A Chance to be Uncanned: An Interview with Melody Gardot
Melody Gardot talks about how she got switched from classical to jazz, why she decided to cover "Over the Rainbow", and how a "lust for comfort destroys the passion of the soul".
"We've got all the time in the world", Melody Gardot told me as we started our conversation about her music, her life, and her latest recording, My One and Only Thrill. Unhurried is just one word you might use to describe Gardot. Her speech, her singing, her musicianship -- they all have a careful, often tender pace that puts the focus clearly on whatever is before her.
Gardot's story may be somewhat familiar by now. She came to the public ear with a debut album recorded with local Philadelphia musicians. At the time, she was still recovering from a catastrophic accident that left her with spinal and neurological damage that affects her ability to walk and her sensitivity to light and sound. During a year in the hospital, music became therapy for Gardot, and the resulting record was a delicate and melodic affair -- a pop album for jazz lovers, perhaps.
Good notices, some good luck, and much hard work landed Gardot a contract with Verve Records, which re-released Worrisome Heart and put out My One and Only Thrill in April of 2009. Thrill features not only Gardot's band but also horns and string arrangements by the legendary Vince Mendoza, who garnered a Grammy nomination for his work on this album (as did producer Larry Klein).
I talked to Gardot while she was in New York City, playing at the Highline Ballroom. Though she was born in New Jersey and raised in Philadelphia, Gardot speaks with a softly echoing accent -- an inflection that suggests time spent in, perhaps, Paris. She is, in short, the kind of person who can use the word "lover" in all seriousness and get away with it. Our conversation was philosophical, sensuous, sometimes mystical -- combining restaurant recommendations with discussions of the soul.
I set it down here, with very few omissions, nearly word-for-word.
Can you talk about how learning about and listening to jazz helped to frame your music?
I wouldn't know absolutely everything I've been influenced by, but the first jazz I heard was Duke Ellington. I was learning to play classical music, but my teacher swapped out those lessons for jazz lessons because I had started adding grace notes to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. He would laugh and say, "You can't add notes." I said, "Why not?" "You just can't." And when he looked at what I was doing he explained, "You're adding blue notes. I can't teach you classical -- I have to teach you jazz." I was adding blue notes and 7ths to things. I was nine years old and my ear was already there.
It was a really good decision because I was introduced to jazz through it's melodic components. I wasn't turned off by being introduced to Coltrane or something else that was incredibly "out". You need a subtle introduction. You can't just jump into the deep end. This cocked my ear to the world of jazz and blues. And then I started to listen to Janis Joplin and some great musicians of the past: Louis Armstrong, Cole Porter songs, Perry Como, Lionel Hampton -- really old, kind of funny records. I just liked it as a listener without knowing anything about the musicians. And then one thing led to another and my life brought me to the doorstop of musical therapy. At that point I really got into music like Caetano Veloso, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Joao Gilberto -- because they had expression and I needed something like that.
What is pulse that you were hearing in these musicians? What does it mean that they had "expression"?
As a musician you have a responsibility to lead the audience, to control the air. What we do with that time, what we do with that space is our choice. You have a mission or an idea. You are painting for the audience. You're making a mural. There are musicians who are so strong and lead with such a heavy hand that you can see the vision through all the other players beside them. They make amazing sounds and paint amazing landscapes.
That's what I mean by expression. They're not afraid. There's nothing holding them back, there's no restraint. It's like a beast. With someone like Charlie Mingus, there is a counterweight between melody and raucousness. He is still very melodic even though is tearing apart the seam-work of sound. Or Miles Davis with Sketches of Spain -- to have a concept that is so lush that you hear Spain, you understand immediately what he's talking about -- that's incredible. I love that transcendence where you can go from a concept to reality through fearlessness.
With someone like Cole Porter, Perry Como, Louis Armstrong, or Bessie Smith, you had people who understood emotion, could translate it into a melodic sensibility, and could express it in a way that unified humanity. We all speak the same language, but when someone can speak eloquently or with poise, it's striking. I like that.
But more than anything else, I like someone who has a soul and is not afraid to show it. So many of us lose the essence of what it is to be open -- what it is that would let us be friends with a stranger on the street. We're canistered. We put up barriers. But musicians are different. They might be introverted in their personal lives, but that's because what they have to say is so big they're probably afraid they're going to squash the person next to them if they open their mouths. It's a cool thing to be a musician because you have a chance to be uncanned.
Can you talk about how your voice evokes for people a sense of history? How conscious you are of great singers from the past influencing the sound of your voice and the phrasing?
Have you ever listened to an old man talk? There is no shortage of old men in the world, but they're all very different. And there's nothing similar about them except maybe the year they were born and their attire. They may be subject to a sense of time that we don't understand any longer -- so they still wear hats and still wear ties and still take pride in their appearance. But generally speaking, the beauty of us all comes down to our souls. And a voice is a powerful example of what the soul is going to be. I think the voice is the closest thing we can experience to a soul in its purest form.
So, you can listen to an old man talk, and one might sound like he's an ancient, but another might sound like he's seven years old.
Maybe some listeners get the impression that I'm older, and that wouldn't be far off. I feel like I'm probably about two million years old in a young body, and I'm watching and waiting for my wrinkles to catch up. Which is all right.
