Vocalist Gaby Hernandez’ music has been accurately described as “a warm, nurturing hug.” It’s hard to pin down what about her songs makes them so evocative, but no doubt it’s due to how much each one has going on. With influences that reach to all corners of the world without neglecting those at home and lyrics that tell her personal stories in a way that makes them sound like they’re yours, Hernandez has a knack for creating memorable musical moments.
Part of her sound is the result of a unique chemistry with her very talented collaborators. Whether they’re long-time friends like the multi talented producer/composer Carlos Niño and composer/multi-instrumentalist Dexter Story or more recent musical partners like Kamasi Washington or Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, Hernandez finds a way to turn music created by several contributors into a seamless whole. Her latest record, Spirit Reflection is a perfect example of this. We sat down with Gaby ahead of her album release show, at The Virgil in Los Angeles on September 24 (9 pm sharp!), to discuss the inspiration for the album, collaborations with Kamasi and Atwood-Ferguson and more.
Revive: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.
Gaby Hernandez: Thank you.
R: How did you get your start as an artist?
Gaby Hernandez: I went back to school as an adult, I went back at 23 or 24, and for a long time I was like, “I’ll study psychology, I’ll study philosophy.” Philosophy is what I really wanted to do, but I’d always find myself going back to the music, so one day I was like “I’m just going to do it. I’m just going to study music.” So, I did.
As an adult, it’s a little trickier because you have all kinds of hang-ups. At the same time Carlos and I, Carlos Ñino, my boyfriend, started dating and early on in our relationship he started Build An Ark, and I was a founding member of that. From there I’ve made so many musical connections. L.A. is kind of like a musical family.
R: Are you from L.A. How does the environment here influence you and come out in the music that you make?
GH: I am from here, born and raised. Born in UCLA hospital. I feel like the people that we’re around and the different musicians around – we’re all such friends and we all want to collaborate with each other, for me it’s like, what do you want to send me? Send me whatever you want to send and I’ll add to that. The fact that we all live here I think is the main thread.
R: It’s a big community.
GH: Yeah, it is.
R: How did the collaboration with Kamasi Washington and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson come about?
GH: Those guys are in this musical family that we have in L.A. Carlos and Miguel are really good friends, and Kamasi is such a good guy. I would say he’s a friend to everybody. Another Aquarian, very friendly guy. I had this tiny opportunity of time and I was like, “this song needs an arrangement.”
I took a trip, came back, and then realized that none of the songs were done. I thought they were all done, and so I was like, “some of these songs need horn arrangements,” and I luckily got Kamasi. I asked him and he was like, “sure, great, no problem.” He’s so quick, in like one day I had the arrangements. He’s like “I have other ones, if this one doesn’t work out.” Wow. Aquarians are like that, they’re very productive.
Then Miguel, I asked him if he would because “Messy Love,” the first song on the record, I thought it was done too, but then I realized it needed something. It needed more emotion, and he did such a beautiful job. Those arrangements are pretty amazing.
R: Throughout this record, and on your previous records, there are a lot of sounds. There’s a singer-songwriter vibe, but especially on the new one, there’s music from Africa, Cuba, Latin music. What are your main influences?
GH: There’s just so many. I love all music. When I went to school, I studied classical music, so I love a lot of the classical composers. I also sang in the latin jazz ensemble which opened my heart up to Cuban music.
R: Where did you go to school?
GH: Cal State L.A. They had the first Afro-Latin masters degree program in, the country I think. So I sang with them, we went to Cuba. I’ve always loved jazz, so it’s kind of hard to say what my influences are, I think it’s just everything.
R: A lot of the work that you do as a vocalist is with composers like Carlos Ñino, whose music has a a very strong electronic element to it. How do you approach contributing to that?
GH: Mainly – and on this new record Dexter Story is one of my main collaborators, and I have a few electronic ones – I think the main thing for me is I listen to the music, because I don’t write lyrics before hand. I don’t really consider myself a poet that’s constantly writing. What the music tells me, is what I write about. The feeling that the music gives me, usually it’s relates to some kind of relationship, love or loss or whatever, but in general I feel like more than the actual sounds that are happening I’m kind of tuning into the feeling of it.
R: The title track, “Spirit Reflection,” is based on chords that you came up with, and several others were almost fully produced, from Dexter Story. How does that change, or does it change, your approach to writing melodies and lyrics?
GH: I don’t know if it changes my approach. I think for “Spirit Reflection” I just came up with that little loop and I sent it to him and then he just created all the way around it, which was amazing. I don’t know I think mainly I just, again, tune into that feeling and then it just kind of comes. I don’t really sit a long time writing lyrics, they just kind of happen.
R: What is it about your frequent collaborators, Carlos and Dexter, what is it that draws you to them?
GH: I don’t know, I would say my main thing with both of them is that they’re both Aquarians, I love astrology. I love Aquarians. They’re very free and spacey, musically spacey. They’re easy to work with, you know. Dexter will just send stuff and he gets me. I think we get each other. Of course Carlos and I get each other. I feel like mainly, it’s just, I like what they do.
With my first record it was me and my friend Andres Renteria, he’s the percussionist for José Gonzalez. Our first record we did together with him and Carlos helped produce it. The second one was Dexter mainly, little bit of Andres and Carlos, and then Dexter again on this next one. I feel like we just get along. It’s easy. I like him, as a person. We like each other, we can call each other up. We’re friends, we’re not just musical collaborators and I just love what he does.
R: This record has a very intimate vibe, and your lyrics are rich in terms of subject matter. Are they related to your personal experiences or are they being created on the spot?
GH: I think it has a lot to do with – it’s like stored information, whether it’s my own or a friend’s. I get a lot of people that feel like they can open up to me and tell me stuff and call me up. Somehow it’s like stored, so not all of it is literal, but it’s more like the situation. It’s situational, and I feel for these people that sometimes tell me what’s going on with them, so somehow it just kind of mixes together and turns into a story.
I only noticed this on stage at the last show, a lot of the songs sound happy, but they’re sad (laughs). Or they sound like laments, but it’s actually a happy song. It’s funny, except for the one dance track on the record, “GB,” that’s kind of like a dance track.
Spirit Reflection is out now. Cop it via her bandcamp, or on double vinyl at Amoeba in LA, Poo-Bah and Record Surplus, and make sure to check out the album release show at The Virgil on September 24.