Melody Gardot interview: 'God bless sexy women!'

Neil McCormick
·9 mins read
Survivor: A road accident in 2003 put Melody Gardot in a wheelchair
Survivor: A road accident in 2003 put Melody Gardot in a wheelchair

“Having femininity, sensuality, that works for me right now,” says Melody Gardot. “Maybe because the world is so hard, I’ve tuned into this very simple kind of thing: I am a woman and I have a place, and it’s a moment to go back to that.”

The American jazz singer-songwriter is on a Zoom call from a town close to Paris, France. She has an espresso coffee and a roll-up cigarette on the go, whilst ambulance sirens periodically flare up from a nearby hospital, lending the scene an air of drama that suits Gardot’s hyper energy. She talks very fast with a certain jazzy beatnik flair, putting on voices, bursting into snatches of song, cracking jokes, laughing infectiously. “I have goosebumps, all down my legs,” she says with a shiver, more than once, whilst evoking some musical memory. Although she was born in New Jersey, studied in Philadelphia, and has lived in New York and Los Angeles, the 35-year-old occasionally slips into perfectly accented French. “I don’t speak English with a lot of people right now, sorry,” she chuckles, when I point this out.

She calls herself “a citizen of the world” and has been based in Europe for the past five years, living in Portugal (she speaks that language fluently too) before settling in France in 2017. “I didn’t like the hustle and bustle of some metropolitan areas in the US. I’m a slow mover and people would run me over on the street. I love café culture, art and intellect, the long hello and sweet goodbye. It’s a human connection. So I kind of traced those lines to find a place I felt at home.”

Gardot had already begun the process of recording her fifth album, Sunset in Blue, when “everything came to a standstill” in March.  “This was a strange record to make. Where we thought we were going in the beginning is not where we ended up.” Scheduled orchestral sessions had to be abandoned. She contemplated whether to release a stripped back album or wait until restrictions were lifted. “There was this deafening silence in the arts, museums closed, dance is over, there’s no galleries, no shows. Music is a fundamental part of our civilization, so when it goes to sub zero, we have two choices, right? We do nothing, cos we’re stuck on the idea that it needs to be the same way its always been. Or we let go of some of the idealism and say ‘let’s do what we can with what we have.’”

In May, she released a gorgeous new song, From Paris With Love, recorded in social isolation with a virtual orchestra of unemployed musicians from around the world. “It’s very difficult to make the kind of music we do, fringing on classical and jazz, in a long-distance environment. But it was a way to pull everyone together.” Then in June, she oversaw the first post-lockdown session at Abbey Road studios, with 40 musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Gardot joined on a screen from Paris, and producer Larry Klein beamed in from LA. In the meantime, she had taken the opportunity to rework some songs. “I took a hatchet and chopped things up and rewrote material. Things really shifted on the spot.”

She recorded a duet with Sting, Little Something, in a much more contemporary style than we have heard from her before, verging on steamy R’n’B pop. “It was kind of strange, like wearing leather pants for the first time! I really enjoyed it, 'cos it liberated me from all the normal things I have to think about. My job was just to sing, without huffing over a piano.” In the modern digital fashion, the two singers never actually met. “A duet should be done together. But these kind of collaborations seem to be the only way we are going to get through this next year or so. And to work with Sting is great. I’m an appreciator of his music. I’m trying to be cool about it, but if I get real for a second, it’s one of the most amazing things that has ever happened to me. If you’d have asked me 15 years ago what I’d be doing, none of it would have included singing with Sting!”

Gardot’s life was dramatically upended in 2003, when the 18-year-old fashion student was knocked off her bicycle by a Jeep. Her pelvis was shattered, and she suffered serious spinal damage and life threatening head injuries. She was already playing piano covers in bars at that point, but music therapy became instrumental in her ongoing recovery. It has been a long, slow process. She walked with a cane for over 10 years. “The process of being able to get where I am today was not easy, physically, mentally, emotionally. My head and my desire was stronger than my physical body when I decided to try and move completely without a cane, and those first two years were particularly awful. There were days when I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through the night.” She inhales sharply, as if at the memory of pain. “I remember first standing up to hold a guitar on stage being an accomplishment. Now I walk out there in high heels.”

