MELODY GARDOT: MUSICíS MIRACLE


Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez

By Paul Freeman

When you listen to Melody Gardotís ďMy One And Only ThrillĒ album, you might wonder why you donít recognize 10 of the 11 gorgeous songs. Yes, you know ďOver The RainbowĒ (though the arrangement is fresh and imaginative). But the other tunes are so elegant, smooth and sophisticated, you could easily assume theyíve been plucked from a long lost page of the Great American Songbook.

But you would be mistaken. The terrific 10 tunes are Gardot originals, wistfully, winsomely worldly. And her vocals are subtly, sensuously powerful, recalling Edith Piaf and Blossom Dearie. How could a 25-year-old deliver such a moving, evocative blend of jazz and pop?

Gardot, an ancient soul, has endured more suffering, trials and tribulations than most human beings could withstand in a long lifetime.

At 19, the Philadelphian was riding a bike when an SUV ran a red light and smashed into her. Serious head, spine and pelvis injuries resulted. She was stuck on her back, in a hospital bed, for a year.

Music proved to be her salvation. A doctor suggested she try her hand at an instrument. Gardot had played piano, but, since she couldnít sit up for long, she turned to guitar. In addition to short-term memory loss, she had to grapple with relearning speech. Humming, then singing, enabled her to make strides.

Eventually, original songs were coming out, as well.

Gardot turned away from prescription medications and embraced Eastern medicine, Buddhism, macrobiotics... and music.

Gardotís wellness, which springs from inner peace, translates into profoundly affecting music.

A walking stick, dark glasses and protective hearing devices donít hamper Gardotís total immersion and enjoyment on stage. For her latest tour dates, visit www.melodygardot.com.

She earned acclaim for her debut album, titled ďWorrisome Heart.Ē The new one, ďMy One And Only Thrill,Ē takes her to even greater musical heights. The recording was enhanced by the production of legendary Larry Klein and the lush string arrangements of Vince Mendoza.

Grateful for the gifts that have blossomed through song, Gardot speaks about music therapy at universities and hospitals.

Though her career is just beginning, Gardot already qualifies as a classic.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
After having recorded an album already, were you more comfortable in the studio during the making of the new one, ďMy One And Only ThrillĒ?

MELODY GARDOT:
It was a totally different experience. In the beginning I was a co-producer. I co-produced the record. And this time, I was an artist, not necessarily holding the reins so strongly, because Larry was holding them... in a beautiful way.

So it was as if I could just focus on being an artist a little bit more and not worry so much about too many things and then focus on the musicians, as well.

But no, it was a beautiful process. and working with the strings was a dream. Iíd been hearing them in my head for about a year. So to finally put them down, I was just like salivating.

PCC:
Larryís role as collaborator, how did that work?

GARDOT:
He was just there to weave the dream with me, you know? Heíd take the opportunity to listen to what I was saying and understand the metaphor and help to tie all the ends together to make sure we got out of the studio on time and in budget. He helped me understand what it was to arrange a band for an orchestra. Because itís one thing to arrange a band in a trio, but itís another thing to leave enough space for the strings to exist. And that was a nice lesson.

PCC:
Are you already working on material for your next album?

GARDOT:
Iím always working. Iíve written a number of tunes that are just floating around in the ether. And then, come the middle of August, until February of next year, Iím going to be taking six months off and just focusing on what may be even two records.

PCC:
The songwriting, do the songs tend to just come to you, rather than as a result of a laborious process?

GARDOT:
Exactly. Good ones, anyway. Itís like being a conduit. There are times when you find yourself writing and youíre searching for the words. And thatís when I usually put the pen down. But if it flows, then it goes. Thatís the way it kind of works. Music, lyrics, melody all happen around the same time. Itís kind of like a burst of something, like watching the sun rise. It just happens.

PCC:
After the accident, when you were advised to pick up an instrument, was the goal more about lifting your spirits or improving the speech and communication?

GARDOT:
A little bit of both. The spirits, in the sense that it gave me something to focus on that wasnít related directly to pain. And, on the other front, it was to develop the ability to speak. I wasnít speaking. So this was really, really difficult. And my memory was so terrible. So it was a way to slowly and delicately introduce the mechanisms necessary in order for one to regain short-term memory. And also phonetics, be able to speak fluently, because you have to speak within time. So when youíre speaking in a rhythm, even if itís just little words that donít really make any sense, youíre speaking rhythmic sounds, rhythmic syllables and then you can recondition yourself in order to get sentence out.

PCC:
At the beginning, did the challenges seem insurmountable?

GARDOT:
Oh, Iím sure. But when you get to a point when youíre already embarrassed enough, because you realize youíve been hit with a ton of bricks and youíre unable to move forward, thereís no more that can be insurmountable. Youíre already at the bottom. So you have no place to go, but up.

PCC:
What prompted you to turn to Eastern medicine?

