MELODY GARDOT: MELODY COOL
Hailed by some as “The brightest jazz star of the Twenty First Century”, 23-year-old singer/songwriter Melody Gardot this month brings her simple-yet-poignant blend of jazz and folk to London, as one of the headlining stars of the capital’s prestigious Jazz Festival.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1985, Gardot is unique in that her international recognition as a recording musician stems directly from becoming tragically disabled at 19, after being struck by a Jeep while riding her bicycle. Suffering near-fatal head injuries - as well as pelvic fractures that still force her to walk with a stick - Melody’s origins as a recording artist were initially prompted by a tending physician. Who, concerned with her cognitive impairment as a result of the head injuries, believed music would help her brain injury drastically improve. Following which suggestion Gardot made recordings from her bedside - while still unable to walk - eventually releasing the works as a six-track EP titled ‘Some Lessons: The Bedroom Sessions’. With said EP in turn coming to the attention of influential local Philly radio DJ Helen Leicht (attributed with kick-starting the career of, among others, multi-million-selling global chart-topper Norah Jones), she quickly gained public esteem both for the quality of her music as well as her remarkable courage in the face of her afflictions and physical limitations.
With Grammy Award-winning producer Glenn Barratt in turn asking her to let him engineer her first full-length album, the LP in question - ‘Worrisome Heart’ (co-produced by Melody alongside Barratt) - was released globally earlier this year through UCJ Music. Prompting widespread acclaim for its intimate mix of mellow blues, eclectic folk and, above all, jazz, it finds Gardot’s hauntingly beautiful voice reporting through 10 self-written slow and fast-paced tracks led by guitar and piano, and has evoked comparison with female modern-jazz icons Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux; with its understated bluesiness additionally reaching further back to the heyday of vintage American songwriting, The set’s most deeply-felt track being the lilting ‘Some Lessons’, where she reflects on her violent accident with such striking lines as “To think I could have fallen a centimetre to the left/ I would not be her to see the sunset or have myself a time”.
With said accident having additionally left her with a daunting array of neurological symptoms (including an excruciating sensitivity to light and noise), Melody still finds the need to wear sunglasses and keep her timetable light, especially in the case of traveling and long-haul flying. Nevertheless, despite what she jokingly refers to as her “masochistic” stage performances (where she performs sitting on a specialised chair, her cane by her side), Gardot has drawn unanimously positive reviews for the languid confidence she projects in her live shows, which find her backed by some of the finest musicians on today’s American jazz scene.
Serene-mannered, her conversation blessed with an endearing sense of positivity and humour, a soft-voiced Ms. Gardot speaks to ‘B&S’ on the eve of her upcoming UK performances.
How do you feel about performing as part of the London Jazz Festival?
"It's really exciting. Because for me it represents an opportunity to perform songs by other people, as well as my own, in a really beautiful setting with some great performers. It's also a very prestigious event. I mean, last year I performed as part of the Ella Fitzgerald tribute which was a lotta fun. I remember I was nervous for about five seconds, and then just very excited! I did two songs - 'Fever' and 'Dream A Little Dream' - and then we all came together for the encore ' A Tisket A Tasket'. And to be playing with an orchestra of around 70 members was just unbelievable! I was like 'Don't mess up!'! Then afterwards the whole jazz rhythm section came up to me and were like 'You were the real epitome of laid-back cool'. Which was really great to hear!"
What was the thinking behind your current debut LP 'Worrisome Heart'?
"It was created independently of a record company. It was made privately. So my only intention, or my only GOAL, was to make a record that at the end of the day I was happy with. And the way that the instrumentation was decided on was based on what I heard in my head, and what I thought would FEEL the best. So I guess having it released is kinda like having somebody publish your diary in a way! And the fact that people are enjoying it is kind of a supplementary beautiful thing. You know, to have album an embraced the way it is, is something really special and not something I take too lightly."
Your lyrics have been described as "communicating a wise, determined and occasionally-lighthearted take on life". What inspires them?
“My songs are based on life. You know, I think good writers write about what they know. So, without going into specifics, they all reflect things I’ve encountered in various ways. And I named the album after the song ‘Worrisome Heart’, because I thought that was the track that best summed up the state I was in while finishing the record. You know, really a record for ANY artist is just a mark of where they are at that time. And that was the one that made the most sense in describing where I was.”
