“Oh, that’s so beautiful! I’m on the banks of the Seine right now. There’s a winter sky, grey and blue pastel, with a bright yellow setting sun. Ah, I love it here.”
Melody Gardot is in Paris, laughing happily over the phone, waxing ecstatically as she rides through the City of Light during a tour in support of her new CD, My One and Only Thrill (Verve). And she’s not sounding at all like someone who is still suffering the aftereffects of a near-death, life-transforming accident.
She is, in fact, a lot more focused on her pleasure at being back in France. “It’s the only place,” she says, “where I’ve ever gotten off the plane and felt I was at home. [I’m surprised] I was born where I was. Because I feel as though if my spirit were to have chosen where I was to be born, it would have been France.”
Then, interrupting herself, Gardot adds, “Oh, look. There’s my favorite café!”
Despite her enthusiasm, however, the consequences of the accident are still an intrinsic part of her life-directly, as she continues through her recovery, and indirectly, as an element in her art and her story. Five years after the then-19-year old student was struck by an SUV while riding a bicycle to a fashion class at Community College of Philadelphia, she has established herself as an important new talent. Comparisons to Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and Shania Twain have been bandied about.
Herbie Hancock invited her to sing Joni Mitchell’s song, “Edith and the King-Pin,” for the Live From Abbey Road TV series. The New York Times’ Nate Chinen, in a review of a live performance, wrote, “Smoldering becomes Ms. Gardot, whose voice carries a soft allure even on brighter fare.” The BBC suggested, “You owe it to your ears to discover this gem for yourself.” And Business Week, in a rare musical observation, described her first CD, Worrisome Heart, as “a place where Billie Holiday meets Tom Waits.”
A slender blonde with dark, arching eyebrows and a cool, Peggy Lee manner, Gardot must wear dark glasses to compensate for hyper-photosensitivity, earplugs for severe Hyperacusis/Tinnitus, and use a cane, which she calls “Citizen Cane,” for stability and balance. But none of these intrude on the dark seductive timbre of her voice, the quality of her music or the emotional electricity of her performances. If anything, the dark glasses and the cane, combined with her affection for, as she puts it, “nice shoes,” provide an intriguing air of timeless elegance.
She also makes clear, on her MySpace page, her dislike for the word “disabled,” a word she considers to be “self-demoting.”
“I see myself,” she writes, “in this way: ‘I am able to do some things and unable to do others.’ That’s all. The technicalities are just as important as you make them. All you need to know is why I need the things you see me with, as most people do not need them.”
But Gardot has had, nonetheless, a difficult journey. The impact of the SUV, which was making an illegal left turn, caused multiple pelvic fractures as well as head, back and spinal injuries. Unable to walk, or even sit up comfortably, she spent a year mostly lying in bed. Her state of mind, combined with the pain she was experiencing, didn’t improve when a physician suggested music therapy as a possible aid in dealing with the cognitive impairment that had been caused by her head injuries.
“The truth is I was devastated when I was encouraged to play,” recalls Gardot, “because I thought it meant I would have to sit at the piano. Which wasn’t possible, because I had fractures in the front and the back, in my pelvis, and sitting was incredibly painful. Even getting to a doctor was a fiasco. It took 20 minutes to get there, and two days to recover from it. It was a really difficult time. So when the doctor mentioned music, it was just kind of both inspiring and deflating in the same breath, because it was hopeful but impossible.”
Impossible for her to play the piano, yes, but there are other ways to make music. Gardot’s mother suggested one, asking, “Why don’t you try the guitar? I have one, you know.” But even that was daunting.
“Basically,” she says, “I learned to play the guitar, on my back, in bed. It was the only way, since I couldn’t sit up. And it did help my situation, if only because it took my mind off the pain for a few minutes.”
But the awkward position, lying on her back while holding the guitar, was compounded by the fact that she was still a pianist.
“I really had no idea how to use this instrument,” Gardot continues. “I mean, mechanically I’m a pianist. With the guitar, you use your left hand differently, with this gripping motion. And your right hand is sort of clawing, instead of moving fluidly. At first, I took on the approach of someone like Stanley Jordan, flipping the guitar down and finger-tapping. But it sounded wrong, it sounded boring, it sounded like I wasn’t going to be able to develop what I was hearing. So I worked at getting my hand around the instrument and I figured out a way, even though I don’t use my thumb and I don’t bar chord.”
