Wearing a ruffled dress and cardigan, Gaby Moreno snacks on a red velvet cookie and explains her obsession with retro blues music. "I'm sort of stuck on anything from the '20s to the '60s," she says.
The 30-year-old singer-songwriter, whose Shirley Temple curls frame her face, says absorbing the blues in its land of origin was a major reason she moved to the United States after graduating high school in her native Guatemala. That, and to record some blues of her own.
Twelve years later, Moreno's Spanish-language songs and smoky, cavernous voice have inspired waves of adulation throughout the hemisphere. Last year, her independently produced album Illustrated Songs hit No. 1 on the Latin iTunes chart, clocking in above such Spanish-language heavyweights as Maná and Shakira. She exclaims, "I was, like, 'How the hell is this happening to me?' "
It wasn't easy. And it wasn't even her first taste of stardom. At age 10, Moreno opened for Ricky Martin, singing Disney songs before a crowd of 5,000 in Guatemala City. When she arrived in the United States, she was quickly snatched up by Warner Music. She earned a big signing bonus, but Warner dropped her after a shakeup in label management. Two years later, the same thing happened with Sony. Two years after that, it happened again with Jive Records.
Her mother suggested that maybe it was time for her to cut her losses and come back home, but Moreno was committed. It helped that she was still flush with money from the labels. "When they dropped me, I didn't have to give it back. That kept me for a good four or five years," she says.
She performed with a wedding band to pay the bills and finance her first album, Still the Unknown, which she released in 2008. She had a stroke of luck the following year when a 30-second instrumental she'd composed won a contest and became the theme music for NBC comedy Parks and Recreation.
Moreno also got the attention of Grammy winner -- and Guatemala's most successful musician -- Ricardo Arjona, who asked her to record an emotive power-pop duet with him, "Fuiste Tú." It became a hit on the Latin charts last year, and Arjona signed Gaby to his independent label, Metamorfosis, which is based in Mexico and Miami. She's finishing her third album with Arjona's producer, Dan Warner.
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Reflecting on her circuitous path, Moreno believes she did the right thing by sticking it out here. She's satisfied that she ended up on an indie. Major labels are all politics, she says, "and you end up losing your soul along the way."
Hell, it could be worse. Sure, it was a rough 12 years, but it definitely taught Moreno a thing or two about the blues.