What was the working relationship like between you and your Grammy-winning producer Glenn Barratt?
“Glenn is a very talented and gifted individual, who also became a good friend. During the process of recording he was someone who was my partner. So, when I became short of ideas, he’d be there to help me create them. While, at moments when I had very strong ideas, he was there to help me bring them though to realisation. So he was a bit of a conduit in a way. Plus he also knew great musicians. And, by getting to know me well, he knew who to bring on board who’d work well with me within the context of making our record.”
Do any particular tracks stand out for you?
“’Some Lessons’ is a tune that only came about as a result of my accident. It was the first time that I wrote after that happened. And, with me being a very new writer, for the first song I wrote to be something that came from that experience only made sense to me - particularly when my whole writing and singing career spawned from that incident and that part of my life. Though the most FUN track to make on the album for me was ‘Twilight’, even though there’s no lyrics and it’s only a minute long! Me, the bassist, the drummer and the guitarist were all just kinda sitting together in the studio. I started playing a little guitar run, and what was interesting was we suddenly all started playing! We weren’t looking at each other - it was very dark - but yet we all pretty much started and finished at the same time! Then afterwards everybody started laughing, and, while at first we weren’t gonna do anything with it, I just felt we had to put it on the record! Basically it was just a cute little moment of sorta transcendental-thought musicianship coming together.”
So can we talk about your early musical background?
“In school I had piano lessons as a child for about two years. Though I really got most of my exposure to music around 16/17/18/19, playing piano bars in the city. It was great, because it was an opportunity for me to do what I wanted and no-one gave me parameters. Like I could play anything from The Mamas & The Papas to Duke Ellington to Janis Joplin. I couldn’t believe it, because I was getting paid to basically goof-off while at the same time being give this opportunity to just be this young person wandering around the city and performing. But it was never anything I considered doing professionally long-term. Basically at the time music was just that hobby that I loved to spend my time on.”
So how did you actually start playing in piano bars at 16?
“It all started when I first got my driving licence. I was taking my first drive into Philadelphia with a friend, but I’d forgotten to fill up the gas-tank. And, once we got into the centre of the city, I went for my wallet - and discovered I didn’t have any MONEY! So, because I was afraid we weren’t gonna make it, I parked the car and we started walking down South Street, to see how we could make some bucks. In the distance, there was this place called The Piano Bar. So I walked in the door and, when I noticed there was a piano in the back of the restaurant, I asked the woman there about it. She asked if I played. And, when I said yes, she was like ‘Our piano-player quit a half-hour ago. Would you like to audition?’… So I went in the back, and played. Then, after about 45 minutes, my friend elbowed me and told me he had to go. So, as we were about to walk out, the woman got the manager, who was like ‘That sounded pretty good. Why don’t you come back next week? I’ll pay you $100 for four hours. And, if the people like it, you can do it every week!’! So I was like ‘Well, that’s cool. But I just played for 45 minutes. Can I get 20 bucks?’! So he laughed, and gave me the 20 bucks! I went back to my car; we coasted into a gas station; I filled up… And from that point on, I started playing piano all over the city!”
How did your near-fatal accident initially kick-start your current musical career?
“After the accident I was in physical rehab for a year. I’d seen 11 doctors, I was taking all this medication, and it was making me sick. So I went to see one particular doctor - Dr. Jermyn - and he was like ‘You have to find something that makes you happy. What did you do before the accident?’. And, when my mom said ‘She used to play piano in piano bars’, his eyes lit up! The whole temperature of the room changed! He was like ‘You love to do music, and it’s the only thing that helps to reconnect the neural pathways in your brain’... And I guess, looking back now, my experience can be seen as proof of not-so-good things coming along and leading to better things. Which is why I’m never really afraid of bad news at this point in my life!”
How did all that eventually lead to your current record-deal?
