything. Of course they are parents and they care about me and they only want to see what is best for me. They support me wholeheartedly, 110% since I was a little girl. My parents were incredibly supportive and now that they are seeing all of this, they are enjoying it, just like me.


And you won the Grand Prize in the John Lennon Songwriting contest.

Yes, a few years ago. I think that was my big break when I look at it that way. I had already been with three labels, signed and dropped within a year or less and then I won that contest. The curious thing was that it was the first song in Spanish I ever wrote. So that validated my work and I felt motivated to keep going and to keep writing in Spanish. From there things just sort of started falling into place. I remember a few months later, I got asked by Tracy Chapman to go on tour with her and then Ani DiFranco, too. It was amazing!

You then ended up winning a contest for the Parks & Recreation theme song?

It wasn’t so much a contest. The producers of the show sent out an e-mail blast to a lot of different composers, big time composers, and my manager somehow knew somebody from the show and they sent me the e-mail as well. He was like, “Give it a shot, who knows?” I thought there was no way this was going to happen. I had never done anything for television before but I saw a description of the show. It had to be a 30-second instrumental and I was like, “Oh, that’s easy.” So I grabbed my guitar and within 10 minutes I had the little music and then I called my friend Vincent Jones because I wanted it to be orchestrated and he’s a great keyboard player so he helped me out. We finished it and we sent it out. Within a week we got a call saying, “You made it to the final 60,” and we were like, “Oh great, okay, bye bye, so much for that!” And then a few days later we got a call saying that they chose ours. I couldn’t believe it. I remember it so well, getting that call. I was at Amoeba. I was screaming and jumping up and down. Everyone thought I was crazy. It was so funny.

I was watching the show and saw your name for the theme song and wondered if it was you. I looked it up and it was you indeed.

It goes by so fast. So you see the show?

Yeah, I do.

Me too, I love the show.

You’ve collaborated with several artists including Bono, Angelique Kidjo, and Kris Kristofferson.

That was incredible, just this year. The Kris Kristofferson thing was on Jay Leno. We were singing a song commemorating 50 years of Amnesty International. I was part of a group of legendary musicians. Jonny Lang was there, too, and Shawn Mullins, Leland Sklar, who is an incredible bass player. It was an amazing experience standing next to them singing. Then I got asked to go to Dublin to sing it one more time, this time with Angelique Kidjo. Bono was there because he was presenting an award to Aung San Suu Kyi and they asked me to sing “Get Up, Stand Up.” So, I got up, stood up next to Bono. I was like, Oh my god! It was just amazing.

Of course, the biggest collaboration you have done is with Ricardo Arjona.

Yeah, that was huge. For Latin America, it’s been huge!

How did Arjona approach you? Did he know you already?

I didn’t know him personally, but his family lives in Guatemala, so his family knew about me. Apparently, they’ve known about me since I was singing as a little girl. They started telling him about me. They said, “Hey, you need to listen to this girl.” I guess he ignored it for a few years and finally a couple of years ago he said, “Okay, I’ll check her out.” He said he was on YouTube hearing my songs and then he called me out of the blue. I guess he found out my number from my mom.

Wow. What was that like?

I was so surprised. I had no idea what he could be calling for. It never, ever crossed my mind that it would be for a duet. I thought maybe he wanted me to do something in Guatemala. I didn’t know. But when he said he had a song, a duet, I was like, “Whoa, that’s big. That’s amazing.” Because he was aware that my style was completely different from his. Yet he gave me a chance to listen to the song and decide for myself if I would feel comfortable doing it. I heard the song and I thought it was really cool. I could tell from the beginning, from the demo, that it was going to be a huge song, and that we could put a lot of feeling into it. When he asked me to do it, he said the idea was to sign me to his label and for me to do an album. That was an incredible opportunity.

And now the video has had over 53 million views, which is incredible.

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I know! It is, it’s incredible. The song has been a huge success. I am so happy for him.

The collaboration is great, especially because it unites two people who are doing different styles but are great songwriters, and you’re both from Guatemala. And of course, people love “Fuiste Tú”.

