Music crosses borders more easily than bodies do. That’s why the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” grooves to a Cuban beat, why The Beatles’ early records are chock-full of covers of songs by Motown and Sun Studio artists. “It’s a cliché, but music really is the universal language,” says Guatemalan-born singer-songwriter Gaby Moreno on a recent phone call. We spoke in advance of her concert at the Buckman Performing Arts Center at St. Mary’s, Friday, January 17th.
She would know. The genre-bending performer can sing in four languages — English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese — and her music is tinged with the sounds of blues, jazz, soul, and R&B. Though Moreno is quick to point out that her singing in French is just phonetic — she doesn’t speak the language — she is nonetheless a poster child for the many ways music acts as a bridge.
When she was a child, Moreno’s parents took her to New York to see Broadway musicals and opera. While she was there, she discovered the blues. “That changed everything for me,” Moreno says. She heard Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle” and, she says, “I just went down the rabbit hole after that.” Now, years later, music has continued to be a catalyst for connections for Moreno. On her most recent album, 2019’s ¡Spangled!, Moreno collaborated with famed arranger and composer Van Dyke Parks and with Jackson Browne on the album’s opener, a cover of Ry Cooder’s “Across the Borderline.”
Moreno agrees when I suggest that, in 2019, opening an album with “Across the Borderline,” a song co-written by Memphis’ Jim Dickinson, is making an indisputably concrete statement: “Oh, yes. Absolutely. We completely wanted to make that statement,” she says. “That’s a song that [Van Dyke Parks] introduced to me. I hadn’t heard it before, and he actually played on that song that was recorded in the 1980s for the movie The Border with Jack Nicholson. It’s a song written by Ry Cooder and John Hiatt and Jim Dickinson. It’s just such a beautiful song. It’s heartbreaking, and it really speaks to the times that we are living in. I thought it would be a good statement to make, especially because I’m an immigrant and it’s a topic that concerns me.” She adds, “It’s something that, for me, will never completely go away. … I definitely feel a sense of responsibility, especially being Guatemalan.
“I want to be a voice for those who do not have one. And be a voice of hope, really. That’s all I want to do.”
On ¡Spangled!, Moreno is indubitably a voice for hope. Her voice, brimming over with warmth and strength, is lifted up by Parks’ lush arrangements. The album is a cornucopia of sounds and influences, tonally an example of what can be achieved through a mixture of diverse ideas. On “The Immigrants,” Moreno sings “America, remember Ellis Island. We all came here to take the plunge.” The lyrics are bolstered by triumphant instrumentation, giving the song a hopeful air.
“I’m so honored to have worked with him,” Moreno says of Parks, her collaborator on ¡Spangled!, who has worked with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Joanna Newsom, U2, Rufus Wainwright, and others. “We found each other. We met about 11 years ago in L.A. through mutual friends, musicians. We were both part of this small, intimate concert. We talked about the love that we have for music from Latin America, and just kind of naturally he asked me to send him something.
“Then he sent me ideas; I sent him mine. And we ended up with this collection of 10 songs. But this was like 10 years ago. I’ve been saying that this record has been 10 years in the making.”
The decade-in-the-making collaboration with Parks — and with Jackson Browne, who sings on “Across the Borderline” — was made possible, in part, by connections Moreno made while living in L.A. “When I was living in Guatemala, I got offered a record contract, and the label was in Los Angeles, and that’s why I gravitated toward that city,” Moreno explains. “But I was always thinking of New York for some reason. I really loved musicals.” Still, Moreno explains, “I love being [in L.A.]; I think it’s the right place for me to be, not just because of the music that I do, but also the community that thrives there. It’s one that I’m so blessed to be a part of.”
When I ask Moreno how she decides in what language to sing, she makes it clear it’s more a natural impulse than an intellectual decision. “It’s just whatever comes to my head immediately. If there’s a lyric that comes to me in Spanish, then I’ll know the rest of the song will be in Spanish,” Moreno explains. “Having said that, I have written songs that are in Spanglish — so I’ll start a verse in English, and then I’ll just throw another verse in Spanish in there. I’ve been doing that more and more lately, and I find that a bit amusing,” she continues. “I am a huge fan of French music and Portuguese music — and just music in general,” Moreno continues. “I don’t care if they’re singing to me in whatever language. If the music speaks to me, that’s everything.”
And Moreno certainly has an ongoing dialogue with the music. It speaks to her, and her music, over the course of six albums and in a multitude of styles, continues to speak to listeners. “At first, it took me a little bit to find my own voice and find my sound, but I feel like at the end it’s just good music. I don’t like to have all these labels,” Moreno says. “Whether it’s blues, jazz, soul or folk, Americana, country, in a way they are all kind of related. I’ve had fun playing with all of them and seeing the possibility.
“I’ve been singing since I was 7 years old. That’s been my main thing,” Moreno remembers. “But when I picked up a guitar, I knew that I could write my own things, that I could accompany myself live. That was very liberating, and I loved it. I just love having that instrument as a tool for my songwriting,” Moreno says. “And also I really enjoy performing live with it.”
She’ll get a chance to Friday, when the lush arrangements of ¡Spangled! are reimagined for a more intimate, though still lively performance by her four-piece band. Moreno’s touring band, with whom she’s performed for some time, includes bass, drums, and two guitars, with one of those guitars played by Moreno. She says that though the band will touch on ¡Spangled!, much of the performance will be from 2016’s Illusión, an album with a more-stripped down quartet sound steeped in blues and jazz. “Pale Bright Lights,” a swing jazz meets honky-tonk jam, seems especially well-suited to performance as a four-piece band.
Strictly speaking, the upcoming concert at the Buckman won’t be Moreno’s first time singing in Memphis, though it will be her first official concert here. “I was invited to sing at St. Jude Children’s Hospital. It was just an acoustic concert,” Moreno says of her first time in the Bluff City, several years ago. This Friday’s concert, though, will mark the first performance with her full band in Memphis. “You’ll get the full show,” she says.
An Evening with Gaby Moreno at the Buckman Performing Arts Center at St. Mary’s, Friday, January 17th, 8 p.m. $35