It's less than a week after the results of the presidential election became known, and I'm speaking with Guatemalan native and L.A. resident Gaby Moreno. Our focus is on her wonderful new album, Ilusión, and her forthcoming celebratory hometown show at the Roxy. But there’s a tangible dark cloud hanging over us that’s impossible to ignore. As an immigrant from Central America, Moreno is feeling the fear of a Trump presidency as deeply as anyone.
That said, the singer-songwriter is very proud to call California her home, the vote going the way that it did in our state. There’s comfort in that.
“It would be depressing to live anywhere else, in a red state,” Moreno says. “I’ve had thoughts of maybe leaving the country for a little bit. My husband is German, so we were maybe talking about going to Germany. But I don’t know. When I realized that the popular vote was more toward Hillary, I realized that there’s still half the country that thinks the way I do. I want to stick around and fight for what I believe in. I feel like in dark times, creativity becomes our ally. During the Nixon government, the music that came out of that time was so incredible. We can be hopeful, and hope that these four years will go by quickly.”
Growing up in Guatemala, Moreno was singing at festivals and parties from the age of 10. When she graduated high school, at 18, she made the brave decision to move to the United States, California specifically, to seek out musical opportunities. Her mother worked in TV and radio, and her dad was a promotor. Both were extremely supportive when their daughter relocated to another country.
Once in L.A., she enrolled in music school and busted her ass learning and performing, singleminded in her desire for success. But nothing happened fast. It was 10 years before she put out her independently released debut album, Still the Unknown — and even then, the hard work was only beginning.
This year’s Ilusión is her fifth studio album and has earned the 34-year-old high praise from critics and fans alike. Moreno is proud of it, and justifiably so. Typically for her, the sound balances on a sweet spot between R&B, jazz and blues, and the artist feels that this is the album that comes closest to capturing her live sound.
“I feel that wasn’t coming through with the last record,” she says. “The production was really big, and that was cool, too, because sometimes it’s fun to go all out and do a bigger production. But some people were going, ‘Wait a minute, this song has all these horns and strings, but you onstage is just three musicians.’ I wanted to go back to basics.”
Los Angeles has a deep history of producing wonderful Latin soul, something that factored into Moreno’s thinking when she originally came here. The knowledge that she would be able to work with like-minded souls in a creatively vibrant city was vitally important.
“It’s such an incredible place to be,” she says. “Yes, there’s a lot of competition. I feel like, if you stick around long enough and you’re devoted to your craft or your passion, then it’s just a matter of time. For me, it did take a little bit. I define my breaking moment as when I was asked to tour with Tracy Chapman in 2009. Finally things were happening, nine years after arriving. You’ve just got to be patient. Patience is a virtue.”
It’s all paying off. The producer on Ilusión is Gabriel Roth, co-founder of the celebrated funk and soul label Daptone Records and the man credited with "discovering" Sharon Jones. Moreno says working with Roth and his minimalist approach was amazing.
“He has an incredible ear,” she says. “He knows where to place a microphone and how to make use of the space, of the room. It was like seeing a genius at work, and it was a privilege for me to work with him, an honor. I’m a big fan of Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, and all of those records that they put out through Daptone. I wanted to see how I could get a little bit of that sound on this record. Which is funny because it’s not that he’s trying consciously to get a vintage-sounding album. It’s just that he has the right equipment, and then just great intuition and great ears.”
Moreno is aiming to bring the new album to life at the Roxy. She’s hoping to have the same musicians on stage with her, the same instruments, and reproduce Ilusión in the live setting in front of the many friends and family members who will be in attendance.
“It’s December already, so I’ll also play one or two songs from the Christmas album that I released a couple of years ago, Posada. Traditional Latin American Christmas songs. It's cool because you wouldn’t even know that they are Christmas songs. It’s basically going to be my album release show though, even though the album came out in September.”
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When the Roxy show is over and we go into 2017, uncertainty might hang over America, but Moreno has a very special tour to look forward to, celebrating the music of David Bowie.
“The show that started it all happened at the Roxy, earlier this year,” she says. “It was a big success — Gary Oldman was part of it, Seal came down to sing with us, a bunch of amazing musicians from L.A. and also musicians that played with Bowie. I’m so excited. We’ll be in London, Tokyo — it’s gonna be amazing. It’ll be the first part of the year. After that, I’m looking forward to bringing my music back to Latin America with a big tour.”
Gaby Moreno plays with Ilza Rosario and Bjorn & the Sun at the Roxy on Wednesday, Dec. 7. Tickets and more info.