GARDOT:
Basically because Western medicine failed me. For whatever reason, Iím a very sensitive individual. Iím highly allergic to most medication. Iíve never been someone to take it. Besides the accident, Iíve probably had medicine twice in my life. Never took an Advil, never took a Tylenol. I was very rooted in this idea that you are what you eat. And if you eat well and you keep your spirits bright, you never get sick. People who get sick are usually miserable or stressed or tired for about a week before they actually catch a cold. Youíre not taking care of yourself. So your immune system goes sour and you wind up with some kind of disease.

But itís the same thing with anything. If your lifestyle is strong, and youíre health-oriented, you can keep yourself well. So when I had all this medication for pain and all this medicine for the side effects of the pain medication - I was on about 13 - my body started to shut down. My mind was cluttered. It was foggy. All this heavy, heavy pain medicine like oxycodone and oxycontin.

And I finally turned to the doctor and said, ĎIf this is the side effect of having no pain - being completely delirious and out of my mind, having my spleen, my kidneys and my digestive system shut down and having to take medicine to counteract the side effects of the original medications - I have no interest. Iíd rather have pain and deal with it, than have to be sick and unwell.í Because I couldnít eat. Iíd lost 16 pounds. I was about 108 pounds at 5í8Ē, really, really skinny. And I just was like, ĎIíd rather be healthy and in pain than have no pain and be sickí

PCC:
Was it at that point that you embraced Buddhism?

GARDOT:
Not too far afterwards. Someone handed me a book on the essential teachings of the Dalai Lama. And it wasnít really a hard sell. Everything I was thinking was in the text of the book, so I just kept reading. I looked at Buddhism as kind of like a buffet. I just kept reading and reading and reading. I looked at the various forms of Buddhism. I observed and then made my own conclusions about what would work best for me and then carried on.

It was not necessarily like a life-changing choice. I didnít wake up and go, ĎIím going to be Buddhist.í But the natural path of things led me to it.

PCC:
Do you the fact that the music is coming from such a spiritual place is why it has such a profound effect on the listener?

GARDOT:
Itís possible. I mean, I donít have anything restrained anymore. Itís as if Iíve taken the front of my ribs, sliced them open and let everything inside be revealed. So, when you sing from a place, whether itís from pain, sorrow, honesty or joy, itís pure. Sometimes you can hear that, especially live. It changes every night.

We did a show in New York with the New York Pops a few days ago in Central Park and I was crying over one of the tunes, but I was trying to keep it together. And that was moving for people. And initially, I would have believed it was a little bit weak. But sometimes the moment hits you and you have to go with it and the people are moved, as well. The tears come to your eyes, because thereís something there, something real.

PCC:
When you first picked up a guitar and began singing, did it feel like music was what you were meant to be doing?

GARDOT:
No, it didnít. But eventually, in time, it was slowly, slowly becoming more apparent that this was the turn and the change in my life. And this was where I was meant to be.

PCC:
With your light and sound sensitivity, can you actually enjoy the performing?

GARDOT:
Oh, yes, absolutely. But the nature of the music itself is such that we keep it contained. Itís still dynamic. Itís just that my forte is everyone elseís mezzo forte. And their piano is my pianissimo. So I have a way of extending the feeling by keeping everything a little bit further behind. I donít have big, bright, flashing lights in my eyes. And I donít want them. It doesnít suit the music anyway. So itís a more moody, intimate feeling.

PCC:
When youíre on stage, are you so into it that everything else disappears?

GARDOT:
Sometimes. On the whole, itís like that. I forget everything. But if something happens, for instance, Iím on ear monitors, if something happens with feedback and that comes into my ears, Iíll slowly start to pass out in the middle of a gig. They have to be very careful. So we travel with our own sound guys and that doesnít happen anymore.

PCC:
Looking back on the accident, do you try to focus on the good things that were awakened, rather than the terrible tribulations?

GARDOT:
I donít look back on it. I donít believe that much good comes from having your head turned around backwards while youíre moving forwards. I just accept everything for what it is. There are battle scars that you wear from that moment. And if thereís a recovery process that you go through, whether itís in a relationship or an accident, you do recover. But you wonít make progress until you turn your head on straight and keep looking at the horizon.

I used to run. I donít run anymore. But I remember distinctly, if I looked straight ahead of me, it was arduous. If I looked down at my feet, it was even worse. But if I looked up at the tree line or kind of at the horizon, somehow, the journey became less arduous and almost lighter, as if my feet could carry on longer. If you keep your eye on the horizon, or towards the sky, and you allow yourself to move with the confidence that you know your feet are going where they need to go, youíre not concerned. You can play freer. And you can live freer. Live with less difficulty, because youíre not focusing on the heaviness. You can fly. Itís kind of amazing.

PCC:
With all that youíve learned and been through, are you still speaking about music therapy at universities and hospitals?

