When she was 19, Philadelphia singer/songwriter Melody Gardot was involved in an accident that damaged both her body and her brain. A car struck her as she was riding her bicycle, although she can’t remember why or where she was pedaling to. The accident left her with a fractured pelvis and damaged her spine.
Gardot, now 24, spent the next year in bed, learning to do everday tasks, like talking, again. She still has short term memory issues, and is hyper-sensitive to light and sound. Although she refuses to give up her high heels, she now walks with a cane, cannot sit or stand for long periods of time and wears glasses with dark lenses to shield her eyes.
During her recovery, doctors recommended that she listen to music to help repair her mental acuity. That’s when the magic happened.
Gardot began writing songs. Beautiful, soulful songs that wound up on “Worrisome Heart,” (Verve - $10.99) one of 2008’s most critically acclaimed CDs, creating comparisons to Dallas native Norah Jones, French-American jazz star Madeleine Peyroux and the late Eva Cassidy. While Gardot appreciates the comparison to Jones and Peyroux, it’s the link to Cassidy, whose cover of “Over the Rainbow” became a posthumous best seller, that is most profound.
“A lot of people have compared me to Eva,” she said with a smile in her voice. “We have the same birthday [February 2]. And, we both have a background in art.”
Gardot says songs often come to her during her dreams.
“Songs come like packages at my doorstep,” she said during a phone conversation from the island of Maui, where she was preparing for the publicity tour of her sophomore CD, “My One and Only Thrill” (April 28, 2009 - Verve - $13.98) “They come when I’m not expecting them and as soon as I feel a little lonely.”
While “Worrisome Heart” is an audio journey through Gardot’s recovery, it also chronicles the pain of love and loss.
The title tune asks for someone who can love her “the way that I am.” “Goodnight” is a snappy love song that brings back the blush of young love. “Gone” is one of the more perfect breakup songs ever written, full of ache, regret and longing.
“That one’s about heartbreak,” Gardot said. “I love getting my heart broken.”
As good as the other songs are, Gardot’s gifts really shine on “Some Lessons,” a tender retelling of the accident and its aftermath.
Well, I’m buckled up inside
Miracle that I’m alive
Do not think I can survive on bread and wine alone
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.
Well, why do the hands of time
So easily unwind?
Some lessons are learned the hard way.
The singer/songwriter does not often perform the song on tour.
“I don’t remember the last time we had it on the play list.” Gardot said, the laughter suddenly gone from her voice. “It’s a tough one to do. As a performer who sings what she writes, I go back to the place where I was when I wrote the song. That’s my job. It takes a lot to go back because I worked so hard to push past it.”
As amazing as Gardot’s story is, she is moving on, both physically and musically.
When asked about her prognosis, Gardot is quick to answer.
“I have a funny attitude towards doctors,” she says. “Although they are very wise, I don’t believe they are the only all-knowing beings on the planet. Nobody really knows how long somebody’s going to have an affliction. It’s in the world’s time. I’ve embraced it. Once you embrace it both mentally and physically, it becomes less of a problem.”
Her new record, “My One and Only Thrill,” is not so much about physical recovery as it is about living in the moment. The CD has hit the top of the jazz charts. According to one industry insider, her record label, the jazz division of Universal Records, is putting their resources behind two releases this year – one by a band named U2 and fronted by Bono, and the one from Gardot. Pretty heady company for someone who never aspired to be a star.
“Before the accident, I didn’t sing,” Gardot explained in a telephone conversation. “I played in piano bars, and they yelled at me when I sang.”
All that’s changed.
Because listening to rock music was impossible after the accident, Gardot turned to the soft rhythms of Brazilian bossa novas and smooth jazz. Ella Fitzgerald was a favorite. As she listened and healed, songs began to come to her, but to hear her tell it, she never planned on sharing her work.
“I never created for other people,” she said. “It was the opposite. I didn’t want anybody to hear it. I was kicking and screaming when they asked me for a CD. My only goal was to listen to it at the end of the day and be happy with it.”
Gardot, a former art student, admits to be just a little bowled over by her newly-found fame.
“Coming from an artist’s background, I’m well aware of the concept of creating for the sake of art and have no one pay attention,” she said. “Artists who get recognized are fortunate. Those that don’t wind up like Van Gough, go mad and die at a young age. Having success like mine leaves you with a lot of gratitude. I have a greater sense of gratitude for the opportunity I have been given. It still makes me weak now and then. I don’t take it lightly. It’s a little overwhelming.”
Gardot wrote all the songs on “Worrisome Heart,” and all but one on “My One and Only Thrill.” She described the writing process as trying to pin down a dream.
“You wake up in the morning and you have something so vivid and striking,” she said. “Then, you rush to write it down and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you have to keep thinking. You can’t be distracted. That’s the feeling I had while I was making this record [My One and Only Thrill]. I kept having to chase this idea and pin it down. This CD was different from ‘Worrisome Heart.’ It was more challenging.”
Since she is not a trained musician, Gardot relies heavily on her band – Jef Lee Johnson on guitar, Joel Bryan on keyboards and Matt Cappy on trumpet – and her producer, Larry Klein to move the sound in her head onto a CD.
“I lean on the guys,” Gardot said. “I can tell them, ‘This is what I want. How do we make that happen?’”
The only song Gardot did not write on “My One and Only Thrill” is “Over the Rainbow.” Her use of a bossa nova beat and a rainstick certainly made me rethink Judy Garland’s classic ballad, and not in a bad way.
There’s not one throwaway on “My One and Only Thrill.” Gardot’s creations run the gamut of new love in “If the Stars Were Mine,” “Our Love is Easy,” “Les Etoiles” (in French) to dirty rotten scoundrels in “Your Heart is Black as Night” and “Baby I’m a Fool.” She also throws in “Deep Within the Corners of My Mind,” a grown-up tune that shows she can appreciate lessons learned from a love gone wrong.
“It’s about the acceptance of an impossibility,” she explained. “You can’t live with me, so you’re going to live in my mind.”
Deep within the corners of my mind
I keep a memory of your face
And I only pull it out when I long for your embrace.
Deep within the corners of my mind
I’m haunted by your smile
As it promises me joy
Like a journey to a tropic isle.
It’s not hard to see what you do to me
It’s like a page right out of Ernest Hemingway.
Deep within the corners of my mind
I’m praying secretly
That eventually in time there will be a place for you and me.
Deep within the corners of my mind.
While she acknowledges that her story is compelling, Melody Gardot has moved beyond the pain and has learned to cope with her physical limitations – and hopes her audience will learn to look beyond her disabilities and appreciate her music.
“I wonder about Ray Charles and how he felt,” Gardot said. “How long did he go performing before they quit saying, ‘Oh, and he’s blind?’”
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