In addition to the sheer physical demands of learning a new instrument in such demanding circumstances, Gardot was plagued by memory lapses that are still, although to a lesser extent, a recurring problem.
“The simple truth,” she says, “was that I couldn’t remember a thing, not even from the beginning of the day until the end. So I couldn’t make progress. Because you can’t make progress unless you can look back and reflect on what you’ve done. And with the guitar, I couldn’t remember what I had done. Every day was a new day, with a new instrument and a new challenge. And to learn it what I had to do was break it down. And, finally, a song popped out.”
That song, along with five others, became the appropriately titled EP, Some Lessons: The Bedroom Sessions, Gardot’s first recording. The title piece, “Some Lessons,” is a stunning introduction to an extraordinary new talent: a blues-phrased paean to life from someone who has come dangerously close to the edge. In it, she sings:
Well, I’m buckled up inside
It’s a miracle that I’m alive
To think that I could have fallen
A centimeter to the left
Would not be here to see the sunset
Or have myself a time
Aside from its telling content, what’s impressive about the song, as well as the others on the EP, is the striking sense of maturity in Gardot’s voice, her phrasing and her capacity to tell a story. Yet, remarkably, prior to the accident, singing and songwriting had not been present in her résumé. The daughter of a single-parent mother, she was “cooking and taking care of my own behind by the time I was 7, because my mom was a jack of all trades, working three jobs at once and doing photography on the side.” Raised in Philadelphia-central Philly, she specifies-she had no particular exposure to music other than piano lessons. But, although she was considering a career in fashion, it was in those obligatory piano lessons that the first indication of her considerable native talents first manifested itself.
“Music was funny for me as a child,” she recalls. “Because the first time I experienced jazz was a mistake, a kind of intended mistake, actually. I was learning to play piano when I was 9, taking lessons from this beautiful teacher. One day he came over and I was playing a classical piece I had learned a week earlier. I think it was Tchaikovsky. I was playing it very fast, playing it very quickly so he couldn’t hear my mistakes.
“When I finished, he said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘Playing this section here.’ He asked me to play it again, and I did. He looked at me and said it again: ‘What are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m adding notes.’ And he said, ‘You can’t add notes to Tchaikovsky.’ I didn’t understand what he was talking about, so I played it again. And then I said, ‘See? I can.'”
Fortunately, Gardot’s piano teacher was not only open-minded, he was also sympathetic to improvisation and to jazz. The next time he came for a lesson, he arrived with a different music book, opened it to a page titled “C Jam Blues” and asked Gardot to play.
“I remember sitting there playing it,” says Gardot, “and going, ‘Hey, are you kidding me? This is easy.’ I loved it. Somehow I knew that jazz was harder than that, but it was fun. And thank goodness he was smart enough to see what I was inclined for.”
By the age of 16, her piano playing had developed to the point where she was handling a repertoire reaching from Radiohead and the Mamas and the Papas to Duke Ellington. Her professional career, like the discovery of her improvisational abilities, began almost randomly on a night when her car was nearly out of gas and she was in need of a job.
“I guess my karma was right,” Gardot explains. “I walked into this place, liked it and asked if they had music. They said, ‘Yeah, but our piano player just quit. Why? Do you play?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’ I sat down and auditioned and I got the job. And I started playing there every weekend from the time I was 16 until I was 19.”
She may not have suspected it at that time, but Gardot was apprenticing the techniques as a performer that would make it possible for her to make a remarkably quick transition to the confident onstage manner that almost immediately characterized her post-accident career.
“My only parameter as a young pianist,” she says, “was that I played tunes I liked. And then, as the weeks went on, I gradually learned how to go from being a wallpaper act to doing something that was actually worthy of attention. I did that by tailoring what I did to the people that walked into the room, by learning how to read people, check out their composure and think, ‘OK, what do they really want to hear?'”
