Interview: Gabriel Moreno

by Tristan Gatward

Time is a flat circle, and it’s also a spiral. It’s a concept we claim an arrogant ownership over as humankind, and a little complacency should be allowed. Time is visceral and experiential –  the source of our impermanence; we know that another day’s come and gone, and we know that our tea gets cold. But according to strands of physics, the future has already happened. Gibraltarian songwriter, poet and novelist Gabriel Moreno’s new album, Whiskey with Angels, has already been released and has also yet to be written. Ibrahim Gökçek is alive, is on a hunger strike and has passed away.

Music is a mobilising force. Gabriel Moreno knows this well; over the last five years, the nights of music and poetry he’s curated across the London underground have held a tempestuous theatre, and leave not a rack behind. As a songwriter, his acclaimed recordings herald him as Gibraltar’s Leonard Cohen; his baritone and flamenco guitar narrate a somber cabaret and a pathetic comedy. His earnest accounts of love and community within the London bohemia are deeply poetic quests in the dark for a feeling he calls Duende, described by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca as the ‘mysterious power that everyone feels but no philosopher can explain’. 

‘We need a way to talk about Ibrahim,’ Moreno texts me that morning. Stories have gone around the London nightlife for months now of Turkish folk band Grup Yorum’s hunger strikes against the Erdoğan regime, after members of the band were jailed for their protest songs and right to free speech. Their instruments were destroyed in several police raids. Gökçek was the second member of the band to have died on hunger strike, after fasting for more than a year.

The journey from North London to New Cross is a strange one in the slow easing of lockdown. A prying, late afternoon sun sleuths through the rounded windows of the overground train from London Bridge, more peaceful than it’s been for a long time. If this is the so-called apocalypse, at least it feels light-hearted today. An occasional glint from the canteen-polished carriage floor is a welcome sign of life. Just earlier, a woman greeted a train guard with a metal sieve on her head. I arrive at Moreno’s home just before evening. There’s a warm clutter to living. His son has discarded a plastic digger set by a box of records, and is dancing around the living room to Jarvis Cocker and Chilly Gonzalez. 

‘I don’t have much, but I have enough,’ laughs Moreno, changing the record over to its tambourine-shaking Side B. He’s dressed as smartly as ever – optimistic despite the lack of an obvious escape route for those who make their careers in live music. ‘I’ve been blessed really. Some people think you need a fan base of thousands to survive; you just need a small group of people to believe in you, know your story and want to help out. Luckily, I’ve probably done the field work in the last three or four years, so people trust me a bit more to collaborate now.’ 

If you were to creek into the corner of one of the dimly-lit attics which Moreno’s nights occupied at the start of this year, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s a celebrity performing in secret. His audience is only 50-strong, but even the fringes of the room know every line he sings intimately. Each word he’s written since 2015’s Love and Decadence eases a communion between artist and audience. Love or Fire is a marching band, Farewell Belief is a cynical anthem, Silly Old Dreams is self-defacing its own vulnerability (‘I showed you my poems, and you spat at the laptop screen‘). Swaying rooms create harmonies in the back row, whilst regulars stand up and waltz with each other among the tables.

‘This album I’ve just gone to the songs,’ he says. ‘I don’t even need people to like the music; the music is just the vehicle to bring out the songs and the lyrics. On [last album] Farewell Belief, I concentrated on having nice music and beautiful arrangements, but I didn’t feel as connected to it.’

We talk about a Leonard Cohen interview, in which a young Cohen is asked why people are so fascinated by him. ‘I don’t know,’ he whispers as a reply. ‘If you just stand on the corner there, and hold up a stick with a curious sign on it, you’re going to get a number of people who stare at you.’

‘The resonance is just the exposure,’ says Moreno. ‘If people don’t see the sign then how are they going to see the person holding it, or the message behind it. I was quite insecure before. Anytime people told me they liked my songs, I’d feel compelled to say, “thank you so much,” and now I just say “well, you’ve got good taste, mate”. The underground artist in the 21st Century has been humiliated for so long. Like, in bars – ”what’s he going to play now?”,’ he imitates the impatient viewer. ‘If you had to justify your presence all the time, begging for someone to hear you is the worst humiliation for an artist who believes they have something to say. It was soul-destroying for me, for many years.’

He sums in We Are What We Are – a song that’s almost outgrown its cult status in the underground – ‘we are what we are, coffee-loving beggar who smoke and dance, singing for breadcrumbs.’ We imagine briefly what those artists with the resources to explore their creativity in comfort might do, thrust back into that ecosystem. Think Taylor Swift, juggling on a unicycle in Covent Garden. ‘I think The Beatles are mostly to blame,’ he laughs. ‘After The Beatles, man. You had a whole generation thinking they can make money and be famous, set fashion trends and sing your songs! I love The Beatles, but I think they’re mostly to blame for the debacle of the music industry. Maybe their fans, people who would have spent time writing poetry, realised they could be travelling the world with everyone copying their haircut instead.’

We talk in depth about poetry and the tradition of the bard, and its complicated relationship with adulation. Moreno claimed recently in a podcast that Dylan was negative for the whole idea of people wanting to decipher the world through writing and thought, and got a load of polemical remarks in return. He’s quick to clarify Dylan’s genius. ‘But the point is not the sound – the point is not sounding like Dylan. Dylan had something to say and was surrounded by people who had incredible takes on existence. We’ve lost that fusion of culture – everyone wants to be Dylan without wanting to put the work in, without reading poetry.’ 

Leonard Cohen’s How To Speak Poetry said it, too: the point is to write about the butterfly, not to make your voice weigh less than an ounce.

