Gaby Moreno is making music on her terms with Alegoría The L.A.-based artist will embark on a big tour of Europe. She'll be doing 28 shows in six weeks, covering 11 countries, including Germany, The Netherlands, Spain and Ireland.

Gaby Moreno is making music on her terms

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Singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno's seventh full-length album came out this spring. It's called "Alegoria," and now she's touring to support it. Betto Arcos tells us the story of this L.A.-based singer born in Guatemala making music on her own terms.

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: On a recent Friday afternoon, I meet Gaby Moreno at a small West Los Angeles theater called Largo at the Coronet. She's been coming to this historic nightclub for more than 20 years, both as a guest singer and to perform her own show. Here she is at Largo, singing a bolero by Mexico's Agustin Lara.


GABY MORENO: (Singing in Spanish).

It just became, like, this place that I would just go to get inspired. And, my God, I was so inspired. I really believe that I - you know, something changed in me, how I wanted to express myself musically.

ARCOS: Moreno arrived in Los Angeles in 2001 and released her first CD in 2008. Seven albums later, Moreno found her voice singing a handful of Latin American music genres and a wide spectrum of American music - R&B, soul, pop, rock, country, old time and more. Moreno is equally at ease writing and singing songs in Spanish and English.


MORENO: (Singing) If it's all too much, take it down a notch. Keep moving along cause sometimes nobody's wrong.

ARCOS: But it wasn't always that way. Moreno first started writing songs in English.

MORENO: I just remember thinking, there's no way I'm going to write in Spanish. I just didn't think it would sound authentic singing this style of music in Spanish. 'Cause that's what I wanted to do. I was like, oh, I want to do blues. I want to do jazz.


MORENO: (Singing) 'Cause the gags are all gone, and the storm is full grown. Ain't got nobody to love

ARCOS: That all changed when she started playing at Largo. Her friend, bass player David Piltch, was doing a weekly residency at the club and invited Moreno to join him with any song she wanted to sing.

MORENO: And I remember him telling me like, hey, why don't you bring a bolero? And I was, like, a bolero? Like, I mean, really, at that point, like, I knew all of these boleros just from growing up in Guatemala and what my parents would play a lot, but I didn't know, like, how to play or you know, even - like, I don't think I'd ever sung a bolero.


MORENO: (Singing in Spanish).

And that's when I first started playing that song, "Quizas." It was at - here at Largo. And I remember, like, you know, people coming up to me after the shows and saying, like, that kind of music, like, songs in Spanish, you should be doing.

ARCOS: During one of the shows at Largo, she met renowned composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks. Moreno says they talked for hours.

MORENO: He said to me, this is the music that I grew up listening to. I would play shows with my brother back in the '60s, singing, like, corridos and rancheras and boleros, and I love this music so much. We have to do something together.


MORENO: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: In 2019, Moreno and Parks released the album titled "Spangled." It was nominated for a Latin Grammy the following year.


ARCOS: It's a Tuesday night at Verse, a supper club in LA's North Hollywood. Moreno's side project, the vocal trio The SongBirds, are celebrating their new album.


THE SONGBIRDS: (Singing) When we are underneath the moon, the moon above, you got me actin' just like a loony. It must be love, sweet love

ARCOS: Jackson Browne first saw Moreno perform with The SongBirds at Largo.

JACKSON BROWNE: She's so diverse, is the thing. Gaby has immersed herself in all this American music. And one of the times I saw her at the Largo, she was playing electric guitar and playing this really rock stuff, really punky, very punky, kind of - you know? She gets it. She really gets to the essence of lots of different musical styles.

ARCOS: Moreno's latest album, "Alegoria," is the sum of more than 20 years honing her craft. She says she can hear how much she has evolved not only as a songwriter, but also as a singer.

MORENO: I feel much more connected with the songs that I'm writing and with my experience, especially my experience as an immigrant here in the U.S. Even after all these years - 'cause I've been here for a long time, over 20 years - I still feel that, you know, my home is Guatemala. And, you know, my whole family's there.


MORENO: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: In the song "Till Waking Light," Moreno sings in English and Spanish from the perspective of an immigrant making the treacherous journey from Central America to the U.S.

MORENO: And I personally know people that have made that crazy, crazy journey. And it was really that. I was just kind of trying to think, what's going on in their head? Like, how desperate must they be to, like, up and leave everything they know and risk their lives just to, like, come to a place where they'll have more opportunities and be in a safer environment?

ARCOS: Guitarist, pianist and producer David Garza met Moreno at Largo 18 years ago. Garza has played in most of her solo albums and dozens of shows.

DAVID GARZA: For a creator, a songwriter of her stature, to be blessed with a voice like that, it's an unbelievable package that is a gift to anybody that comes across it. You don't usually get that kind of - the voice and the writing talent.


MORENO: (Singing in Spanish).

ARCOS: This month, Moreno is embarking on a big tour of Europe. She'll be doing 28 shows in six weeks, covering 11 countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Ireland. One thing is for sure - Gaby Moreno will always come back to her favorite venue, Largo at the Coronet.

For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos.


MORENO: (Singing in Spanish).

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