Ironically, it wasn’t until after the accident, however, that Gardot began to receive some attention from the local Philadelphia media. The EP, Some Lessons: The Bedroom Sessions, released in 2005, received airplay on WSPN, and City Paper Philadelphia acknowledged her in the periodical’s 2005 People’s Choice Awards. At that point, her visibility expanded dramatically and her career took off. Her first full-length CD, Worrisome Heart, nearly sold out on Amazon.com on the first day of its release in February 2008.
Her new album, My One and Only Thrill, to be released at the end of April, propels her into the majors, with Larry Klein producing and Vince Mendoza providing arrangements for a large orchestra. It arrives in a quarter that also sees new releases from Diana Krall, Madeleine Peyroux and Kelly Clarkson, among others.
But Gardot’s attention clearly focuses on the quality of the music rather than the sales competitiveness of the product. Her working method is unique, embracing each song as a complete entity.
“Everything comes to me at once,” she says. “And, without sounding definitive or creepy, it comes to me in about 20 minutes: music, lyrics, melody, how I imagine the arrangement, everything. It’s almost like a bodily function thing, where everything happens with great urgency. You must sit down and catch it. And if you don’t, it will dissolve. Only in one case on My One and Only Thrill did the lyrics fail to be captured in that initial sitting. And that was only because I got distracted, or they just got caught up in my head.”
It takes a self-assured producer to work with an artist with that kind of complete conceptualization of a song. And, serendipitously, as Gardot puts it, a producer with those qualities found her.
“Larry heard me on XM Radio,” she explains. “He heard the music, and wanted to get together. First and foremost it was most important to me that I liked him, and that concern was immediately put at ease when I met him in New York. He’d done a lot of work with singers, which helped put my mind at ease. And then there’s that little factor of me hearing everything complete in my head, which leaves little room for alteration. With the wrong person, that can be a battle; it can be a breaking point. But Larry is someone who supports a vision, or who can create it if he needs to. He’s not one-sided, and he doesn’t have to go a single way.”
The specific way that Gardot had in mind for My One and Only Thrill encompassed, she says, romance in many hues. And not just about romantic love.
“In fact,” she says with a giggle, “sometimes it’s not about love at all. It can be about having a moment with someone that can feel like an eternity. It can be like when you’re walking in the park, and you feel as though the world stops around you and you’re the only two people who exist. Or maybe you’re not even with someone.” She laughs again. “Romance happens when birds land on your window sill, and meals end with wine.”
Capturing a set of songs-including “Les Etoiles,” her first song conceived and written in French, as well as her view of “Over the Rainbow”-coursing through the full range of romantic subtleties called for very specific kinds of settings. Gardot found the answer when she heard some recordings with Mendoza’s arrangements, even though she was completely unaware of his history.
“I just knew that I liked his work,” she recalls. “And it wasn’t until Larry told me about him that I realized he had worked with Joni Mitchell, Björk and Elvis Costello.”
Characteristically, Gardot was very clear about how she wanted the album to sound, that she wanted to have strings, for the sake of “expression.”
“The cornerstones of what makes music good for me,” says Gardot, “are simplicity, melody and sentiment. Now, when you add strings to the equation, people automatically go, ‘Wait a minute, simplicity with 70 people? I don’t think so.’ It’s a far-reaching concept in that sense, I guess. But what it was really about was adding strings that would support thematic ideas, expand upon thematic ideas and add new ones, without losing touch with those cornerstones. And I think that’s what I got from Vince’s arrangements.”
With the new album in the stores, a busy schedule of appearances, enthusiastic audiences and growing critical acclaim, Gardot’s career is obviously on a fast track. But although she speaks openly of her accident in conversation, she rarely mentions it in her performances, preferring to let the music speak for itself. Nor does she seem especially curious about the strangeness of the accident-driven transition that has taken her from life as a fashion student who played piano in a bistro on weekends to her present role as a rapidly rising young singer-songwriter.
Asked about it, Gardot simply replies, “You know, there’s a saying I repeat often. It goes like this: Good writers write, great writers write what they know. At the time, before the accident, perhaps I knew nothing. And now, I guess I do.”