“Well, as I just said, I started doing music for reasons of therapy. I only made that first EP because I needed to remember what I’d done. And recording and listening back to the music was a tool to help me DO that. So the only thing I can say is that the rest was really out of my hands, in that I didn’t force it in any way. The Philadelphia DJ Helen Leicht heard my music. So she started playing on the radio a CD that had been burned off my computer - though frankly the quality of the music was not that good! I mean, it had been recorded on a little tape-machine in my bedroom while I was in bed! You could practically hear my cat in the background, as well as the water-tank! So, for people to started requesting to hear it on the radio was beyond surprising! But she loved the music, really embraced me, encouraged me a lot, and insisted I press more CDs. Which was around the same time I met Glenn, who offered me the opportunity to record properly. Though, of course, at first I didn’t feel I was ready. I thought all this happening was ridiculous for somebody who’d just started playing guitar because she was trying to improve her memory! You know, suddenly here they were asking me to make a full-length CD - and I was like ‘Are you CRAZY?’! But then eventually I called them back a couple of months later, and that’s when we made my album. Then, after around five months went by, some record company people started coming to see me performing, and eventually started asking if I’d sign with them.”
What was your initial reaction to signing with UCJ?
“”I guess, again, I didn’t say `yes’ right away! I again was very slow to move. You know, some people call me ‘the turtle’, because I am quite slow! But, we eventually signed to UCJ - and I love them! They’re very sweet, and they take care of me. Which is great. Because I guess you could understand how - as a person who has difficulty physically - I was really apprehensive at first to say ’yes’ to a company that really wants to break you to many people and help support you, when that is based on you as a performer going out and working to a heavy schedule. Because I was concerned I mightn’t be able to DO that. And I felt it was an unfair partnership to say ‘yes’ to a company if they didn’t fully understand what they were asking for. Because with me you don’t look and go ‘Oh, she’s clearly got this and this and this’... Instead, it’s more to do with the nature of my make-up. So all that had to be explained, and they had to listen. You know, somebody else might go at 70 miles per hour and you might be able to push them to that. Whereas you gotta treat me like an old car, and only take me out on Sundays! You gotta really take care of my chassis and be gentle with me on the highway! But, thankfully, they really GOT it! We’ve been working together ever since, and I couldn’t be happier about it. Because my experience really is the opposite of all those horror stories you hear of in the music business.”
So how have you found the touring and international travelling?
“Well, my schedule is just kind of gentle. When I first signed I asked the record company what they’d normally do with an artist in terms of their international travelling. They gave me all kindsa dates and times, and I said ‘Well, cut it in half and we’ll start there’. Because that way at least I can keep my sanity and get some sleep. Plus it stays FUN! Like we’ve been to every city I’ve ever dreamed of in the last year, and now I have to think of new places to go! So I’ve been like flipping the globe trying to pick places I’d like to see, and that’s surreal! To be honest, it’s like going from Cloud Nine to Cloud Nine! In fact, the only thing about being an international performer that’s bizarre is when you’re NOT on tour! Take, for instance, last year at the London Jazz Festival. One day I was singing with the orchestra; the next I was recording with Herbie Hancock at Abbey Road; next I did my own show… Then I flew home - and I had to do my laundry! And it was like ‘WAIT a minute! Like three days ago, I was singing, doing all this wonderful stuff - and now I’m doing my dirty socks?!’!... But, you know, it all makes for a nice contrast!”
How do you feel about the comparisons with the likes of Norah Jones, Madeleine Peyroux, and even icons like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday?
“I don’t see music-making as being a competitive thing. Therefore I don’t analyse what other people do and try and come up with something that’s new. Because, to me, to create something that you genuinely believe in - and that you genuinely feel - is a big enough challenge in itself. But then, having said that, I am kind of humbled by those comparisons because none of those people you’ve mentioned are talentless! They’re all really great and gifted people, and I have to accept it’s only human nature to try and find a likeness or comparison. You know, just like we do it with food, we also do it with music. So, while I don’t take it as a definitive mark of who I am or what I’m doing, I do kind of acknowledge it as a really beautiful thing. The fact that people, when thinking of my music, are bringing to mind some of their favourite singers, or singers that have clearly done beautiful things in the past, is definitely very elevating for me, as both a person and an artist.”
The album 'Worrisome Heart' is out now through UCJ Music
Melody performs as part of The London Jazz Festival at The Barbican, November 14 (in 'Jazz Voice') and The Queen Elizabeth Hall, November 15
Words PETE LEWIS