My concept of music -- what I feel is important, relevant and timeless -- is different from what might be at the forefront of people's minds in the modern-day world. I think that melody is king, the most important thing. The music has to honor that. We're all just serving the song. That was the kind of thinking you had when Louis Armstrong was performing. [Gardot then sings the first line of "Pennies from Heaven".] You know the lyrics, you know the melody because no one has stepped on it and squashed it. Now, in certain contexts, the melody is still revered. For me, it's not just about a hook but about having a melody that is simple, honest, unpretentious, and clear.
As someone who went for a very long time without the ability to speak, I learned the value of words. So, while I don't suggest that what I'm doing holds any particular relevance, I do work consciously to choose the words that I speak very carefully. Having an artistic point of view lends itself to automatic misinterpretation, but I think there is something about my voice that reminds people of that older time. And that's nice -- because there's a nostalgia there. That music is never going to become dead.
The decision to cover "Over the Rainbow" on your recent record is a great choice. The album is not cheerful, but ending it with "Rainbow" is optimistic. Can you talk about that?
I'm somebody who runs away from doing something twice and doing less than what it deserves. I had so much apprehension in putting that song on the record because, let's face it, the song begins and ends with Judy Garland. The song is perfect. It was done. But I was trying to write something and the song just popped out from the chord changes I was using. So I started performing it. The song is personal for me because I grew up watching The Wizard of Oz with my grandmother. When I began playing, people started requesting it and then begging us to release it. As I was making this album I thought we'd cut it in the studio and then figure out what to do with it later. It's on the end of the record because, in its truest form the album ends before that song, and that song is a gift for those who requested it. But as time went on, songs like "If the Stars Were Mine" had a similar blood vein. I'm happy that it's there. It's a private homage to my grandmother.
The new record is on Verve. What does that mean to you? How has being with a large label -- and one with a specific history as a jazz label -- framed your art differently?
The moment that you feel that you are creating for someone rather than for yourself, you lose something. I think there's always a plus in having someone imply a deadline so you can create with a sense of forward motion. But, generally, the goal was to forget that with this record.
The co-producer on the first record, Glen Barrett, approached me four times asking me to record. I kept saying "no" -- I was broke and I had no artistic reason to record at that moment. Four of five months went by and he called me again, and I thought about it overnight. It was like having an encouraging teacher in art school. I sat down and I made it, but the only real deadline was to make sure that I was satisfied and that the songs were served. And while I don't feel that the first record was a landmark, it was -- at that time -- exactly the best I could have done. And it felt true to where my head was at the time, and that's all you can ever ask for.
So when I went in to make the next one, it wasn't about a single or a sound. I used the musicians I had been using for years. Vince Mendoza came about because I was taking a flight and was listening to an iPod for six hours. And when certain songs came up, the strings were there. They were never in question. When I landed in Los Angeles, I let producer Larry Klein listen to the tunes, and he told me, "These were all arranged by my friend Vince Mendoza." And I told him, well then that's the guy who has to do the strings on the record. It was never supposed to be just myself plus an orchestra. It was supposed to be just the songs, intensified.
Having a label was great because I had support -- if I needed it. But the creative process was far-removed from the label for a very long time, and I feel grateful for that. They gave me enough financial support to make the record I wanted to make. I could make a $20,000 record or I could make an expensive record. When you're working and trying to create something, you try not to spare an expense for the sake of the art, because you're trying to make something that you feel is genuine. And it's hard today to make a record with strings because of the nature of recording. It's rare that you get a group of musicians in a room where everyone can do a cut at the same time.
"Deep Within the Corners" was recorded with the full orchestra in the room. I had to take off my shoes because I felt I was going to float away. The moment was captured by a documentary filmmaker. What I felt and what it looked like were two different things. It looked a woman in a room with an orchestra. It felt like I was climbing through clouds. To write, to make a record, to perform -- they're all different facets of being an artist. But to sit in a room and create simultaneously is such a cool thing. We were all outside of ourselves and working for something that was bigger than all of us. It was really cool.
How hard has it been for you to separate the need to make your art from the need to make money with your art?
You have to put it out of your mind. It's not that I don't worry about bills, but I do my best not to accumulate them. I don't need much, and so I'm not really worried about it.
The lust for comfort destroys the passion of the soul. Anyone who's living in America at this moment will know what I mean. In some contexts, the art you do can destroy you regardless of success because you're too connected to it. When I was a painter, I was so connected to what I was doing that I felt nothing but pain all the time -- pain and empathy for everything I was watching. There was a danger. When you make your love your work, you can lose the love for your work. The only way to get through it is to emancipate yourself from all of the responsibilities that would otherwise be normal -- like the sense of financial strain. For example, I no longer have a regular address because I'm so busy running about the world. Right now, I'm lucky if I have 21 days of free time in this country.
I'm been out of the country a great deal lately. I think that being a musician is like responding to a lover. You go where you're most embraced. We have had great success in countries like France and Sweden. Yesterday I got a call that the record is Number One in Sweden. My journey has brought me to these other places, and my sensibilities agree with them. We've been embraced in countries other than the U.S. at the moment. I've been more active in Europe. But it's also a sense of culture -- of what people need right now. And for some reason that I would not pretend to understand, it's been more connected in Europe.
This is fine. Most of the lovers that I find most interesting are not American because I like what I don't understand. The grass is always greener. There's something unusual. It's like being a blond in Japan. It's logical. But we have no shortage of fans in the U.S. Last night we were in New York and I had one of the best shows I've had in months with just 400 people at the Highline Ballroom. It was sooo much fun. I had a dialogue with the audience again. It was a blast.