Melody Gardot: ‘Music activates the brain at a high level’

Gardot began writing songs as therapy after a serious accident left her with memory and speech problems

Melody Gardot: “The first recording was a surprise. It was almost like the songs fell out of me.” Photograph: Franco P Tettamanti

Melody Gardot: “The first recording was a surprise. It was almost like the songs fell out of me.” Photograph: Franco P Tettamanti

 

‘It was like an open invitation from the world around me to do something, and I said yes.”

Melody Gardot is talking about how music saved her life. It’s not unusual for musicians to offer that particular platitude in interviews, but for Gardot it is true. At the age of 19, as a fashion student in her hometown of Philadelphia, she suffered a traumatic brain injury when a jeep ran a red light and knocked her off her bike. She awoke in a hospital bed, with a broken back and a shattered pelvis, unable to remember who she was or even how to speak.

“I was having great difficulty forming words, and I had no short-term memory, so there wasn’t very much that I could do during the day that was fulfilling or, I don’t know, just enjoyable,” she says. “So they said to my mother, ‘Why don’t you have her play music?’ I had played piano when I was younger. It was really just a kind of a fluke suggestion at the beginning, but it became the way that I learned to speak again.”

A slight accent

Although she was born and raised in the US, today she speaks with a slight, hard-to-pin-down accent, like someone who has learned English as a second language. She never appears without her dark glasses and walking cane – necessary props for her hypersensitive eyes and still fragile frame – but she chatters away happily about her long road to recovery. Eleven months in a hospital bed might have seemed like an eternity to some, but her blank slate of a brain didn’t see it that way.

“Darling,” she says tartly, like a character from a French farce, “I had short-term memory at zero, so you don’t have this problem of worry or anxiety, because you don’t remember what you’re supposed to be worried about.” Not for the last time in our conversation, she erupts with child-like laughter.

“The honest truth is that every day was new, every day was a challenge, every day was starting from a fresh place, and as time went on, over the course of about two years, things became better and better. But I don’t think that there was for me anything like, ‘Ah, this is taking too long’, because ‘long’ didn’t exist. So I see it as a blessing. I have to laugh. I mean there’s no other way to look at it.”

New taste in music

Loud noises were a particular problem, and she found that she couldn’t listen to the music she had listened to before. Then someone gave her a copy of saxophonist Stan Getz’s classic bossa nova recordings with Joao and Astrud Gilberto, and she began to write songs as a form of therapy.

“It became a kind of a game, to remember the things that had happened five minutes ago. I would start making notes about the things I was doing, on an instrument that was foreign to me, the guitar, so it was just a fun way of doing cognitive therapy. I was none the wiser to it until I began to improve and my ability to speak began to come back.”

The experience has made her an evangelist for music therapy and how music can reach parts of the brain that ordinary speech cannot touch.

“It’s based on the way music connects the brain; it reconnects neural pathways and activates other parts of the mind that we don’t normally use on a daily basis. It plays with the memory, it plays with vocal ability, and also tactile ability, because you’re talking about an instrument in the hands, and at the same time you’re making sounds, of course, so it activates the brain at a high level, and slowly but surely this became the way that I started to speak again.”

Gardot’s condition is called anomic aphasia. She describes it as “where the words are inside a person’s mind but they’re not coming through the mouth. [It] became less and less. At the time, I never gave much thought to it, because I didn’t remember what I was supposed to be doing in the first place, but one thing led to another, and eventually I came to use a recording device, to try and remember even more, and that became the first recording, which was a surprise for me too. It was almost like the songs fell out of me.”

Those accidental recordings formed the basis of her first release, an EP called Some Lessons: The Bedroom Sessions (2005), which brought her to the attention of WXPN, a Philadelphia radio station that also helped launch the career of Norah Jones. Two years later Gardot signed with Verve and released Worrisome Heart, the record that broke her internationally.

Nowadays she travels the word with her band, calling no place home (although she has a particular affinity with France), and despite the difficulties of international travel – long flights are a particular challenge – she maintains the hectic schedule of an international jazz singer. But it is all still strange to her. Ten years after her meteoric rise, she sounds like someone who can’t quite believe her luck.

Strange life

“The first time I ever had to go overseas for music was to play the Royal Festival Hall in London, singing in a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, and that week was insane: Thursday I rehearse with the orchestra; Friday I sing two songs in front of 2,500 people, which I have never done before; and the next day I go to Abbey Road to record with Herbie Hancock; and then I am playing a pub in south London somewhere, and nobody cares because London have lost some sporting match; and then I go home and I’m standing in front of my washing machine, putting my unmentionables into the dryer, and in that instant, I just looked at myself and said ‘This life is going to be strange’.

“I still feel that way now. It’s just mind-boggling to me, to be part of the groove. I still do what I love, and I don’t really think about it. I try to make a beautiful show, so people go home happy. That’s my biggest aspiration: to make people happy”.

  • Melody Gardot plays the NCH, Dublin, July 4th (sold out)

MELODY MAKERS: KEY GARDOT RECORDINGS

Worrisome Heart (2008): Having been recorded independently in late 2005/early 2006, Worrisome Heart was picked up by Universal and re-released two years later on the Verve label to critical acclaim. It is a set of sultry, self-penned songs suffused with jazz and blues and just a slight country twang. It made her a star.

The Absence (2012): Gardot’s third major release marked a new departure in her songwriting, working with guitarist/producer Heitor Pereira, clearly under the spell of Brazilian masters such as Antonio Carlos Jobim and Caetano Veloso; the album’s stand-out track, Mira, is a joyous slice of bossa-nova inflected magic.

Live at the Olympia (2016): Gardot’s love affair with Paris is splendidly consummated in this live DVD recording, filmed in one of the city’s most famous concert halls. The material is mostly from her 2015 release, Currency of Man, thoughtful, hard-hitting songs about civil rights and global poverty. Gardot’s louche, jazz-noir performance is riveting.

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