He invited me on tour. I started in Mexico and then I went to Madison Square Garden, Miami. Here in L.A., we played the Nokia Theatre. He took me to Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Puerto Rico. It has been just unbelievable. “Fuiste Tú” is the highlight of the show. It really is, it’s quite magical. It’s just everything—la escenografía—is so beautiful, really, really beautiful during that song. The stage rotates and it stays in the middle and we sing the song and the lighting is so beautiful. It’s a really magical moment.

Congratulations on your new album Postales. Every single song is a gem, lyrically and musically. Part of the production I know is due to Dan Warner, who also worked with Arjona. Is that how you met him?

Yeah! That’s how I met him. He produced “Fuiste Tú.” When Ricardo told me about the record, he said Dan had to produce it, and at first I was a bit tentative. For some reason I thought of him more as a pop producer but he’s done great, great things. We got together and I told him what I wanted to do and we were on the same page. He’s amazing. He’s brilliant.

This is your first all Spanish album. Do you prefer to write in Spanish or in English?

It used to be that if I was writing something more bluesy and soulful, I’d prefer to write it in English—just for the words, the slang. I have a song called, “Mess a good thing” and I could never see myself singing that in Spanish. Spanish is such a beautiful romantic language that I write more of the romantic ballads in it. For this record, I broke all of the schemes and I just went for it. I did the blues and the soul in Spanish.

Let’s talk about the name Postales. When I heard the album, it sounded like postcards from different eras. Was that your intention?

Yeah! I saw every song as a postcard or a photograph of a moment in time. Each one is so different from the other in a way and I like that word. It’s a very nostalgic word and that reflects the music as well.

The storytelling, is it personal or anecdotal?

Some is very personal and some are just plain made up stories [laughs].

The song “Ave Que Emigra” was on your last album and now it’s on this album. What is the reason for that?

Free download of “Ave Que Emigra”

It migrated to this one [laughs]. We were looking for a single and we thought the song really told my story so well and it was a good introduction. The other thing is that I never had distribution. I was never with a major label so if you think about it, not a whole lot of people have heard the song. So now with this new record, a lot more people will get to hear it for the first time. Also, we did the music video last year and we didn’t want to waste it. It was like, “Okay, the video is there, let’s just do it.”

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I have to ask you about “El Sombrerón,” one of my favorite songs on the album. That song floored me the first time I heard it—the introduction alone.

Epic! Ahaha! It is epic. When I first heard it, I was like, “Oh, my god.” I got chills.

Is that a character? Who is El Sombrerón?

El Sombrerón is a legend, an urban legend. Well, not an urban legend—a folk tale! Like how in Mexico they have La Llorona.

In El Salvador they have El Cipitío.

Right. We also have La Siguanaba, a lady with a horse face. There are so many of them. El Sombrerón is a little man with a huge hat and a guitar. He serenades women and makes them fall helplessly in love with him, but all of a sudden he disappears, and so they die from love.

I totally pictured a character when I heard the song and I didn’t know who he was but I wanted to meet him.

The thing is I wrote this song because the first movie ever made in Guatemala was El Sombrerón and my grandpa was an actor in the movie. My dad found it, transferred it to DVD, and gave me a copy. It floored me when I watched it for the first time. It is such an incredible story and it’s quite personal now that my grandfather was part of it. It’s old, it was made in the ’50s and the actual tale is centuries old, so I thought, “I’ve got to write a song and it has to sound like it’s going to be in a movie someday.” It’s very Casa De Mi Padre, like a Spaghetti Western. When I wrote the music I was thinking about a kind of Quentin Tarantino movie.

You included a cover of “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás.” Is there a reason you chose that particular song?

I have been singing that song live for like five years and I had never included it on a record. So this was a good chance and people really love that song.

If you were to write a postcard to yourself when you were about to leave for the U.S., what would you say?

Ahh, that’s a good one. I would tell myself to enjoy the ride. Go along for the ride and just enjoy every moment of it and not think so much about the future. Really embrace every single moment, even the bad times, just live it to the max.

Download Gaby Moreno’s last album Postales below: