Melody Gardot: ‘What is the problem with an ass? It’s not a weapon’
The Melody Gardot I met 10 years ago felt like the Greta Garbo of jazz.
Cool, striking, blonde (usually), with a dramatic sense of style and a breeze-soft, mystery-filled, soulful voice that, three albums into her career, had established the American as one of the most admired singers of her time, she sat curled in the corner of a hotel dining room in central London. The drowsy afternoon atmosphere was amplified by the already-dim lights being wreathed in scarves.
There were more scarves draping the interviewee, and a turban, and hair that was very different from the cascade of black curls on display at the previous night’s classily theatrical concert at the grand Freemasons’ Hall in Covent Garden. The sunglasses stayed on throughout our encounter, as they had for the duration of the show. The walking cane with which she’d carefully entered the stage lay propped by her armchair.
“The biggest influence that I have at the moment is things like cabaret and burlesque,” the American told me in a feathery voice – although I was also aware that Gardot, 27 then, was still recovering from a traffic accident eight years previously. Back home in Philadelphia, where she was a fashion student at the time, Gardot had been knocked off her bicycle by a Jeep that shot a red light. Her injuries were devastating: shattered pelvis, spinal damage, severe head trauma. She was bed-ridden for 11 months and had to learn to walk again – and to live with the after-effects of neural damage, including memory loss and sensitivity to light, temperature and barometric pressure.
As to her coping with, and managing, her pain: “In very severe moments, ultrasound, Tens unit, shiatsu, acupressure, acupuncture, myofascial release, craniosacral, osteopathic manipulations – any of these works very well. And I can use them in a balanced way to pull myself back into shape momentarily.” A carefully controlled macrobiotic diet helped, too.
What a difference a decade makes. The Melody Gardot I meet in a bistro in the 16th arrondissement in Paris is a wise-cracking, chic, olive-green jumpsuit-wearing dynamo who strides across a boulevard with a swish of blonde mane (her own) and the clack of heels.
When I comment on how she looked and presented back then (“Oh God I had so many wigs!”), and start to commend her on her seeming physical reboot after a long period of strict regimes and regimens, she interjects with an airy “that’s changed”. And she is indeed a totally changed woman. Her fragile health is improved to the extent that she hasn’t had to shield during the pandemic. Well, not medically. She did feel overwhelmed with the nightly news bulletins on French TV, tallying up infections and fatalities in each country.
“To me, it was playing with people’s emotions, just enough to make fear so that when they gave instructions, people would follow them. That’s not a conspiracy thing – it’s the news in general. If you watch it in the news too, it’s all negative, negative, negative, negative.
“I’m too sensitive, so I needed to find a way to protect myself,” she continues, and she means it emotionally. “But I wasn’t worried about me [physically].” She’s still not had Covid and isn’t concerned about infection. “Nah!” she says, sounding very Philly. “Believe me, if a car can’t kill me, that ain’t gonna kill me.”
She does, I say, look immeasurably more robust.
“That a nice way of saying I’m a little fatter?” she cracks. “That’s Covid, man,” she adds of (non-existent) lockdown weight gain. “But, yeah, a little bit! I’m alright with it. Even cars need spare tyres, man.”
Gardot remains very much a star, but now cast in a very different light. The shades still stay clamped to her face, although now they’re more Presley than Piaf. And she does move us from one lunchtime venue to another – but not because the first doesn’t meet her rarefied needs. It’s too snobby, she frowns, indicating her disdain by flicking the tip of her nose like a schoolkid. And, after 10 days’ Covid-protocolled playing of European festivals in support of her exquisite new piano-and-vocals album, Entre Eux Deux, she needs earthier sustenance: omelette and chips.
I’m too sensitive, so I needed to find a way to protect myself
Of summer 2022’s touring rules and regulations, “everything is kinda jump through hoops”, Gardot sighs as she parks her handbag on the seat next to her, packet of fags poking out. “Also, instead of having a tour bus – we weren’t able to acquire one – the minute you wake up, you get a taxi, a train, then another car, then arrive at the festival. And then you do the same again the next day. It’s really weird, we don’t usually travel on show days. And because you have those hours, you don’t get breakfast, lunch and dinner. So it’s been Hunger Games for the last 10 days!” she concludes, ultimately, cheerfully.
Hence the need for proper French bistro fare, including a fresh orange juice. “Un autre, s’il vous plaît,” she asks the waitress as she drains the first practically in a oner.
Entre Eux Deux is billed as a duo album, a collaboration with French-Brazilian pianist Philippe Powell. An accomplished player herself, on her sixth studio album, Gardot cedes control of the instrument to her collaborator (son of revered Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell). She focuses on the singing – the inhabiting – of a set of songs comprising Brazilian standards, French love songs and new, co-written compositions. It’s a very different record to 2020’s Sunset in the Blue, begun in Los Angeles with crack players and collaborators recording at the legendary Capitol Records Studios, concluded during lockdown with remote recordings by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road, and topped off with a duet with Sting.
“I just felt it was a bit like Warhol/Basquiat,” she says of her partnership with Powell in a manner that sounds way less bumptious than that might read. “Two people who are competent are working on a project together, and giving each other the space necessary to do so. That’s in terms of composition and recording, and in terms of the sound.”
How concerned was she that the lyrics would land with English speakers?
The briefest of pauses, and then, “Never thought about it, ha ha!” Gardot hoots. “But there’s English songs on the record! And music is international. So to me, the feeling is most important. This was the first record I produced, top to bottom, outside of the live one,” she says of 2018’s Live in Europe. “And I said to the engineer: look, people are either gonna love or not love these songs. But there’s one thing we have to make sure: that it sounds great.
“But I guess if you’re curious about what the songs mean, like watching a foreign film, you can look at the lyrics and translate them.”
Nonetheless, she’s aware that the joke of the seemingly timelessly classy “Fleurs Du Dimanche” – in which a diva complains about being awoken to receive flowers on a Sunday morning because, like any good diva, she’s been out carousing till the wee hours – might not widely land. “That’s a really funny song, we did it outside France and nobody knew what we were talking about! But maybe that’s what makes it fun: you have to make an effort.
“But I don’t think that’s off-putting. It’s not about exclusivity, it’s just about working within another culture.”
Gardot has been based in Paris for five or six years, and is so well regarded in France that, on the day of her new album’s announcement this spring, she was awarded the title of Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the country’s highest cultural accolade. Truly a citizen of the international jazz diaspora, prior to that she spent time living in Brazil and Portugal. She’s 37: does she think that she needs to have travelled, and lived, and be here in Paris full-time, to make records like these? And that she couldn’t if she was still living in America?
“Yes,” she replies firmly. “It’s observational. It’s Bukowskian. You know the record Tijuana Moods by Mingus?” She’s talking about the 1957 album by the jazz great. “He had a stint there and created that record just after. You have to put yourself in the shoes of a [local].” But, she adds, she’s always done that, recorded and interpreted in situ: she describes 2015’s fourth album Currency of Man as “an LA record. And especially as an American, if you want to learn something about a culture or a language, you have to go to that place, period. There’s no faking it! That’s it!” she laughs lightly. “You can’t fake it till you make it!”
Her adoptive neighbourhood in the French capital is “pretty familiar, cool, working class”. It’s on the other side of town, within close view of the Eiffel Tower, but she won’t say which arrondissement. “It’s not you. There’s wackadoos,” she says, keeping those metaphorical sunglasses firmly on. But overall, “I can’t buy [property] in this city. There was a graffiti artist a couple of years ago who drew one square metre on the ground and wrote ‘10,000’ in it, because it was 10 grand a square metre. Now I think it’s almost 20 in some areas. I don’t know which is the most expensive. But the 16th is up there!” she says of our current location.
As to what she thinks about her homeland, this American in Paris is of course appalled by the most recent mass shootings in the US, but also wearily sanguine. Raised poor in Philadelphia with her single mother, she remembers “coming up in a city where you gotta run two blocks and walk one. Where a neighbour takes his garbage out and gets killed in a drive-by. Where your 15-year-old friend jumps in front of his mom to stop the robber getting to the cash register, and he’s shot. Where six-year-old kids are toting guns instead of going to kindergarten.”
Beyond that, when I ask what this exile misses about the US, she has “really stupid answers”, ones she wants to ensure are read as they’re intended, in a light-hearted way. “Dunkin Donuts. Just a bagel hot off the grill at four in the morning that you can pick up through a drive-thru on the highway. I’d love to have a seriously crappy coffee! And I miss the facility to pick up everything you need in the pharmacy – birthday card, soda, candy, vitamins, clothes, hairspray. Here you have to go to five places! So I miss the ability to do more with less time. The food is the same, but you have to go to different places for fruit, cheeses, bread, meat… Which is cool. But buying dinner is a half-day endeavour. And I miss barbeques.”
She also concedes that lockdown was hard. So much so that, after the initial confinement, she left for the States. “It was a little bit weird here. There was a ‘show me your papers’ vibe,” she says, adopting what I haltingly describe as a Gestapo accent. “That was a little bit strange. I forgive Paris for having the attitude it did. But not for me.”
More generally, “not doing music period is the death of a musician. We’re not meant to be cooped up like that. Nobody is!”
Did she feel lonely?
“Um, I missed my band. And I tell you what,” she adds with a conspiratorial wink (I imagine – those shades ain’t coming off), “playing alone, it’s a bit like doing it alone, man: it can only last for so long. And it’s just not the same.”
As we’re unexpectedly on rather intimate territory, I ask about the lyrics to the two devastating songs that close the album, “Ode to Every Man” and “Darling Fare Thee Well”. The skeletal former, based on a poem she wrote a few years ago, is a spoken-word lament that speaks of her “merciless sadness and my ever-ruined veins”. The hushed balladry of the latter repeats the heart-sore, sanguinary imagery: “Oh my love, what happened to your heart?/ Weren’t you the one who started up this fire in my veins?”
Was that written from personal recent experience?
Another pause. “What isn’t?” she smiles.
Has Gardot had a ruinous split over the last couple of years?
“Multiple! Of course!”
Is she with anyone right now?
She mimes zipping her lips closed. “Next! Ha! I don’t mean to be a d***, but I’ve never gone anywhere with my personal life, with regards to that [particular] stuff. Just ’cause it’s also a pain in the butt if it does go wrong, then everybody has to be there to know about it. I’m kinda hoping for the one that goes right. If it works for 10 years, then we’ll talk about it. YouknowwhatImean?”
Fair play. We had a memorable encounter 10 years ago. This one has been up there, too. I’m down for another a decade hence.
This, then, is Melody Gardot: an American artist in exile, a jazz voyager, forever seeking out new musical adventures in the genre. She is, then, alive and thriving in Europe, as amply evidenced on (sorry) Live in Europe, the 2018 album that featured 17 tracks picked from 300 concerts over several years. Famously, the black and white album sleeve featured a naked Gardot on stage, shot from behind. Did she receive much criticism for that?
“Ah, not to my face.”
To your back?
“Ha ha ha!” she laughs, gamely. “Look, man: I’m not in it for the credit. I didn’t pay attention. If there’s stuff out there, you’d have to be the person to tell me. I’m curious: were you shocked to see something like that. What was your takeaway?”
I thought it was sexy, sensual and an image of a woman who’d endured horrific injuries and was now transformed and reborn. In short, very cool.
“Thank you. The whole thing took 20 minutes,” she begins. In the first six shots, taken to establish lighting, she was stripped to her underwear. “It just looked like some Eighties hair metal band [photoshoot] – the underwear made it sexy, provocative. But when we got to image seven and I was naked, it just shifted into sculpture, like something at the Musée d’Orsay.”
She was playing the guitar, finding a position and angle that was comfortable, which was “contrapposto, ’cause I always stand on my right leg. And that shift made my body look like that – I thought, ‘that’s beautiful. That’s not out of context here, with this idea of being reborn.’ And I cried.”
As she points out, when she first started out playing music after her accident, “I couldn’t stand up. It took me until 2015 until I could stand up with these heavy guitars. Now I’m here and f***ing doing it! And that image represented what that record is: [songs ranging from] 2009 to 2016, everything we’ve done, everything that’s happened. And honestly, it’s the result of being pushed beyond what I thought was my limit of existence, that I was able to get better. So as much as it was hard [to do], this is the image.
“Then I gave it to the label and they had a kitten. They wanted to put a sticker on my butt.”
Her butt? Wow. She nods and shrugs.
“They weren’t going to release it in the US because of my butt. I said, ‘Good! People will order imports and it’ll get more expensive.’ Honestly, if I wanted to be offensive, I might have turned the other way around and spread, baby. What is the problem with an ass? It’s not a weapon, man. Couple of months later Lizzo comes out with a record, naked and huge on the front. I’m like, that’s fine! And she’s great! Yes! And I hope more people do it!
“It’s your body,” she continues. “Nobody put me up to it. It wasn’t to sell records – and believe me, it didn’t! There was none of this marketing nonsense. And my mom’s gotta look at this thing! I’m not gonna do something she can’t look at.”
I don’t care what the limitations are, I’m going to surpass them
Still, as well as offending some, it hurt others’ brains, too. Given the year of its release, which saw the #MeToo movement go global, “some journalist asked if it was something to do with #MeToo. I was like: next! In what world, man?” she asks, rhetorically, witheringly.
Overall, the image is of a piece with the career, and the outlook, of the remarkable Melody Gardot. As she puts it: “I have a hard time [with] people telling me no.
“Even now. I’m like: ‘No? OK, watch me.’ I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know if it’s ego, or a belief in a better thing. It’s not for a self-serving purpose in the sense that ‘I need this’. [It’s more like]: I wanna do that thing. I don’t care what the limitations are, I’m going to surpass them – like walking again.”
Making music for her, then, is “physical, man. And the day you’re out of ideas, you’re done. I don’t want to drop that level where I make things for the sake of making it. If you really don’t have anything to say, I guess you shouldn’t say anything at all, right? And they do not stop asking me to do standards records,” she says of her UK record label. “I’m like, ‘NO!’ I’ll do that when I have no more ideas. ‘Do a Christmas record!’” she mimics, adopting a prim English accent. “NO! Call Michael Bublé! I’m not saying there’s something wrong with that. But that’s not me.”
‘Entre Eux Deux’ (Decca) is out now. Melody Gardot plays London’s Royal Festival Hall on 19 November