GARDOT:
I am. We have opportunities to do that all the time. The burden is not that itís too many or that itís too difficult. Itís just that the tour intersects with the times weíre trying to do that. So it almost needs to be its own journey. But weíre attempting to find ways to do that. Iíve been working with an institution on the East Coast to develop a program that encompasses all the potential of music therapy, not only for people recovering from accidents, but the full spectrum, children, elderly, people suffering from AIDS and the gentlemen who are coming home from the war with TBIs [traumatic brain injuries].

We donít talk about it. But we have veterans who have gone overseas, had these traumatic experiences, head injuries or whatever. They come back and they canít do the job they did before they left. Itís not their fault. When you have this kind of injury, maybe you canít function on the level you did in the past. You have anxiety and post-traumatic stress and all these things that get in the way. Not only do they need to get through that, but they also need to get to a place where they can redevelop the pathways in their brain in order to come to some kind of existence. If itís a new one, then fine. Or if itís something that they really love and they want to try to get back to it, then our goal is to try and help them get back to that. Itís not always possible, though. So itís a multi-faceted thing. You come into this. You have a thing that you do. Then something comes along and it jars you from that path and you have to find a way to either return, if thatís what you so desire, or accept that maybe life changed and maybe you need to do something different.

And itís hard for them, because theyíre young boys, really young boys. Maybe some of them went into the reserves and then just went straight overseas. So itís difficult. Itís a really complex thing. But whatís beautiful about it is, itís so universal. It parallels so many different things that we can really help a lot of people with, using music therapy.

I feel like, for me, without being on a soapbox, because thatís not my thing, I feel like sometimes youíre given knowledge for the reason only that itís meant to be shared. I never really thought Iíd be talking to anybody about it. I donít consider myself as important enough to be on a public platform. However, I see the use in it and Iíve had so many people request that of me. I feel like itís a blessing and a pleasure and a gift to be able to share something with someone that might help them. The smallest amount of information. I mean, itís very, very minute compared to the grand scheme of things that can be done. But if we can work together with the universities, as they develop programs, to make something available to people, who otherwise have nothing, no resource, then thatís great. How amazing is it that itís turned around on a dime from a situation where Iíve been kind of put under the gun and had to redesign and reformulate this spiraling existence and now I can work with other people and help them, as well.

PCC:
On your web site, you invite interaction with people who might benefit from music therapy. That must make them feel less alone and give them hope.

GARDOT:
Absolutely. Creating a forum is a great way to do it, too. But people donít need to be online all the time. They need to be functioning and doing things together. For those who canít leave the house, a forum is a great idea. But itís also an entrapment, because, if you become one of those people who just looks for all the answers online, then you spend your whole life in a chat forum and you never get out. Itís almost like those things are designed sometimes to keep people on them. And Iím wary of that. So there has to be a way to design something thatís an interaction, but wonít keep people there. Something that can be a springboard. And weíre looking at that. But for now, theyíre sending me e-mails. We get 30 or 40 a day, from different people, telling about their lives. We sit down and figure out how we can help them. In the midnight hours, between 12 and 4, thatís what I do. Itís a lot to do. But itís beautiful. Itís amazing that this little thing that so many people look at as a negative can actually be a beautiful connective tool, the internet.

PCC:
Do you think that music therapy is still in its infancy. Are we just beginning to understand its benefits?

GARDOT:
No. I think itís like medicine. I think people have come up with a solution. But theyíve forgotten the importance of interweaving all the elements. They talk about music therapy for children. If you have a child between the ages of six and 11, in this mental development stage, where, if they take up an instrument, their math and science scores are going to be better than their peers who do not.

If you talk about people who are suffering from Alzheimerís, a woman can wake up every day for the next 20 years, forgetting her husband who sheís been married to for 60 years. You put on a record of Louis Armstrong that she heard when she was 19 and sheís going to sing every word. But she canít remember her husbandís name, face or reason for being. Thatís incredible. Thereís something that happens in our brains, with music, where it truly is the soundtrack to our existence.

So all of this information is out there. We just need somebody to lace it together and understand that itís not about having one point of view. Itís about seeing everything and tying it together, because everybodyís right. Theyíre all right. But theyíre complementary. Itís like Ayurvedic medicine and Chinese medicine, you can use them both. Itís like essential oils and the idea of sublingual tablets. Itís homeopathic. Itís also Eastern. Itís not just one thing.

Thereís no really dividing line between the mental processes of one country to another. Theyíre all aiming for the same thing. And itís the same with music therapy. Thereís already things out there. We just have to put them all together. And itís modality. Sometimes it is medication. But my goal is to try to find that patient Type B, who canít deal, as I couldnít, and help them find their way through other modalities, so they are more independent, where they can truly take it on themselves and they donít have to get to a doctor every day. They can go once a week to check up or maybe once a month. And that means responsibility, because you have people who really have to take it upon themselves to really want to be better. And itís not the kind of conditioning you get when you put someone in the hospital and you let them stay until theyíre ready to go.

When you encourage them along the way, they find the strength within themselves, that they didnít know they had, to regain something. Itís just about strength. We all give up a little too soon. But given the right tools, we all can overcome anything.