In 2001, Guatemalan singer and songwriter Gaby Moreno left her country for Los Angeles, where she got into the local music scene and took classes at the Musicians Institute. Her soulful vocals and ability to switch languages and genres have made her a rising star.
Moreno is part of a batch of young, soulful Latina singers whose voices evoke Fiona Apple or Tori Amos. On her new album, though, Moreno also channels her inner Aretha. Her songs have been used on popular TV shows, and she has two albums out; her most recent is titled Illustrated Songs.
Moreno says she finds inspiration in old-fashioned music of the vaudeville era, and was intrigued by the early visual art form of projecting images with musical accompaniment — hence the new album's name.
Moreno's musical life began when she was 13, on a family vacation in New York. She says she and her family were walking through Times Square one night when something caught her eye.
"I saw this lady who was singing on the streets. I just froze," Moreno tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Linda Wertheimer. "I can't even begin to describe to you what I felt when I heard her music. I asked her, 'What is that style you're singing in?' And she just looked at me like, 'You don't know what the blues is?' "
Moreno asked her mother to take her to a record store right away and buy her some blues records. Growing up in Guatemala, Moreno had been surrounded by Latin rock music, but she says it was never really an influence on her. Once she found the blues, however, it was all she could listen to.
"Those singers — they became my teachers," she says. "I would just lock myself in my room and sing Koko Taylor and Aretha Franklin."
Other favorites included Gladys Knight, Roberta Flack and Ella Fitzgerald. Listening to those singers, Moreno says she became fascinated with learning more of the English language so she could understand the lyrics.
"Sometimes, I would just go to the dictionary and look for the words," she says. "I could never tell what they were talking about, because it was all blues slang."
Now fluent in Spanish and English, the bilingual Moreno mixes languages as well as genres on Illustrated Songs. "Ave Que Emigra" includes the line "Vengo desde muy lejos, buscando el azul del cielo," or "I come from far away, looking for bluer skies." The song was inspired by Moreno's journey from Guatemala to Los Angeles, where she followed her dream of playing music while her friends and family stayed behind.
"I had just come out of high school, and I knew that I wanted to pursue music, and I was just convinced that I had to come here and do it here," she says. "I couldn't stay [in Guatemala]. There's not a very big music scene, especially not one for the kind of music I was into."
Stylistically, Ilustrated Songs is all over the map, but there is one constant.
"This is what makes me who I am," Moreno says of all the different influences audible on the album. "The common denominator there is my voice."