Gardot is an extraordinary live performer, with a soft sensual voice and a free-flowing style that blends the acoustic singer-songwriter intimacy of Joni Mitchell with the torch song flair of Julie London, subtly underpinned by a Latin rhythmic sensibility and the melodic spontaneity of modal European jazz. She appeared naked on the cover of her 2018 album, Live In Europe, shot strikingly and demurely from behind. “There’s a beauty in that photo, it’s absolutely nothing crass. God bless the women that own their own sexiness, own their bodies, whether in magazines like Playboy or  working on a corner cause she’s got to feed her kid. Everybody has to find their way, and I’m not here to judge any of that. But that image is important for me in way that is much stronger than I can probably explain. If you had left me in a room when I was 19, on my wheelchair, with nothing on my plate, nothing to look forward to, and nothing to push me, I wouldn’t be here now. To perform, you can’t be sick, you can’t miss a day, so even if I’m really feeling physically bad, I have to suck it up and go. And having to do that so many times made me stronger. That was the point of the picture, that I have all this force and strength within me thanks to these experiences. It was an image of becoming and unfolding, a new shedding of the skin.”

The cover of Melody Gardot's Live in Europe
The cover of Melody Gardot's Live in Europe

The new album cover features an abstract painting by acclaimed 80-year-old artist Pat Steir, which Gardot enthuses about voluminously, raving about colours and technique. “Oh my God, this is when I geek out as a fan. I have friends who are dancers, painters, photographers, writers, singers, you name it, and I want to do as much as I can, in this moment, to shine a light on some beautiful artists. Pat begins with an intention and trusts the paint to fall where it will, and this is really what happened making this album. So when I had to find an image, well, it found me.”

Sunset in the Blue is an album that, in many ways, returns Gardot to the songcraft and simplicity of her acclaimed 2009 breakthrough, My One and Only Thrill. There are melodious ballads, tremulous torch songs, light bossa nova grooves and some beautifully sung covers of jazz standards. It shies away from the brassy, rhythmic pulse and political energy of her last studio set, The Currency of Man, in 2015. “I dreamed of having thick brass around me, but it was hard to push the voice every night on tour. It was a very masculine energy, which felt necessary because I was angry at the system, the government. But this felt like a moment for some feminine energy. I liked the idea of just going easy, the way Chet (Baker) would sing, the way Astrid (Gilberto) would sing. Not too many loop de loops. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should, man!” She describes it as an album about love, in its many forms. “That’s what everybody needs, right?”

She admits to “a tinge of depression” when considering the threat to musical livelihoods posed by of Covid-19, and the uncertainty about when she will perform live again. “I just miss music. I miss it so much. I can play instruments alone and that’s a kind of a joy. But there’s an exchange, not only with the public, but with musicians on stage that no longer exists for us. Nothing comes close to what we do when were doing it, that feeling, the crescendos of the orchestra behind, what beauty the drummer brings… The more I talk about this, the more I want to cry, so let’s talk about something else.” She laughs. “I’ll survive. Look, I was broke for the majority of my life. I know how to get by on white rice and duck sauce.”

For someone who has had to overcome so many obstacles, Gardot seems an almost irrepressible optimist. “Having had to have come from so far and such uncomfortable surroundings, in every sense of the word, it makes the sky a little bit brighter every day. I have seen so much that resembles the nothingness of existence that this is just amazing. It's fabulous. I’m flabbergasted by the fact that I can take care of my family, that I can be this creative, that I have the opportunity to make something meaningful, that’s shocking! It’s absolutely awesome to be an artist. And we will get through this, because life without art is unthinkable.”

Melody Gardot: Sunset in the Blue (Decca) is out on Friday