You may remember a couple of 'Today's cd' entries on a wonderful, wonderful singer named Melody Gardot; here and here. Well, yesterday's New York Times had just the best piece on her that I wanted to share with you.
October 15, 2009
From Death’s Door to Earning the Keys to the World
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
The singer-songwriter Melody Gardot comes to the Highline Ballroom Thursday. Her second album is “My One and Only Thrill.”
“Sometimes you have to be broken down to your core to get back to your essence,” the pop-jazz singer-songwriter Melody Gardot reflected. “You have accumulated a crust from the world, and it needs to be destroyed.”
For Ms. Gardot, 24, who is appearing Thursday in a sold-out show at the Highline Ballroom with three musicians, the breaking point was a near-fatal accident in 2003, when she was struck by a Jeep Cherokee making an illegal left turn while she was riding her bike in Philadelphia. She suffered multiple pelvic fractures and head injuries that left her bedridden for nearly a year. Unable to walk or to formulate words, she slowly regained her powers of language after a doctor suggested music therapy as a way to reconnect her neural pathways. While lying on her back in a body cast, she learned the guitar, and began writing songs inspired by her experience.
At the time of the accident Ms. Gardot was studying fashion and art at the Community College of Philadelphia and thought of herself as a painter first and a musician second. A classically trained pianist, she had never written songs and only dabbled in live performance, playing and singing the hits of the day in local piano bars.
Sipping tea in a Midtown Manhattan hotel last month, flanked by a cane she jokingly nicknamed Harvey Wallbanger, with a Buddha and a bell on the table beside her, Ms. Gardot mused about her phoenixlike resurgence in a soft voice tinged with wonderment. Blond and petite, wearing an elegant plum-colored dress and tinted glasses, Ms. Gardot had just arrived from Europe, where she is a big star. Her second album, “My One and Only Thrill” (Verve) has sold more than half a million copies overseas (more than 10 times its sales in the United States) and has gone Top 10 in France, Scandinavia and Japan. She has played the Olympia Theater in Paris three times and is booked to return there in the spring.
She has performed in clubs around the United States but has had a harder time finding airplay on mainstream radio, which is heavily formatted and has little room for jazz.
Nowadays Ms. Gardot lives out of a suitcase. Since giving up a Philadelphia apartment she couldn’t afford, she has had no fixed abode. She still calls Philadelphia home but says she feels just as comfortable in Paris, where she said she may have lived in a previous life.
The accident has had lasting effects, including chronic lower-back pain, an extreme sensitivity to climate and light, and episodes of vertigo. In the winter, she said, her body nearly shuts down; she loses sensation in her extremities and can only tour in warmer climes. A macrobiotic cook, Ms. Gardot refuses to take pain medication, although she allows herself a little good wine now and then.
Asked if she went through a period of despair after the accident, she said: “I’ve had my share of wondering why. But if you do that for too long, you get stuck in the cold hard reality that there isn’t an answer.”
What saved her, she said, was her determination to get better and the dedication of a doctor who was willing to explore therapies “not set in stone by the medical industry.”
Evasive about her background, Ms. Gardot describes her education as “the school of hard knocks.” Born in New Jersey of Polish and Austrian descent and the only child of parents who were both artists, she was raised Roman Catholic but is now a Soka Gokkai Buddhist.
A thread of mysticism runs through Ms. Gardot’s reflections on life and art. As a result of the accident she feels she is much older than her years and sometimes wonders how long she will live. “When you’re 19 and 20, you’re running around at a million miles an hour, and the world can’t even catch up,” she said. “But when you have to stop and walk the way you would when you’re much older, it’s like riding in a car through a city. You can see better and see more.”
Her two albums for Verve were preceded by a five-song EP she produced herself — “Some Lessons: The Bedroom Sessions” — consisting of material she wrote during her recovery. It was played on local radio stations and earned her a following. An early mentor was the singer-songwriter Phil Roy, a fellow Philadelphian, to whom she sent an admiring e-mail message after hearing his 2003 album “Issues + Options.” He invited her to open for him at local clubs, and they became close friends.
The EP precipitated a record-company bidding war, won by the British arm of Universal, which distributes Verve. Mr. Roy, who introduced her to Glenn Barrett, the producer of her debut album in 2008 for Verve, “Worrisome Heart,” marvels at her “Zen-like poise” during the initial whirlwind of attention.
He pointed to her song “If the Stars Were Mine,” a dreamy ballad whose lyrics imagine creating a painting in which the world is gold and green and the oceans orange, and then disappearing into the canvas with a loved one, as “ageless and timeless.” “It could be about a lover,” he said. “It could be about a child.”
Many of the songs on the delicate, wistful “Worrisome Heart” relate directly to her accident. The album earned her comparisons to everyone from Norah Jones to Madeleine Peyroux, although Ms. Gardot is jazzier than either, and the structure and feel of her music is closer to the pre-rock American songbook.
“Worrisome Heart” was followed this past April by “My One and Only Thrill,” a moody collection of mostly original songs with stronger jazz and blues shadings, produced by Larry Klein and arranged and conducted by Vince Mendoza.
Heavily orchestrated ballads like “Our Love Is Easy,” a torch song with a funereal film noir feel, and “My One and Only Thrill,” which she calls her most ambitious song, visit the same heavy territory as Billie Holiday’s late-1950s album “Lady in Satin” and Frank Sinatra’s brooding albums with Gordon Jenkins. They share the same weight as two late Joni Mitchell albums, “Both Sides Now” and “Travelogue,” produced by Mr. Klein with Ms. Mitchell and arranged by Mr. Mendoza.
Mr. Klein has specialized in producing female singer-songwriters, having worked with Ms. Mitchell (to whom he was once married), Shawn Colvin, Julia Fordham, Ms. Peyroux and his current wife, the Brazilian singer Luciana Souza.
Reflecting on Ms. Gardot’s singularity, he speculated that it had to do with “the insular nature of illness that turns people inward enough to find their own voices as artists.”
“I find that most of the people I work with had illnesses as children or were extraordinarily shy,” he said. “I didn’t know Melody before her accident, but she is a combination of two very different people. Part of her is outgoing, funny and smart, but there’s another part that’s incredibly private. Most artists I know have gone through some period that forces them to get to the very core of who they are. Joni’s version of the accident was polio.”
Ms. Gardot feels she has emerged from near death with an intense awareness of the fragility of life and a greatly heightened sense of what really matters. “I’m truly confident that I’m a better person,” she said, then added, “Not that I was ever a really bad person.”
“In the grand scheme of things,” she continued, “if I’m never able to make another album, I think I’ve done the best I could.”
Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company