The credits on “Luna Negra and the Daughter of the Sun,” the second solo album from Lisa Morales, read like a selective A-list of musicians in Austin’s rock, folk and Latin music realms. With producer Michael Ramos anchoring the support crew on keyboards and accordion, the record makes room for Charlie Sexton, Adrian Quesada, David Garza, David Pulkingham, Eliza Gilkyson and even the late Jimmy LaFave.
It’s an impressive cast, and one that suits the melting-pot music of Morales well. A native of Tucson, Ariz., who moved to Texas three decades ago, Morales soaked up the multicultural influences of Houston and San Antonio, performing primarily with her sister Roberta in the duo Sisters Morales. It’s only now, as she’s begun carving out an avenue for her own music, that Austin has finally drawn her in.
“To be honest, I don’t know why I didn’t end up here first, instead of Houston,” Morales says now, as she recounts the curious tale of how she ended up in Texas via, of all places, Germany. On an overseas tour when she was still in her teens, Morales played some shows with country singer Clay Blaker, who became a fan. He encouraged her to move to the Houston area, where he lived at the time.
“He kind of took me under his wing, and he would do shows with George Strait and they’d have me sit in with them,” Morales recalls. Roberta soon followed Lisa to Texas, and the richly diverse sounds of Houston helped nurture the duo’s bilingual songs that comprised influences of mariachi, blues, country, folk and more. “I’m very grateful that it allowed me to work five to seven nights a week, doing original music, developing my own sound,” she says of the Houston years that helped shape Sisters Morales’ identity.
A flood in 2001 that damaged her home spurred a move, and she almost ended up in Austin then, but her sisters had moved to Boerne near San Antonio, and she landed in the Alamo City. That proved fruitful when the city’s deep mariachi roots helped inform “Para Gloria,” a 2002 album of Spanish-language folk songs they dedicated to their mother. The years that followed brought a lot of touring with Sisters Morales, but big life changes followed their mother’s death from cancer in 2009.
“When my mom passed away, the glue fell out in the family,” Morales explains. “Roberta and I were there for her death, and it was a very horrible death, which Roberta and I witnessed. It kind of shook us up, honestly. It certainly took me out of my world for a little while, and I believe it did the same to her.”
The sisters stopped performing together for awhile, and when Morales next went into the studio, it was for a solo album, 2011’s “Beautiful Mistake.” Recorded in Austin with longtime James McMurtry bassist Michael “Cornbread” Traylor producing, it marked the first time Morales had made an album of songs sung entirely in English.
On the new album, which she celebrates with a release party at One-2-One Bar on Feb. 3, Morales returned to a bilingual approach. Some songs are in English and a couple are in Spanish, while tunes such as “Veinte Minutos” and “Todo y Nada” go back-and-forth between both languages.
The expression is about more than just the literal meaning of the words, Morales says. “People would always come up and say, ‘I don’t know what it is, but you sing from a different place when you sing in Spanish.’ And there’s a tonal difference when I hear recordings. It’s very strange; physically it feels different.”
As a songwriter, Morales says it quickly becomes obvious whether a song should be in Spanish, or English, or both. “If it’s just me by myself writing, then it’s me being the vessel that’s holding this thing that’s coming out of me,” she says. “It’s not a conscious thing. If I think about it, it stops the flow, so I just let it come.”
Sometimes she seeks assistance with the Spanish-language songs. Juan Cabrera, a Paraguay-born harpist who lives in San Antonio, co-wrote four of the songs on “Luna Negra and the Daughter of the Sun” with Morales.
“We’re very alike in that we want to create art instead of just writing a song,” Morales says. “We want to push ourselves further. He and I don’t go for the simple lyric. We go, ‘No, let’s go deeper.’”
Sometimes it’s not the words but the voices that bring depth to a song. “Avalanche,” a tender and very personal ballad set to Ramos’ keyboard and muted trumpet, got that from LaFave, who had just a few weeks to live when he recorded his vocal track in February 2017.
“I am so lucky he sang on that,” she says. “I’m so grateful. He loved the song; he said, ‘This is a really great song.’ And when somebody gets what you’re doing, and they give it because of that, that’s it. It’s the whole thing.”
The two had known each other for years, and it was LaFave who introduced Morales to Austin music industry mainstay Kevin Wommack, sparking a relationship that has led Morales to be in the process of moving here from San Antonio. With a vibrant music community that supports all the stylistic elements of her music and has long embraced the mixing of them, Austin seems a perfect fit for Morales as an artist.
“I always kept myself from moving to Los Angeles and Nashville and Austin,” she says, looking back at why she hadn’t previously ended up here. “I would always see musicians changing their style every time the style changed, and I wanted to develop my style. I didn’t want to change with the tide.
“But I was wrong about it, because now when I spend time here, that’s what’s drawing me here. It makes you more creative; all your cylinders are just popping. It’s electrical.”
There’s still room, though, for Sisters Morales. Not long after Lisa made her first solo record, she and Roberta began playing music together again. The band also includes her ex-husband, David Spencer, who shares custody with the couple’s two children in San Antonio. The bonds between all of them remain strong.
Of her sister, she says, “I think the journeys that we both went on separately were very very good for us, and very necessary for us. But when we sit in my living room and we’re rehearsing for the next show, there’s nothing better than when we sing our harmonies together in Spanish. All of us in the room, we’re all looking at each other like, this is …” — she doesn’t finish the sentence, but the smile on her face conveys the sentiment clearly.
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Lisa Morales
Recordings: “Luna Negra and the Daughter of the Sun,” 2018; “Beautiful Mistake,” 2011.
Performing: Saturday, Feb. 3, at One-2-One Bar (7 p.m., $10, one2onebar.com).