We were expecting a femme fatale. But it was a little girl we found in the studio. Everything amuses her. Trying on an extravagant Saint Laurent jacket or falling gracefully onto a pile of mattresses for JeanBaptiste Mondino’s camera. Seeing her like that – radiant, mischievous and twirling around – it’s hard to believe that doctors once told her that she would never walk again, let alone sing. In 2003, Melody Gardot was riding her bike in her native Philadelphia when a Jeep came out of nowhere, knocked down the then 19-year-old and shattered her body. Coma. Broken pelvis. Dislocated jaw bone. Memory loss. She spent 18 months in hospital. And it was music that would help her learn to live again. “After the accident, I had to reconstruct myself completely. I was taught to see again and to hear with hearing aids. My body had to be completely reprogrammed. And music therapy was at the core of the healing process.” Working on songs helped her memory. Playing the guitar was physio for her fingers. Singing taught her to form words. Music didn’t just help her to recover but turned her into a jazzwoman who transcended her broken body through art. Just like the painter Frida Kahlo, after her terrible accident in a bus. Since then, Gardot has released five studio albums filled with a hybrid jazz that mixes borrowings from fado, bossa nova and gospel. And in the blues of her voice there's something of Dusty Springfield or Norah Jones. A saudade that tightens the chest.
When she speaks, it’s in a whisper, when she laughs, it’s peal. She quotes Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, chain smokes (“I don’t smoke that much!”) and switches between French and English like a swan between land and water. She reminds us of Lauren Bacall. Or Kathleen Turner. Her new album showcases live recordings, a double disc for which she listened to over 300 concerts in search of the magic moments. A spellbinding and sensual album in which Gardot redraws her repertoire with her everso-slightly veiled voice. All that in the venerable ambiance of old European concert halls whose souls she swears she can feel. “When you make a sound, it carries on to infinity. Sound is a vibration. Vibration is energy. All of that survives in space long after we’re dead. When I walk on stage at the Wiener Staatsoper, I can feel the footsteps of Chopin and Rachmaninov.”
And when she sings in Vienna or Warsaw, she can feel the breath of her Austrian and Polish ancestors on the back of her neck. “Do you think I’m crazy?” she asks on seeing our incredulous expressions. “Of course not!” we chorus. Just deliciously eccentric. “It’s just that my mind is more open than most people’s,” she declares. “I have a bit of supernatural take on life. For a moment, I went over to the other side. Since then, I can feel the presence of the departed. I’m very sensitive to it.”
“After the accident, I had to reconstruct myself completely. I was taught to see again and to hear with hearing aids. My body had to be completely reprogrammed. And music therapy was at the core of the healing process.” Music didn’t just help her recover, but turned her into a jazzwoman who transcended her broken body through art.
On the cover of her new album, Gardot stands on a stage wearing only a guitar. “For me an album cover is like a movie poster. I wanted an image that was pure femininity, which could please a sculptor. I went through a lot of suffering. But managing to stand up nude on stage carrying a guitar is a victory.” Her detractors sometimes criticize her for being too beautiful, for posing nude on album covers (she’d already done so for the cover of her fourth, The Absence) or for music they consider too safe. Criticisms that are like water off a duck’s back. Her only compass is her music and the audience that keeps her standing. “If today I can practice a sport, and move around 90% of the time without a cane, it’s because of the love and support of my producers, record labels and above all my audience who have always believed in me. Otherwise I wouldn’t have made much more progress than I did in the hospital.”