‘It’s quite defeating sometimes,’ he says, ‘when you see genuine artists who don’t have a space, because there are 100,000 people who don’t have a story, pretending that they do. I suppose it’s like the Primo Levi idea that history becomes the voice of the victors, not those who suffered for it, or died for it. Like Ibrahim, someone who gives his life for art, for freedom, for beauty, and no one knows about this guy. I tried to look at articles, there was only one, in the Daily Star, I think. There was only one article.’

Moreno’s third studio album Whiskey with Angels, due out this October, is his most politically resolute. ‘I’ve been trying to avoid being political for so long,’ he says. ‘I was always reluctant – I think, because I read the Canto General by Neruda, which is a 1200-page epic on the creation of a communist Latin America, and is absolute dire shit. Poetically, it makes no sense. So in my mind, I was always reluctant to let politics stain the clarity of poetic thought. In art, thoughts have to be more mouldable and diluted. You need to be able to play with them more than you can with firm political beliefs. But in this moment, it’s impossible. Especially hearing the story of Ibrahim Gökçek. I thought it would be absurd not to take a stand.’

Moreno first heard of Gökçek’s story when curating a night of Nazim Hikmet’s poetry in Hackney. One of the performers – an activist working on Ibrahim’s trial – told Moreno about his case, and asked if he would write a song for him that they could send to Gökçek in solidarity. ‘I went upstairs and I wrote the song in 30 minutes,’ he recalls, still visibly affected. ‘I got a message some days later saying Ibrahim had stopped his hunger strike; that there was a new ruling in court that they might excuse Grup Yorum. He was so happy that people in London were fighting for him. He died two days later. He stopped the fast too late. He’d been on a hunger strike for over a year, and wasn’t strong enough to recover. There I was earlier trying to get likes on Facebook for a song, and this guy’s given his life.’

‘You know, it’s these moments you have to ask: what is it about? What is art about? That’s probably the proudest moment in my career, for this person to have heard my song and liked it. We can talk about poetical resistance all we like, but we’ve got to take a stand. And then I realised obviously that if no one’s listening, you can’t really take a stand. So everyone who’s got something to say needs to start saying it, needs to put their stamps on the table.’

The political shift on Whiskey with Angels for Moreno started closer to home, with his experiences living in England as a Gibraltarian. ‘I’ve felt in the last year, especially here in Britain after Brexit, and also in Gibraltar with the problems faced with Spanish border… I’ve felt that all my life I’ve been trying to escape, or emphasise other aspects in art,’ he says. ‘The artist cannot be separate from this political, historical process now.’

‘When I came here in 1996, I found England was the melting point of music, art, culture, progress. And now I go to Spain or Germany and feel like they are hundreds of years ahead of us. I say ‘us’ because in Gibraltar, England’s still considered as the fatherland. I’m still proud of English history and culture, English music, but I’m not proud of this debacle of human consciousness that we’re living in. I can’t accept the England that I believed in is now this place. I am hopeful, I’m positive that this is just a glitch.’

The opening track on the album is devastating, despite its upbeat veneer – ‘Girl, if you’re tired, don’t go away, we can write England all over again.’ Moreno’s voice quivers, and you can hear the genuine belief held in England’s plurality vanish in a socio-political panorama. But it’s also a playful album; it’s about conflict, purity and excess. ‘My angels obviously talk with me, drink with me, like you,’ he says on the album’s title, ‘console me. Like with Carl Jung, we have a catharsis together, through the conversation, or through the dancing or through the music, and that’s what I find heavenly and divine.’

Whiskey with Angels marks a shift for Moreno. It’s his first solo record, self-produced with the help of Andrew Harwood at Reservoir Studios. ‘I’m kind of proud, and quite terrified to release this,’ he says. ‘The glory and the misfortune will all fall upon you, you know? There’s no one to blame but myself.’

He recorded a lot of the album upstairs in this house in New Cross, on a strict budget, figuring out how microphones worked in the periods of time his partner would take their son to the playground. 

He chuckles, ‘I’ve always worked better with limitations. I thought that a domestic life would completely destroy my expressive creative capacities. But life teaches you that you’re not the myth you think you are. If you believe in art, you’ll find a way to do it. Since Angelo was born, I felt he’s been my muse and my Duende. Everything I’ve done artistically has been better since he’s been born – my music, my writing, my poetry, my belief, my conviction. I used to waste so much time, now I feel sad with myself when I waste time. I used to think poets shouldn’t do much other than sit around, drink, wait for the muse to come, you know. The muse never came. The muse was probably busy watching TV.’

‘Anyway, It’s here now. But it’s not a muse, it’s a little gnome, kicking my testacles,’ he laughs, banging on the table, ‘saying get on with it, life’s short, you’re the next one on the line, it’s all going to be over. Do you want to talk about Lorca? No, come and do this space puzzle with me. I always thought my life would only be complete in the bohemia, amidst the artistic randomness. But you realise everything is as random as the next – a child is random, a relationship is random, a house is random. Domestic life is random. Making breakfast is random. The magic is what you put into life. If you don’t have poetry in you, you’re not going to find it in the bohemia.’

The magic is everywhere on Whiskey with Angels. It’s inquisitive and challenging, critical and romantic. In a disconnected, faceless society, it’s letting you back into the room and offering you the seat by the fire. ‘Music is something that participates in how you experience a moment,’ he explains, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to say it right but I know I’ve got something to say, and I want as many people to hear it as possible, without any false humility but with the knowledge that it’s an attempt. It’s been made from limitations, but with power, nakedness, belief, faith and love. There’s a lot of love in it.’

Gabriel Moreno’s Whiskey with Angels is out this October. Support his pre-order campaign via Indiegogo here – ending 7th September.

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