Gaby Moreno was 13 when her parents gave her a birthday gift that would change the course of her life as a singer and songwriter. Traveling from their native Guatemala City, they took her to New York to see some Broadway musicals. Something unexpected happened.
“We were walking through Times Square, and I remember hearing people play music on the street, which really struck me because I had never experienced that in my city in Guatemala,” Moreno says recently.
All of a sudden, she heard a woman belting a gospel song.
“It was so unreal. I remember stopping in my tracks and staying for 20 minutes listening to her, getting goosebumps,” she says, audibly worked up on the phone from Los Angeles, where she moved when she was 19. “What is this music and what is it doing to me?”
The woman told her it was the blues. “Blues?” The word was foreign, but the sensation it produced in her was completely natural. She went straight to a music store and loaded up on blues compilations. Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle” was her introduction to that world, which then opened up to jazz (Ella Fitzgerald), soul (Ray Charles), and onward.
Which brings us to Moreno’s latest record, “Postales,” a Spanish-language distillation of all those styles. It’s a breezy mix of elegant pop with glimmers of folk, jazz, and a blues swagger, anchored by Moreno’s sweet but sturdy croon.
She’ll be performing songs from it at the Wilbur Theatre on Tuesday, making her an ideal opening act for Hugh Laurie, the English actor and musician with a similar throwback charm. (On Monday, Moreno will play an early solo show at the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge.)
Moreno’s versatility, in both English and Spanish, has made her a darling of the NPR crowd, but it has proved more elusive in commercial terms. Does the music industry even know what to do with her?
“That’s the million-dollar question,” she says. “All my life I have struggled with that concept of being a commercial artist, writing a hit song. When it was time to release my own record without any label help, I remember the freedom I felt. I realized I didn’t need to cater to anybody. I just need to make music that I love. This is what I’m born to do.”
Her talent was recognized early on, nurtured by parents supportive of her interest in music. In quick succession, Moreno was signed to three major labels — Warner Bros. (when she was 18), Sony (20), and Jive (23) — before realizing she didn’t fit their expectations.
She refused to play the game. She recalls a meeting with a high-profile music producer in Miami, who shall remain nameless. He suggested she have nose surgery and wanted to know how skinny she was under her sweatshirt. She was 17. “You know I’m not a model, right?” she told him before leaving with her mother in tow.
Moreno, 31, didn’t want to be famous necessarily, but she was groomed at an early age, initially singing opera as a wee one,
then musicals and “Disney songs.” (Much to her adult chagrin, she admits she recorded “A Whole New World” in both English and Spanish.) At 10, she was opening concerts for people like Ricky Martin when they came to Guatemala.
It worked to her favor that while on each major label, a new president came in and she was dropped, which in hindsight she considers a blessing.
“I was so young that I didn’t really know what I wanted. All I remember is the labels always wanted me to do the Latin thing,” she says. “When I moved to the states from Guatemala, I knew that I’d be doing records and making a career in English.”
“That was my priority at the beginning,” she adds. “I was not at all interested in writing or singing in Spanish, maybe down the road.”
Moreno says she feels more comfortable writing and singing in Spanish now; in fact, all of “Postales” was performed in her native tongue. When it was time to make the record, which came out last year on a small indie label after self-releasing her first two, she chose the musicians, the studio, and the producer, Dan Warner, who was already on board with Moreno’s vision.
“She is an incredibly sweet, kind person in general, but she’s also very directed and opinionated about her music and what she likes and doesn’t like,” Warner says. “That’s more of a decision on her part. She’s going to do what she wants to do and she’s not worried about who’s listening or not listening.”
It turns out her quirky music is finally catching on, not just with her devoted following but with the industry at large. Two days after our phone interview, Moreno was nominated for best new artist at this year’s Latin Grammy Awards. Good thing, because she never had a backup plan if music didn’t pan out.
“I’d still be doing this because, the bottom line is, I’m not very good at anything else,” she says, laughing.