At age 18, shortly after moving to the United States from her home country of Guatemala, singer Gaby Moreno had already been signed by Warner Brothers. But that was just the beginning. Since then she has recorded five solo albums, toured with artists like Tracy Chapman, Ani DiFranco, and Calexico, won a Latin Grammy for Best New Artist, and co-written the theme song for NBC’s Parks and Recreation. She regularly joins Live from Here as a duet partner, bringing her tremendous vocal talent and a Latin influence to the show.
Let’s start with your childhood and how you got into music.
I was born and raised in Guatemala and I started singing when I was about five years old. I don't come from a musical family, but my mother always worked in TV and radio and my father was an artist promoter. So they were in the entertainment business, but they were not singers.
One day I was at home and I was listening to some music that my mom had on a cassette — we call it zarzuela, which is a classical piece — and my mother came home and she thought the tape was playing, but it was me [singing]. She wasn't really sure if I was good or not because she’s actually really tone deaf. So she took me to a vocal coach she knew [who] told her, “Yes, she has musical ability, we’ll start giving her some voice lessons.” I started singing classical when I was that young — seven, eight years old. I was singing opera pieces and also I was really into musicals — Broadway musicals, Disney songs.
I remember singing everywhere I could — festivals, school concerts, telethons (we have a lot of those in Guatemala) — and always feeling very comfortable on stage and loving it. I remember telling my mother, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life, just so you know.”
At that young age?
Yeah, and I told her, “By the way, I really want to find a way to study music abroad, and move somewhere else.” So my mother knew I was going to be doing this since I was very young and she supported me all the way.
Then, when I was 13, I discovered blues music in New York City with my family when we were there on vacation. I heard this woman busking on the street and I had never heard anything like it. So I went to a music store and bought compilation CDs and I brought them to Guatemala and I would lock myself in and start singing all these songs. That's really how I got into the genres that I love to this day, like jazz, blues, soul music, the American styles. It made me want to move to the states. I said, “Oh man, these styles come from this country, I want to be there to absorb them and learn as much as I can from them.”
When did you start playing instruments?
I remember that I wanted to play a saxophone because I associated it with jazz music. And my mother said, “Well, you know, a saxophone is a melodic instrument, you should be playing something that you can accompany yourself with, that you can write with.”
She’s the one that bought me my first guitar. I was 13. I fell in love with it, and I mainly use it to write my songs and of course to accompany myself. I don't consider myself a guitar player like a lot of people may think. I just use it as a tool and, honestly, I feel naked without it on stage. I’ve been trying to let go of it more and more. That's why I love doing Live from Here, because I don't need to be with a guitar all the time. I just get to freely sing and focus on that. It’s fun to do both.
Do you remember when you first got paid to make music?
When I was young, sometimes people would hire me to sing at their first communions or weddings. I did that a lot. Then, when I moved to LA, I was signed to a label — Warner Brothers — when I was 18. That was my biggest paycheck.
How did your career unfold once you moved to LA?
I went through three different labels. After three labels, I finally decided that I was just going to put out my own record. I did it at a friend’s house, I had no money. We did it in the living room. It was the time when Myspace was big, and I remember I just put it on there and pressed about 1,000 CDs, and 200 of them I sent out to different online magazines and people in the industry I knew. I sent it to a friend of mine [who] was on tour with Tracy Chapman. He showed it to her and she asked me to come on tour with her for like three weeks.
I would say that was my big break because I had never gone on tour before. It was just me with my guitar, I followed her. We started in Boston and ended in LA. Quite an unforgettable experience for me. From then on, things started getting better for me. Ani DiFranco asked me to open for her, and by that time I had two records released independently. After that I was on tour with Hugh Laurie and the Copper Bottom Band for a year and a half. And then I was also touring with Calexico for quite a while.
You’ve collaborated with a lot of different people. What energizes you about that and how do you adapt when working with so many different people and styles?
I love collaborations. It feels very natural for me to go from one style to another because I grew up listening to a lot of different styles. Not that I really studied them, but I tried to make them my own. I didn't want to imitate anybody, but rather just figure out a sound of my own. So when I’m doing different collaborations, whether it’s with a Latin artist or Calexico or Hugh Laurie — I even sang with Andrea Bocelli in Guatemala — I always make sure to keep my essence, whether I’m singing soul music or Latin music or Bossa nova or whatever it is. I feel like my voice is the common denominator, I can jump to different styles and I really enjoy it.
How did you get involved with Live from Here?
I had already been on A Prairie Home Companion, not with my solo project but with a side project I had at the time called The Songbirds. So I was familiar with it and [when Chris Thile took over] he called me to be part of the show. The first one I did was in October 2016 with Dawes.
That was when you sang “La Malagueña.” It’s not often we see a standing ovation in the middle of a show.
It was amazing to me. I was so thankful — and I still am — to Chris for letting me sing in Spanish. It really means a lot.
When Chris called you, had you two collaborated before?
Yeah, I’d opened for Punch Brothers on a few dates back in 2015. I met Chris through Sara Watkins and I met Sara Watkins in LA at Largo, that club in LA where she plays a lot with [her brother] Sean, and I sort of met that whole community of artists.
Talk about the experience of working on Live from Here.
Every single time is a beautiful challenge. I’ve suffered, but I love it. Especially when [Chris] sends out his Song of the Week and we have to learn it a day before.
The band packs a lot into two days of rehearsal.
Yes. On one hand it’s a lot of fun, on the other it’s like going to school. I’ve learned a lot of songs I wasn't familiar with. [Chris] has kind of opened up the whole world of bluegrass to me, so that's been wonderful.
Do you have a favorite moment from when you’ve been on the show?
Oh god, so many. Definitely the first show was a highlight for me, singing “La Malagueña.” When I get to sing backup with some of the guest artists like Sufjan Stevens or Marcus Mumford, that just feels so surreal.
It’s just such a wonderful energy on stage with everybody else. I feel so lucky to be sharing that experience with those guys who are unbelievable musicians. I just feel so fortunate to be a small part of it.